Yesterday’s 27-20 win over the Los Angeles Chargers bucked a lot of trends. The Minnesota Vikings have a pattern of overly conservative play and a penchant for letting teams hang around. But in this game, the Vikings stepped on their opponent’s throat.
The only number you need to know is 4:36. That’s the amount of time the Vikings had to kill with a one-score lead in the fourth quarter. That’s the size of the drive they needed to ice out the Chargers from a game-winning opportunity. And the Vikings accomplished that task.
Mike Zimmer, known for his conservatism, went for it on fourth down in crucial situations. One turned into Tyler Conklin‘s second touchdown of the day, and the other led to a victory formation. The win showed the Vikings’ willingness to adapt to compensate for their flaws. Maybe it came too late in the season. We do not know if it will continue. But it’s nice to know they have it in them.
The justin Jefferson experience
In a word, Justin Jefferson’s nine-catch, 143-yard day could be described as cathartic. After multiple weeks of maddeningly low usage, the Vikings finally found a way for their superstar to drive the result of the game. That stat line, impressive as it is, still might undersell Jefferson’s performance. He made not one, but two highlight-reel sideline catches, and they might not even be his best of the day. From a second-and-20 in the mid-secnd quarter, Jefferson caught a pass well behind the line and with plenty of defenders in front of him. He fought impressively for the first down, and the day only got more explosive from there.
How we got to that point was a fascinating post-game talker. First, Jefferson was frustrated about his lack of opportunities to this point. As Zimmer told it, he took Jefferson into his office and told the star receiver he’d get many opportunities if he was on point in the game. And so it went.
There’s also Cousins’ role in all this. Zimmer praised Cousins for pushing the ball downfield more often. Jefferson cited a “big adjustment” they had made during the week to get him the ball more. Piece all this together, and you get a picture of a head coach on the ropes doing what needed to be done. Why he didn’t do so earlier is certainly concerning. But the fact of the matter is that the change happened, and it won the Vikings a game.
Keeping this up will be difficult. Defenses won’t be willing to put in a depth corner in one-on-one coverage against Jefferson all day. The Vikings will need to continue to find ways to get Jefferson open deep. Klint Kubiak has to earn it, schematically. Considering his reputation for adaptation, you’d be forgiven if you had your reservations. Still, for the moment, we can enjoy that Jefferson had a monster game.
Defense in reserve
The Vikings’ defense is in a bad way right now. Danielle Hunter and Michael Pierce are on injured reserve alongside Patrick Peterson. Harrison Smith is on COVID-IR for the second-straight game. Anthony Barr missed the game with a knee injury of his own. That left many opportunities for backups to prove themselves. The defensive bench played fantastically, slowing down a terrifying Chargers offense.
Justin Herbert passed for under 200 yards for only the second time this season. The Chargers’ offense struggled to get going when the Vikings didn’t gift them first downs with penalties.
And, no, the irony of a Chargers-Vikings game where Jefferson dominated and Herbert struggled is not lost on me. We remember the Offensive Rookie of the Year debates from last January. The ball does not, in fact, lie.
Camryn Bynum will be a big story throughout the week. In two games in relief of Harrison Smith, he has an interception, a sack, and a key pass breakup. Bynum struggled with coverage calls in the preseason, which are massively complicated to learn. Something as simple as a tight end motioning from the slot to an inline alignment can entirely re-work the coverage, and players have to process that on the fly. This went horribly in his first NFL action versus the Denver Broncos. But now, with some time to learn from his mentor Smith, he’s been excelling.
Beyond that, Blake Lynch and James Lynch both flashed at times. Cameron Dantzler held his own alongside Bashaud Breeland. Even Patrick Jones got in on the action and showed he was ready to hold down a gap for a drive or two. Sure, Everson Griffen got stonewalled by Rashawn Slater, but the defense as a whole showed a depth that was noted as one of its weaknesses, not a strength.
The Cousins Chaos Meter
Cousins is about to hit something of a crossroads with the Vikings. After 2021, they will owe him $35 million in fully guaranteed base salary (on top of a $10 million pro-rated bonus). They could trade that salary away or re-work it via extension. That leaves the Vikings with a decision: Do they want to commit to more Kirk Cousins, or dump him in someone else’s lap? To measure Kirk’s chaotic nature, I’ve devised the Chaos Meter. The higher up the meter, the more chaotic Kirk’s game. The lower, the safer and perhaps even more boring.
This week, the Chaos Meter lands comfortably in optimal range. Kirk’s game started on a too-chaotic note, with his fumble and then a screen pass with no receiver. He even fumbled again on a scramble, though he was down well beforehand. Cousins checked down quite a bit for the rest of the first half before opening things way up in the second. The meter went from red, down to gray, and back into green. But the end of the game is what mattered most. With the game on the line, Cousins delivered strikes to Thielen, Jefferson, and even Tyler Conklin. Ultimately, the meter prioritizes those big moments.
We saw the Vikings we were dying to see against the Chargers. We saw them play aggressively. They targeted Justin Jefferson. They went for it on risky fourth downs. All in all, the Vikings won the game on those aggressive decisions. They lost too many games by avoiding risk. It’s deeply satisfying that they embraced risk and got the win.