Entering Monday night, the Chicago Bears were without their entire starting secondary due to a COVID outbreak. It was a perfect opportunity for Kirk Cousins and the passing game to feast. Yet, the Vikings drew up a bizarre blueprint that is still hard to wrap the mind around.
Chicago Scotch-taped together a secondary that included obscure names that will be part of future trivia questions. Even without Adam Thielen, the Cousins-Justin Jefferson connection was highlighted repeatedly in the lead-up to this nationally televised monstrosity. Sometimes, the most obvious path is the right one, which seemed to fall into both categories. Nobody foresaw a scenario where Cousins would throw for just 87 yards on 24 pass attempts. So how does it make any sense?
There’s only one logical reason for the Vikings choosing to run it more than they passed it against a secondary filled with afterthoughts. Mike Zimmer believed, deep down, that the Bears’ offense wouldn’t make enough plays to beat a super-conservative plan. In that sense, he was correct.
It was far from pretty for the Vikings’ offense. They scored just 17 points, but as lackluster as they were, Chicago was a flat-out abomination.
The Vikings averaged only 3.2 yards per play, and the Bears out-gained Minnesota, 370 yards to 193. Yet it was the Bears who went 1 for 5 in the red zone. It was Justin Fields who took one untimely sack after another. And it was Chicago who all but applied the clown paint to their own faces in a pitiful offensive performance. That is the only explanation that makes any sort of sense as to why the Vikings called the game they did when they had the ball. Zimmer truly believed the Bears and Fields wouldn’t make enough plays to beat them.
Turning and handing it to Dalvin Cook is never a bad option. He showed that yet again, going for 89 yards on 28 carries. Cook is one of the premier backs in the NFL, so force-feeding him the rock is usually a good idea. But if there was ever a game to unleash Cousins and go scorched earth on a defense, it was this game, in this moment, against that depleted secondary.
Win aside, it’s not exactly a confidence booster for Cousins. This wasn’t Nick Mullens making a spot start for the Cleveland Browns or the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills playing in 50 mph winds that made it impossible to throw. This was Kirk Cousins, who’s in the midst of one of the best individual seasons of his career, against a defense that on the back end felt as vulnerable as ever. Instead of putting the final dagger in Chicago, Minnesota shelled up and took the ball out of the quarterback’s hand. It worked this time, but it isn’t a recipe to use going forward.
Next up for Minnesota are dates with the Los Angeles Rams and Green Bay Packers. There’s approximately a 0.000001% chance that a similar game plan would work against either of those teams. The Vikings played not to lose offensively against Chicago. Against LA and Green Bay, that same idea will indeed lose them those games. While Minnesota went one route, they can look no further than Aaron Rodgers and the Packers to see how they should’ve approached this game against the Bears.
Green Bay edged out the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, 31-30. After the first quarter, the offense was near unstoppable for the Packers against a Baltimore secondary without Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphrey, and Jimmy Smith. On paper, the clear advantage for the Packers was in the air attack, which is the exact on-paper advantage that was circled for Minnesota. Unlike Zimmer and Klint Kubiak bottling up Cousins, the Packers let Rodgers sling it around all over the place. The result was 31 points and three touchdowns from Rodgers on 31 pass attempts, compared to 25 runs.
It’s difficult to be completely up in arms over what the Vikings did because it resulted in a win, no matter how ugly it was. But the big picture is of a head coach who still doesn’t fully trust his quarterback to go out and dominate even the most depleted of defenses. Given the number of close games the Vikings have played this year, it may be hard to blame Zimmer for that. But considering how truly thin Chicago was in the secondary, it’s just as easy to side with Cousins. Why did the Vikings take the keys away from him in this game?
This is not a formula for success found in any of the best teams in the NFL. Zimmer dialed up a super-conservative game plan that dared the Bears’ offense to prove they could execute. And this one time, it did work. His assumptions were correct, but it came at the cost of instilling any confidence in this offense.