Is it possible for a win to feel a bit like a loss?
The Vikings escaped Sunday's game against the Lions with a 19-17 victory thanks to a game-winning 54-yard field goal by Greg Joseph as time expired. It was their second win in the last three games, keeps their season alive, and eliminates the possibility of Mike Zimmer being fired this week.
And yet, it hardly felt like an achievement worth celebrating. The Vikings let one of the worst teams in the NFL hang around all day with mind-bogglingly conservative playcalling and decision-making, and it probably should've cost them a win. The Lions took a 17-16 lead after Alexander Mattison's late fumble and could've sealed the deal by merely covering Adam Thielen in the final minute of the game.
The Vikings should've won this game by multiple scores. Instead, they played it incredibly safe all day, giving Mattison 32 touches despite facing a secondary that had no answer for Justin Jefferson in the first half. It was one of the more head-scratching coaching efforts by the Vikings in recent memory and did nothing to suggest they have a realistic shot at getting into the playoff mix over the final 12 games of the season, especially with their next five coming against teams with winning records.
But they got the win, and at least for today, that's all that matters.
"It wasn’t the prettiest of wins, but it was a win, and we’ll take it," Zimmer said. "Sometimes when you win games like that, it’s a good thing because it evens out at some point if you can keep plugging along. I’m proud of our guys, the way they fought. Not particularly proud of the way we played, though."
Let's run through five takeaways from this wild game.
The Vikings can't keep playing this conservatively
What more can be said about the offensive playcalling and philosophy in this game?
Zimmer, Klint Kubiak, and the Vikings seemed completely content to pound the ball on the ground all afternoon long, for reasons that are beyond me. It's not like Kirk Cousins was getting heavily pressured when he dropped back, like last week. It's not like he wasn't having success through the air.
Their offensive approach deserved to cost the Vikings the game.
It started right away. On their first drive, the Vikings ran it with Mattison on 2nd and 10, and then were bailed out by Jefferson on third down. Two plays later, they ran it on 2nd and 10 and lost two yards, forcing Jefferson to pick them up on third down again. Mattison then touched it two more times, gaining two yards and setting up another third and long. This time, the Vikings didn't convert it and had to settle for a field goal.
After a holding penalty in the second quarter, Cousins dumped a pass off to Mattison for three yards on 1st and 20 and then Kubiak called a run on 2nd and 17. That led to another field goal. Kubiak ran it again on 2nd and 15 early in the third, leading to a punt. A screen pass on 3rd and 16 picked up two yards later in that quarter. Early in the fourth, Mattison got all three touches on a three-and-out, including a run that lost a yard on 3rd and 3. The Vikings continued to run the ball and run the ball again late in the game when they had multiple chances to seal the game. It almost came back to bite them.
The most damning example of all came at the end of the first half, when Zimmer decided against trying to move the ball with 37 seconds and two timeouts.
"I shouldn’t have to explain all of this to you," Zimmer said. "But the plan was — we screwed up a couple plays at the end of the first half this year because we ran out of bounds. So the plan was to run the ball the first play, see how many yards we get, and then go from there. If we get a first down, then we get on the ball and we move. But we got like no yards so that was that."
That explanation, quite frankly, doesn't make any sense.
If the Vikings' head coach, offensive coordinator, and quarterback don't all increase their aggressiveness in the coming weeks, they've got no shot at going on a run. You can't expect to win games in the NFL playing like that.
The rotation at left tackle was the plan going in
On the Vikings' third drive of the game, it appeared that the left tackle job suddenly belonged to rookie Christian Darrisaw, who had come onto the field to replace Rashod Hill.
That drive wound up producing the Vikings' only touchdown of the day. And yet, Hill came back out for the final couple plays before halftime, and again to start the third quarter. The veteran Hill, who has been the clear weak link on Minnesota's offense this year, proceeded to screw up twice in a row on that opening drive of the second half. He was thrown to the ground by Trey Flowers for a sack on first down, then missed a block in the running game to set up a 3rd and 12.
Darrisaw and Hill rotated in and out at left tackle for the remainder of the game. According to Zimmer, it was a planned rotation that had nothing to do with either player getting banged up. They simply wanted to ease Darrisaw into action since he hasn't practiced much.
