Sunday, September 16, 2018

Notebook: Vikings fight back, fall short, in a tie with the Packers

Special teams mistakes were costly as the Vikings nearly pulled off an improbable comeback at Lambeau Field. The inability to play complementary football proved costly as the game ended tied at 29. 

Sunday afternoon helped justify why the Vikings were interested in signing Kirk Cousins. When the game was on the line, Cousins made big-time throws to keep Minnesota within striking distance. He completed 35 of his 48 passes for 425 yards, four touchdowns and an interception as the Vikings tied Green Bay, 29-29. The difficult throws Cousins managed to deliver, stood out as he took control of the team down the stretch.

Green Bay led 23-14 with 7:38 left until Cousins perfectly dropped a deep 75-yard pass to Stefon Diggs for a long touchdown. Diggs did a fantastic job of tracking the ball as Cousins perfectly dropped a throw over the top. It was just the beginning of a long comeback. A few moments later, Cousins led the team on an 8-play, 75-yard drive over 1:14. He fired a tight window throw to Adam Thielen between two defenders for a 22-yard touchdown grab. Thielen managed to haul in the pass and keep balance as he backed into the end zone for a score. The throw somehow snuck into the window as Cousins showed off all of his arm strength to get the pass to Thielen.

He also displayed nice touch to the back of end zone as he found Stefon Diggs for the game-tying two-point conversation. Cousins showed he can make a variety of different throws other quarterbacks have been unable to complete. He showed confidence and poise in a hostile environment as he led his team back from a nine-point deficit. The new quarterback benefited from the offensive line settling in during the second half. Cousins had more time to work and stepped into the pocket to deliver tough throws. Rookie right tackle Brian O’Neill entered the game late in third quarter as Rashod Hill exited with an ankle injury. O’Neill appeared to hold up well and allowed Cousins to make plays in the pocket. In the first half, the right side of the offensive line struggled to protect adequately, but the entire unit started to settle in as the game progressed.

A late roughing the passer penalty on Clay Matthews negated a deep interception, which would have ended the game. Cousins’ lone interception was the result of a pass that went off the hands of wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and deflected to Packers safety Haha Clinton-Dix. In the first quarter, Treadwell grabbed his first career receiving touchdown, but two critical drops cast a shadow on his overall performance. One nearly flipped the balance of the game, however, a late surge by the Vikings’ offense helped end the NFC North battle in a tie. Minnesota desperately needs a more consistent performance at the third wide receiver spot.

Outside of that, the Adam Thielen-Stefon Diggs duo combined for 259 yards and three touchdowns. The quarterback play of Cousins, combined with weapons like Thielen and Diggs, leave the Vikings with opportunities to grow as the offense becomes more cohesive. There are still timing issues and moments where Cousins could feel the pocket better, but his play down the stretch helped the team fight back.

Vikings’ run defense and tight end coverage
The Vikings’ run defense started slowly as the team surrendered 45 rushing yards in the first quarter alone. It allowed the Packers to control the clock and makes plays in favorable down situations. A few of the rushing plays were a result of linebackers not fitting correctly or being unable to pull off of blocks. Linebacker Eric Kendricks struggled early and the second level of the defense continued to have trouble covering tight ends up the field. Jimmy Graham had six catches for 95 yards as the Vikings lost tight ends for the second straight week. This is something they’ll need to address over the next couple weeks and will be evaluated when reviewing film.

Pressure turns up late
The defensive line managed to get more pressure down the stretch, including a key sack in overtime as the Vikings dialed up a special blitz package. Cornerback Mackensie Alexander reached Rodgers for a key takedown, setting up one final field goal attempt in the final seconds. Defensive tackle David Parry also rotated into the mix for a sack, as the Vikings’ pass rush came alive in the final stages. The defensive pressure wasn’t perfect, but they managed to make several big plays in the second half to give the offense a chance.

Special teams were costly
The game was really lost on special teams. A blocked punt touchdown and three missed field goals by Daniel Carlson changed the landscape of the game. These type of lapses were shown in the preseason and appeared in this game. A 16-point swing directly related to special teams play is a major problem. The Vikings’ defense managed to surrender six field goal tries, but all of the mistakes on special teams kept Green Bay in the game. It will be interesting to see if the Vikings make changes at the kicker position, especially considering they were a 35-yard try away from completing a huge come from behind victory. Some serious changes need to be made in the special teams room if the Vikings want to win against top-flight competition.

At the end of the day, considering how poorly they played, Minnesota was extremely fortunate to escape with a tie. A few fantastic offensive plays late in the game helped the Vikings overcome an afternoon where they were unable to play complementary football. Leaving with a tie is better than a loss, but certainly won’t be satisfying for anyone involved.

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