The Tampa Bay Buccaneers upset the Vikings to open the 2023-24 season at home. The Vikings were 4-point favorites leading up to the start of the game, the line having narrowed after Marcus Davenport was declared inactive. As it turned out, the Vikings gave up 3 turnovers offensively and committed several other mistakes that proved the difference in the game. Baker Mayfield was able to overcome a very slow start in the first half to produce 20 points, which was enough to get the Bucs the win, 20-17.
Three Turnovers Proved Costly
The Vikings turned the ball over three times against the Bucs. The first came on the Vikings’ second drive, on a fumble by Kirk Cousins that appeared to have been caused by guard Ed Ingram hitting Cousins’ arm after the ball was snapped. Cousins appeared to be bringing the ball back when pulling away from center when guard Ed Ingram hit Cousins’ right arm, causing the fumble. It was a bizarre play, but one that conjers up memories of Ed Ingram stepping on Cousins’ foot several times last season, leading to negative plays and unforced errors. This one proved the costliest as it resulted in a turnover when the Vikings were driving and in field goal position.
The second turnover came on the Vikings’ next drive, still in the first quarter, when Bucs safety Antoine Winfield Jr. blitzed and went unblocked, levelling Kirk Cousins and forcing the fumble, which the Bucs recovered. CJ Ham stayed in to block, but Ed Ingram lost his block early so Ham helped out there, leaving Winfield as a free rusher. The fumble happened at the Vikings’ 18-yard line, but the Vikings’ defense stiffened and held the Bucs to a field goal, which was the first score of the game.
The third turnover came on the Vikings’ eighth drive near the end of the half. Kirk Cousins passed over the middle to KJ Osborn on 2nd & 1 from the Bucs 13 yard line. The pass was a little behind Osborn, but in a contested catch situation the Bucs’ rookie defensive back Christian Izien was able to take the ball away from Osborn at the goal line, killing what looked to be a touchdown drive to take the lead at halftime.
Vikings Defense Looks Improved, But Works Remains
The Vikings new-look defense looked improved, especially in the first half. At one point near the half the Bucs had only 30 yards of offense and went 0-5 on third downs. Overall, the Vikings allowed just 3.6 yards per play, and only 242 yards overall for the game and 20 points. Last season, the Vikings’ defense allowed 5.9 yards per play, 389 yards per game, and 25.1 points per game. The 242 total yards allowed was better than any game last season.
However, in the second half the Bucs were able to drive with Baker Mayfield by going with short, quick passes in answer to Flores’ blitz packages, which proved effective. Mayfield took advantage of the cushion Vikings’ defensive backs gave Bucs’ receivers to move the chains and produce a long, 9-minute touchdown scoring drive to begin the third quarter.
The Vikings and Brian Flores will need to have an answer to the quick hitting passing game to counter their blitz packages, which means trusting young defensive backs with less cushion or playing press coverage.
The defense gave up one big play of note, a 28-yard touchdown pass to Mike Evans. It looked like safety Josh Metellus got beat on that play. The defense had just one stop in the second half, allowing a touchdown, field goal (a 57-yarder), and then were unable to prevent the Bucs offense from running out the clock on their last possession.
Overall, a decent performance from the defense to start the season. They played well enough to win. No major issues with the Vikings’ young defensive backs; and allowing just 242 yards and 3.6 yards per play is encouraging. 6-17 on third down conversions allowed was also good.
Vikings Offense Productive, But Turnovers Instead of Touchdowns Hurt
The Vikings produced 369 yards of offense, but as Kirk Cousins said in his post-game press conference, this game is about points not yards, and when you drive the field but end with nothing to show for it, you’re not going to win many games. And so it was for the Vikings with two promising drives into field goal range but killed by turnovers.
But the offense also struggled to protect Kirk Cousins, especially early in the game, which killed some drives and led to some 3-and-outs, especially in the first half.
Offensive playmakers Justin Jefferson, TJ Hockenson, and Jordan Addison all looked good to start the season. JJ had yet another 100+ receiving yard game, 150 yards total, while Hockenson and Addison made some key plays along the way- Addison catching a big TD pass for his and the Vikings’ first touchdown. Josh Oliver also contributed and had nearly as many receiving yards as Hockenson.
Alexander Mattison and the Vikings running game was a mixed bag at best. Kevin O’Connell didn’t lean much on the run game against the Bucs’ typically stout run defense under Todd Bowles, producing less than 3 yards per carry. But Alexander Mattison had a few good runs mixed in, including a nice second-effort touchdown run. Still, the Vikings have everything to prove to opposing defenses regarding their running game if they want them to respect it.
