The Vikings Let Another Season Slip Away Because Of the Same Problems

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker (USA TODAY Sports)

As currently constructed, the Minnesota Vikings are cursed to hover around .500. They have proven throughout the year that they are incapable of keeping up with the league’s best and can barely keep up with the league’s worst. Against a Los Angeles Rams team that entered the game leading the NFC West, the Vikings once again proved that they do not belong in the postseason.

The Rams controlled the line of scrimmage en route to a 30-23 victory that was not nearly as close as that score suggests. That was the first reason for the loss that Mike Zimmer cited after the game. Justin Jefferson thought the offense let the defense down. Anthony Barr thought the team lacked energy.

All of the above is true. The Vikings have become a soft, tepid team that is too content to accept its fate as a stepping stone for other teams on the way to greater things. They either lack the willingness to overhaul the processes that have doomed them to another eight-loss season, or they lack the ability. I’m not sure what’s worse.

This dynamic manifested in many ways. The offense sputtered until the game was out of reach. The defense held up well for as long as it could. But ultimately, they were gashed on the ground by a physically superior opponent. Kirk Cousins played with damning hesitation. The Vikings are out of excuses. They’re just bad.

The offense is broken

Aaron Donald ruined plenty of plays this Sunday. It happens. Especially with a backup guard in Oli Udoh, it’s unfair to expect the Vikings to shut down a superstar like Donald. But remove those plays, and the Vikings still spin their wheels all day.

The Vikings had just one drive that went farther than four plays in the first half. That drive ended in an interception. After the game on KFAN, Zimmer said the offense “couldn’t get in a rhythm.” It’s hard to get in a rhythm when you repeatedly leverage the game on your worst players.

Mattison, Conklin, and Mattison again were the principal skill players on the first series, a three-and-out. The second series ended with back-to-back Mattison runs, setting up a third-and-goal throw to K.J. Osborn. LA picked off that throw. The next series saw two failed Kene Nwangwu runs and a throwaway. The last punt of the half came via a C.J. Ham catch and a Mattison run. The deep third-down pass to Justin Jefferson failed.

Thielen may not have been 100%, but that doesn’t excuse how often the Vikings chose to run through Alexander Mattison, Tyler Conklin, and everyone else on the fringes of the offense. It’s an approach that lacks identity. We all love Ham as a fullback, but he doesn’t strike fear into anybody.

Why this happens is a more complicated question to answer. Some play calls force Cousins to throw to certain players. Some of Cousins’ reads were mind-numbing. Sometimes offensive linemen or skill players would fail. There is a gigantic bag of problems. It’s not getting fixed in the two remaining games. The Vikings need to rebuild their offense from scratch.

The defense has grown soft… again

Last year, the Vikings had snuck into playoff position heading into the final month of the season. They lost three in a row, including a home game against the Chicago Bears where David Montgomery set a career high and the infamous Alvin Kamara Christmas game. They had gone soft. Their run defense had failed. At the same time of year in 2021, the Vikings have made no progress.

That’s pretty disappointing, considering the offseason the Vikings had. They signed Dalvin Tomlinson to a major free agent deal. Michael Pierce returned, as did Barr and Eric Kendricks. Danielle Hunter returned too but sustained another season-ending injury. It was supposed to get better.

Instead, Sony Michel ripped off 131 yards on 27 carries with the Vikings’ lives on the line. They were pushed around. Tomlinson isn’t to blame — his pressure forced two turnovers and he stayed disciplined in his run defense. Pierce disrupted plenty as well. Instead, blame the edge rushers.

All the interior prowess in the world doesn’t matter if the outside can’t set the edge. The interior’s job is to force the defense outside. The outside’s job is to make the tackle. The disparity between these two groups on the Vikings couldn’t be larger. That’s encapsulated no better than in this play, which basically doomed the Vikings in the fourth quarter:

You Just Can’t win With Kirk Cousins

We have been tracking Kirk Cousins’ progress toward an extension week by week all season. With a $45 million cap hit in 2022, his performance this year will likely go a long way toward determining if he is extended to lower that hit or traded to dump it altogether.

Today may have been the tipping point in that decision. Cousins still has two games to prove his worth, but this was far from his finest effort. Cousins gets unfairly blamed for overall results that aren’t his fault, so let’s throw those out and focus on the traits. Forget the final result, the 23 points or the 315 passing yards.

Cousins holds the ball too long. That won’t necessarily show up in Time To Throw stats, which will be skewed by quick timing plays and bootlegs. But on straight-up reads, Cousins is hesitant. Balls arrive late, eating up separation that his receivers earn. This has been a problem with Cousins for his entire career. There are quarterbacks with worse problems, but this one bit the Vikings hard on Sunday.

Cousins is a paint-by-numbers quarterback, which turns him into a bit of a Rorschach test. If you want to defend him, you can say that he was only executing a play call. If you want to critique him, you can say that we should expect him to find plays outside of structure.

Here, Cousins should have the leeway to work to the back side of the play when he realizes the front side isn’t there. A three-level concept on third-and-goal from the 6 is highly suspect. But the backside concept had Dede Westbrook open at the goal line. Cousins had time in the pocket to work to the other side of his read. If he doesn’t have permission to do that, that’s a problem. If he does, then it’s his problem.

These are not one-off issues. They’re examples of trends that have long plagued Cousins’ game. If the Vikings are going to run back a similar contract that guarantees large sums of money to Kirk Cousins, they need to come to grips with plays like these all over the tape. I’m not sure they can justify that.

Whatever happens from here will no doubt be interesting. Nobody in the Vikings’ organization is beyond reproach. Zimmer’s job has to be in grave danger. Rick Spielman may not keep his seat. Cousins should be on notice. The Vikings are at a crossroads. Who do they want to be? We’ll limp through two mostly meaningless games, and then we’ll find out.

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