While the first half was hardly inspiring, the Vikings used a strong third to put away the visiting Cardinals. Here are three positives and three negatives from Minnesota’s 27-17 win yesterday.
Run Game Showed Up (and Dominated)
Prior to Sunday, the Vikings were arguably the most one-dimensional, yet competent offense in football. They had no semblance of a rushing attack, not consistent push up front. This week, however, they found their identity in balance once again. Latavius Murray rushed 24 times (his most as a Viking) for 155 yards and a touchdown. That is 6.5 yards per carry, a far cry from the 3.8s he had been pulling earlier this year. Mike Boone added a 20-yard run, and even Kirk Cousins got in on the action by scoring on a read option.
Murray deserves a lot of the credit, as his cutback vision was outstanding yesterday. However, the much-maligned offensive line did an excellent job creating space. Granted, Arizona’s run defense is hardly elite. But the line did what they were supposed to do against lesser opponents: they dominated.
Short-Staffed and Still Strong: the Vikings’ Defensive Line Story
With Everson Griffen still out and Tashawn Bower hurt, the Vikings were essentially running two deep at defensive end once again. The only spell Stephen Weatherly and Danielle Hunter received was the occasional snap from rookie Jalyn Homes, who had previously been playing mostly tackle since arriving in Minnesota. Yet, despite that thin lineup, the Viking line controlled the line of scrimmage for virtually the entire game. Hunter lit up the stat sheet with five tackles and two more sacks, bringing his season total to seven and his sack streak up to six games. Even more impressive was Sheldon Richardson. While he finished with only two tackles and one hit on the quarterback, Richardson was completely dominant on the interior from the word go. His ability to swallow blocks allowed the Vikings’ safeties and linebackers to rack up the tackles. Overall, he and Hunter are putting in All-Pro-caliber seasons, despite missing some key members of their unit.
Vikings Safety Play Strong All Around
Minnesota signed George Iloka before the season opener, yet prior to week five, he had yet to see much action. He got some run against Phildadelphia, but this week was his coming out party. Iloka started in the absence of Andrew Sendejo and showed his versatility with eight tackles and solid coverage throughout. Iloka was not the only safety who showed up, however. Harrison Smith was his usual self, registering seven tackles and sack. But even further down the depth chart we go; Jayron Kearse made a handful of nice plays. Anthony Harris defensed two passes, one of which was an interception. What this all means is that somehow, the Vikings have five safeties on their roster who are capable of playing extended snaps on defense. That is something that will obviously be vital to their success, as they may be down a key secondary figure for the remainder of the season.
Hughes Maybe Lost for Season
Mike Hughes, the Vikings’ 2018 first round pick, was having a solid rookie season heading into Sunday. While his snaps yesterday were minimal, he had shown all year that he is a versatile, physical corner. He handled all outside corner duties while Trae Waynes was out, had some moments as a kick returner and made a decent number of plays in coverage, including a pick-six in his NFL debut. However, he suffered a knee injury in the fourth yesterday while covering Larry Fitzgerald, an injury that the Vikings fear is a torn-ACL.
Hughes stumbled a bit while reacting to Fitzgerald’s break, and as his left leg tried to stabilize him, it buckled, causing him to go down without much contact. He remained down for several minutes before having to be helped off the field. His MRI is scheduled for today.
If the fears of torn-ACL are confirmed, it will be the second year in a row in which the Vikings’ first draft selection suffered such an injury in his rookie year. Still, even with the injury hanging over him, Hughes’ play in 2018 has to spark optimism among Vikings fans.
Cousins Fumbles Yet Again
Quarterback fumbles are not a black-and-white issue. On any individual fumble, it can be a toss-up who shoulders the blame. It could be catastrophically poor pass protection that leaves the quarterback vulnerable before the play even begins. Or it could be the result of the quarterback failing to secure the ball adequately.
When quarterback fumbles become a trend, however, we start to get a better idea of what is going wrong. As his been the case several times already this season, Cousins’ lost fumble Sunday was much more the result of his carelessness in securing than it was a line issue. And since it went for a touchdown that tied the game, it very well could have been a debilitating turnover. So now, as Cousins has fumbled in four straight games and six times overall, clearly some work has to be done with regards to his handling of the ball.
Vikings Struggling to Close Out Early
Of the Vikings’ three wins, two of them have been over clearly inferior opponents. Both times, they controlled 90 percent of the game. Yet, when all was said and done, each game remained competitive longer than necessary. In this game, Minnesota had multiple chances to build a sizable lead. But a sack here, a miscommunication there, a fumble returned for a touchdown, six (SIX!) passes deflected at the line, all of it contributed to the Cardinals hanging around about a quarter and a half longer than they should have. To the Vikings’ credit, they turned it on in the third quarter to build a 17-point lead. But the first two quarters were a showcase of the team’s occasional bipolarity.
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