By the time the first half of Monday night’s loss in Philadelphia had mercifully come to an end, the Vikings had already allowed more yards than they gave up in their entire season-opening victory over the Packers.
Jalen Hurts and the Eagles racked up 347 yards and 24 points before halftime to take a commanding lead into the break. The Vikings’ defense stiffened in the second half, holding the Eagles scoreless, but the damage had already been done and the offense couldn’t mount a comeback.
After a promising Week 1 performance, limiting an Aaron Rodgers-led offense to seven points, this was a major step back for the Vikings’ new-look defense led by veteran coordinator Ed Donatell. They couldn’t stop the run, whether it was Hurts taking it himself for a pair of touchdowns or running backs bursting up the middle. They were even worse against the pass, allowing tons of separation for easy completions and giving up a long touchdown pass due to busted coverage.
Despite the poor performance, Donatell isn’t concerned.
“We really like the way our guys are responding in this short week,” he said. “We gotta get refocused on a really good divisional opponent. We’re still learning about our team together and what our strengths are and things we need to improve on. What I really liked in that game is our guys came back from a tough half, second half, made the adjustments and they were able to hold them scoreless. … There’s no question our execution was off in the first half. Part of that was self inflicted, us, we need to do better, and part was Philly’s a really good team and they played well and they made it hard on us.”
Donatell was an easy target of criticism during the first half. His defense, which uses two high safeties, leans on zone coverage, and invites the run while trying to limit big plays, simply didn’t work. The Vikings gave Eagles receivers a ton of cushion at the line of scrimmage, especially DeVonta Smith, who saw an average of 9.6 yards of cushionsecond-highest of any player in the NFL in Week 2.
That resulted in Hurts completing his first 11 passes, which doesn’t include another four completions that were called back because of three ineligible man downfield penalties and an iffy offensive pass interference call. He finished the half 17 of 20 as a passer, having led four scoring drives of at least 75 yards. Even when their soft zone coverage was getting ripped apart, the Vikings didn’t adjust.
ESPN color commentator Troy Aikman was among those who criticized the approach the Vikings took on defense. But Donatell, a longtime NFL position coach and coordinator, doesn’t think scheme was the reason the Vikings struggled. He believes execution was the greater issue.
“A lot of guys have opinions,” Donatell said. “If I listened to every one… We had plenty of guys to account for everybody. We just didn’t play our assignments right.”
“Everything is something we can fix. Certain times you’ll see them make a play. A quarterback will get out, do something. That’s what he does. And then some other things we can fix. We always take a hard look at ourselves. How can we teach it better. What maybe did we miss as a coaching staff to help our players. Our players are really buying in and working hard for us, so we’re just looking for the little things.”
Donatell was asked if he’d play the Eagles the same way — from a gameplan and scheme standpoint — if he could do it over again, and he said he would.
“We want to execute better if we do it again,” he said. “But anytime we have a setback, we view that as temporary. First thing is what are you gonna learn? What if you had to play them the next day? What would you do differently? That’s how we looked at it.”
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Any time a unit plays as poorly as the Vikings’ defense did in the first half on Monday night, it’s fair to critique the scheme. It was curious that the Vikings sat back and only blitzed Hurts five times in the game, with most or all of those coming in the second half.
With that said, Donatell is correct that the Vikings didn’t execute very well. The 53-yard touchdown pass to Quez Watkins came on a blown assignment by cornerback Cameron Dantzler, who was supposed to carry Watkins vertical. It’s also true that Hurts and the Eagles played at an extremely high level, and that the Vikings’ offense didn’t do their defense any favors by going three and out four times in the opening half.
Speaking of Dantzler, who appeared to be benched for rookie Akayleb Evans at one point in the second half, Donatell indicated that he still has confidence in the third-year cornerback.
“He was involved in a couple plays, and the deep play, he wanted to be on top of that,” Donatell said. “But he played hard and he played tough in that game. You may see a different young player in certain weeks that we just want to take a look at, because our young players are gonna be in there, no matter what. They just have to play during the season, so he’ll play plenty of plays, and we gave him a little rest there, but he’ll be back in there ready to go this week.”
“(Dantzler) misread what was in front of him, and the correction has been made,” Donatell said of the long touchdown. “We trust him and we know he’ll do fine.”
As for Evans, who played 21 snaps on Monday, Donatell likes the skill set he brings.
“He’s long,” he said. “He’s sudden, he has a lot of sudden movement for a longer corner. Many times that’s a challenge. He’s a focused, even-keeled player.”
The Vikings’ defense will need to bounce back quickly on a short week, as the Lions are coming to Minneapolis boasting an offense that ranks fourth in yards per game (405.5), is tied for second in points per game (35.5), and ranks in the top eight in both offensive DVOA and expected points added per play.
Detroit’s running game, led by explosive third-year back D’Andre Swift, ranks second in both DVOA and EPA per play. That could be a major issue against a Vikings team that has really struggled to stop the run. The Lions also have a capable passing game that is leaning heavily on wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, who has caught at least eight passes in eight straight games dating back to last season and just exploded for a 9-116-2 line against the Commanders.
And the Vikings may be without safety Harrison Smith, who missed practice on Wednesday and Thursday with a concussion. That could force Josh Metellus or rookie Lewis Cine into action; Donatell didn’t specify which one would be next in line if Smith can’t play.
Whether it was scheme and game plan, execution, or a combination of both that doomed the Vikings’ defense in Philadelphia, they need to fix it this week if they’re going to bounce back with a win over a much-improved Lions team.
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