"He’s practiced 12 times," Zimmer said. "He’s still got a ways to go. We’re just trying to break him in easy. It’s really got nothing to do with conditioning now. It’s about practice time."
Without having reviewed the tape, Darrisaw seemed to play pretty well, while Hill continued to struggle. So we'll have to wait and see if the rotation continues next week at Carolina, or if the Vikings give the rookie the job full-time.
I think it should be the latter. Either he's ready to play or he's not, and rotating two guys at left tackle prevents them from getting into a rhythm.
Greg Joseph gets redemption
It's been a rollercoaster season for new Vikings kicker Greg Joseph.
In Week 1, he drilled a game-tying 53-yard field goal to send it to overtime, only for the Vikings to lose. He made two more from 50-plus in Week 2, but those were overshadowed by his two crucial misses: an extra point that wound up being the final margin of defeat and the potential game-winning 37-yarder as time expired.
After two fairly uneventful weeks, the spotlight was on Joseph again in this game. He made a couple short field goals early, then nailed a career-long 55-yarder to put the Vikings up 16-6. With a chance to expand the lead again, Joseph missed short on a 49-yarder. That kept the Lions alive, and they managed to capitalize on Mattison's fumble to take the lead.
But Cousins found Adam Thielen twice in the final 40 seconds, setting up another opportunity for Joseph to kick a game-winner. He stepped up and drilled it from 54 yards out and got carried off the field by his teammates.
“What an awesome feeling," Joseph said. "So happy for the guys. Personally, I don’t need to be carried off because they deserve just as much credit as I do. I was like, ‘Put me down!’ They were like, ‘No!” So it was kind of funny, but yeah, it’s an awesome feeling. Happy for everyone in the stadium. To hear that stadium erupt was pretty amazing.”
Despite some notable misses, Joseph is having a solid season overall. He's now 10 for 11 on extra points and 10 for 12 on field goal attempts, including a perfect five for five from 50 or more. The Vikings need to score more touchdowns, but Joseph continuing to kick the ball well would provide a big boost.
The Vikings' defense has stepped up in a big way
Lost in the discussion about the Vikings' offense is the fact that they've now held three straight opponents to 17 points or fewer. They locked things down in the second half against Seattle, played pretty well against the Browns (but got bailed out by Baker Mayfield's inaccuracy), and shut down the Lions on Sunday.
If not for the Mattison fumble that gave Detroit a short field, the Vikings' defense wouldn't have allowed a touchdown all day.
The big story from the three-game homestand is the play of Everson Griffen, who looks like his peak self at 33 years old. He had at least one sack in all three games, including two against the Lions on back to back plays, the second of which was also a forced fumble. Griffen taught rookie Penei Sewell a couple lessons, beating him with a rip move and then his trademark spin. He needs to continue to play more and more.
Griffen wasn't the only one who stepped up. Danielle Hunter and D.J. Wonnum each had a sack of their own, also on consecutive plays. Eric Kendricks made a fantastic one-handed interception. Harrison Smith and Xavier Woods combined for 17 tackles and a pass breakup. Patrick Peterson had two PBUs on third downs in a solid overall performance. Anthony Barr is finally back.
Things are going to get tougher for the Vikings' defense soon, with tough matchups against the Cowboys, Ravens, Chargers, and Packers after their bye week. But if the pass rush and secondary can keep playing at a high level, the Vikings might have a shot to beat some good teams if their offense can figure things out. There's still plenty of room for improvement in stopping the run, too. They missed Michael Pierce in that regard.
The Vikings need a lot more from their offense
Lastly, the simple truth is that the Vikings aren't going to go anywhere this season if the offense doesn't get a lot better. That starts with being more aggressive, as I discussed earlier. They have to play through Jefferson, Thielen, and Cousins, even when Dalvin Cook comes back.
But it's more than just that. The Vikings have only scored one touchdown in two straight games and haven't scored a second-half touchdown since Week 1. The entire offense, from the O-line to Cousins to all of the skill position players, needs to be better after halftime. They need to avoid costly penalties, like the ones called on Chris Herndon and Oli Udoh against the Lions, and they need to eliminate the dropped passes that have been a bit of an issue. They've gotta execute better in every aspect of the game.
If the Vikings' offense can get back to playing the way did in the first three games of the season, they'll give themselves a shot. But after watching the last two weeks, particularly this game against a bad defense, I'm awfully skeptical.
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