After losing the first two games of the season for the first time in his seven years as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, Mike Zimmer acknowledged last week some surprise by the growing pains taking place on the side of the ball that’s long been his expertise.
”I probably misjudged the defense a little bit, because we had so many new guys,” Zimmer said, alluding to the lack of offseason practices due to the virus outbreak.
Following his team’s latest defeat, Zimmer sounded far more disappointed.
Mistakes made and opportunities missed by Minnesota’s most valuable players were especially irksome and perplexing. Despite performing unquestionably better in several areas than they had in their first two games, the Vikings lost 31-30 to Tennessee and dropped to 0-3 after squandering a 12-point late-third-quarter lead.
”The thing I have to figure out right now is to how to keep this team to understand what’s causing them to lose,” Zimmer said.
Some of the setbacks that stood out against the Titans were indicative of inexperience or inferiority at certain positions. Then there were others atypical of Zimmer’s smart, disciplined teams, especially one that won a playoff game on the road last winter and has 12 players carrying salary cap hits of $4 million or more with a combined 20 appearances in the Pro Bowl.
”We could win next week 3-2. You never know what’s going to happen,” said quarterback Kirk Cousins, downplaying the notion of a lost identity over the first three games. He later added: ”Winning close games, I think that’s a recipe for any team to have success in this league.”
With starting cornerbacks Mike Hughes and Cameron Dantzler sidelined by injuries that further depleted an already raw group, the Vikings surrendered completions of 44, 38 and 61 yards on scoring drives for the Titans that netted 16 points.
On the third of those, a pass by Ryan Tannehill to Kalif Raymond preceding a touchdown run by Derrick Henry that gave Tennessee a 25-24 lead, safeties Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris – one of the best tandems in the NFL – both misread the play and left rookie cornerback Jeff Gladney alone in coverage. Smith intercepted Tannehill in the end zone on the first play of the second quarter, but only after Harris was out of position on the throw.
The offense put up 30 points on 464 yards, but the last two possessions – with the outcome in the balance – ended in a punt and an interception on a total of nine plays netting 13 yards. There were also two penalties, a sack and an errant snap over those crucial closing minutes.
”It’s frustrating when you feel like you played a really good game, and then you have a big moment and it kind of looks sloppy,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said. ”Obviously, something to be able to learn from to make those corrections moving forward.”
Dalvin Cook rushed for a career-high 181 yards on just 22 carries, scoring his 19th touchdown in his last 19 games including the playoffs and reaffirming the team’s decision to sign him to a $63 million contract extension. Cook is third in the league in rushing, and the Vikings lead the NFL with an average of 6.03 yards per attempt.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The interior of the offensive line has been continually overpowered in pass blocking, a troubling trend tracing back to last year. Dru Samia has been overmatched at right guard in two games since replacing the injured Pat Elflein. Center Garrett Bradbury was not in sync with Cousins on the final drive when his second-down shotgun snap sailed past the quarterback for a 16-yard loss.
Rookie wide receiver Justin Jefferson had his breakout game with seven catches for 175 yards, giving Cousins another dynamic down-field option to help keep defenses from focusing on Thielen.
Harris led the NFL with six interceptions last season, and the Vikings decided to keep him on the franchise tag for about $11.4 million. Judging by Zimmer’s comments, they’ve expected Harris to perform better than he has.
Dantzler (rib) missed his second straight game. Hughes (neck) was held out with the more concerning injury, given he missed the playoffs last season with a broken bone in his neck. Hunter (neck) is eligible to come off injured this week, but Zimmer gave no indication he’s far enough along in his recovery for that.
4 – Consecutive losses at home by the Vikings, including their last two contests at U.S. Bank Stadium last season, their longest such streak since a five-game skid in 2011.
The good news for the Vikings? They’ve got another 0-3 team on their schedule this week at Houston. The Vikings are 4-0 all-time against the Texans.
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