The Vikings are winless. Three games into the 2020 season, Minnesota has defied expectations in the wrong way. A team that came into the season expecting to top .500—and with dreams of an NFC North title—now has an almost impossibly deep hole to climb out of. What happened?
Sunday seemed like the Vikings’ chance to finally reverse course. After losses to the Packers and Colts in the first two weeks, Minnesota led the Titans by five points in the fourth quarter. But things fell apart in the final frame, as Tennessee booted two field goals to regain the lead with less than two minutes remaining. The Titans exposed a leaky defense that had shown cracks all game, and Minnesota’s last-gasp offensive drive was undone before it could even get started.
The Vikings took possession with 1:44 remaining, trailing Tennessee by one. On second-and-10, center Garrett Bradbury fired a snap before quarterback Kirk Cousins was ready, and the ball dribbled to Minnesota’s 26-yard line before Bradbury miraculously dove on it.
That was as much as the Vikings would salvage that series. Cousins flung an incompletion to tailback Dalvin Cook before almost pulling off a stunning completion to Adam Thielen on fourth down. Instead, Tennessee’s Amani Hooker pried the ball out of Thielen’s grasp. It marked Cousins’s sixth interception of the year, matching his total for all of the 2019 regular season.
“It was a back-and-forth game,” Cousins told reporters after Minnesota’s 31-30 loss. “We came up a play or two short.”
Despite the loss, the Vikings offense actually found life in Week 3. Cook rushed for a career-best 181 yards and scored once. Cousins rebounded from a catastrophic Week 2 performance to throw three touchdowns. Minnesota averaged 7.5 yards per play, the most a regular-season opponent has notched against the Titans since the Texans in November 2018. But the offense’s choke job at the end didn’t stop Mike Zimmer from seeming more irked at the unit’s self-combustion than his defense allowing eight scoring drives on the day.
“Our offense [is] all veteran guys, and I want them to take charge in those moments when we have the opportunity to win a football game,” Zimmer said Sunday. “Instead it was chaos.”
On Monday, Zimmer walked back his comment of the final drive. “I think it was more of a disaster than chaos,” he said. Regardless of whether Zimmer picked a fair way to describe the series, he was spot on in describing how the Vikings’ season has been so far. And there isn’t just one single player or coach at fault; a handful of circumstances have contributed to the team’s misfortunes.
Cousins’s struggles are the most noticeable of the Vikings’ issues. He ranks 25th among passers (min. 50 attempts) in on-target pass percentage (66.7 percent) and 21st in catchable pass rate (74.4), according to Sports Info Solutions. Those numbers are down from 72.5 and 78.8, respectively. His six interceptions through three games are tied for the league high and account for 7.7 percent of his pass attempts; he threw an interception on a career-low 1.4 percent of his throws in 2019. He hasn’t looked the part of a franchise quarterback who signed a two-year, $66 million extension back in March.
However, this is not a simple case of quarterback regression. Minnesota also has not provided an environment for Cousins to succeed. This offseason, the Vikings traded star wideout Stefon Diggs to Buffalo, and offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski was hired as Browns head coach. The team replaced them with LSU first-rounder Justin Jefferson and assistant Gary Kubiak, respectively. Initially, the returns haven’t been great, particularly in how they’ve altered Cousins’s game. Jefferson found himself behind Olabisi Johnson on the depth chart through the first two games. Kubiak hasn’t utilized Cousins’s skill in the play-action game nearly as frequently as Stefanski did; Cousins ran play-action on 31 percent of plays last season, but is doing so on only 20 percent of plays this year. Additionally, Minnesota’s offensive line has not played well. Per Pro Football Focus, the unit ranks 29th in its pass-blocking grade (55.5) this season. Pro Football Reference notes that Cousins has been pressured on 31 dropbacks (34.4 percent), which is 12 percentage points higher than last year.
