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Vikings SMR: Cowboys Edition

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Minnesota Vikings Matt Blewett-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings lost a Sunday night prime time game at home against a Cowboys team starting a backup quarterback that had never played in the NFL. Had Dak Prescott been starting, the Vikings would’ve likely been around a 3 point underdog at home, but as news percolated that Prescott may not play, the line moved to the Vikings being nearly a 3 point favorite. And after the Vikings first drive, in which they moved down the field and scored a touchdown on a near perfect drive, things were looking good for the purple.

But that’s where the good feelings ended.

The defense did their job for the most part in the first half, holding the Cowboys to 3 points, and intercepting a Cooper Rush pass, but the Vikings offense couldn’t manage anywhere near the consistency of their first drive. They managed another field goal, but especially in the second half, were largely prevented from throwing much downfield, either from coverage or more often, an offensive line that was largely manhandled by the Cowboys’ defensive front down the stretch.

The Vikings were able to manage a couple more field goals, largely due to a number of Cowboys’ penalties, but the passing game was limited largely to screens and check downs as Cousins and the Vikings’ receivers didn’t have much time to do much down the field. Cousins’ average depth of target during the game was just 4.3 yards. Justin Jefferson had a couple drops on some difficult passes, which didn’t help, but the overriding theme of the Vikings passing game after the first drive was basically screen/checkdown, or Cousins under pressure. PFF’s preliminary report said that Cousins was under pressure on 40% of his dropbacks, and if you take out the screens, that number will be even higher. That, combined with offensive line (and TE) penalties, put the Vikings offense in a number unfavorable down-and-distance situations, allowing the Cowboys’ defensive front to focus on their pass rush.

The result was the Vikings’ offense going just 1-13 on third down. Even when given very favorable field position near mid-field following a defensive strip sack and fumble recovery, the Vikings offense could do nothing to advance the ball and was force to punt after losing yards in a 3-and-out. That was one in 3 successive 3-and-outs in the second half, which allowed the Cowboys to hang in there and eventually pull out a victory. Overall, the Vikings ended up with just 177 yards passing for the night, their worst production of the season. Their 278 total yards of offense was their 2nd worst showing of the season, just behind the Browns game.

But there were other miscues as well.

The Vikings played soft coverage a number of times, particularly on 3rd downs, which led to easy conversions and big plays down the field for Cowboys offense, led by Cooper Rush. It was a perplexing approach that seemed a recipe for failure. It didn’t help that the Vikings lost star defensive end Danielle Hunter in the first half, which impacted their pass rush, but still the coverage decisions seemed suspect. Cameron Dantzler had an excellent end to his season last year, and had proven himself a capable cornerback. But the soft coverage he was playing many times seemed to invite easy pitch-and-catches for a backup QB starting his first game. Making him make throws into tighter windows would’ve seemed like a better approach, along with the blitzing Zimmer dialed up more frequently during this game, but the soft coverage made it too easy for the inexperienced QB to make plays downfield. The result was a Vikings defense, which had been best in the league on 3rd down with a 29% conversion rate allowed, giving up conversions on 50% of third downs Sunday night.

Lastly, there were coaching miscues as well. Letting the clock run down with the Vikings beginning to move the ball at halftime was one of them, along with calling back-to-back timeouts late in the game, which resulted in a 3rd and 16 going to a 3rd-and-11, which the Cowboys were able to convert, allowing a 1st-and-goal which they converted for the game-winning touchdown. Moreover, the Vikings just didn’t seem to adapt their game plan over the course of the game very well, and the result was a game they should have won slipping away into defeat.

It was an especially poor showing following a bye-week and self-scouting, allowing the Vikings time to fix some of the problems that have plagued them during the season so far. One of those problems was poor second-half production offensively, and that largely continued against the Cowboys. The second thing was not being able to put games away. And the third was game management at the end of each half. All those problems were evident Sunday night against the Cowboys, which makes you wonder just what was accomplished during the bye-week. They also had time to examine what other teams were doing that were effective, and design counters, but that also appeared lacking on Sunday night.

