Vikings

The Easy Stuff Sinks the Vikings Once Again

Photo credit: Kareem Elgazzar (The Enquirer)

Any time a game goes deep into overtime, there is a lot of potential blame to go around. The Minnesota Vikings’ 27-24 overtime loss in Cincinnati is no different. If they only had a timeout on the final drive of regulation, maybe they score a touchdown. If only the call on the field was “down by contact” instead of “fumble” on Dalvin Cook‘s ultimately game-deciding fumble in overtime, maybe the Vikings win 27-24 instead. It’s a bitter loss. If D.J. Wonnum read Cincinatti’s fourth-and-inches just a little faster, it could have been a sack instead of a 32-yard scamper.

 

If you wanted to, you could focus on the positives. Kirk Cousins was 36-49 for 351 yards and two scores. Michael Pierce got two sacks in his first game action in two years. Danielle Hunter notched a sack in his return as well. Nick Vigil racked up 10 tackles in place of the ever-ailing Anthony Barr. Adam Thielen, Justin Jefferson, and K.J. Osborn all eclipsed 70 yards on the day. The Vikings seemed to open up their play calling, calling 60 dropbacks to just 22 runs — although trailing for most of the game has something to do with that.

Truly, there were places in which the Vikings got flatly outplayed. That may be easier to process: if you get beat, you get beat. Larry Ogunjobi worked Ezra Cleveland all day. Minnesota’s vaunted run game with Cook averaged just 3.1 yards per carry. Bashaud Breeland simply got beat a lot. Rashod Hill got worked by Trey Hendrickson. Mike Hilton had success all day in the slot against the Vikings’ receivers.

But all of that feels a little hollow, doesn’t it? There’s an elephant in the room, and that elephant is Minnesota’s 12 accepted penalties for 116 yards. The Vikings were continually sabotaged by their own inability to play by the rules. Five false starts. Five holding penalties. Fifteen yards for unnecessary roughness and a 26-yard pass interference gaffe. Those are only the accepted penalties. Twice the Vikings lined up with an illegal formation, but the play failed anyways, leading the Bengals to decline it. There were more declined penalties than that, but those ultimately won’t make the stat sheet.

Penalties, penalties, penalties

The Vikings utterly imploded on the road against a team whose preseason win total was projected at 6.5. But there’s no need to argue over the betting market’s opinion of the Bengals. The Vikings can’t win against a ghost defense if they can’t get to the line. They punted on four of five possesions in the first half, and those four drives featured a third-and-24, a third-and-15, and two third-and-20s. That won’t beat anyone.

I talk a lot about the “operational factors” in football. It’s stuff we normally take for granted but requires a good amount of effort on the part of everyone involved. It should be automatic to get the right players in the huddle, get them all on the field on time, and get them lined up correctly with the right snap count in mind. Sometimes a nervous player will flinch and draw a penalty. That’s not a disaster. Five of them? That’s a disaster.

How can the Vikings fix this? Mike Zimmer seemed surprised; the Vikings didn’t have too many issues with their snap count organization in camp or preseason. Perhaps chalk that up to Week 1 jitters. But whose jitters are the problem? Something in the Vikings’ communication sequence is broken. In addition to the false starts, Cousins failed to complete several passes thanks to miscommunications with Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson. Tight end Chris Herndon was the only Viking to get any significant run that wasn’t in the building last year. There’s no excuse to be this out of sync.

It’s impossible to know whose fault the false starts are. Somewhere along the chain of communication, a message is getting mixed. It’s a game of telephone that we on the outside do not get to hear. I’d prefer to default to Cousins or Garrett Bradbury, who are the two parties in the most direct control of the snap count. But unless someone reveals the internal secrets of the Vikings’ communication, we’ll have to settle for educated guesses.

As for the rest of the penalties, they’re really extensions of getting beat on a play. The Vikings committed five holding penalties in pass protection. The only one that wouldn’t have led to a sack was one where Bradbury wrestled D.J. Reader to the ground. If you’re about to give up a certain sack, you may as well try to hold. If you get caught it’s a 10-yard loss anyways, and at least you get the down back. Similar logic contributed to Bashaud Breeland’s 26-yard DPI penalty.

