The Vikings’ Defense Needs To Clamp Down Before Halftime

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker (USA TODAY Sports)

Last Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings led the Cleveland Browns 7-0 for a majority of the first half. The Browns began threatening the lead late in the half with a long, time-consuming drive that reached the Vikings’ five-yard line as the two-minute warning arrived. Minnesota appeared to have a fourth-down stop, but linebacker Eric Kendricks was called for holding on the play, and the Browns had a new set of downs. Three plays later, Cleveland scored as running back Kareem Hunt pounded in for a one-yard touchdown.

This was only the beginning of a disastrous final two minutes of play. The Vikings had too many players on the field for the extra point attempt following the Hunt touchdown. Noticing the extra player, defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson tried calling a timeout. But Minnesota was penalized because they didn’t have any timeouts remaining. Cleveland opted to go for the two-point conversion as the penalty moved the ball from the two-yard line to the one-yard line. Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield found fullback Andy Janovich wide open in the end zone, and suddenly the Vikings were trailing 8-7.

It didn’t get much better from there. Minnesota’s offense went three-and-out on the ensuing drive and punted back to the Browns. With 35 seconds left in the half and facing third-and-20 from their own 26-yard line, the Browns ran a conservative draw play, likely just trying to run out the clock. Instead, Hunt weaved his way through the Vikings’ defense and not only picked up 33 yards and the first down but also got out of bounds to stop the clock. Mayfield completed a pass for 11 yards and kicker Chase McLaughlin booted a 48-yard field goal to give the Browns an 11-7 halftime lead moments after trailing 7-0. It ended up being enough as the Vikings never scored in the second half, and Cleveland won 14-7.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time the Vikings have collapsed inside of the two-minute warning of the first half this season. In Week 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals, Minnesota led 7-0 two minutes before halftime. A two-yard touchdown pass to Tee Higgins tied the game 7-7 with 1:47 left in the half. It was a goal-to-go situation, and teams are going to score in these situations. Making matters worse, however, the Vikings proceeded to go three-and-out on offense, punting the ball back to Cincinnati.

With 1:11 left in the first half, no timeouts, and the ball at the Bengals’ 25-yard line, the Vikings were looking to keep Cincinnati out of field goal range. Instead, Joe Burrow found Ja’Marr Chase wide open four plays later for a 50-yard touchdown when Vikings cornerback Bashaud Breeland blew his coverage. The Bengals went into halftime up 14-7, scoring again on the opening drive of the second half. Minnesota clawed their way back but lost 27-24 in overtime.

Things weren’t much better in Week 2 against the Arizona Cardinals. The Vikings led 20-7 before Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray scrambled for a touchdown with 3:24 remaining to cut the lead to 20-14. Minnesota then went three-and-out after a productive first 27 minutes of offense. Arizona got the ball back with 1:46 left, and on the first play of the drive, Murray evaded a poor pass-rush angle by Vikings defensive end Stephen Weatherly. As Murray broke the pocket, he found rookie receiver Rondale Moore, who was left uncovered for a 77-yard touchdown. After dominating the first half, Minnesota trailed 21-20.

Once again, this wasn’t the end of the Vikings’ woes. Even though the offense responded and set up a field goal to go up 23-21, they left 21 seconds on the clock for Arizona. After an odd decision to squib kick the ensuing kickoff, the Cardinals set up shop at their own 34-yard line with 16 seconds remaining. After a six-yard pick-up on first-down, Arizona only had 10 seconds left in the half. Murray then hit Moore on a short pass that went just beyond the line of scrimmage. However, he somehow evaded three Vikings defenders and ran out of bounds at the Minnesota 44-yard line with one second remaining. That was enough for kicker Matt Prater, who had a 64-yard field goal on his resumé — a record until Justin Tucker broke it this season. He booted a 62-yarder, and the Cardinals led 24-23 heading into halftime. A Greg Joseph miss as time expired in the fourth quarter resulted in a 34-33 Vikings loss.

Minnesota has allowed 92 points through four games. That’s 11th in the NFL and a big improvement over last year when they ranked 29th in points allowed. However, 35 of those points, or just over 38% of their total points allowed, have come in the final two minutes of the first half. Conversely, the Vikings have only scored 10 of their 94 total points in the final two minutes of the first half. In fact, the one game they scored a touchdown in that window was their only win of the season.

Even more interesting about the Week 3 victory over the Seattle Seahawks is that it is the only time all season the Vikings didn’t allow their opponent to score in a two-minute drive to end the first half. Seattle began their lone drive inside of two minutes at their own 25-yard line with 16 seconds remaining. Minnesota’s defense played much smarter than the previous two weeks and allowed the team to carry momentum into halftime with a 21-17 lead. They would ultimately win 30-17.

However, the Vikings have given up points on six of seven (85.7%) two-minute drives. Meanwhile, they are allowing scores on only 37.8% of all drives this season, 14th in the league.

Somehow, the Vikings are 1-3 and have still outscored their opponents by two points over the course of four games. But Minnesota has been outscored 35-10 inside of two minutes. That’s meaningful considering the losses have come down to a field goal in overtime, a missed field goal at the end of regulation, and a 14-7 loss. Even though the defense is culpable for their shortcomings in these situations, the offense also fields much of the blame for not being able to sustain drives. To top it all off, questionable coaching (the squib kick and too many men on the extra point) is costing the team points here as well.

It’s not a good sign when teams give up any points going into halftime. The fact that the Vikings have allowed two scores in these situations to each team they’ve lost to is alarming. Teams preach “complementary football,” and right now the Vikings aren’t executing that. If they continue this troubling trend, their playoff hopes will go up in flames before they reach the halfway point of the season.

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