Overall, the Vikings offense was productive, but three turnovers were killer- as they usually are when it comes to winning games in the NFL. Moving forward, a more balanced attack and a focus on having their best players on the field would be helpful, along with cleaning up the mistakes- turnovers and a few costly penalties.
Several Vikings players were standouts against the Bucs- some for good reasons and others for bad. Here are some of the most noteworthy.
The Great - Justin Jefferson
150 yards on 9 receptions and 12 targets. Another day at the office for JJ.
The Good - Kirk Cousins
Some may disagree- one INT and 2 lost fumbles aren’t anything to call good- but how much of those turnovers are on Cousins? Some, but not all. Cousins also went 33/44 for 344 yards and 2 touchdowns- a 102.8 passer rating and a 55.0 QBR according to ESPN. His 5.8 EPA ranked 7th not including the Sunday night and Monday night games this week.
Good First Games as Vikings: Jordan Addison and Josh Oliver
Jordan Addison. He had only two plays of note- a 39-yard TD and another reception for a key first down- but that’s a good start for a receiver that’s technically WR3 right now.
Josh Oliver. A role player, but he had 3 catches for 32 yards on 3 targets on limited routes run. Good first game for Oliver, who deserves more snaps.
Fan Favorites Who Deserve Less: KJ Osborn and CJ Ham
KJ Osborn. This may seem unwarranted and harsh criticism, but Osborn is a liability at the catchpoint who has hurt the Vikings at key points, both in this game and going back to last season and the playoff loss to the Giants. On the interception, the pass was a little behind Osborn. Cousins said after the game that was his intent when throwing the pass so Osborn would slow down and not get whacked by the safety. The ball was there for Osborn to catch but he simply got out muscled/positioned by rookie Christian Izien at the catchpoint, leading to a critical interception instead of a touchdown.
Later in the game, on a 3rd and 7, Cousins targeted Osborn. The pass was a little high, but catchable for Osborn. It went right through his hands. Again, not 100% Osborn’s fault- the pass was high- but he needs to come down with that ball. But again, Osborn comes up wanting in a key situation.
Bottom line with Osborn: if it’s not a perfectly accurate ball and Osborn isn’t clearly open, then you cannot count on Osborn to make the catch. This is the NFL and you can’t expect that situation every time, which limits Osborn’s usefulness in the offense.
CJ Ham. Ham was involved early in the Vikings offense but didn’t do much. Not a lot of good situations for him necessarily either, but Ham isn’t much of a threat with the ball in his hands- and had a drop as well. The Vikings have other options than Ham and I’m not sure he’s the best player available to fill that role. Having either Oliver or Hockenson instead of Ham on most plays makes more sense.
Needs to be Put on Notice: Ed Ingram
Ingram was a mess today. He gave up a lot of pressures and also caused the second Cousins fumble by hitting his arm immediately after the snap. Ingram didn’t look any better than he did at this time last season, and that isn’t acceptable. If the Vikings are serious about reducing the hits and pressures on Cousins this season, they need to look at alternatives to Ingram. It’s not clear that Blake Brandel or someone else would be better than Ingram, but if Ingram continues to play at this level he needs to take a seat on the bench while the Vikings experiment with alternatives.
Costly Mistake: Jay Ward
Ward lined up in the neutral zone on a successful field goal attempt for the Bucs in what looked like a red zone stop for the Vikings. The penalty gave the Bucs a fresh set of downs in the red zone which led to four more points- the difference in the outcome of the game.
Good First Game: Vikings Cornerbacks
The Vikings defense gave up only 169 yards passing, and just 4.8 yards per attempt. The only big play allowed was the TD pass to Mike Evans, given up by Josh Metellus. The Vikings cornerbacks didn’t give up much. Mekhi Blackmon had a nice breakup of a deep shot to Mike Evans. They passed the first test. However, I suspect Brian Flores didn’t put them in many challenging situations (i.e. press coverage) their first time out. The Bucs were able to take advantage of that on blitzes in the second half- going with a quick hitting pass game to counter them. In the future, Flores will need to put them in more challenging situations to counter the counter to his blitz packages, but so far so good.
Another Good First Game: Vikings Run Defense
The Vikings’ defense allowed just 2.2 yards per carry against the Bucs, and the Bucs rushed it 33 times over the course of the game. There weren’t a lot of openings up front for the Bucs running backs, and what there was were shut down quickly. Really good job tackling across the board- both in the run game and also to prevent yards-after-catch in the passing game. Not much of either allowed the whole game.
