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Reviewing the Minnesota Vikings’ 2021 season: Week 8 vs Dallas

Purple Pain

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

This is the last really meaningful Minnesota Vikings game in the series of looking at 2021 for 2022 opportunities, because this is the last game Danielle Hunter played.

Am I being a bit melodramatic putting such a weight on Hunter being out? No, if anything I’m underreacting. In the seven games with Hunter, the Vikings’ defense allowed 30+ points one time (34 to Arizona that they could have won, but for a missed field goal). One out of seven is allowing 30+ points in 14% of games. Without Hunter in the lineup, the Vikings allowed 30+ points in 50% of their games. Here are the games where the Vikings did NOT allow 30+ points in the last 10 games:

Win at Chargers – 20 points allowed – arguably the high point for team defense all season.

Loss at Lions – 29 points allowed – And just for hilarity’s sake, I will point out that the Lions scored on the last play, and NFL rules say that no extra point will be attempted on a touchdown with 0:00 on the clock if the extra point can’t impact the outcome of the game. A rule technicality that came into play after the Saints were forced to do a walk of shame after the Minneapolis Miracle. So, … yay for 2017 Stefon Diggs helping the team not allow 30 points in this game!

Win vs Steelers – 28 points allowed – The Steelers were the 21st-ranked scoring offense, and allowing 28 points to an out-of-shape, slower-than-molasses, about-to-retire Ben Roethlisberger ranks as one of the better defensive efforts by the Vikings in the second half of the season. And even then, it took a missed field goal and failed two-point conversion to keep the Steelers under 30 points.

Both games against whatever it was that counts as an offense in Chicago – 9 and 17 points allowed.

That’s it. Every other game the rest of the season, the defense let in at least 30 points. Given what I’ve seen from the Vikings’ offense in games one through seven, I’m surprised they managed to go 5-5 in those ten games with such horrible defensive performances. The lack of creativity in play design I’ve seen means scoring that much is going to rely disproportionately on individual talent. I view the fact that players were capable of scoring that much as a positive for 2022.

If you want to go back: here are the first games of the season:

Week 1 @ CIN

Week 2 @ ARI

Week 3 vs SEA

Week 4 vs CLE

Week 5 vs DET

Week 6 @ CAR

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

Week 8 – Vikings vs Cowboys: Vikes lose 20-16

Now looking specifically at the game versus the Cowboys:

Interesting stat: 5.1 vs 8.8 yards-per-pass-attempt in favor of the Cowboys, playing with a backup quarterback. This is interesting on both sides of the ball.

For the Vikings, 5.1 YPA was the third-worst of the season, barely better than the 5.0 a largely frozen Sean Mannion put up in Green Bay and the 3.6 YPA in a win in Chicago. This is the most head-scratching number from the game because the Cowboys weren’t a great pass defense. The Vikings had more yards against elite pass defenses. The Panthers, 49ers, Browns and Bears all finished in the top six in total pass yards allowed, and the Vikings gained more yards against them than they did versus the Cowboys.

On the Cowboys’ side, the 8.8 YPA is pretty solid (better than the Vikings’ season average of 6.4) but actually undersells their passing game. Cooper Rush had a below-average completion percentage; the Cowboys’ yards-per-completion was 13.6, the second-highest of the season (behind only Aaron Rodgers’ 16.2 in the epic Rodgers versus Kirk Cousins passing duel in week 11). And it wasn’t all the one big pass play to Cedrick Wilson; if I subtract out 1/1 for 73 yards, the Cowboys were still above average in YPA (6.5) and YPC (11.0) on the day (based on Vikings’ norms).

This game wasn’t just about Cousins taking too many check downs; it was a far too conservative passing game by the Vikings, with the Vikings’ defense giving up too many big pass plays.

Stumbled timing impacts Vikes

Key play: I could have picked several here, but I picked this one because it confuses me, and I want to get more opinions on it. This is on the second drive of the game. At this point the Vikings are up 7-0, although it could have been more. This was the play prior to the key play:

Justin Jefferson’s toe snagged the turf and he lost half a step of speed while the ball was in the air; the ball bounced off the tips of his fingers. This was right there for a huge gain if not a touchdown. Then this play:

Cousins winds up to throw down the middle, presumably deep. I snapped his feet set and wind-up to try and link up timing between the two frames when he wants to throw the ball. After this play, Cousins was mad and shouting at the receivers for making a mistake on their routes; the broadcast didn’t pick up who Cousins was yelling at. After this snap, Cousins sidesteps pressure and throws high to Tyler Conklin on the left. Cousins’ pass was clearly set up to be a timing throw, three-step drop and let it go.

At first glance, this looks like a check down and poor throw by Cousins, but I picked it because there should have been a play to be made. There’s only a few things I can figure out here:

– Cousins wasn’t looking for Dalvin Cook. If he was, he had him wide open.

– I don’t think Adam Thielen was in the wrong. Thielen did nothing with his route and basically stood near the sideline. However, that puts him a long way away from the middle of the field where Cousins was looking. I’m going to chalk Thielen’s route up to trying to pull a safety right, and that worked.

– Conklin was where he was expected to be for the outlet.

That leaves two possibilities:

– K.J. Osborn was supposed to cross shorter and didn’t get to the hole in the zone soon enough.

– Ihmir Smith-Marsette was supposed to do something other than go deep.

I don’t really care who messed up between Osborn and Smith-Marsette; the point is that if one of them had made the right move, this is a big gain. There are huge holes behind the linebackers that either of them could have gotten into.  These plays back to back were two giant gains that were never realized. There aren’t many explosive plays like that to be had in any game; you can’t leave back-to-back 20-30 yard gains on the table and expect to win.

