It’s fair to wonder why the Minnesota Vikings can’t close out a game in 2020 after their loss to the Dallas Cowboys. The 31-28 defeat marked the third time this season that the Vikings have held a lead at the two-minute warning, but wound up in the loss column. With a trend like this, there usually is a scapegoat, and the trendy pick is to point at Kirk Cousins’ record of failure in late-game situations.
But while Cousins deserves some of the blame, it’s not entirely his fault. In each of these three losses, the defense has had a chance to close out an opponent but failed to do so. This leaves Cousins in a lopsided battle to play hero and ultimately coming up short.
Week 3 vs. Tennessee
The Vikings’ first soul-crushing loss came at home against a Tennessee Titans team they dominated for a majority of the game. With Minnesota holding a 24-12 lead midway through the third quarter, the Titans stormed back but still trailed 30-28 before getting the ball back with 3:42 left.
The Titans weren’t getting the ball in desperation mode here, but put themselves in the best position to succeed with what they do best before the two-minute warning. Tennessee started the drive on their own 19-yard line and began with a five-yard handoff to Derrick Henry. While stopping a walking unicorn is often a tough task, the Titans did more damage with Ryan Tannehill‘s arm. After Henry set up 2nd and 5, Eric Wilson, who was replacing Anthony Barr, bit on play-action which opened up Jonnu Smith for an 11-yard gain.
The next two plays took advantage of a pair of flaws that the Vikings have on defense. With the defensive line unable to generate consistent pressure, Mike Zimmer felt the need to send Eric Kendricks and Wilson more than usual. With the linebackers unavailable, it left the Vikings’ inexperienced corners needing help, which dropped the safeties back.
After connecting with Smith on the previous play, Tannehill found him again when Kendricks was sent on the blitz and Harrison Smith appeared to be playing zone. With the middle of the field open, Jonnu Smith made the grab and gave the Titans a 14-yard gain.
Another handoff to Henry netted the Titans five more yards and Tennessee was on the Vikings’ 38-yard line when the two-minute warning hit. While the Vikings tightened up to force a three-and-out, the Titans had an opportunity for another first down when Holton Hill played off Adam Humphries, but Tannehill overthrew him to set up a 55-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski.
Gostkowski hit the game-winner, but the dagger was in Minnesota well before he booted the ball through the uprights. In the five plays prior to the two-minute warning, the Vikings allowed 41 yards that helped set up the game-winning score. While replacement talent is part of the game, the lack of experience on the outside and relying on the linebackers to get home doomed the Vikings, who fell to 0-3.
Week 5 vs. Seattle
Two weeks later, the Vikings found themselves in another tight situation against the Seahawks. Much like the Tennessee game, the Vikings were in control for a good chunk of the contest and held a 26-21 lead as they hit the two-minute warning. The inability for Alexander Mattison to hit the hole for the yard needed to ice the game is the most talked-about aspect, but the Vikings still had a chance to win it defensively.
On the first play of the drive, the Vikings deployed a more conservative approach than the Tennessee game. Dropping into Cover 2, Ifeadi Odenigbo gets pressure on Russell Wilson from the interior, but can’t finish the play. With his options covered downfield, Wilson makes a run for it and with nobody in contain, gets a 17-yard gain.
Zimmer switches up his defense to a man-to-man scheme after getting burned in Cover 2, with Kendricks keeping an eye on Wilson. The result is three misfires from Wilson that could have been connections for another first down.
This sets up a 4th and 10 where the Vikings have another chance to close out the game. Zimmer shows a Double-A gap look, but drops Wilson into a zone to take away the underneath route. With not much time, Wilson lobs a prayer in the direction of D.K. Metcalf, who is in man coverage with Cameron Dantzler. Dantzler keeps up with Metcalf, but then gets turned around either to Metcalf’s route or the rainy conditions, leading him to overrun the route and allow Metcalf to keep the game alive with a 39-yard reception.
For the rest of the drive, the Vikings showed their inexperience and allowed Wilson to extend plays to keep Seattle moving. Here, Tyler Lockett breaks off his route to help his quarterback, which gives the Seahawks a 17-yard gain.
As the Seahawks moved closer to the goal line, the Vikings also declined to use their final two timeouts, almost relying too much on their defense. On a 4th and 6, this burned Zimmer again as Dantzler got mixed up on a double-cross route, allowing Metcalf to get open for the game-winning score.
The touchdown doomed the Vikings, but almost didn’t have to. The Vikings had two timeouts remaining heading into the two-minute warning and didn’t choose to use them as the Seahawks raced down the field. This left the Vikings’ offense with minimal time for a comeback attempt and sent the Vikings home with another loss.
Week 11 vs. Dallas
The most recent addition to this trio is Sunday’s loss to the Cowboys, which again was set up with what happened before the two-minute warning. With four minutes remaining, the Vikings punted the ball to CeeDee Lamb. After a missed tackle by Boyd, Lamb unleashed a 20-yard return and put Dallas in business at their own 40-yard line.
Unlike the first two games, Minnesota wasn’t as aggressive with their linebackers early. Much like Tennessee did, Dallas set themselves up in a great position to succeed because of what they did before the two-minute warning. With a 10-yard pass to Michael Gallup and an 18-yard run by Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys were deep into Vikings territory.
After a five-yard pass to Elliott, the Cowboys took advantage of Dantzler playing back on Dalton Schultz. With Dantzler seven yards back, Schultz has a quick route that nets Dallas 10 yards to get inside the five.
The Vikings forced the Cowboys into third-and-goal later in the drive and Mike McCarthy dialed up a similar play to what helped the Seahawks beat the Vikings. With Lamb lined up on the outside, he went into motion on the same type of play that helped him pick up a fourth-down conversion earlier in the game.
As Gladney followed Lamb, he kicked to the other side. Smith appears to tell Gladney to stay on the near side of the field, but it’s too late. The Cowboys run a double-cross route, which leaves Schultz wide open for the game-winning score.
Out of the three defeats, this leaves Cousins with the most time after Zimmer took a timeout with 1:50 remaining, but it was another game where the defense had an opportunity to close out the game itself.
Why can’t the Vikings defense close out a game?
Three last-second losses wear on a team, but also gives them a learning opportunity. In each win, there have been similarities that the Vikings can look at and improve upon going forward.
The first is experience. A lot of the players the Vikings are relying upon were considered to be either backups or projects who will get better with time. If the Vikings had Danielle Hunter or Michael Pierce on the defensive line, there’s a chance Tannehill, Wilson and Dalton have less time to make the throw, which allows the linebackers to play back and the safeties to be more aggressive.
There’s also the matter of the cornerbacks earning their stripes. Dantzler has been a scapegoat in a pair of these two-minute drills, but it’s another thing that should get better as he gets experience and knows how to handle these situations.
But the most prevalent theme is that the Vikings have allowed their opponents to set themselves up for success with chunk plays. The Titans did it with a five-play stretch before the two-minute warning. Russell Wilson did it by using his own experience to extend plays for big gains. Lamb did it with a big punt return.
With losses like this, the Vikings are letting their own momentum slip away. It’s something that needs to be shored up as soon as possible.