A Vikings defensive player visited Mike Zimmer's offense on Monday for a discussion. Even though the team had just lost its opener to the Bengals, with Joe Mixon leading the NFL in rushing for the day, the player told the head coach that he was encouraged by what the Vikings did on defense.
The message was a simple one: "I think we can be really good."
Zimmer agrees. The Vikings did a lot of things wrong in their 27-24 overtime loss in Cincinnati, but he's not discouraged. He still thinks they're capable of a lot, and they have 16 more games to prove it.
“I think we still have a chance to have a really good team," Zimmer said on Monday, in what was the final answer of his press conference. "I know we didn’t show it really in all three phases [yesterday], but there’s a lot of things I see that are pretty darn good. There’s a lot of things we have to correct. We can’t be second-and-20 and we’ve got to be smart in these situations. It all comes down to that. But I have the same feeling. I think we can be good, but we’ve got to go out and show it."
To begin his Monday presser, Zimmer made a point to list some positive takeaways from the game. The list included Nick Vigil, K.J. Osborn, Adam Thielen, a defense that had five sacks but "two bad series," Greg Joseph's game-tying kick, and the team's overall effort in rallying from a 21-7 deficit late in the third quarter to force OT.
What it all comes down to, really, is avoiding penalties. The Vikings were flagged a whopping 16 times, with 12 of those calls getting accepted. Most of those were on the offensive side of the ball and meant the Vikings were consistently in second and long and third and very long. Zimmer met with the team on Monday to discuss situational football and what happened with all of the penalty issues.
"When you have ten penalties in the first half, you put yourself in a bad situation where you have to throw the ball, and that’s not how we’re built," he said.
Zimmer's right that there were plenty of positives from the Vikings' opener. Michael Pierce shined in his first game since 2019, recording two of their five sacks. Zimmer thought Everson Griffen looked like his old self at times. The defense as a whole held the Bengals to a 5 of 18 conversion rate on third and fourth downs. Offensively, they racked up over 400 yards as a team, with Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook, and their top three receivers all playing well for the most part. Special teams — which were a major problem last year — were excellent.
Klint Kubiak also appeared to call a solid game in his debut as the Vikings' offensive coordinator, even mixing in a Justin Jefferson passing attempt on an end-around.
“You know, it’s hard [to evaluate]," Zimmer said on Kubiak's day. "I’m talking to him the whole game. There’s a lot of things that came up throughout the course of the game that we talk about. But you know, there ain’t many calls when it’s third-and-24. We converted one, but there’s not very many calls you’re going to make doing that."
The penalties — which neither Zimmer nor any players had a real explanation for — shrunk the Vikings' playbook and forced them to throw more than they'd like to. It limited their ability to run play-action, which Cousins typically shines in. And it made things harder on the offensive line, since the Bengals could anticipate passes and bring pressure over the course of 50-plus Cousins dropbacks.
If the Vikings can cut down on their penalties, it'll make things much easier for the entire offense. The play of the offensive line is still a concern, particularly heading into a matchup with Chandler Jones, J.J. Watt, and the Cardinals, but the Vikings can do things like run the ball and use more play-action if they're not constantly behind the sticks.
"We just have to be better with our feet and our communication, you know, as far as where they are," Zimmer said when asked about the struggles in pass protection. "If your feet are bad, that leads to grabbing and reaching."
Defensively, the Vikings have a tough task ahead of them against Arizona's Kyler Murray, but Zimmer liked a lot of what he saw on that side of the ball. Danielle Hunter should continue to get better, Bashaud Breeland is a veteran who knows how to bounce back from bad performances, and the defense is still deep with veteran talent.
Zimmer took a lot of the blame on Monday, saying there were several play calls he wishes he could have back, especially in regards to the Bengals getting Mixon and the run game going in the second half.
“I kind of got out of some of the stuff we were doing early, and then there were a couple times — going into the game they were heavy, heavy, heavy tendency of throwing the ball on second down, and they had a few runs in there that I had us in poor looks for," Zimmer said. "So they ran the ball a little bit more [than expected]. They got to the edge a little bit more. What they did in the first half, I probably should’ve stuck with some of the things that we were doing early in the game. But I’m encouraged about our run defense."
The overall message from Zimmer on Monday was a surprisingly positive one. Yes, the Vikings are 0-1 and have a bunch of mistakes to correct. But Zimmer liked a lot of what he saw on Sunday, and he remains as confident as he was last week that this team has the potential to be very good over the course of a 17-game season.
Starting this Sunday in Arizona, we'll find out if he's right.
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