The layup of all layups in preseason predictions prior to the 2018 season was the NFC North. Clearly the Vikings, the team that had just made the NFC Championship Game and subsequently upgraded their quarterback was a lock for the postseason, right? Well, apparently, the powers at be in football heaven were feeling creative this season. With another lackluster offensive performance, one that featured public arguments on the sideline, the Vikings’ season ended Sunday with a 24-10 loss to Chicago. The loss places Minnesota a half game behind Philadelphia for the sixth seed to finish the season.
There is not much to say except this is the new Vikings offense fans had come to expect in big games. John DeFilippo lost his job a few weeks back for his failure to run the ball effectively, and for the overall impotent nature of his offense. As it turns out, Kevin Stefanski’s offense looks similar against good defenses.
The Vikings opened with four three-and-outs, allowing the Bears to build a 13-0 advantage. Minnesota did not get its first first down until late in the second quarter, and did not cross midfield until their final drive of the half. Even as they cut the lead to three in the third with a Stefon Diggs touchdown reception, it seemed as if the offense would never truly get going. Chicago scored another touchdown on a 16-play drive, and from there, the Vikings went out on downs on each of their last three drives.
There was not much good to speak of in terms of this individual game performance. The only real silver lining was Diggs capping off a few milestones for the season. With eight catches and 47 yards, Diggs eclipsed both the 100-catch and 1,000-yard marks for the first time in his career.
Everything else was off. The offense took significant steps back from their two weeks of progression. Kirk Cousins had little time to throw, seeing pressure on over 50 percent of his dropbacks, often straight up the middle. When he did have time, his throws largely missed their mark. He and Adam Thielen were seen bickering after one drive-stalling incompletion in the red zone. Cousins appeared to say “I don’t have 10 seconds,” implying Thielen’s route developed too slowly. Thielen responded by ripping his own helmet off and shouting his retort at the Vikings quarterback. Thielen and Cousins would remain in heated discussion for the next several minutes.
As for the defense, the 24 points on the board does not totally describe the game they played. The Bears made it a point to hammer the ball inside with Jordan Howard, and the end results was 21 carries, 109 yards and two touchdowns. Tarik Cohen added another 24 yards and a touchdown. Simply put, the Bears gashed the Vikings’ run defense. They contained Mitchell Trubisky reasonably well, though the injuries to all three of Chicago’s top receivers helped in that regard. All told, the Vikings failed to bring Trubisky down once, and only managed to hit him a single time.
Even coaching was bad for Minnesota. Stefanski’s play-calling devolved into the very thing that got DeFilippo fired. Granted, the team’s lackluster running game did not merit the focus he gave it the previous two weeks. But the Vikings managed to convert just one of 11 third downs, many of which were third-and-manageable or third-and-short. Some of that comes down to execution, but some of that also has to go on play-calling.
And then there was Mike Zimmer. Ignoring the fact that his defense struggled to contain the run early, or that teams have largely found early leads against the Vikings this season. Zimmer made one of the most ill-advised challenges in recent memory. On third down, Dalvin Cook had a nice run that ended about a half yard shy of the first. It was obvious from the first look that he was a little short. Cousins knew this, so he hurried up to the line and pulled off a successful sneak on fourth down.
But the play was nullified because Zimmer threw the challenge flag prior to the snap. As the officials whistled the play dead, Cousins whipped around and shouted towards the Vikings sideline while gesturing emphatically. They reviewed the Cook run and it stood, so the Vikings had to run another fourth-and-inches play. Fortunately for Zimmer, they converted and scored a touchdown on the next play.
The Vikings’ season is over prematurely, so now the time comes to prognosticate their offseason moves. First off, the coach. Zimmer is unlikely to be fired; he has built up far too much equity with the organization. Tom Pelissero tweeted that Zimmer also has no plans to resign or retire. Simply put, Zimmer’s job does not appear to be at all in jeopardy. That said, though Zimmer has the reputation as one of the better head coaches in the league, he will enter 2019 with a stronger microscope on him than he has had since taking over in 2014.
No conversation this offseason will ring louder than that surrounding the quarterback. Based on our poll from last night, it would seem Vikings fans put just under half the blame for the lost season on Cousins, while distributing the rest of the blame evenly across the coach, general manager and “other.” So now, the Vikings have choices to make. Cousins will be on roster and making an awful lot of money next season. If they are dissatisfied with his performance, theoretically they could bring in some competition in the offseason.
Now, that outcome seems less likely. What is more reasonable is that the Vikings invest much of their offseason moves to helping protect Cousins. Particularly up the middle, Minnesota struggled all year to maintain consistent pass protection, resulting in Cousins being one of the most pressured quarterbacks in the league. Alleviating that weakness will have to be top of the list.
Until then, let the debates commence regarding what lost the Vikings their season.
–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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