The Minnesota Vikings left Glendale with as many wins as they had when they entered, losing to the Arizona Cardinals 34-33. Although the Vikings began the afternoon with a promising 64-yard touchdown from K.J. Osborn on the second play from scrimmage, their lead slowly eroded and Greg Joseph missed a 37-yard game-winning field goal as time expired.
The loss dropped the Vikings to 0-2, the same record they had two games into last season. The difference between this year and last year is how winnable the first two games have felt in 2021. This time last year, the Vikings were coming off two losses where they were defeated by multiple scores. This season, their two Ls come courtesy of a combined four points.
Here are five numbers to consider when looking back at the disappointing defeat in the desert.
When I think back to some of the defining games of the Mike Zimmer era, I immediately go to the Wild Card game against the Seattle Seahawks in 2016. Minnesota was in the red zone, and instead of trying to play for a touchdown, they left their fate in the hands of kicker Blair Walsh. We all know what happened next.
Given all of the drama around the kicker position, with guys like Dan Bailey and Daniel Carlson also missing important kicks that altered the course of the season, I’d like to see Zimmer play for the touchdown instead of hinging his fate on the leg of a kicker who already missed an extra point.
Instead, after an Osborn catch that put the offense inside the 20 with 44 seconds left, Zimmer chose to let 41 seconds tick away before calling timeout and letting Joseph attempt a kick. While Joseph should be able to hit the 37-yarder with ease, why wouldn’t Zimmer try to get even closer or potentially take a shot at the end zone in order to avoid making his kicker convert a field goal? He may have been concerned with turning the ball over, but he shouldn’t let that fear stop him from playing the game.
The Cardinals won because they took more risks and were able to convert them, a la the fourth-down conversion where Kyler Murray dropped a dime into the hands of Christian Kirk. The Vikings should have either looked to get closer and make it an easier kick, or they should have tried to score a touchdown instead of letting those 41 seconds tick off.
The offensive line took a massive step up from last week. After committing numerous penalties and allowing no time for their quarterback to throw, I was worried about how this unit would hold up against Chandler Jones and J.J. Watt. The O-line excelled in pass protection, only allowing three quarterback hits and one sack. While their pass blocking was effective, I was more impressed by the run blocking.
Dalvin Cook was gashing the Cardinals’ defense for big gains all day, and a major reason why was the play of the five men up front. The offensive line opened up numerous lanes for Cook and Minnesota’s other running backs to exploit.
The most impressive stat about Minnesota’s run blocking is that they allowed the runners to gain 127 yards before contact, a welcome surprise as this offensive line starts to gel.
Former Oklahoma Sooner and Oakland Athletics draftee Kyler Murray became a pain for the Vikings’ defense as he was able to extend plays with his legs and launch the ball at will. Murray finished the game with 400 passing yards, exploiting gaps in coverage on numerous occasions.
While Murray was proficient throwing passes all over the field, his ability to throw deep really stood out to me. Murray was 5-for-6 for 181 yards and two touchdowns on throws of over 20 yards.
Murray and head coach Kliff Kingsbury were unwavering in their willingness to unleash the deep ball, and despite a Xavier Woods interception on one of these passes, they continued to air the ball out and take advantage of some poor coverage.
The Vikings’ defense needs to get better at not allowing other quarterbacks to consistently victimize them with the deep ball. Otherwise, given the way Murray played, they could be in for a really long season.
While Murray was very impressive during his 400-yard passing performance, he does owe a good deal of his success to his teammates’ ability to get yards after the catch. Arizona’s pass-catchers racked up 203 yards after the catch on Sunday, with rookie Rondale Moore and former University of Minnesota tight end Maxx Williams combining for 153 yards after the catch.
Arizona’s skill players not only caught a majority of the passes thrown their way, they were also able to turn them up the field and dance around to get more yards after the grab.
A majority of fans will think back to Moore’s 77-yard touchdown reception when they recall the major yards-after-the-catch plays, but I would like to highlight his two catches before halftime, where he was able to evade Minnesota’s defenders and get out of bounds. While these might have seemed like meaningless yards at the moment, they set up Matt Prater‘s 62-yard field goal that ended the half.
In a game that was decided by one point, those two catches and the Vikings’ inability to keep Moore in bounds was part of their downfall. The defense needs to do a better job of limiting the yards after catch in tight games like these.
Finally, I leave you with 12%. This is the percentage of teams that have been able to overcome a 0-2 start and progress to the playoffs. While it doesn’t feel like the Vikings have lost two games given how close they have been, the truth is they have plenty of areas that they need to fix in the upcoming weeks when they will face the Seattle Seahawks, Cleveland Browns, and Carolina Panthers — three teams with playoff aspirations.
With the schedule only getting tougher, it becomes imperative that the Vikings win at least two of the next three games if they want a chance to be part of the 12% that make the playoffs. The extra regular-season game this year could provide them with another opportunity to win a game down the stretch and make the playoffs with a less than optimal record.