The Vikings Improved In One Area and It Made All the Difference

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Zygi Wilf walked past the assembled media as it waited to enter the Minnesota Vikings’ locker room. The Vikings had just come back to beat the Detroit Lions 28-24, Minnesota’s first close result this season. Wilf flashed a quick smile and rhetorically asked, “Entertaining, huh?”

The Vikings came back to beat Detroit at home last year. But it came on Greg Joseph‘s last-second field goal and resulted in a moment nobody will soon forget. Kirk Cousins turned around and grabbed former coach Mike Zimmer, then dropped his signature line, “You like that?!?” Zimmer responded by shoving Cousins, and his teammates briefly separated the coach and quarterback.

Cousins and Zimmer’s exchange became symbolic of the 2021 season. In 2018, Zimmer wanted to spend money on the defense, but former GM Rick Spielman signed Cousins to an $84 million extension. Tension lingered between coach and quarterback, culminating in that weird interaction after the Lions game in Week 5. Unfortunately, that was one of Minnesota’s few clutch wins last year.

In the offseason, the Wilf family decided to move on from Zimmer after eight years. Part of the reason was to create a more amicable culture. In came California cool Kevin O’Connell, who had a new-age mindset. He worked under Sean McVay, one of the best offensive coaches in the league, and believed in Cousins after coaching him in Washington. His goal was to get Cousins to play with a quieted mind and use the illusion of complexity to get his weapons open – namely Justin Jefferson.

Still, it was fair to wonder if O’Connell could do anything different with the roster he inherited. Sure, the Vikings beat the Green Bay Packers 23-7 in the Week 1 opener, but Green Bay also started slowly last year. Then the Philadelphia Eagles pummelled the Vikings on Monday night. The defense gave up 24 points in the first half, and Cousins lost in primetime again.

It looked like the same old Vikings again for the first 58 minutes of Sunday’s game. The defense struggled in man coverage, and Jared Goff routinely found receivers open over the middle to convert third and fourth downs. The Lions didn’t obliterate Minnesota’s defense like they did Philadelphia’s in Week 1 and the Washington Commanders last week, but they were in control for most of the game.

Minnesota did something they didn’t do last year, though. They delivered with two minutes to go in each half.

The Lions got out to an early 14-0 lead, but the Vikings kept chipping away. They responded to Detroit’s 12-play, 70-yard drive to go up two touchdowns with an 11-play, 80-yard drive of their own. It culminated in Cousins’ pass to Adam Thielen, who was wide open for his 50th career touchdown catch.

The Vikings defense forced a turnover on downs on the next drive after Eric Kendricks made a diving play to break up Goff’s pass to star tight end T.J. Hockenson. Minnesota then matriculated down the field, using a nine-play, 49-yard drive to tie the score.

Down 14-7 with two minutes to go, the Vikings faced third-and-four from Detroit’s 19-yard line. Cousins hit Thielen on a 15-yard pass, bringing the ball to the Lions’ four-yard line. That’s as close as they needed to get. Dalvin Cook scored on the next play on a run to the outside.

But that wasn’t it in the first half. Goff hit D’Andre Swift for a first down on Detroit’s first play from scrimmage. However, Minnesota’s defense locked in and forced the Lions to punt three plays later. Detroit punter Jack Fox pinned the Vikings on their own eight-yard line. O’Connell opted to be aggressive, though. The Vikings got it to midfield before Lions defensive lineman Charles Harris knocked the ball out of Garrett Bradbury‘s hands, and Cousins didn’t have enough time to spike the ball to set up a go-ahead field goal.

Still, the Vikings tied the game and almost took the lead in the last two minutes of the second half after going down 14-0. It was a stark contrast to their play at the end of halves the previous season.

The last two minutes of the game were even more impressive.

With no timeouts left, the Vikings had to defend the Lions on third-and-14 coming out of the two-minute warning. Eric Kendricks stopped Jamaal Williams short of the sticks. Leading 24-21, Detroit coach Dan Campbell called time out and opted to kick a 54-yard field goal instead of going for it on fourth-and-four.

A conversion would have ended the game. But Austin Seibert missed, and the Vikings took over on their own 44-yard line. K.J. Osborn beat old friend Mike Hughes, and Cousins hit him deep to get the ball to the 28-yard line. Then he found Osborn wide open in the end zone. The defense held on for the final 45 seconds of the game and sealed Minnesota’s second win of the season.

O’Connell immediately found defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, who Troy Aikman had criticized on national television last week, and embraced him. “He was pretty fired up, and I was, too,” said O’Connell, laughing. “I just wanted to tell him how proud I was of him and his guys, and I know they wanted to get that ball back to end the game, so it was fun to see him like that there.

“I’m still pretty sore. The old man still has a little strength to him.”

Last year’s interaction between Cousins and Zimmer will live in infamy. Most people won’t remember what O’Connell immediately did after this game – and that’s a good thing. But it’s no less symbolic of what’s happening with the Vikings right now. The Wilfs’ decision to change course in the offseason paid off. At least for one week, that is. Sunday’s game against Detroit was entertaining, in a good way.

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