The Vikings were able to bounce back from a blow-out loss to the Cowboys with an important primetime win over the Patriots on Thanksgiving in a game that carried more significance for the Vikings than the 33-26 final score may indicate.
Bounce Back Game Rights the Ship
The reason the victory over the Patriots was more significant was because it allowed the Vikings to right the ship and get back to their winning and playmaking ways. It also helps dispel the idea that the Cowboys loss was an accurate depiction of this Vikings team and not simply a team that ran out of energy the week following a big road win in Buffalo.
It also showed that the Vikings can get back to their playmaking ways, and head coach Kevin O’Connell and the Vikings team can overcome the adversity that comes with a 40-3 drubbing on your home field and get back on track in the space of just a few days.
One should also not discount how important this game was for the Patriots and their postseason hopes. 7-4 would’ve put them in much better position than 6-5, with a mini-bye to prepare for the Bills. Bill Belichick had his bye week prior to the Jets game, so he had plenty of time then to prepare in advance for the Vikings on a short week. It wouldn’t have been surprising had Belichick come into town and outcoached O’Connell, but such was not the case. O’Connell did an excellent job in his game plan to beat the Patriots and their top defense without his starting left tackle, and in managing the game.
The other important aspect of the win was that it was in primetime. Kirk Cousins and the Vikings have not done as well in primetime, so getting a win in front of a national audience provides confidence on that score as well. Cousins had his best game statistically since week one against the Patriots on Thanksgiving.
Still More Improvement Needed- Especially on Defense
But while the bounce back against the Patriots in primetime was an important win for the Vikings, there is still a lot of room for improvement- especially defensively.
The Patriots have a top defense, so scoring 33 points (26 by the offense) against them was impressive. But the Patriot offense was bottom third in the league, so allowing six scoring drives and 26 points was disappointing- if also typical for the Vikings defense this season. While you could blame the Vikings being thin at cornerback, Duke Shelley didn’t give up a TD pass and while not great, his coverage grade was better than both Harrison Smith and Cam Bynum. The Vikings’ two safeties allowed themselves to be split on a post route for the Patriots first touchdown. Cam Bynum was late to react on that play and later had a key missed tackle that allowed for another Patriots big play.
The main issue in coverage is both the safeties and linebackers are allowing too many completions for too many yards. Apart from Cam Bynum, these are long-time veteran players- Harrison Smith, Eric Kendricks and Jordan Hicks- that should be better in coverage. And Bynum was much better last season. Together they’re allowing too much to be completed over the middle of the field.
Mac Jones had his best game of the season, going 28/39 for 382 yards, 2 TDs and no INTs. The pass rush can’t be blamed for a lot of that, as the Patriots went with a quick-hitting passing game. Kendricks and Hicks were targeted 12 times and allowed 11 completions for 168 yards and a touchdown. For the season, Hicks has the highest passer rating allowed when targeted among starters at 128.8 and Kendricks has 8 of the Vikings’ 34 missed tackles on pass plays. The challenge for both linebackers and safeties is to tighten up coverage more and maybe that requires some adjustments from Ed Donatell.
By contrast, Patrick Peterson is allowing an average of 35 receiving yards per game in his coverage. In four of his 11 games this season, he had only 1 or 2 targets. His number of coverage snaps for each reception allowed (15.8) is fourth best among all cornerbacks with at least 200 coverage snaps. Peterson becoming more of a shut-down cornerback again (although now as a zone rather than a press-man corner) should make it easier for the defense to focus more attention elsewhere if opposing QBs continue to largely avoid Peterson’s coverage. So far, that hasn’t happened.
The other disappointment in recent weeks has been the extent to which the defense is allowing big plays.
The philosophy behind the Vic Fangio defense the Vikings run is to prevent big plays by playing two deep safeties and generally taking away big plays. But Mac Jones and the Patriots were able to penetrate that defense against the Vikings, and so did the Cowboys.
There is a fine line between executing the defensive philosophy and structure and simply playing too soft- or not playing well. This is something Ed Donatell needs to address in the remaining weeks of the regular season. The Vikings rank last in passing yards allowed and 31st in net yards per passing attempt allowed.
Certainly it will be helpful once Cam Dantzler returns to the lineup- which I believe can come after the Jets game- but further adjustments are needed for the Vikings to be more competitive in the postseason.
Was the loss to the Cowboys telling of the quality of the Vikings team or more just a down week?
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