Last Sunday provided yet another chapter in the Vikings Heartbreak Hotel history books following weeks of momentous buildup. After coming out victorious, running the NFC North gauntlet for three straight weeks, all Minnesota had to do was take care of business as they embarked on three consecutive home games against teams with losing records, starting with the depleted Dallas Cowboys, who came into Week 11 with a record of 2-7.
As we all know by now, the Vikings, especially Mike Zimmer’s defense, squandered a golden opportunity by allowing the junior varsity Cowboys to come into U.S. Bank Stadium and ultimately force Minnesota’s margin for error to be essentially nonexistent the rest of the way. If the Vikings have any plans of reaching the playoffs in 2020, they’ll likely have to run the table from here on out.
While Zimmer’s defense collapsed against Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore’s Cowboys offense by allowing Dallas to rush for a season-high 180 yards, the Vikings offense took yet another step forward. Since coming off the bye week, Kirk Cousins has been nothing short of spectacular, owning a passer rating of 128.2 with a 9:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio over the past four games.
Cousins has established a remarkable red zone rapport with One Of Us favorite Adam Thielen, and Sunday was no different. Thielen turned his 11 targets into eight receptions, 123 yards and two touchdowns.
Let’s unpack Thielen’s big day in the red area against America’s Team.
First, we’ll start with the Vikings facing a 3rd and goal from the 2-yard line early in the third quarter, trailing 16-7. With Gary Kubiak‘s offense lined up in a 12 personnel set, Thielen and Justin Jefferson are on their respective islands opposite each other facing press-man coverage at the goal line.
With Irv Smith Jr. covering up Thielen on the line of scrimmage, this forces No. 19 to play off the line, giving Thielen freedom to operate. Thielen’s initial shuffle technique to combat the press coverage stuns the Dallas corner, not allowing the defensive back to lunge and be the aggressor at the point of attack.
Thielen’s footwork enables him to initiate the hand fight with the Dallas defensive back as Thielen wins outside leverage, appearing to have a direct path to the front pylon for a quick out route.
Thielen plants his foot in the ground and manipulates the corner by briefly snapping his head back towards Cousins, giving the impression that the ball is en route on the quick out concept. Instead, Thielen turns back up field, perfectly executing a condensed goal line Out-and-Up as he heads directly for the vacant area of the end zone near the back pylon.
Cousins throws an absolute dot, exactly where the ball needs to be. With the perfect amount of arc on the ball, the Cowboys corner has no chance at deflecting the pass. All he can do is hope that the ball is inaccurate and/or Thielen is unable to come down with it. Thielen doesn’t need to leave his feet as his right arm skies for the ball.
Thielen perseveres through the attempted hold by Brown, secures the catch — without ever needing the use of his left hand — and gets both feet inbounds. Ignite the pyrotechnics for an empty U.S. Bank Stadium, because we’ve got a Minnesota Vikings touchdown courtesy of Detroit Lakes’ favorite son. And God bless it, this was one beautiful catch of the one-handed variety!
Next, we’re taking it to the very first play of the fourth quarter. The Vikings find themselves trailing 16-14, facing a 1st and goal from the 3-yard line. Kubiak calls yet another 12 personnel package. With Thielen occupying the short side of the of the field, Jefferson is responsible for the wide side as the rookie lines up in a borderline bunch spot next to the left tackle. Kyle Rudolph and Smith are both lined up on the right side in a power look to the short side of the field, with Thielen lined up out wide. Thielen’s motion gives the Dallas defense an inkling that a run play is about to ensue, right as the ball is snapped.
Cousins takes the snap and immediately shows the ball in what appears to be a typical outside zone running play to the overloaded side. Rudolph, Smith and Thielen all start the action by crashing down, with Thielen giving the impression that he’ll be responsible for crack blocking the Dallas edge rusher. Cousins’ play fake gives the Dallas front no choice but to honor the run threat.
As soon as Cousins pulls the ball back, Thielen makes a break back towards the outside and front pylon as he begins to put the finishing touches on this goal line whip route. Dalvin Cook carries out the outside zone fake as his route calls for an arrow, giving Cousins a miniature high-low concept between Thielen and Cook. All Cousins has to do is read the defense and decide which one he wants to reward with the touchdown reception. Give credit to the Cowboys edge rusher, as he doesn’t bite one bit on the outside zone run fake. He immediately recognizes the play-action fake and holds up his end of the bargain with his man-coverage responsibilities on Cook. The corner responsible for man coverage on Thielen, however, bit way too hard on the inside portion of Thielen’s whip route, getting beat back towards the outside as the read is obviously recognized by Cousins.
Cousins doesn’t hesitate to let it rip as Thielen is wide open in the end zone, having beaten the Cowboys corner by a good two steps with nothing but purple real estate to work with in the end zone. Thielen secures the catch, gets both feet in and proceeds to casually celebrate with his teammates in “Just Another Day At The Office” fashion after scoring his second touchdown of the day. This one giving the Vikings the 21-16 advantage to start the fourth and final quarter.
Sunday was the first time since Week 5’s prime time loss at Seattle where Thielen saw double-digit targets. Considering the high level that Cousins is currently playing at — one could argue that we’ve never seen Cousins play any better throughout his time spent in Minnesota — it’s imperative that Kubiak and the Vikings continue to pepper their star-studded receiver duo with consistent targets.
With the amount of attention that opposing defensive coordinators are justifiably giving Cook and the Minnesota running game, opportunities are aplenty for Minnesota to proactively stay ahead of the chains and be aggressive with their passing game. Cousins has historically fared extremely well off play-action, and now is as good a time as any for the Vikings to take the training wheels off of their offense and open it up for Thielen and Jefferson.
With the help of some garbage time stat padding before the Week 7 bye, the Vikings offense currently ranks eighth in the NFL in total yardage. This offense has taken considerable steps forward and it needs to continue to serve as the anchor of this football team, especially with Zimmer’s defense surrendering an average of 33 points per game across five home games.
With Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator and attractive head coaching candidate Joe Brady coming to town on Sunday, Zimmer better get his act together and figure out his defense. And fast.
There is no longer any room for error. While the playoffs may be out of reach, Zimmer now finds himself coaching for his job for next season.