CHICAGO — After the Minnesota Vikings beat the Los Angeles Chargers and Green Bay Packers in back-to-back weeks, you could have made a convincing case that they were suddenly an offense that nobody wanted to face. They were pushing the ball downfield to Justin Jefferson and Kirk Cousins was confidently driving them in key situations. Now we sit three weeks later and he’s completed under 50% of his passes the last two weeks and the Vikings’ passing game is coming off possibly its worst performance of the entire Mike Zimmer era in Minnesota.
The Vikings dropped back to pass 28 times in their 17-9 victory at Soldier Field on Monday Night Football, produced 61 net yards and Cousins threw an interception that looked like a balloon floating into the hands of Chicago’s Deon Bush.
Zimmer said after the game that he felt they threw the ball too much early. Cousins didn’t exactly see it that way.
“They played a lot of two-deep [safeties], so they weren't trying to ask any new or young players to put them in a tough spot,” Cousins said. “Weren't a lot of chances to throw the ball downfield or weren't a lot of chances for explosive gains, but I don't know if we threw it too much. I just think it was hard to ever get anything more than a few yards because of the way they were trying to keep everything in front of them.”
The offensive line that had been praised for protecting Cousins got demolished by Monster of the Midway Akiem Hicks. In total the Vikings took four sacks and Cousins was pressured throughout the night.
“They did a good job [in the secondary],” Zimmer said. “And when [Cousins] had to pull the ball down, he got too much pressure and got sacked. These teams that play these umbrella coverages against us, we’re gonna have to dink and dunk it a little bit.”
Three weeks ago, Zimmer was telling Cousins to chuck it deep. Now they need to throw underneath. The Vikings’ offense has felt like trying to get the temperature right with a hotel shower — it’s always a little too hot or a little too cold.
One thing that could be impacting Cousins and the offense as a whole is the absence of Adam Thielen, who attempted to warm up before the game but couldn’t go due to a high ankle sprain. Still, with KJ Osborn in the mix and Jefferson facing backups, the Vikings had much higher expectations for the offense. The post-game press conferences from Cousins and Jefferson felt like apologies.
“Some plays they had a little bracket coverage, two people on me, but some plays miscommunication,” Jefferson said. “Got to go in next practice, work on that more and get better for next week.”
On the defensive side, there were times throughout the game in which it felt like another meltdown was on the way. Eric Kendricks’ personal foul penalty and subsequent ejection had a familiar feeling of being the moment they would come apart at the seams and give up a two-score lead late. Instead they got two key stops in the red zone — something that has rarely happened for the Vikings’ defense in the clutch this year.
“Tonight was our night to do it,” defensive end DJ Wonnum said following his three-sack performance. “We showed them, we came out and played hard, but there was definitely some problems during the game, but we kept going, we came together as a team, as a defense.”
Zimmer explained after the game that he was particularly hard on the defense this week. So hard, it seems, that cornerback Bashaud Breeland got in an altercation with coaches and teammates and was cut.
“I was very, very hard on them this past week," Zimmer said. “Very demanding. I’m not saying that’s the reason why, but these guys have a lot of pride, too. We just have to keep grinding on them, keep trying to get them better, keep working on the things that they need to improve on. But that’s the important thing, is that we try to get better these last three weeks.”
It will, no doubt, need to get better. Chicago’s offense did everything to help the Vikings defense, from fumbling to committing penalties to getting stopped on a bizarre fourth-and-1 play call to having a potential touchdown catch be a few inches out of bounds. They likely won’t get as many freebies versus the Los Angeles Rams and Green Bay Packers in the next two weeks.
And there’s little room for error. The Vikings essentially need to win two out of the final three games in order to have a shot at making the postseason.
“Every week, we need to continue to get better,” Zimmer said. “It’s not just playing better. It’s getting better. It’s getting better in run defense. It’s getting better in pass coverage. It’s getting better in protection. It’s getting better in running the ball. All those things. We’re trying to get better where we can get to the spot we’re trying to get to. That’s the important part.”
But the Vikings haven’t put together a complete game nearly all season. One side of the ball has walked out of the stadium each week feeling like it didn’t do enough.
Is that simply the mark of a 7-7 team? Is there any formula or button that Zimmer can push to make it all come together in the final few weeks to make a push to reach the playoffs?
With this team, it’s hard to know on a week-to-week basis which areas of their strengths and weaknesses will show up most. We do know, however, that they remain alive despite being nearly left for dead after losing to the Lions two weeks ago. The website FiveThirtyEight gives the Vikings a 29% chance. So the rollercoaster continues.
“Could've played better, but it's a tough place to come in and win,” Cousins said. “We got a win, and we'll take it.”