The Vikings Did Almost Everything Right But Couldn't Overcome Bad Luck

Photo Credit: Billy Hardiman (USA TODAY Sports)

When your favorite football team loses by a point, it’s somewhat of a Rorschach test. The loss can be pinned on whatever you thought was a problem in the first place. Offensive line? If only they hadn’t given up that sack, maybe Greg Joseph‘s 53-yard field goal could have gotten closer and denied the Arizona Cardinals an opportunity for their own 62-yarder. Maybe the blame belongs to the kicker, who missed four points’ worth of gimme kicks in a game the Minnesota Vikings lost by one. Perhaps it’s Mike Zimmer’s fault; his defense gave up 34 points to Kyler Murray and the Cardinals. With deflected catches and quirky fumble recovery rules, you could chalk it up to bad luck.

Let’s dispense with the blame game for now and focus on the broad trends. There are many pointed questions to ask after the Vikings lost their fifth meaningful game in a row. The defense hasn’t been the lockdown unit we’ve come to expect from Zimmer. Time after time, the Vikings lose games that come down to Kirk Cousins attempting a game-winning drive. Are the Vikings talented enough? Are they resilient enough? Or are they doomed to fall into the throes of rebuilding mode once more?

What happened to the defense?

In short, the answer to why the defense allowed 34 points (they have allowed more than 30 in four of their last five games) is Kyler Murray. Zimmer’s defense had Murray under pressure all day. That Murray scrambled and found receivers downfield after several seconds is out of the defense’s control. As color commentator Aqib Talib detailed during the broadcast, anything past four or five seconds for a defensive back is asking for the impossible.

That may be a difficult sell. Surely there must be something Zimmer could have done to bolster the coverage? But, unfortunately for our sensibilities, there are some plays that you have to credit the other team for making and move on. If anything, the Vikings needed to do a better job of tackling Murray. But even that feels like a hollow suggestion. Simply saying they should have taken down the infamously difficult-to-tackle quarterback would be to remove credit from Murray inappropriately. He made incredible plays and put the Vikings in impossible situations. There is not much to be done about that, even with the benefit of hindsight. But there is some we can ask for.

Tackling in general was a massive problem for the Vikings. If there were one defensive trend to pin the game on, it would be poor tackling. A.J. Green stiff-armed an injured Bashaud Breeland on his way to the end zone. Rondale Moore forced several missed tackles to set up a Matt Prater franchise-record 62-yard field goal at the end of the first half. Eric Kendricks missed a tackle on Chase Edmonds to allow a 2nd and 1 conversion.

Breeland was once again exposed as an untenable cornerback, while Patrick Peterson played admirably against DeAndre Hopkins. Breeland was beaten too often by whatever is left of Green. And, of course, the Vikings did too poor a job containing Murray. A Cover-3 call failed against a four-deep route concept, leading to a 77-yard blown-coverage touchdown on a scramble drill. The defensive line let Murray run all over the field, hanging the back end out to dry.

There were many positives, as difficult as they are to focus on. The Vikings held the Cardinals to -0.59 EPA/play on run plays, and only 14% of Arizona’s run plays constituted a gain in EPA. They shut down the bread-and-butter Cardinals option plays, only giving up big gains on long-developing scramble drills. Nick Vigil‘s pick-six and Xavier Woods‘ downfield interception kept the Vikings in the game. But thanks to some bad luck and a heavy dose of Murray doing indefensible things on the field, Minnesota’s overall result looks much worse on the outside than it actually was. Zimmer echoed these sentiments after the game:

The offense kept up

For as inevitable as Arizona’s offense is, the Vikings kept up blow for blow. Cousins threw for three touchdowns in the first half (more on him later). Dalvin Cook picked up chunk play after chunk play, averaging six yards a pop and going over 130 on the day. Despite the speed the Cardinals have on defense with Isaiah Simmons, Zaven Collins, Budda Baker, etc., the Vikings managed to run the ball on them thanks in big part to a dominant performance from the offensive line in the first half.

