While the Vikings ended up beating the Lions convincingly last weekend on the road, they got off to a poor start which was concerning and seemed to raise a little doubt about the new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, and how reliable the Vikings offense may be going forward.
But looking back at the game, the slow start had little to do with Stefanski’s game plan or play calling, and more to do with some poor execution and a couple questionable decisions by Kirk Cousins.
Let’s have a look.
The Vikings first drive began in a bad spot - their own two yard line - and was made worse by a false start penalty, placing the ball on the one yard line. That led to a QB sneak call to give a little more breathing space, followed by another run by CJ Ham for a short gain. This brought up 3rd and 8.
Stefanski called a pass play, not surprisingly given the down and distance. Kirk Cousins appeared to be eyeballing Stefon Diggs, who was lined up outside left, before the ball was snapped, and never looked elsewhere afterward. Diggs ran an out route to the sticks, but Cousins’ throw was short and off the mark. A better throw would have been a first down, as Diggs had a step on the cornerback. Cousins also had Aldrick Robinson breaking open over the middle, but never looked that way. It would have been an easier throw, and Robinson had the space to easily convert the first down - and perhaps a good deal more.
But as it happened, it was a three and out. The play call worked - a decent opportunity for a first down was there - and both the protection and receivers executed well enough. But Cousins did not and that led to the failed 3rd down conversion and 3-and-out to start the game.
The Vikings started this drive more comfortably on their 25 yard line, and ran the ball to Cook for 4 yards on first down, setting up 2nd and 6.
Kevin Stefanski appeared to have dialed up a pass play here, and Cousins delivered an accurate pass to Stefon Diggs, which he dropped. The pass would have been a first down, had Diggs held on to it.
The Vikings lined up in shotgun on third down, and the Lions showed blitz. Cousins moved up to the line to make a call, which may have been an audible, and ultimately handed the ball off to Cook for a two yard gain - well short of the line to gain. The linemen appeared to be pass blocking, but in any case did not get a good push off the snap nor were successful in opening a hole for Cook. Perhaps there was some confusion with the call Cousins made - which may have been a protection call as well - but whatever the case the play was not well executed. The idea of a delayed handoff to Cook in a blitz situation on 3rd and 6 was not a bad one, but it was poorly executed on many levels.
Bottom line, poor execution on two plays - one an unforced error and the other may have been - doomed the drive to a 3 and out.
The Vikings third drive started at their own 13 yard line with 1:43 left in the first quarter.
The first play was a play-action pass that resulted in a dump-off to Latavius Murray for a two-yard gain. However, Stefon Diggs was wide open before Murray was, and for a 10+ YAC gain, but somehow he was overlooked by Cousins. See below.
That was a big gain missed by Cousins that would have moved the chains and got the Vikings out of the shadow of their own end zone.
The second call was a run to Dalvin Cook up the middle on 2nd and 8 which was stuffed for no gain. Some underwhelming interior line blocking contributed to the stop, but the call itself did not appear to surprise the Lions defense.
The third play was from a shotgun formation with Cook in the backfield. There was no play-action and the protection broke down quickly, resulting in an 8 yard sack.
But once again Cousins had a man open - this time Kyle Rudolph with a step on his man over the middle for what would have been a first down, but Cousins was unable to make the throw and took the sack.
That led to another 3-and-out and a punt from deep in Vikings territory to begin the second quarter.
The Vikings fourth drive began at their own 22 yard line, and the first play was a jet sweep to Dalvin Cook which lost a yard.
This brought up 2nd and 11, and the Vikings showed a bunch formation on the right side of the line. Cousins audibled out of to play, however, and Diggs moved from the bunch formation to outside one-on-one in man coverage. Cousins focused on Diggs after the snap, who was well covered, and took a sack as the DE got passed Riley Reiff - and Cousins didn’t see him coming from behind him.
This was another case of an ineffective audible. It’s difficult to say if the original play would have been better, and Diggs isolated in man coverage is a matchup advantage for the Vikings most of the time, but this time it didn’t work out.
This brought up 3rd and 18 from the Vikings 14 yard line, and Kevin Stefanski called a delayed handoff to Cook to hopefully get somewhat better field position, if not pick up the first down. Given that Cousins had just been sacked, and for the second time, calling a deep pass needed to pick up a first down - and requiring extra protection time - may have been counter-productive.
Once again the Vikings were forced to punt from deep in their territory, which fortunately the Vikings defense was able to limit to a field goal, as they did twice before. Otherwise instead of a 9-0 deficit, the Vikings may have been down 21-0 in the second quarter.
The Vikings slow start against the Lions wasn’t predestined by poor play calling. More than anything, it was due to a slow start by Kirk Cousins. He misfired to Diggs the first drive - missing an open Aldrick Robinson as well on the same play; and in subsequent drives missed open receivers that could have resulted in first downs. There were also a couple audibles that didn’t work out and a couple sacks. I don’t think there is enough to pin those as errors on Cousins, but it’s possible.
In any case the bad pass combined with the missed open receivers represented three missed first downs that could have gotten the Vikings off to a better start and built momentum for the Vikings offense - while also at least improving the field position battle and makin the job of the defense a little easier.
Against The lackluster Lions, the Vikings were able to recover. Against the Bears week 11, the Vikings couldn’t muster anything on offense their first six drives - two ending in turnovers - and lost 25-20 after being down 2-3 scores. In both cases they finished strong.
But the Vikings cannot expect to win against playoff teams when they start this slow. Starting like they did against the Dolphins would be nice, but at least avoiding multiple 3-and-outs to start a game is necessary for a deep run in the playoffs - and to make the playoffs as well.
That means Kirk Cousins needs to step-up his game early on. He can do this. In fact, on the season his highest passer rating is in the first quarter. But another slow start like against the Lions last weekend or the Bears week 11 may be the doom of the Vikings 2018-19 season.