Players Who Need to be More Involved- Josh Oliver, Jalen Nailor, Blake Brandel
The issue with playing KJ Osborn and CJ Ham is there are other, better players the Vikings could have on the field and deserve the opportunity for more snaps. Chief among them is Josh Oliver, who played a certain amount but should play even more instead of CJ Ham. Oliver is a better blocker and receiver than Ham and should be on the field instead of Ham at almost every opportunity. The Vikings had some packages with both Ham and Oliver on the field- but no TJ Hockenson- which doesn’t make sense. Hockenson and Oliver should be the combination when not in 11 personnel for the Vikings.
The Vikings also need to reassess their receiver group. KJ Osborn is one of those vets that have kept their position on the depth chart despite issues that cannot be overlooked. Osborn’s PFF receiver grade was one of the lowest in the league last season among receivers targeted as often as he was- due to his difficulty separating and at the catchpoint. The Vikings have alternatives that deserve more snaps to see what they can do. Certainly Jordan Addison needs to be the clear WR2- despite his difficulties blocking- while Jalen Nailor needs to be rotated into the mix at the expense of Osborn. Nailor is a more dynamic receiver than Osborn with a bigger catch radius. Giving him ten snaps a game and evaluating from there seems like a worthwhile experiment that could give the Vikings a better receiving option.
Lastly, it was clear the Vikings’ coaching staff had reservations about Ed Ingram. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have brought in Dalton Risner for a visit. Risner may simply be too expensive for them to acquire- although I wouldn’t rule it out either- but at least giving Blake Brandel a start and evaluating that performance seems warranted after Ingram’s performance today. Yes, it’s only one game, but this doesn’t appear to be an isolated issue with Ingram based on the moves the Vikings have made and entertained at guard this off-season.
Marcus Davenport was a suprise inactive before the game today with an ankle injury. Kevin O’Connell said he wasn’t able to get there to be active for the game and is considered day-to-day. An inauspiscous beginning for Davenport, but hopefully he’ll be able to go Thursday night.
Garrett Bradbury left the game in the first half with a back injury and was later ruled out. Kevin O’Connell said after the game that he’s day-to-day as well, but I suspect he’ll be less likely to go against the Eagles on Thursday night. Austin Schlottmann appeared to do a decent job in relief of Bradbury- he didn’t appear to be the weak link anyway- but I didn’t get a good look at his performance.
Christian Darrisaw missed part of the game with an ankle injury, but was able to return in the second half. I would imagine he’ll be able to go Thursday night against the Eagles. For the Eagles, linebacker Nakobe Dean left the game against the Patriots with a foot injury and did not return. Unclear his status for Thursday night.
It’s a Long Season- No Need to Panic
Losing to the Bucs at home to open the season wasn’t ideal, but it’s a long season. Looking at Week One action, there were a lot of upsets and unusual games. The first part of the season is increasingly like that as there isn’t much of a preseason for starters. There are more unseen looks and preseason mistakes that can lead to some surprising outcomes. Such was the case with the Vikings today. They made more mistakes than the Bucs and that cost them the game. Clean up the unforced errors and things will look better for the Vikings. Additionally, the Bucs aren’t a bad team. They have a good defense and while they’re more limited offensively with Baker Mayfield at quarterback, Todd Bowles is wisely not putting a lot on his plate, allowing him to be more relaxed and take what the defense gives him. That may not get them to the playoffs, but it makes them a competent team that can win when they make fewer mistakes than their opponent.
Overall, apart from the turnovers, the Vikings played well against a good Bucs defense. Certainly pass protection needs to improve, and the run game needs to be more efficient and credible, but mainly they need to clean up mistakes and also assess and focus on having their best players on the field.
But it’s a long season, and a lot can and will happen in the weeks and months to come. The Vikings will have a quick turnaround- and a chance for redemption- with a Thursday night game at Philadelphia. The Eagles looked less than stellar in what was a very close game at New England late Sunday afternoon. They averaged just 4.1 yards per play offensively, had just 251 total yards, and were just 4-14 on 3rd/4th down. But they benefitted from a pick six off a dropped pass in the rain to get past the Patriots 25-20. The game came down to the last play, and the Eagles were lucky to get out of Foxborough with a win over the unheralded Patriots. The Eagles looked gassed toward the end of the game as well.