Will Cleaning Up Mistakes Be Enough Against the Cardinals?

Photo credit: Kareem Elgazzar (The Enquirer)

It’s easy to write off the 2021 Minnesota Vikings after one week. Not only did they lose to the Cincinnati Bengals 27-24 in overtime, but their Week 2 opponent, the Arizona Cardinals, dismantled the Tennessee Titans 38-13. Arizona’s third-year quarterback, Kyler Murray, threw four touchdown passes and ran another one in. Edge rusher Chandler Jones embarrassed Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan to the tune of five sacks. He now faces Rashod Hill in Week 2, and it’s hard to imagine that Jones won’t wreak havoc again.

But when looking beyond the box-score numbers, the formula for the Cardinals’ dominant play may not carry over for a second consecutive week. Arizona got on top of the Titans early when a strip-sack of Ryan Tannehill gave them the ball at Tennessee’s one-yard line. Two plays later, Murray found star receiver DeAndre Hopkins to give the Cardinals a 10-0 lead seven minutes into the game.

The Titans’ next drive wasn’t much better. On 2nd and 8, Derrick Henry had a seven-yard run negated by an unnecessary roughness penalty. Sitting at 3rd and 16, the Titans were behind the sticks and punted following an incompletion.

It was a trend that would continue all day. Like the Vikings, Tennessee banged their head against the wall trying to establish a running game that wasn’t there on early downs. Compounding the stagnant running game, the Titans would suffer penalties or sacks that set up long third-down conversions. Outside of a fake punt that gave Tennessee a first down on their fourth drive, they didn’t generate a first down until the 11-minute mark of the second quarter when they were already down 17-0. In total, the Titans had the fewest yards-per-play in Week 1 of the NFL. With 3.9 yards per play, they were a full 1.5 yards behind Minnesota’s output in Cincinnati.

The Vikings probably won’t be penalized 12 times for 116 yards once again. In Cincinnati, somewhat promising offensive drives put them in third-and-long situations that had little chance of success. Oddly enough, as bad as some of these drives were, Minnesota was still 6-of-16 on third down and 2-of-2 on fourth down. With pre-snap penalties and holding an emphasis this week, expect a cleaner game from Minnesota that doesn’t put Kirk Cousins and the line in spots that allow Chandler Jones to pin his ears back again.

The Cardinals tied with the New Orleans Saints as the second-highest scoring team in Week 1. But their 6.2 yards per play was eighth in the league. Still respectable, but far from an unstoppable force. The key here? Arizona had an average starting field position at the 42.5-yard line. The only time they began a drive inside their 25-yard line was on their opening drive of the second half. Coincidentally, this drive ended in the Cardinals’ lone turnover when Kyler Murray threw an interception on 3rd and 3. In fact, Murray’s 65.6% completion percentage was only 19th in the league in Week 1. This is markedly lower than Joe Burrow, who was throwing at a 74.1% clip.

Finally, three of Arizona’s touchdowns came on third down. Two of these touchdowns came on short fields; one drive began at the Titans’ one-yard line, and the second started at Tennessee’s 33-yard line. Meanwhile, the Vikings held the Bengals to 3-of-14 on 3rd down last Sunday and have been the best third-down defense in football since Mike Zimmer arrived. This is a collaborative effort with the offense as well. Obviously, if the team moves the ball, they are either punting closer to mid-field or, better yet, scoring points. This leads to kickoffs that will result in touchbacks more often than not. This is the complementary football that we hear coaches and players speak about weekly at TCO Performance Center.

None of this is to say that the Vikings will fix their issues, nor that the Cardinals didn’t play a great game last Sunday. Taking advantage of an opponent’s mistakes is important. But if that opponent plays mistake-free, it affects how dominant that team can be. The Titans were down early and never showed a pulse. If the Vikings can not only avoid an early haymaker but effectively counter, they stand a chance to right their ship and escape the desert with a 1-1 record.

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Photo credit: Kareem Elgazzar (The Enquirer)

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