Related: A Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota Vikings reunion would be perfect

Grading the Vikings’ performance vs Cowboys

Looking at the scores for each unit on my normal -2 to +2 scale (with no 0’s):

Passing offense: Pass protection was good enough to win. Everyone else, overall, very poor showing. I’ll be transparent now; I started this game looking for every check down and examples of Cousins throwing short when there was something deep there. I thought this was the only way to explain such a poor YPA number against a beatable Dallas defense. There were some of those, but not nearly as many as I expected. I saw about equal parts of at least three different problems:

1) Cousins not taking a deeper option on a throw.

2) No receivers sent deep – all short routes.

3) No deep receivers open, usually because there were only one or two deep receivers and they were in double or triple coverage.

Luckily, two of these three are correctable with a better passing scheme. Examples of all are below.

Game score: -2 (cumulative season to date: +3)

Rushing offense: I’m beginning to think that the narrative that “the Vikings’ offensive line is good at run-blocking but bad at pass-blocking” is a myth. I saw very little for Cook in this game. Late in the second half, there was just one series where the offensive line was opening holes for Cook. Otherwise, it was a lot of tough running for Cook and Mattison, leading to them having a difficult day.

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

Pass defense: Horrible. In the look-back into the Panthers’ game, I complimented Bashaud Breeland; well, he stunk it up in this game. Some of this is on the coaching; some, the players. The Vikings were giving a huge cushion to the Cowboys’ receivers, and the receivers were just taking everything from them. It was everybody, too. The deep touchdown to Cedrick Wilson is probably the most lost I’ve seen Harrison Smith as he flailed wildly searching for a tackle.

Game score: -2 (cumulative season to date: +4)

Run defense: These guys mostly held up. Ezekiel Elliot and Tony Pollard are a potent 1-2 combo, so to hold them to a combined 78 yards and 3.3 yards-per-carry is doing your job.

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

Special teams: Hit 4/4 kicks for +1, then have Jordan bury a few punts in the corner for a +2 rating. I’m not going to downgrade this simply because the return game had few opportunities.

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

Coaching: There isn’t a rating low enough to capture how unprepared the team was. The passing game was uninspired. The defense was playing soft against an inexperienced quarterback. It was like Mike Zimmer and company were scared of the Dallas Cowboys. They were bad at everything I can think of: overall game plan, play design, play calling, clock management, timeout management, game flow awareness, halftime adjustments, getting your best player the ball (two catches on four targets for Jefferson), press conferences and interviews (obviously), attempting to look less confused than Kellen Moore, wardrobe choices, pre-game meal planning, timing traffic on the way to the stadium, parking spot selection, and it’s Zimmer’s fault some birds hit the stadium. Just awful.

Game score: -2 (cumulative season to date: -5)

Here I thought the Carolina game was a complete crap show! This game was even harder to watch (I had to turn it off halfway through and come back to this). If I tried to provide a complete list of “interesting plays” to be fixed, all it would do is provide a depressing example of how not to play football.

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Here’s an example of a failed third-down conversion from the 30-yard line. Great pass protection, but five receivers in the pattern and nobody runs a route more than seven yards downfield. The defense doesn’t even have to work to sit on every receiver:

The next example is actually a successful play, but shows what kind of deep options there were, and how poor they are. I highlighted Conklin to show that he gets absolutely no separation, only an absolutely perfect throw by Cousins and strong hands by Conklin makes this play. Jefferson has a safety over the top; a throw to him would be into solid double coverage. Thielen has two defenders sitting on his short curl. One of my biggest problems with this play is that noted deep threat KJ Osborn is running a short cross between three defenders. On this play, Cousins would have been justified in taking the check down to Cook, but went for 1:1 coverage to Conklin.

Here’s an example of Cousins taking an overly-conservative throw. I think Cousins could hit the window between defenders and hit Thielen. Osborn is also 1:1 versus a safety; Osborn isn’t as open as he looks in this picture because the safety has already seen the pass in the air to Conklin and is breaking away from Osborn, but it’s a possibility. This was third and 12, so the only thing the conservative throw accomplished was to avoid any risk of a turnover taking points off the board. There was very little to be gained by checking down.

I’m not going to let it slide that the Vikings’ offense, despite a multitude of abject failures, is still calling the “just stand there” route pattern to get their receivers killed. This is such a complete waste of Thielen’s and Jefferson’s talents it’s inexcusable. This time I added a filter and cartoonish arrows to make it look like the screen shot is from the 1950s where garbage like this belongs:

I also planned to look for some typical plays of busted coverages to see if I could figure out who was at fault. There were too many to choose from. I picked this one because it had multiple problems: Breeland playing soft then getting spun around by Amari Cooper – and – Xavier Woods slow to rotate over. There were other examples, but this was the best illustration I could find.

Game-winning drive was nothing but a circus

Finally, the Cowboys’ game-winning drive was eight plays. The following things happened on that eight-play drive:

– Bashaud Breeland deflects a pass, only to have the deflection bounce into Amari Cooper’s hands for a 33-yard gain.

– Amari Cooper fumbles, but the ball goes out of bounds.

– Game-sealing turnover nullified by penalty.

– Vikings’ penalty for consecutive timeouts on defense on a Cowboys’ third-and-16 attempt.

– On third and 11, Mackensie Alexander, Anthony Barr, Xavier Woods and Cameron Dantzler all miss tackles on Ezekiel Elliot, giving up a gain of 15.

That’s a lot of crazy stuff, I have no idea how to classify it all.

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!