In Part 1 we looked at the Minnesota Vikings’ four-game losing streak after their 2016 bye week. To nobody’s surprise, the most serious problem was a lack of protection, which contributed to woes in several areas such as turnovers, third-down conversions and inability to perform offensively in the clutch.
Defensively, the team failed in several clutch situations as well, such as at home against Detroit when they allowed two consecutive scoring drives to tie and win the game, then on the road against Washington when they permitted four straight scoring drives in the second half.
Today we examine the final four losses of the season, which contained some of the same symptoms, as well as some more severe defensive shortcomings.
WEEK 12, @ DETROIT LIONS, 16-13
Quote: “[The Lions] driving just killed our football team today.”
One of the more remarkable stats you’ll see from the 2016 Vikings season comes from this Thanksgiving Day game against Detroit with the division lead at stake. The Vikings again struggled on third down offensively, going 2 of 10 for the afternoon, but remarkably, on seven of the eight third-down failures, Sam Bradford completed a pass to one of his targets — they just happened to be short of the line to gain.
So what happened on the eighth failure? Bradford threw toward Adam Thielen with under one minute remaining in the game, but the pass was intercepted by Darius Slay to set up a game-winning Lions field goal.
The only time the Vikings put together a touchdown drive, they were aided by two overturned turnovers and a pair of third-down defensive penalties on Detroit.
While the offense’s inadequacy stands out most, the defense — while stout for much of the game — allowed Matthew Stafford to engineer a game-tying field goal drive late in the fourth quarter after starting from his own 2-yard line, reminiscent of what Detroit pulled off in Week 9 at U.S. Bank Stadium. Again, the defense failed to come up big when needed, a stark contrast against the unit’s performance during the 5-0 start.
WEEK 13, vs DALLAS COWBOYS, 17-15
Quote: “They fought to the bitter end and I know Coach Zimmer would have been very, very proud of them.” – Mike Priefer
It’s hard to knock the Vikings defense in this game after they held the NFC’s best team to one third-down conversion, sacked Dak Prescott three times and won the turnover battle 2-1 — all with head coach Mike Zimmer absent tending to an eye issue.
The offense’s inability to finish drives cost the Vikings this one — a game they absolutely needed to have at the time. Their first drive deep into Cowboys territory was foiled when Alex Boone took a holding penalty on 3rd and 1 to set the drive back. Later in the game, Kyle Rudolph dropped a pass on third down that should have been a touchdown.
The Vikings settled for three field goals to give themselves a 9-7 lead early in the fourth quarter, but a Thielen fumble on a punt return set up the Cowboys for a go-ahead score.
In the end, a self-inflicted wound ended the Vikings’ hopes. After scoring a touchdown with 25 seconds to go to pull within two points, Jeremiah Sirles false-started on the ensuing two-point conversion, which eventually failed from the longer distance.
Just another failure to capitalize on an offensive opportunity.
WEEK 15, vs INDIANAPOLIS COLTS, 34-6
Quote: “We just came out lackadaisical … like they were going to read [our] names, look at [our] stats and lay down for us.” – Captain Munnerlyn
In one of the stranger games of the season, the Vikings barely showed up in a must-win home game against the Indianapolis Colts. It was the return of Adrian Peterson after a long absence from knee surgery — and it turned out to be his final game as a Viking as he gained just 23 yards on seven touches and lost a fumble in the first half.
The Colts controlled the ball for over 37 minutes and did not turn it over once. Andrew Luck threw for a pair of touchdowns and 250 yards. Indianapolis rushed for 161 yards, which, at the time, was the most the Vikings had allowed all season. Robert Turbin scored the game’s third touchdown on a play where Everson Griffen missed, not one, but two tackles.
To take a phrase from Twins Territory, it was a ‘total system failure.’ This was only the fourth time in the Zimmer Era the Vikings allowed 34 points or more.
WEEK 16, @ GREEN BAY PACKERS, 38-25
Quote: “You can’t excuse things away at the end of the day. It’s a body of work after 15 games. And you are what you are now.” – Greenway
The Vikings followed up the embarrassing defeat against Indianapolis with another relatively spineless performance against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. The final score doesn’t reflect the nature of the game, which saw Green Bay take a 38-13 in the fourth quarter.
The Packers barely needed a viable rushing attack in this one. Rodgers threw the ball 38 times for 347 yards and four touchdowns, torching a secondary that allegedly rebelled against the instructions of the head coach. Jordy Nelson went off for nine catches, 154 yards and two touchdowns en route to the victory, which eliminated the Vikings from the playoffs.
As is the case with many aspects of an NFL game, there is nothing black and white about why the Vikings lost eight of their final 11 games. While the offensive line was ostensibly the team’s greatest weakness, its poor play could only be the primary scapegoat for two or three of the team’s losses. That being said, its mediocrity likely contributed to a more conservative gameplan that hindered the offense throughout the season, even when Bradford was well-protected (as in the second Detroit game).
The defense? It was a strong suit for the team much of the year until Weeks 15-16. However, its play down the stretch against Detroit and Washington — even in games where it otherwise played well — hurt the team.
It could be argued in some cases that the losses fell on the shoulders of all three phases. For instance, the home game against Detroit contained two missed kicks, a punchless offense that could only generate 16 points and a late-game defensive collapse. The Washington game contained a missed extra point before halftime, three quarters of scoreless offense and an inability in the second half to get off the field on third down.
It’s safe to say the Vikings have done what they can to address these issues, signing expensive offensive linemen Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers, creating a kicking competition in camp and emphasizing situational football during OTAs and mini-camp.
The nasty nature of the NFL, however, is that issues often lurk out of sight. Nobody expected the Vikings running game to struggle last season. Nobody expected them to have a statuesque quarterback more prone to taking sacks. Nobody — well, maybe some — expected the Vikings to need a mid-season change at kicker.
Even if the Vikings mend their ailments from a year ago, they could be replaced with new ones that are equally difficult to solve. But that’s football.