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Reviewing the Minnesota Vikings’ 2021 season: Week 9 @ Baltimore

Purple Pain

This fan blog entry was originally posted at Purple Pain Forums by MidwinterViking.

This Minnesota Vikings game review is going to take a different approach than the first seven looked back upon. The purpose of this entire series is to look at what 2022 could be, not to just rehash losses. I’m going to highlight two plays symptomatic of everything that went wrong in games 1-7. Interestingly, this game featured two of the worst plays of the entire season – one on offense, and one on defense. Both plays are examples of trends that went wrong; and fixing either of these will have a significant positive impact on 2022.

Because these two plays are perfect stand-ins for all the problems of 2021, I broke them down in segments.

What needs to be fixed first?

A – Individual breakdowns in deep coverage

B – Poor short pass play design

C – Something else

The first several games I was looking for example plays that might be opportunities for the Vikings to play better without depending on significant changes from players on the roster. Those weeks are here.

Week 1 @ CIN

Week 2 @ ARI

Week 3 vs SEA

Week 4 vs CLE

Week 5 vs DET

Week 6 @ CAR

Week 8 vs DAL

Week 9 – Vikings at Ravens: Vikes lose 34-31

Interesting stat: Lamar Jackson 386 total yards, broken down:

  • First-half rushing: 63
  • Second-half rushing: 57
  • First-half passing: 65
  • Second-half passing: 201
  • First-half points: 10 (7 following a 42-yard penalty)
  • Second-half points: 24

I picked this to point out that rushing yards by Lamar Jackson almost don’t matter. Defense is going to come down to coverage, taking away the pass was the most critical thing in this game.

Related: Minnesota Vikings schedule: Season opener brings Packers to U.S. Bank

Vikings hand Ravens three points via penalty

Interesting play: With 30 seconds left in the first half, Xavier Woods committed a 42-yard pass interference penalty; this isn’t the interesting play. The interesting play happened two plays earlier when Lamar Jackson took a nearly identical deep shot to the same receiver. Justin Tucker was warming up; the Ravens were making it clear they were going to take a few deep shots and settle for a field goal. The Vikings should have seen the penalty play coming a mile away (conversion rate: two plays = one mile)

Here is the pass interference. Jackson created extra time, but even using his legs, the coverage was in a good position.  This was probably a successful play until Woods ran into Marquise Brown for an easy pass interference call.

Something new

For this game, I was trying to figure out if issues with 2021 were systematic (and therefore can be fixed with a new coaching system) or performance (and require better players) based. To look at this, I wanted to add some commentary around the game, so I spent more time watching the press conferences following the game.

Mike Zimmer’s press conferences explain the mindset

There is always the caveat “coaches can lie in press conferences”, but Mike Zimmer had extremely good recall of games, when asked questions that he liked, he would call out specific plays rather than giving generalized answers (for questions he didn’t like, he just dismissed the reporter with one-word answers). The press conferences for this game shed a bit of new insight.

Zimmer – Postgame

Mike Zimmer: We played hard and fought but didn’t do enough to win

Zimmer – Monday after film review

Mike Zimmer on reasons for inconsistency on offense, Cam Bynum’s debut, defense’s heavy workload

Knowing Zimmer is thinking of specific examples, there were a couple of answers that are illuminating.

On defense

Zimmer, from press conferences

Asked about injuries in the secondary: “We were trying to prevent big plays, we had the pass interference that led to a touchdown so that was not that good, then late in the game they hit Brown on a couple throws to get the ball down there.”

Question: How do you think Cam Bynum did and how tough was it to adjust on the fly with Harrison Smith out? “He made the interception, and for the most part he was in the right place today. He made a couple of mistakes.”

Question: Does the offensive mindset change when you are ahead? [Talked about blitzes and defensive breakdowns.]

The theme here is that there is a system, and being in the right place in the system is more important than individual ability. Also, taking away the deep ball is most important. So, I went back to look at the three 20+ yard completions to Hollywood Brown on the last three drives (one in the fourth, and two in overtime):

Play 1: Kris Boyd was covering the slot receiver, and Brown came out of the backfield. Brown breaks a tackle along the sideline and takes it up field for 20.

