Is Minnesota's Core Issue Turnovers Or the Trenches?

Photo Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, Kevin O’Connell took the blame after the Philadelphia Eagles beat the Minnesota Vikings 24-7 in Week 2. “When I look back on tonight,” he said. “I put this one on me.”

I don’t think I did enough in-game. They did some things defensively and just seemed to kind of push us to the point where we needed to make those one or two plays to finish and capture that momentum. … [But] I do mean it: I feel like this one’s on me, and I’m going to work like crazy to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

The culprit in Week 2 last year? Turnovers. Specifically, the three interceptions Kirk Cousins threw. Justin Jefferson took the blame for one of them when he didn’t run the route Cousins expected. But Cousins was trying to do too much on the other two picks. Still, he didn’t see a correlation between the three turnovers. “There’s not a common thread. Each one’s different,” Cousins said of the interceptions. “You just treat each one as they were and try to improve and get better.”

O’Connell took the blame after Minnesota’s 34-28 loss on Thursday night. He said ball security is something the coaching staff emphasizes, and he rued that the Vikings lost four fumbles.

I have to coach it better from a standpoint of something that we talk about every single day. Ball security is a major, major focus in our football philosophy, but clearly, I need to do a better job and our staff. We have to go back and continue to find ways to re-emphasize how important it is when you have the football in your hands playing for the Minnesota Vikings.

Cousins’ stat line was better in this game. He was 31/44 for 364 yards and four touchdowns. But he lost a fumble on a strip sack. Alexander Mattison fumbled after Theo Jackson picked off Jalen Hurts and later exposed the racism and vitriol he received on his Instagram account. Brandon Powell fumbled on Philadelphia’s 34-yard line after a 20-yard punt return, and Jefferson fumbled over the pylon, which resulted in a touchback.

“You look at each one as its own entity,” said Cousins, “and you kind of look at it like, why did that one happen? And is there a pattern?”

In some cases, there isn’t, you know? If Justin is going out of bounds at the five-yard line, he’s not reaching, right? He’s reaching there because he thinks he has a chance there on the half-yard line, so that one is kind of its own entity. And then you have, you know, the sack-fumble, where I am saying, ‘Okay, why is that one happening?’ Well, I have to keep two hands on the ball as much as I can. As a passer, it is hard because you are pulling your hand back but going back to two hands on the ball as much as possible.

So each one is its own entity, and we have to address them each that way.

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.

The bigger question here is whether the Vikings can recover. Last year, Minnesota’s loss in Philly made their Week 1 win over the Green Bay Packers look like a mirage. However, they reeled off six-straight one-score victories to start 7-1, culminating in the epic overtime win over the Buffalo Bills. But the Vikings are 5-6 since that game in Western New York. The underdog New York Giants bullied their way to a playoff victory, ending Minnesota’s 13-4 run. Last year, Minnesota had a -3 point differential and an 8.4-8.6 Pythagorean record.

The underlying statistics indicated they weren’t all that different from Mike Zimmer’s last two teams, which finished 7-9 and 8-9. O’Connell modernized the offense and created a better culture, but Kwesi Adofo-Mensah largely kept Zimmer’s final team together in his first season. O’Connell stressed situational football and was calm with the players in tense moments. But 11-0 is unsustainable. The playoff game indicated that.

The bigger question is, how much of last year was a mirage? And did the Vikings do enough in the offseason to build off their 13-win season?

Minnesota has 10 days to get right. That’s the only real upside to playing a Thursday night game in Week 2. They got it out of the way and have time to recover. But then they have to get to work. If turnovers are the main culprit for their 0-2 start, that’s fixable. However, if the core issue is in the trenches, it’s an organizational shortcoming they can’t get right before the Los Angeles Chargers come to town next Sunday.

“We asked a lot out of the players the last three or four days coming off of a really physical game against Tampa, and then tonight was physical as well,” said O’Connell. “So we’ll let those guys take a few days, make sure we get a recovery. We’re not going to get back until very early tomorrow morning. We’ll let them get some time away for Friday, Saturday, [and] Sunday. But as a coaching staff, we’ve got some work to do.”

“We have three days right now, and it’s our job to get our bodies right,” T.J. Hockenson echoed after the game. “We have a lot of games left before bye week. I think bye week is Week 12 or something [it’s Week 13], so we have a lot of games before that.”

The players will recover. That’s not discounting how difficult it is to play a game on four days rest. But they have professionals to help them convalesce, and Minnesota can use the extended break to work on ball control. “Every single day, we do some variation of a ball security circuit gauntlet drill,” said O’Connell. “See two, split two. Different variations of working the techniques and fundamentals that we try to apply when having the ball in your hands. We’re probably going to have to continue to emphasize different ways of drilling.”

However, there’s little the team can do in-season to fix the trenches. Marcus Davenport, Christian Darrisaw, and Garrett Bradbury are banged up. Oli Udoh is out for the season. Signing Dalton Risner alone isn’t enough to fix the offensive line. It will be a long season if they can’t keep Cousins upright or stop the run. Week 13 feels like a long time from now because it is. By then, we’ll know if they’re more like the team that started last season 7-1 or the .500 group they’ve been since.

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