Both offenses slowed down significantly in the second half, only scoring 10 points apiece. Part of that is Minnesota’s offensive line coming back down to earth. Still, after Chandler Jones‘ five-sack performance against the Tennessee Titans in Week 1, we can count a one-sack and otherwise mostly quiet performance as a win for Rashod Hill and company. J.J. Watt was active in the run game, but not really elsewhere. This allowed for some big plays, including a 64-yard scamper on the second play from scrimmage.

But, alas, kickers

The Vikings and kickers go together like oil and water. Once again, Minnesota lost a game by more points than their kicker directly cost them on what should be automatic kicks. In the second quarter, Joseph’s missed extra point stuck out like a sore thumb on a scoreboard that otherwise would have been tied for most of the game. That said, Joseph nailed two 50-plus-yard field goals, including a go-ahead score in the fourth quarter that the Cardinals promptly answered with a short field goal of their own. So when he trotted out to attempt a 37-yard kick with the game on the line, you could be forgiven for thinking — even if just for a fleeting moment — that things could be different this time.

There’s a lot to examine about the final moments of the game. With about 40 seconds, Cousins hit K.J. Osborn on a slant in the middle of the field to set up the 37-yarder. The Vikings wound the clock to just a few seconds and kicked. It fell wide right, prompting several questions. Why not get closer? Why not try for a touchdown instead? It’s very easy to wish, in hindsight, that they did everything differently. If we do that, we have to avoid assuming that our suggestion would work out to a positive outcome.

An incomplete pass stops the clock, giving the ball back to Kyler Murray after the hypothetically successful kick. Any run could be a tackle for loss or a fumble (like we just experienced last week). Wouldn’t a run up the middle be maddeningly predictable? But any outside run or pass is needlessly risky. Sacks are in play as well. Even providing that some extra plays work out, Joseph still has to make the kick. Would you have felt less nervous from 32 than 37? What spot on the field is acceptable? Pick a line and stick to it, and that’s what NFL teams do. My guess is that anything under 40 was the Vikings’ limit.

This is an Occam’s Razor situation. The simplest answer? Make a 33-yard extra point and a 37-yard kick. If you can’t trust your kicker to do that, it will cause you to behave in all sorts of erratic ways. Joseph just has to make it next time. That’s unsatisfying, but it’s the correct answer to the end of the game. A kick that is four yards longer than an extra point should be treated as automatic. More automatic than any passing play, to be sure. If you can’t trust that kick, you need a new kicker.

Perhaps that’s in the Vikings’ near future.

The Cousins Chaos Meter

We continue our weekly tradition of measuring Kirk’s level of chaos throughout the game. The chaos meter isn’t a quality meter. It’s not a measure of how well Cousins played; it measures how chaotically he played.

If Cousins plays so carefully (checking down, taking sacks with open receivers downfield) that the offense is anemic, the meter will register in the gray. If he manages the game responsibly but allows others to drive it, it will register in the yellow. Green is the optimal level of chaos, where Cousins dials in his best plays. The meter will register red with too much chaos (e.g., inexplicable turnovers or turf monster sacks).

The meter couldn’t be happier with Cousins’ play in this game. His total of 244 yards undersells his performance. Cousins made good decisions throughout the day. He was accurate, aggressive, and moved the ball. A primary reason he didn’t pass for more yards is that the rushing offense was working so well.

Cousins has a way of harnessing chaos, to a point. He out-rushed Murray (35 yards to Murray’s 31) on the back of a 29-yard scamper in the second quarter. He found busted coverage on the opening drive. Cousins also made fantastic decisions breaking the pocket, a criticism I’ve had of him in the past. He did have one fumble, causing the needle to push toward the red, but it takes more than one fumble to fully register red. That fumble bounced right back into his arms anyway.

It was the second frustrating loss in two weeks. Zimmer’s message after the game? “We’re two plays away from being 2-0.” That’s a tough sell in the wake of a heartbreaker like this Cardinals game, but the Vikings have 15 games left. They can’t afford to get down on themselves in September, as much as you may want to see them show remorse for what they did to your heart. There is a lot of football to be played, whether you like it or not.

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Photo Credit: Billy Hardiman (USA TODAY Sports)

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