After losing 14-7 at home to the Cleveland Browns, the Minnesota Vikings have now lost three consecutive one-score games. That may sound encouraging: Close game results tend to bounce back over the course of a year. But that won’t get the Vikings any wins back, and this particular game didn’t feel much like a one-score fluker.
The Vikings had foundational issues in the trenches on both sides of the ball. The Browns ran for almost 200 yards. Minnesota went three-and-out five times and Kirk Cousins threw a deep interception on the first play of a sixth. The Vikings have to look in the mirror after this one and examine if they can be the kind of team they want to be.
Pressure, pressure, pressure
You can look at a lot of the most stunning results in NFL history and find teams getting pressure with only four rushers. Look at the New York Giants winning Super Bowls in 2007 and 2011, for one example. After a master class against the Seattle Seahawks, the Vikings struggled mightily not only to keep Cousins clean but also in run blocking. The Browns had an indefinite stay in the backfield. I think I saw Jadeveon Clowney order room service back there once.
Cousins dropped back 40 times. He was pressured on more than half of them, and the Browns barely had to send any blitzes. It gives you the best of both worlds — you speed up the quarterback’s process while leaving seven players in coverage to punish hasty execution. Beyond that, the run game was entirely stifled. Game script did not aid Cleveland in any way. It was a one-score game throughout all 60 minutes.
The Browns pride themselves on being a simple team that out-executes their opponents, and they got to play exactly the game they wanted against Minnesota, especially on the defensive side of the ball. They rushed four, played man-to-man coverage, and beat the Vikings to a pulp. Defensive coordinator Joe Woods didn’t pull any sneaky tricks or counters to the Vikings’ game plan. They just lined up and beat them.
When you are struggling to protect the quarterback, there are some plays you can call to try and take the heat off. Screens, “now” passes, outside runs, and quick three-step drop plays can ease the defensive line’s aggression — or, even better, punish it. By the end of the game, the Vikings had tried all of these strategies at high volume. The receivers lost on their slants and timing routes. The Browns sniffed out the screens and “now” passes. It’s much easier to counter quick game when you don’t have to send extra pass rushers to generate pressure.
If you wanted Klint Kubiak to call plays that counter defensive pressure, you got that. Those plays also failed. Someone on the Vikings’ offense had to beat someone on the Browns’ defense at a certain point. That didn’t happen enough. There’s no magical play call that soothes an offense that is that out-matched.
As bleak as the game felt, the Vikings were in it until the end. Part of that was thanks to a much-improved defensive performance. With Bashaud Breeland out with an illness after a short stint in the game, Cameron Dantzler came in and played admirably. You might even argue that he outplayed Breeland’s season so far. Patrick Peterson held up against Odell Beckham Jr., and the Browns only scored three points in the second half.
It wasn’t without blemishes. The Vikings gave up several long drives into scoring range. The three scores (one touchdown and two field goals) were all long, plodding drives. They gave up a 3rd and 20 on the ground from a give-up draw play. The run defense gave up way too many successful plays. With Michael Pierce nursing an elbow/shoulder injury and eventually leaving the game, the defensive line got pushed around almost as much as the offensive line did.
Further, the defensive back end allowed a lot of opportunities for Baker Mayfield in key situations. Several Browns drives stalled as Mayfield overthrew a wide-open receiver. That’s a break for the Vikings. A more capable quarterback could have turned this into a blowout with ease. That, coupled with a few untimely penalties by Cleveland’s defense, and Minnesota had all the opportunities in the world to steal this game.
Cousins missed a coverage bust downfield and took a sack instead. The Vikings had two attempts to tie the game in the final minutes; both ended in turnovers on downs. The Vikings had four second-half possessions before that. The furthest of those went to Cleveland’s 37-yard line before they took a 10-yard offensive pass interference penalty and ultimately punted.
The Vikings had the Browns in a 4th and Goal, stopped them, but a defensive holding penalty set Cleveland up with a fresh set of downs. Not only did they score, but they sent 12 men out on the extra point, leading Sheldon Richardson to call a timeout that Minnesota did not have. That penalty encouraged Cleveland to go for a two-point conversion, which was successful.
The Vikings had every single chance to win this game. Instead, they got beat into the turf.
The Kirk Cousins Chaos Meter
Cousins is not in a contract year, but he might as well be. With a $45 million cap hit next year, he’s playing for an offseason extension. He can also be particularly chaotic, hence the Kirk Cousins Chaos meter. This meter measures chaos, not necessarily quality. It simply looks at Kirk’s game and measures how wacky and chaotic things got.
This week, Cousins lands firmly in the yellow. Sometimes, the game result isn’t his fault. The offensive line and pass-catching units carry a large portion of the blame. To some degree, you can always pin blame on a quarterback who doesn’t conjure production like Kyler Murray or Dak Prescott do. The yellow portion of the meter is for exactly these games.
Cousins made his share of mistakes, and he made his share of good plays. When the pressure rate eclipses 50%, it’s hard to expect a pocket quarterback to do much. The game simply came down to someone else on the field. This time, it’s probably the offensive line. But the yellow portion of the meter was made specifically for games that come down to someone else. Whether or not you expect him to overcome it, Cousins was at the mercy of the blowouts surrounding him.
There is a lot to pick over after this game. How to the Vikings hold up to strong defensive lines in the future? Is the offensive line exposed and doomed to be a sieve forever? Is Mike Zimmer going to keep his job through the bye week? Can Cousins drag his team back to .500? Can he drag them anywhere? Will Dantzler get more playing time?
After this deflating loss, the Vikings have a long road back to relevance.