To that effect, the Bengals dominated Ezra Cleveland, Oli Udoh, and Rashod Hill all day. Bradbury was walked back into the quarterback’s lap more than once. That Bengals front is far from the toughest one the Vikings will face on the year. Only three sacks for 26 yards counted, but the Vikings functionally took eight sacks, and some of them had to be enforced by a referee crew the Vikings worked to the bone.

A defensive silver lining

It’s easy to focus on the blunders Minnesota’s defense committed on the day. Bashaud Breeland misread a simple go route, allowing Ja’Marr Chase to get the first touchdown of his young career. The Vikings misread a play they knew Cincinnati would try on a crucial fourth-and-inches in overtime. But all in all, there was more good than bad on the defensive side of the ball.

Michael Pierce and Danielle Hunter flashed, but perhaps more impressive were Eric Kendricks and the depth linebackers. Kendricks put up a 15-tackle performance and lived up to those numbers. Vigil’s day was plenty disruptive, as was the third linebacker, Blake Lynch, who has improved greatly from his days as the primary culprit of a 52-point drubbing in New Orleans last year. Patrick Peterson went largely unnoticed, a good thing for a cornerback. Hunter is back, and Everson Griffen made his presence known as well. Even Breeland, the scapegoat of the day, made several positive plays against the run.

But the Bengals scored 27, which is ultimately not a positive bottom line. Communication had its role in the defensive struggles as well. Burrow’s first major completion came from a miscommunication between Mackensie Alexander and Patrick Peterson. Xavier Woods and Breeland miscommunicated on Burrow’s two-yard touchdown to Tee Higgins. There are things to clean up if the Vikings are going to keep up with DeAndre Hopkins, Kyler Murray, and the rest of the Arizona Cardinals offense next week.

The Cousins Chaos Meter

This is a huge year for Kirk Cousins. After this season, he will go into negotiations about his fully guaranteed $45 million cap hit in 2022. He’ll either earn an extension with his play this year, or the Vikings will explore their options for moving on. To track his progress, I’ve invented a meter that measures Cousins’ chaotic nature. This isn’t a quality meter, it’s a chaos meter.

If Cousins checks down too often and stymies the offense, it’ll register in the gray. If he simply hands off to Dalvin Cook and puts the game in the hands of someone else, it’ll measure yellow. The best Kirk Cousins games (think 2019 Wild Card round) have the perfect amount of chaos, where the meter will register green. We can all think of a time where Cousins registered in the red, forcing too many plays and earning turnovers.

Today, Cousins registers in the yellow, nearing green. He had some electric moments but mostly played as a “point guard,” which was his stated intent before the game. Zimmer criticized Cousins at halftime for holding the ball too long, which bears more investigation. Per PFF, Cousins averaged 2.1 seconds to throw, which is below the commonly accepted threshold of 2.5 seconds. Still, many of the Vikings’ pressure problems came very late in the play.

The final drive of regulation is worth pointing out. With 1:44 on the clock and no timeouts, the Vikings drove all the way down to the Bengals’ 35-yard line to set up a 53-yard field goal. Joseph nailed it twice (the Bengals iced his first attempt). Still, the Vikings took a long time to drive just 48 yards, in somewhat of a microcosm of the game. Cousins threw it well, but the offense was poorly operated, often taking upwards of 25 seconds to get back to the line. I will take good throws over good operations most of the time, as frustrating as this game was.

All in all, the Vikings have a lot to clean up. Perhaps an insurmountable amount. And as is the constant state of the Vikings since I can remember, there is a way you can talk yourself into them. Maybe it’s just first-week jitters, and cleaning up communication errors can be easy. Maybe the defense just needs some time to gel. Cousins could pull it together, and wasn’t even particularly bad! Still, this overtime heartbreaker, where it felt like the Vikings never had control, is going to sting for a while.

On to Arizona — whether the Vikings are prepared or not.

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