The Minnesota Vikings rolled into Philly on Monday night feeling good about themselves. They had just dispatched the rival Green Bay Packers and were looking for a 2-0 start with a win over the Philadelphia Eagles. National pundits had jumped aboard the Vikings’ bandwagon. They were proclaimed as Super Bowl contenders. Everything that Mike Zimmer had done wrong had been fixed, and there was no stopping these Vikings in the Kevin O’Connell era.
All of that changed once they hit the field. The Eagles dominated the Vikings, and the ensuing 24-7 loss had a familiar ring to it. This wasn’t the team that had destroyed the Packers. This was the team that had missed the playoffs in three of the past four seasons. All of this didn’t seem possible, but maybe the Vikings just fooled us in Week 1.
There’s been a lot of talk about what went right in the win over the Packers. It makes sense because beating them just means more.
The Vikings didn’t just shut down an opposing quarterback, they pounded Aaron Rodgers into the turf. It wasn’t a random crew of bad receivers, it was the Packers’ receivers. And it wasn’t Justin Jefferson torching some mediocre secondary, it was Jefferson doing the Griddy after torching Jaire Alexander.
The Packers are the greatest barometer for the Vikings. They’ll have to get a home game if they want to make a run in the playoffs. The only way to do that is by winning the division, and the road to winning the division runs through Green Bay. It made sense that people would be optimistic, but it ignored a few flaws that made themselves known on Monday night.
Minnesota’s defense was incredible against the Packers, but they ran into an inexperienced receiving corps. A.J. Dillion feasted on Ed Donatell’s baby-soft zone for five catches. If Christian Watson hauls in a wide-open 75-yard touchdown, perhaps Rodgers doesn’t freeze everyone out, making for a much tighter game.
Philadelphia’s receiving corps exposed a flaw in Minnesota’s defense from the opening drive. With A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith, and Dallas Goedert at his disposal, Jalen Hurts marched the Eagles up and down the field for 347 yards of total offense in the first half. Not only that, but the Vikings barely put up any resistance.
ESPN’s Kevin Siefert pointed out that the Vikings allowed an average separation of 4.2 on Hurts’ targets last night. Their inability to get to the quarterback compounded the issue and created an especially big problem.
The Vikings masked their pass rush issue in Week 1 when they only pressured Rodgers on 28.9% of his dropbacks – 25th among qualifying quarterbacks. Minnesota didn’t fare much better against Hurts, pressuring him on just 23.7% of his dropbacks. But with a clean pocket and reliable targets, Hurts posted a 108.7 passer rating when he wasn’t under pressure, and the Eagles capitalized for an easy victory.
However, we knew the Vikings’ defense would have some rough games this season. It’s the offense that might have fooled Vikings fans.
The Vikings created big plays throughout the opener, which fueled their early lead. Those scoring drives were exciting, but Minnesota also had several drives that ended early with little to no effect.
That’s nothing new. The Vikings led the NFL with the most three-and-out drives last season and started Monday’s game with three three-and-outs in their first four possessions.
A lot of that had to do with the play of the quarterback. O’Connell declared that he would help Cousins play with a quiet mind this offseason, and it worked to perfection against the Packers. Matt LeFleur opted against having Alexander in shadow duty against Jefferson, creating wide-open opportunities that helped Jefferson have a career day.
Everyone knew that the Eagles were going to put Darius Slay on Jefferson, but there were still chances for Jefferson to do serious damage. Unfortunately, Cousins had other ideas.
At one point in Monday’s game, Cousins threw 20 of his first 24 attempts within 10 yards. His average depth of target for the night was 5.4 yards. There were times when the offensive line allowed pressure, but Cousins was only pressured on 32% of his dropbacks – 17th among qualifying quarterbacks.
When the pressure arrived, Cousins turned into a frustrated Madden player, hucking the ball downfield with no regard for efficiency. Slay capitalized with two picks, including a route-running gaffe by Jefferson inside the red zone. But even on that play, Adam Thielen was wide open in the corner for a big gain.
We’ve seen this game from Cousins before, and it’s only a matter of time until we see it again. He’s kept an even-keel personality throughout the first couple of weeks of the season. But at age 34, he is who he is, even if there is upside for more efficiency.
You could argue that this is the story of this group of Vikings. They sometimes look like they can keep up with some of the best teams in the NFL. At others, they look in desperate need of a complete rebuild. Cousins’ record of 60-60-2 as a starter is fitting for this team, but there could be a way out.
If we’re looking at a half-full glass, this is only the second week of the season. The Vikings are still learning under O’Connell, and he is still experimenting as a first-year head coach. Things were going to go wrong at some point. O’Connell’s next challenge is not to let them snowball.
Until then, we have to take the Vikings for what they are. They’re a team searching for a new identity but firmly committed to their old one. Unless this group can overcome its flaws, they’ll be stuck in the same 7-to-10 win hell that got Zimmer fired.
The Vikings fooled us in Week 1, and it’s up to them to make sure we’re not fooled again.