The Minnesota Vikings had a legitimate opportunity on Sunday to validate themselves as one of the elite contenders in the NFC. With a big matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Vikings could have distanced themselves from the team that hung on to defeat the Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers and moved toward one that could make some serious damage in a playoff run.
In theory, the game felt a lot like the Vikings’ playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers last January. Both the Bucs and the Niners seemed to have flaws that Minneota could expose. While the Vikings were able to hang around both teams for a while, the better team pulled away and sent Mike Zimmer’s team home licking their wounds and wondering what should happen next.
Last January, the loss to the 49ers signaled that the Vikings’ defensive core was getting too old to play like they used to. The defeat spawned a slew of changes on the defensive side of the ball and brought a new-look defense into 2020 (for better or worse).
It’s unlikely the Vikings will be going on a purge on the defensive end, but this year’s iteration should spawn change on the offensive side of the ball for an offense that never seems to take control of a game and thus contributes to their demise.
Sunday’s game was a microcosm of several problems that have popped up this season. While Minnesota dominated through the first quarter and a half against the Buccaneers, things shifted when the Vikings took the ball for their final possession of the half.
With just over a minute to go, the Vikings let Kirk Cousins throw an incomplete pass and proceeded to run the ball to take time off the clock. After Cousins missed Justin Jefferson, they punted the ball away to Tampa Bay, and they were able to convert a field goal before the half.
Vikings fans will have mixed feelings about this drive as it was aided by several questionable calls — especially the pass interference on the Hail Mary — but the premise was what put them in the situation. Up 14-6 on their own 29, the Bucs could have run out the clock at end of the first half and went into the locker room ready to receive the kickoff in the second half. Instead, they moved down the field with four plays, gaining 71 yards in 21 (or maybe 22) seconds, and set up a pass interference penalty that led to a field goal.
It seems like a simple thing, but that aggressiveness helped put the Vikings in a multi-possession deficit prior to the second half — something Minnesota should take notes on.
The Vikings have been notorious for being conservative ahead of halftime and it began with the first two games of the year. After trying to get points against Green Bay, Cousins threw an interception to Jaire Alexander, which helped set up a quick touchdown. The following week, the Vikings tried to move downfield again before the half only for Cousins to throw an interception on a Hail Mary.
These two drives may have kicked off a pattern as the Vikings slowed down their approach. With the fear of another Cousins mistake, the Vikings have scored just two touchdowns on the final possession of the half this season and one came on a 12-play, 6:22 drive against the Green Bay Packers in Week 8.
In total, the Vikings have generated 23 points on those 13 drives, which have also included a pair of interceptions, two fumbles, and just one touchdown scored under two minutes. Again, Tampa Bay had no issue with this and pushed down the field for three points in 21 seconds.
The ridiculousness establishing the run is something that has been a source of frustration all season long, but so has their lack of urgency in key situations.
Sunday’s game also had this on full display as the Vikings had their first possession of the second half down by a score of 23-6. With a drive that absolutely needed to produce points, they turned to what they do best by utilizing their ground game, managing a slow, methodical attack that killed nearly eight minutes in the third quarter.
Such an approach is great when the Vikings are ahead and trying to keep the ball away from their opponent, but not so much when that opponent is already up by 17 points. By opting to check the ball down to Tyler Conklin and C.J. Ham, they essentially mothballed their best weapons on the offensive end and decided to put the game in the hands of two players that rarely see the field in critical situations.
This brings the game to the final point, utilizing weapons that aren’t named Dalvin Cook. The Vikings game plan worked brilliantly for the first 20 minutes of the game, controlling the time of possession and establishing the run against a Tampa Bay defense that came into the game ranked first with 3.3 yards per carry allowed. With Cook rolling, the opportunities should have been there for the Vikings to take shots downfield, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Instead of finding Jefferson and Thielen for big gains, Cousins was forced to use his secondary weapons to help move the ball. To his credit, Cousins had an efficient game, but not one that could help the Vikings get back into it. When the smoke had cleared, Conklin, Ham and Irv Smith Jr. had combined for as many targets (12) as Jefferson and Thielen had received all afternoon. To make matters worse, Thielen wound up with just four of those targets.
The unwillingness by Cousins or even offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak to allow his playmakers to make plays has handcuffed this team when it matters the most. Instead of just throwing it up to allow two of the best contested-catch receivers in the NFL to make plays, the coaching staff has dumbed down the playbook for Cousins to the point where he’d rather check down to a backup tight end or fullback in fear of making another mistake.
As the coach on the opposite sideline would say, “No risk it. No biscuit,” and the Vikings starved on Sunday. So how do they fix it?
It starts with a change in how the Vikings run their offense. No one is ever going to confuse this group for the Kansas City Chiefs, but the talent is there to be a top-10 offense. Thielen is still third in the NFL with 12 touchdown receptions. Jefferson is in the middle of what could be the greatest season by a rookie receiver in the history of the NFL. Even Smith Jr., who is battling a back injury, put up four catches for 63 yards and a touchdown on Sunday. But they’d rather justify Kyle Rudolph’s massive contract and involve him more in the offense.
The Vikings need to embrace what they have on offense if they have any hope of competing with the top teams in the NFC. Unfortunately, a head coach who is stuck on every word of a mentor that could be another year or two away from enjoying juice boxes and sponge baths doesn’t seem interested in turning it loose.
That’s a way to get yourself fired in today’s NFL or at least reach the Vikings’ holy grail of going 8-8 and squeaking into the playoffs every year. If they want to do more, they need to learn from what happened on Sunday in Tampa Bay.