#Vikings interior line update: Among 77 guards ranked by Pro Football Focus so far this season, Dakota Dozier is No. 65 and Dru Samia is last at No. 77. Among centers, Garrett Bradbury is No. 25 out of 34.— Chris Tomasson (@christomasson) September 28, 2020
These factors haven’t helped Cousins find his footing, but he also deserves much of the blame. In Week 1, his decent stat line—19-of-25 for 259 yards, two touchdowns, and one pick—hides the fact that he threw a back-breaking interception before halftime, and that his team was in a 19-point hole by the end of the third quarter. Against the Colts in Week 2, he had one of the worst games of his career, facing a secondary that Gardner Minshew had torched the week prior. Cousins went 11-of-26 (42.3 percent) for 113 yards and three interceptions. He posted a 15.9 passer rating, a 12.0 QBR, and an adjusted yards per attempt of negative 0.85. Cousins’s three picks were the result of poor accuracy or forcing a throw where he shouldn’t have.
Cousins, however, was much more effective against Tennessee. Jefferson’s presence helped. He emerged as a potential legitimate no. 2 option across from Thielen, leading the team with seven receptions, 175 yards, and an impressive 71-yard touchdown. Cousins’s completion percentage wasn’t anything special, but he threw three touchdowns; his two interceptions weren’t as careless as his earlier turnovers this season had been. His 37.1 total QBR (28th) is nothing to be excited about through three games, but Sunday was a welcomed bounceback performance. The offense produced against one of the league’s stouter defensive units, once again reaching the 30-point threshold.
“There were a few things we can build on, certainly,” Cousins said Sunday. “Anytime you have almost 500 yards of offense and score 30 points, you’re doing something correctly.”
While Cousins has had an up-and-down start, the Vikings defense has hardly looked good. Before the season started, Minnesota traded a 2021 second-round pick to the Jaguars for star pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue, with plans to pair him opposite of Danielle Hunter. The duo was supposed to complement a front seven already featuring standout linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks. However, Barr was placed on injured reserve after tearing a pectoral muscle, and Hunter opened the year on IR with an unspecified ailment. Hunter is eligible to return next week, but isn’t expected to be ready. Their absences have loomed large.
The Vikings have struggled to generate consistent pressure on opposing passers, ranking 22nd in PFF’s grades (61.3) and averaging just one sack per game (tied for 29th). It hasn’t helped that their secondary, despite boasting the safety pairing of Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith, is young at cornerback. Mike Hughes, Holton Hill, Cameron Dantzler, and Jeff Gladney have each seen time. Hughes and Dantzler (a 2020 third-round pick) have battled injuries, leaving Gladney (a 2020 first-round pick) and Hill (a former undrafted free agent) to see the field more often.
Results have been unpleasant. The Vikings have given up 102 total points through three games (34.0 points per game), the most in franchise history in the first three weeks. When Zimmer, who’s known for producing elite defensive units, was asked about that by a reporter Monday, he was indignant. “Obviously, it’s frustrating,” Zimmer said. “We’ve got some young guys that are learning and going through some growing pains, and they’ll continue to get better.”
Very few expected the Vikings to be in a position where they’re staring up at the Bears in the standings. But three games in, here they are. To get back in the playoff race, Minnesota will need to fix a little bit of everything. Cousins is paid like a quarterback who can be consistently relied on to contribute to his team’s success, and he showed Sunday that he’s still capable of playing at a high level. Having Jefferson develop into a legitimate option will help, especially when pushing the ball downfield as Cousins has been asked to do more frequently this season. Cousins noted that playing good defense is a part of the recipe for winning in the NFL, but followed that up by sharing an optimistic outlook on the rest of the year.
“I think this league is week to week,” Cousins said. “We could win next week 3-2. You just never know what’s going to happen week to week.”
Since arriving in 2014, Zimmer has guided the Vikings to the playoffs three times, including an NFC championship appearance. Getting his club back into the playoff hunt will be a challenge; Football Outsiders gives Minnesota an 11.9 percent chance of making the postseason after its winless start, down 5.2 percent from Week 2.
“The thing I told them in the locker room [Sunday] night was ‘We worked our butts off to [win] and probably should’ve won the game yesterday and didn’t win it,’” Zimmer said. “We worked hard and don’t have anything to show for it right now. It’s disappointing, it’s frustrating—it’s all those things you want to say. But we’ve got to keep grinding, and hopefully the ball bounces our way and we’ll get a win this next week.’”