Overall, a certain amount of putting games away comes down to both making plays, and game management. The Vikings had a nice call on a 4th and inches, resulting in a big gain, but so many other game plan, game management, and play-calling choices simply fell short of the mark, and as much as a lack of play-making offensively after the first drive, led to defeat. All that falls on the coaching staff and Mike Zimmer. Coming out of the bye-week, we didn’t see much new in terms of plays or approach, adapting or better game management. Defensively, after the big TD allowed at the beginning of the second half, the scheme was largely a prevent defense at key points and downs, which made it too easy on an inexperienced QB in his first start. Offensively, there needed to be a better way to counter a stout Cowboys’ pass rush and make the most of the opportunities given by the defense- and penalties on the Cowboys’ defense.

But it just wasn’t there from a coaching perspective. None of it. And putting away games often times comes down to taking away the easy plays for the opponent, and make them beat you with the weakest part of their game and forcing the issue. The weakest part of the Cowboys’ game Sunday night was their quarterback, and the Vikings defense was too easy on him. Outside of the Xavier Woods blitz call (which was a nice deceptive call) Zimmer didn’t do enough to pressure and confuse him, and leave him with tight windows instead of soft coverage and wide open receivers. If you’re going to put away a game, sometimes you have to dial it up a notch and put it on your players to deliver- and pressure the other team’s weak players to do the same.

Equally, offensively there needs to be more plays in the toolkit. More approaches, more options. Following a bye-week, there is the opportunity to install some new things. But there just wasn’t a lot new out there. Against pressure, there’s more than just screens and check-downs. Sometimes a diet of quick slants, first down play-action, downfield passes, and really mixing up tendencies- along with some new plays - can make a difference in generating momentum and getting a defense off-balance. A coaching staff that makes it clear they’re going for the throat, and calling on players to do their job- while putting them in good position to make plays- rather than just guard against allowing them- is how you get the most out of them.

And so while you can point to this and that during the course of the game, the underlying problem may well be the approach and preparation by the Vikings coaching staff following a bye-week. Winning is also an attitude, and a willingness to press an advantage, take some calculated chances, and take advantage of every opportunity, and even create better ones, with game and clock management.

And so with that reflection, let’s look at some individual performances.

Blue Chip Stocks

Xavier Woods. Woods dialed up a revenge game against his old team, with an interception off a tipped ball, and a strip sack nicely dialed up on a blitz that resulted in another turnover.

Tyler Conklin. Conklin had a couple nice receptions that showed he can make some plays. Perhaps that could lead to his getting more involved in the Vikings passing game.

Adam Thielen. He made the best of the few targets he got Sunday night, including a touchdown and a couple other big plays.

Greg Joseph. He went 3 for 3 on field goals, and 1 for 1 on extra points, and did a good job with kickoffs too. Can’t ask for much more.

Everson Griffen. He led the team in pressures, and is becoming as important a pass rusher for the Vikings as Danielle Hunter- and may be even more so if Hunter misses more time.

Anthony Barr. He had some good pressures and defensive plays Sunday night, and looked the most active he has since getting back into the lineup. Hopefully that continues.

Eric Kendricks. Kendricks had a sack and made plays in the run and pass game, not allowing much in his coverage.

Junk Bonds

The Offensive Line. This was the worst performance of the season for the offensive line in terms of pressure rate allowed. Each starting offensive lineman allowed 4 or 5 pressures except Brian O’Neill, who allowed 2, according to the PFF early report. Combined with penalties and the number of run stuffs, and this was just a poor performance all around and a leading cause for the loss on the field.

The Coaching Staff. This was simply a poor effort in both approach, preparation, and in-game execution. It starts with Zimmer, but offensively I would’ve expected more out of a bye-week in terms of new stuff too. They just didn’t seem dialed in enough, and there was some troubling issues with game management process and approach that just shouldn’t be there at this stage.

The Cornerbacks. While the coverage scheme dialed up by Zimmer may be somewhat to blame, and the Cowboys’ WR corps is one of the best in the league, Neither Cameron Dantzler, Bashaud Breeland, or MacKensie Alexander had particularly good games overall, although particularly Dantzler made some plays too. Alexander gave up the 73 yard touchdown early in the 2nd half, and both Dantzler and Breeland gave up a number of big plays in soft coverage.

Earnings Warning

Justin Jefferson. This was one of Jefferson’s least productive outings as a Viking, with just 2 receptions on 4 targets for 21 yards - with two drops.