Play 2: Brown was 1:1 with Boyd, catches the ball on a comeback, then runs around Woods (crossing all the way back across the 50) and turns up field to about the 35.

Play 3: Deep out, tackled shortly after catch.

Conclusion: On all of these plays, the system had Kris Boyd 1:1 against Marquise Brown. None of these are particularly difficult completions. If this is scheming to just “take away the deep ball”, then I don’t see the point because there isn’t much … taking away of the deep ball.

Related: Minnesota Vikings training camp 2022: Schedule, tickets, location, and everything to know

On offense

Zimmer, from press conferences – 

Question: How tough is it when the time of possession is so lopsided? “Well, we were playing pretty well on defense, then got worn down a little bit. We didn’t convert third downs in the second half, that was a big thing.”

Question: It was another game where you started quick offensively and then kind of struggled a bit, can you point to anything with consistency? “It’s one of those dilemmas, we come out and score on the first series and then what happened there towards the end of the second quarter we started getting some penalties. I know on the third downs it was 3rd-and-11 or 3rd-and-12, something like that.”

The conclusion I make is “things are fine if we can avoid penalties”. Let’s examine that. Here are all the third downs in the second half and overtime:

First drive – 3rd and 2: incompletion to Adam Thielen, converted on the next play via fake punt. This was a manageable third down. There was a holding penalty on second down, but an 18-yard completion wiped it out. Penalties did not make this third down more difficult.

First drive – 3rd and 11: following a second-and-20 caused by penalty. Not converted. Penalties at fault.

Second drive – 3rd and 18: This was caused by running Dalvin Cook into a blitz for -8 yards, three-and-out drive. No penalty influence.

Third drive – 3rd and 3: Converted, no penalty influence.

Third drive – 3rd and 9: No penalties, incomplete pass, fourth-and-9 was converted via pass.

Overtime drive – 3rd and 9: No penalties, made difficult by a terrible swing pass design.

Conclusion: That’s six third downs; one of which was made overly difficult by a penalty versus two that were made difficult by poor plays. There are two problems with this. There is a systemic issue of Zimmer thinking, “things are fine, it’s just the penalties”. That mis-read of what was wrong likely went a long way to costing Zimmer his job. There is also a second problem because some of those third downs were made difficult by poor play; this has more to do with players.

It’s time to reference that second play from the “fix this first” segment. This is the first play on offense after the turnover; a field goal wins the game. This was a swing pass to Cook; I think it was designed to be a pass to Cook, not a deeper shot. If it was a deeper shot, that’s probably even worse; Jefferson’s out-route just short of the 45 was completely covered. Thielen was triple-covered. Nobody else was out of the backfield.

So, on the most critical play of the game, Cook catches the ball and faces this:

There is no chance. This is extremely frustrating, to say the very least. 

Related: Overpaid or underrated: 2022 outlook for Vikings QB Kirk Cousins

Minnesota Vikings player grades

For the sake of the series, I will continue my effort of rating each individual unit for the game based on the -2 to 2 scale I’ve used so far.

Passing offense: Decently clutch here. Had enough conversions and touchdowns to win. But failed late and had some holding penalties and featured the single-worst designed swing pass of the season.

Game score: -1 (cumulative season to date: +2)

Rushing offense: How much does a single 66-yard run salvage an otherwise terrible day? Not very much. In fact, 81 of Cook’s 110 yards came on just two runs – one each on the first two series. Nothing outside that.

Game score: -1 (cumulative season to date: -3)

Pass defense: I’m going to be generous and only hand out a -1 here. There was one good half, and this group did suffer some injuries in the game.

Game score: -1 (cumulative season to date: +3)

Run defense: I’m okay with ignoring the 120 yards to Jackson; I’d rather he run than throw. It’s the 127 to the other two backs that was the issue. 

Game score: -2 (cumulative season to date: +0)

Special teams: Perfect on kicks, kick return for a touchdown, and no big returns allowed. Check, check, check.

Game score: +2 (cumulative season to date +2)

Coaching: See everything above.

Game score: -1 (cumulative season to date: -6

As always, if you’ve enjoyed this piece, please consider hopping over to Purple Pain Forums and debating with other Minnesota Vikings fans about not only this topic, but so much more!