Given their first opportunity to win a football game in the 2020 regular season, the Vikings faltered thanks to a lack of execution in the fourth quarter. Considering it was the first competitive fourth quarter they’d played in this season, the Vikings added another item to the still-growing list of factors that have prevented them from winning a game: Clutchness, or lack thereof.
Head coach Mike Zimmer summed up the offense’s final possession as a “complete disaster” as it moved backwards during the final drive that only needed to end in a field goal to win the game. The Titans won 31-30 after trailing 30-25 with 10 minutes remaining as the visitors converted two late scoring drives and made two defensive stands while the Vikings simultaneously shot themselves in the foot.
While the offense took the most direct arrow from Zimmer’s quiver — and they’ll be properly criticized below — the defense predictably bent enough to allow the Titans to twice get in field goal range. Granted, allowing two 50-plus-yard field goals is far from a defensive meltdown. But considering their uninspiring start to the season, the fact that the defense firmed up enough to force lower-percentage field goal attempts might be considered a moral victory, which is a distressing reality. The Vikings have allowed 21 scoring drives (!) through three weeks, have repeatedly been beaten over the top and appear ill-equipped to stop the run. A defense that not long ago was holding offenses to less than 20 points per game is suddenly grasping at straws simply to keep plays in front of them, even if it means surrendering enough yards for a go-ahead field goal.
“It’s a little bit of a double edged sword,” Zimmer said. “You’re trying to help these corners out a little bit, and then they’ve got that big back in there, so they ran a couple and then they had a couple play actions and we had to change coverages up and try to pressure him a little bit in different situations. Obviously you don’t want them to score anything. What it was, a 55-yard field goal at the end?”
Down 30-25, the Titans received the ball and needed just five carries to reach Vikings territory, and Ryan Tannehill only had to complete one pass on 3rd and 2 to reach field goal range. For what it’s worth, that stand could be deemed a success since the Vikings retained the lead, but Tennessee had equal ease moving the football when they took over trailing 30-28. It took Tannehill three underneath passes against soft coverage — sandwiched by two Henry runs — to reach field goal range. With a red hot Stephen Gostkowski at their disposal, that’s all Tennessee required.
“It’s not good. You don’t want to lose, man,” said Eric Kendricks. “We gotta take care of those games, especially when we’re up with a nice lead. We got to strap up on defense.”
Having allowed 41, 26 and 31 points, respectively, in three games (excluding safeties), the Vikings defense has shown only mild signs of improvement that have hardly translated to a better bottom line.
All that said, the Vikings offense had a chance to bail them out and whiffed, dissolving any momentum that might’ve been built through the game’s first 55 minutes. Dalvin Cook and Justin Jefferson had career-best performances, but both were rendered useless on the final two possessions that were packed with self-inflicted wounds.
Minnesota had a chance to virtually ice the game when it inherited the ball up 30-28 with 6 minutes, 31 seconds left. After a quick first down, they proceeded to commit a penalty (Irv Smith Jr. block in the back), allow a sack (Dru Samia caught flat-footed), run two plays short of the sticks (run by Cook and short pass to Kyle Rudolph), commit another penalty (false start) and punt.
To make matters worse, Cook limped off the field before third down.
Given a chance for redemption with a two-minute drill, the offense again moved backward, even after being gifted a roughing call because Jeffery Simmons caught Cousins in the helmet as he backed Garrett Bradbury straight into his quarterback. Even after being bailed out, the interior offensive wasn’t done caving. Jadeveon Clowney beat Dakota Dozier on the next play to force a throwaway. One play later, Bradbury snapped the ball past Cousins for a 14-yard loss. Then Samia joined his interior comrades and completed the pressure-permitting trifecta as Simmons beat him cleanly to wrap Cousins up and force another throwaway. Even Reiff joined the party on 4th and 24, allowing Vic Beasley Jr. to blow past him and pressure Cousins on his Hail Mary attempt.
“They got home a couple times,” Cousins said, “and it wasn’t our best drive.”
That’s an understatement, considering the Titans never brought more than four rushers yet managed to get their hands on Cousins on each dropback.
“Most of the game we gave ourselves an opportunity to compete, to fight, do all those things,” Zimmer said. “And then with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter we’re up by five. That’s one of the points of emphasis that we always talk about — winning the last 10 minutes of the game.”
The Vikings’ postgame laments are already redundant. Their situational football faltered a third straight game, this time in the closing moments.