Sunday night’s game was a litmus test for where the Vikings stand amongst NFC elites. And for 1.9 quarters, they were handing it to the Saints. But then, things went sideways in a relatively short period of game time. And for perhaps the first time, it was the Vikings’ greatest assets that stumbled.
Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs gave the Vikings everything they usually do. Both went over 100 with a touchdown and caught a combined 94.4 percent of their targets. So it is safe to say that the Vikings may have been nowhere near as competitive were it not for their performances. That said, each made a single crucial mistake that directly led to the Vikings loss.
Thielen’s fumble at the end of the first half completely flipped the complexion of the game. Minnesota was hitting on all cylinders offensively up to that point and were driving to potentially take a 10-point lead. As it turned out, his fumble not only ended the drive abruptly, it flipped field position as Marshon Lattimore ran it back to the Minnesota 33 (Laquon Treadwell then exacerbated this by slamming his helmet resulting in a 15-yard penalty). The Saints scored a touchdown two plays later. That is a 14-point swing heading into the half, giving the Saints the lead, the momentum and putting a damper on the Vikings offense for the majority of the second half.
Diggs’ mistake was a mental one, and arguably more costly. With the ball around midfield and down seven, Kirk Cousins scrambled to avoid pressure. Diggs, running a drag across the field, had a narrow step on Saints corner P.J. Williams. Cousins flicked the ball to him to avoid the sack. Unfortunately, Diggs broke off his route at the exact wrong time, leaving Williams alone with the incoming pass. He caught it and waltzed into the end zone unabated to put the Saints up two scores.
One can see what Diggs was thinking. With Cousins scrambling, he was in improvisation mode. By breaking off the route and cutting back, he was taking advantage of some open space to the left. The problem with his decision was that the pressure was getting to Cousins quickly and he simply had to get the ball out as soon as possible. And with Williams in man coverage, there was no room for Diggs to alter course. Diggs had a half step on Williams; the pass would likely have been completed had Diggs continued the route.
A couple poor coaching decisions deserve some attention, as well. Going back to what ensued following Thielen’s fumble, Minnesota had 30 seconds and two timeouts to go 75 yards after the Saints took the lead. The Vikings had been throwing all over the Saints defense without issue up to that point. It made sense to at least try for a field goal to get some momentum back on their side. Instead, they chose to run one play and take a four-point deficit into halftime. The Vikings have had no problem picking up chunk yardage through the air this season; it was more than reasonable to think they could get some points before the break. Simply put, it seemed Thielen’s fumble put handcuffs on the formerly-bold play-calling.
Then John DeFilippo overcompensated on the first drive coming out of the half. Fourth-and-one, the Vikings at the 45, DeFilippo called a pass play. Not only did he call a pass play, he sent out five receivers to pick up a yard. The result was a long pass to Treadwell that he caught and then lost as Lattimore punch it out, turning it over on downs. Now, a few notes: Cousins had to place the ball a little wide of Treadwell to avoid having the ball batted at the line. It was an accurate throw, but put Treadwell in position where the ball could easily be defensed. Also worth noting that it seems Cousins’ first read was Thielen on a whip route out of the inside slot on the right. Thielen was open, for what it is worth, but Cousins looked him off.
Could Cousins have taken the first read? Yes. Should he have placed the ball closer to Treadwell’s body? Maybe. Is Treadwell supposed to pull it in? Absolutely. But that is about three variables too many when the Vikings needed less than a yard and were running the ball well with Latavius Murray. A quarterback sneak would have been more viable. A basic power or run-pass option would have made more sense. Heck, even having a running back on the field before running a pass play would have been better. On that play, DeFilippo overthought a basic situation.
The final glaring issue was with the Vikings’ fourth quarter offense. They needed three scores, yet carried themselves with the urgency of a team up by 17. The play clock ticked all 40 seconds on every snap while the Vikings offense dawdled to the line. When Cousins found Thielen in the end zone to cut the Saints’ lead to 10, over five minutes had elapsed. The game may have been decided by that point, but the lack of vigor from the offense also has to go on the coach.
Seeing as the Vikings’ receivers and play-caller have been two of their greatest strengths this season, the assumption is that this game was merely a blip. Again, aside from the two mistakes, Thielen and Diggs played great Sunday night. They will not be anything close to the concern that the offensive line is for the Vikings. That said, watching Thielen and company become human for a few plays made the loss to New Orleans that much more of a gut punch.
Minnesota is still in the driver’s seat for the postseason. They still have the personnel and coaching to win the division, or at least take a wild card. But their elite talent cannot make crucial mistakes like that again. The Vikings are vulnerable in enough areas as it is.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith
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