The Vikings staged a nice comeback in the second half and overcame a weak performance on offense with some defensive fireworks to beat an improving Titans team for their first win of the season.
Concerns Remain on Offense
While the Vikings managed to overcome a poor start to win comfortably, the offense did not do enough to overcome the Titans' defensive game plan: stop Adrian Peterson and make Shaun Hill beat them. The Titans crowded the box with as many as 10 players in the box at times in an effort to stop Adrian Peterson, which was very effective in doing so. The offensive line did not help matters, as their run blocking was generally poor, having given up 7 tackles-for-loss (TFLs), especially guards Boone and Fusco.
On the other hand, pass protection looked much improved over last year, especially guards Boone and Fusco. The offensive line did not allow a sack, which I don't believe was the case in any game last year, although Hill was pressured many times. Still, the Vikings offensive line was generally good at maintaining the pocket, and Hill was able to deliver a few nice throws, finishing 18/33 for 236 yards and no TDs or turnovers.
Be that as it may, Hill and the Vikings offense were not able to deliver when it counted- going 0/3 in the red zone. That led to trotting out Blair Walsh six times, and who seemed to be suffering from the yips, as he missed two of the six FG attempts (he missed the one at the end of the first half twice), as well as an extra point attempt.
Perhaps more than any other area on offense, this is the area the Vikings need to improve upon over last year. Unfortunately, there was no sign of improvement here. In fact, there didn't appear to be any real push to get the ball in the end zone. Given the Titans' focus on stopping Adrian Peterson, there should have been more end-zone pass attempts, but sadly there weren't many. Part of the Vikings problem in the red zone is that they don't have any go-to receivers outside at this point- although Laquon Treadwell could be used for just such a purpose. Instead, the Vikings generally look to run the ball, or pass to the middle of the field, which has become predictable for opposing defenses to defend.
But not giving up any turnovers was excellent. Third down conversions weren't bad at 42% (6/14), and the 7.2 net yards per passing attempt (NY/A) was good too, but this was overshadowed by not being able to run or convert in the red zone. At the end of the day you have to put points on the board, and consistently settling for field goals puts more pressure on the defense to bail out the offense, which will be a tall order against better teams.
I would expect opposing defenses to adopt the Titans' defensive game plan throughout the year: stop the run and put pressure on the Vikings QB to beat them, especially in the red zone.
Defense Scored Turnovers, but Struggled on Third Down
While it is great to see the Vikings defense produce more turnovers- which proved decisive against the Titans- it was not a good day for the Vikings defense on third down, and in general for many of the Vikings front-seven defenders. While Linval Joseph, Brian Robison and Danielle Hunter turned in good performances overall, the Vikings linebackers generally struggled more, especially against the run. Case in point is Eric Kendricks, who had the key pick 6, but otherwise did poorly against the run, earning only a 31.5 PFF grade. Anthony Barr had an uncharacteristically bad game as well, earning only a 40.8 PFF grade overall, while Chad Greenway was worse with a 38.8 PFF grade, primarily based on his 35.4 grade in coverage.
Kendricks' and Greenway's performance speak to the fact that they really should play Greenway at MLB and Kendricks at WLB. Greenway is too slow to be effective in coverage, while Kendricks is too small to effectively stop the run inside. Moving Greenway inside and Kendricks outside should allow both to focus more on their strengths- Greenway against the run inside and blitzing, and Kendricks in coverage and defending the outside runs.
This all may sound like quibbling, as the Vikings defense carried the day to victory, but absent the turnovers- which you can't count on- the Vikings defense allowed the Titans to drive the field effectively most of the game. To be honest, I thought the Titans abandoned the run too soon, and could have continued to pound away effectively on the Vikings defense if they had the patience, which may have changed the outcome of the game.
Player Performance - The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
While it wasn't as good a game for many players on defense, both Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo turned in excellent and good performances respectively at safety. Linval Joseph continues to be very solid at NT, while Brian Robison was good, and Danielle Hunter continued to show flashes of greatness.
Offensively Stefon Diggs was the star, and I would expect him to garner more attention from opposing defenses in the future. I'll also give Kyle Rudolph credit for a good performance. Overall pass protection was also good, and a pleasant surprise to see no sacks, and Hill be able to deliver a few longer throws.
Cordarrelle Patterson also contributed a big kick return on his only opportunity, bringing it back 61 yards which led to the first points of the game for the Vikings. He also had a nice reception (notable only because he hasn't had many in the past) and jet sweep for a first down.
On the other hand, offensively Adrian Peterson didn't look good running, even considering the poor blocking. He was totally out-of-sync on the few receiving targets he had. Charles Johnson was disappointing at WR, and both tackles struggled, even though they didn't give up a sack.
Defensively there was some poor tackling at times- the Derrick Henry pass was a case in point- and generally poor off-coverage by both Waynes and Newman. It was clear as the game progressed that Mariota threw to the off-coverage, while generally avoiding press-man. Waynes gave up the most receptions this way, which looked to be a weak part of the defensive game plan as much as the coverage itself. To Waynes' credit, he did lead the defense in tackles with ten, including a nice stop on a third down.
The Ugly was mainly Blair Walsh's missed FGs, particularly the one just before the half, which looked about 20 yards wide- and that was his second attempt- and miss- at it.
Overall, the Score Hid Some Weak Performance on Both Sides of the Ball
Clearly the Titans' three turnovers - including an unforced fumble returned for a TD- was the difference in the game. Absent those turnovers, the Vikings didn't play well enough to win. The offense couldn't score, Walsh was inconsistent, and the Vikings defense allow the Titans too many long drives.
I do think the Titans' were out-coached in this game, which helped the Vikings to victory. The Vikings made better adjustments at halftime, while the Titans' did not take advantage of a run game that was working.
I also expect the Vikings defense will continue to generate more turnovers than last year, primarily based on the fact that there are no easy holes for offenses to exploit. This puts more pressure on opposing offenses- requiring them to be on their game every play- rather than allowing them some easy mismatches on occasion. That leads to occasional mistakes or lapses that this Vikings defense is better able to turn into turnovers and points.
But the Vikings offense has to start delivering TDs in the red zone. My hope is that Norv Turner and Mike Zimmer didn't want to show much to the Packers in this game, but I doubt that was the overriding philosophy behind the lack of red zone success. There needs to be new plays and players in the red zone for the Vikings to be successful. The current run-or-pass-over-the-middle strategy isn't working, and didn't last year either. The Vikings really need to get Laquon Treadwell involved on the outside and used to bring down corner route passes over smaller, less physical CBs. Perhaps a pass to Jerrick McKinnon on a flat route with Treadwell and Ellison or Morgan blocking may be effective too.
Overall, if I were game-planning against the Vikings, I'd use the same defensive game plan the Titans (and many others) have used- crowd the box to stop the run, force the Vikings passing game to beat them in the red zone, while pounding away at the Vikings defense on the ground to set up the pass and easier conversions on third down.
Absent the turnovers- and I don't expect Aaron Rodgers to make the mistakes Mariota did today- that is a game plan that would have likely worked the way the Vikings played on both sides of the ball today.
So, while it's certainly nice to get a win to start the season, the Vikings have a much tougher stretch of opponents from now until the bye week, and they'll need to elevate their game on both sides of the ball to have a winning record at that point.