Conservative Play Nearly Destroyed the Vikings

Photo Credit: Joe Camporeale (USA TODAY Sports)

As a running joke, I have tweeted “This sure feels like a must-win game” five minutes before every kickoff this year. It’s mostly a jab at the cliché’s meaninglessness. That said, the Minnesota Vikings’ 19-17 squeaker against the Detroit Lions felt like this entire iteration of the franchise was hanging in the balance. As the Lions converted a two-point try to take their second lead of the day (after a 3-0 start from the opening drive), it felt like this was how these Vikings ended.

Sure, the Vikings heroically marched down to the very edge of field goal range with just 37 seconds on the clock. Yes, Greg Joseph nailed his second 50-plus-yard field goal of the day to win it. And yes, Mike Zimmer and Kirk Cousins shoved each other in the telltale sports interaction between shock, excitement, and pure exhilaration. But they might be the only two people treating this win as a major turning point.


The Vikings were much too conservative in this game. Even Zimmer was willing to admit that about one offensive drive. With just a two-score lead and four minutes to go, they gave the Lions the lead back with enough time to have a game-winning attempt of their own. How does that happen? The answer is a combination of failed plays and a passive overall approach.

At the end of the first half, the Vikings had the ball on their own 19 with 37 seconds and two timeouts. They ran the ball twice and let the clock run out. After the game, Zimmer said they would only attempt to drive for points if the first run earned a first down. It gained three yards.

With 3:43 remaining in the game, the Vikings were leading 16-6 and turned the Lions over on downs at their own 34 yardline. D.J. Wonnum sacked Jared Goff on a fourth-and-long attempt that felt like the game was iced. But the Lions still had all three timeouts. The Vikings ran it twice, burning two of the Lions’ timeouts, Cousins turfed a bootleg, and the Vikings kicked. The 49-yard attempt fell short.

The Lions kicked a field goal of their own but elected not to kick onside. Instead, Ameer Abdullah inexplicably caught a kickoff that was headed out of bounds, setting up the Vikings with a seven-point lead and 2:27 remaining. Mattison ran for two yards. C.J. Ham took the next handoff for one yard. On third-and-seven, the Vikings ran Mattison a third time. He was stopped at the line of scrimmage and fumbled while fighting for meaningless extra yards.

Detroit easily cashed in on that opportunity and, almost poetically, made the decision to go for a two-point conversion and the win instead of tie it up. They converted, giving the Vikings the ball with two timeouts and 37 seconds to go. The Vikings drove down to Detroit’s 36-yard line on a throw over the middle. That set up a 55-yard field goal, but there were 15 seconds remaining. The Vikings let the clock wind down to 0:03 before spiking the ball.

Greg Joseph lined up for a 55-yard kick, having missed a 49-yarder just minutes before. The final kick was made possible by a 37-second hurry-up drive, something the Vikings declined to even try in the first half. And it was only necessary because hyper-conservative offensive strategy gift-wrapped the Lions an opportunity to take the lead. The winless, hapless Lions managed to squander any of a number of opportunities gifted them, and it turns out the Vikings did just enough. But Mike Zimmer and the Vikings’ staff at large have some pointed questions to answer about conservative strategy.

Offensive catastrophe

The offense in general was highly inept. Justin Jefferson caught seven passes for 127 yards, but the Vikings couldn’t get anything going aside from that domination. Alexander Mattison caught seven checkdowns and, to his credit, scored through several defenders on one of them. Dede Westbrook and K.J. Osborn caught three passes. Nobody else caught more than two. Adam Thielen did not catch a pass for the first 59:30 of the game, aside from a screen that was called back.

The run game wasn’t much better. The offense ran 53 plays. Mattison had the ball on 32 of them, and he was largely ineffective in the run game. Mattison’s runs averaged 2.7 yards outside of one 48-yard scamper on a drive that was abruptly ended by a tip-drill interception. That’s the best the Vikings can do with Dalvin Cook nursing a double ankle injury. The Vikings looked as outmatched as they were against Cleveland against one of the worst defenses in football.

Darrisaw’s debut

Amid the chaos of a nearly franchise-altering catastrophe, Rashod Hill and Christian Darrisaw quietly rotated at left tackle. Fox’s broadcast never mentioned it, but it might be the most important development in the game (aside from the final score, of course). Darrisaw had a very positive debut, including a key block on Mattison’s longest run of the day.

Hill, on the other hand, gave up at least one sack via pancake, courtesy of Trey Flowers. His day was not great outside of this, either. It seems apparent that Darrisaw is ready to play, and therefore is a better option than Hill. The Vikings may have been waiting for the bye week to make the official switch. It would have been more convenient to build chemistry with the rookie that way, but it’s probably not worth that much of a drop-off at left tackle for one more game.

The defense steps up

For all the ineptitude on the offensive side of the ball, the Vikings defense did very well. The Lions were held to just six points until 1:21 remained in the game. The Lions managed to move the ball, but an Eric Kendricks interception and Everson Griffen sack-fumble halted any real offensive momentum. As previously mentioned, the only Lions touchdown drive of the day started in the red zone.

Griffen, Danielle Hunter, and Wonnum all kept Jared Goff under heavy duress. Patrick Peterson and Bashaud Breeland both had reasonable games, though Breeland felt the power of a booing home crowd after he committed a holding penalty. Anthony Barr and Kendricks finally played a game together after 19 games without Barr. Harrison Smith and Xavier Woods notched nine and eight tackles respectively as they both did a fine job against the run game.

The defense still had some unfortunate penalties and poor plays. The Lions averaged 4.5 yards per carry with both Jamaal Williams and D’Andre Swift. In particular, the second level of the Vikings’ run defense was tested by Michael Pierce‘s absence. However, the Vikings held up when Goff had to turn it loose. Goff attempted just five passes longer than 15 yards, and all of them fell incomplete.


The Kirk Cousins Chaos Meter

Cousins has high chaos games, and low chaos games. To measure this, I have invented the Kirk Cousins Chaos meter, which registers games all the way up to his turnover-heavy disasters, through his best games, and down to games like this one, which are bad for a different reason. Cousins checked down an almost comical amount to AMattison. He threw just four passes beyond 15 yards, and two of them came on the final desperation drive.

The only thing saving this game from the icy portion of the meter was that final game-winning drive. Otherwise, this was conserva-Kirk all the way. Remember, this is not a quality meter. This does not posit that Kirk Cousins had a horrible game. We could come to that conclusion after seeing open receivers downfield on the all-22 film, but that’s not what this meter measures anyways. Kirk’s game was astonishingly low-chaos.

This win counts, but it’s understandable if it feels hollow. Considering the nature of earlier games, namely the Week 2 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, any Vikings fan will take the W. It may not be earned, but it was achieved. The Vikings are 2-3 and travel next week to Carolina to once again chase .500. It may delay conversations about Cousins or Zimmer’s future in Minnesota, but that is certainly preferable to the embarrassment of becoming a rock-bottom team’s first win.

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