Welcome to our morning-after Vikings blog, where we’ll revisit every game by looking at two players who stood out, two concerns for the team, two trends to watch and one big question. Here we go:
After Cordarrelle Patterson’s 104-yard kick return touchdown opened the second half for the Bears on Monday night, ESPN’s cameras caught a furious Mike Zimmer screaming at Vikings special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf about kicking it to Patterson, who made two All-Pro teams as a return man in Minnesota and a third with Chicago last year.
It was a moment after which safety Anthony Harris could tell his coach he need not worry.
“There were a couple of times that I was upset on the sideline and Anthony Harris came over and said, ‘Coach. Just call the game. We’re going to win,’” Zimmer said. “Those were good. They keep me in line, too.”
That kind of confidence, so typical of the Vikings’ defenses of Harris’ first five seasons, has gone missing at times this season, with an inexperienced secondary and front-seven stalwarts like Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr out for the season. But in Monday night’s 19-13 win, when Patterson’s TD was the only one the Bears would get, the Vikings’ group showed for the third week in a row it could be the stopper.
The Vikings became just the 12th team in the league this season to hold an opponent without an offensive touchdown, in a year where scoring is up and defenses seem in as precarious a position as ever.
Before Monday night, the Vikings had held an opponent without an offensive touchdown eight times under Mike Zimmer. The opposing starting quarterbacks in those games: Austin Davis (the Rams QB who started for an injured Sam Bradford in Zimmer’s first career win in the 2014 opener), Jay Cutler, Matt Ryan, Brett Hundley, Mitch Trubisky, Matthew Stafford (twice) and Case Keenum.
It’s not exactly a list of Hall of Fame passers, and it should also be noted that Monday’s effort came against one of four teams to go without an offensive touchdown twice this season; the Jets, Giants and Cowboys (the Vikings’ next opponent) are the others.
But the Vikings’ ability to close out a game on defense is a different story than we saw in a 1-5 start, when they blew double-digit leads on the way to one-point losses to Tennessee and Seattle, while nearly giving away a 15-point fourth-quarter lead to the Texans. On Nov. 1 in Green Bay, D.J. Wonnum stripped Aaron Rodgers to end the Packers’ chance to rally, and Eric Kendricks and Eric Wilson came up with the interceptions the Vikings needed to turn the Lions away twice in a 34-20 win last week.
The fact the Vikings did it again on Monday night against Foles — the quarterback whose charmed run to a Super Bowl LII MVP involved shredding Zimmer’s best defense in the 2018 NFC Championship Game — seems noteworthy, too, even if the quarterback has regressed to the level he’s played at for much of his career and the Bears’ offense (either because of injury or ineffectiveness) is short on playmakers.
Foles’ bid to become a modern-day Kerry Collins — the middling passer who somehow always saved his best for the Vikings — came up empty , as did whatever hope for payback Bears QB coach John DeFilippo might have had for his first game against the Vikings since his 2018 firing as offensive coordinator.
Wonnum, who had another sack and two quarterback hits on Monday night, has improved as a pass rusher, and the Vikings have found a role for Hercules Mata’afa, whom they brought back after releasing earlier this year. Mata’afa had a hit on Foles to force a third-and-5 incompletion (and a field goal) in the first quarter, and worked a stunt that led to Wonnum’s sack after the defensive end jumped back across two gaps on the final play of the third quarter.
The Vikings have found they can be more aggressive with their blitz packages, with Eric Wilson morphing into a solid replacement for Anthony Barr and Harrison Smith spending more time near the line of scrimmage. And when Smith does back out, the Vikings’ use of two-deep shells has helped calm things down for their young corners. Chicago hit only two pass plays of 20 yards or more, with Foles finding Allen Robinson on a deep corner route for 24 and hitting Anthony Miller for a 21-yard catch-and-run after Jimmy Graham’s vertical route against Eric Kendricks cleared the middle of the field.
Told the Vikings registered defensive stops on 9 of 11 third downs, Smith remarked, “You’re going to win a lot of games like that.”
The Vikings’ issues on potential game-clinching fourth downs earlier in the season were not lost on him. But on this night, when Foles’ fourth-down pass beyond Chris Jones glanced off the fingertips of an outstretched Miller, the Vikings could breathe easy.
“The guys up front were doing a great job,” Smith said. “D-line, linebackers were doing a great job in the run game, so we were able to do some things on the back end to help take away Robinson and stuff like that. He’s a really good player. They’ve got guys that can make plays, but when you’re doing a good job stopping the run and you’re not always having to get a safety involved, it really opens up your whole play-calling sheet. Everybody, players did a great job, coaches called a great game. They had us ready to go and prepared, and it was just a good team win.”
Here is a look at one other trend to watch from Monday’s win:
Dalvin Cook’s usage rate: For the second time in three weeks, the running back touched the ball 30 times or more, and Monday night seemed particularly demanding for him on a physical level. His first catch of the game came after he put a hard chip on Akiem Hicks before catching a dump-off over the middle and getting drilled by Danny Trevathan. Cook was also slow to get up on the first play of the fourth quarter after recovering his own fumble by landing on the football in a particularly sensitive fashion. Cook and Josh Jacobs are the only running backs in the league with two games of 30 or more touches this season. Cook has handled the workload effectively so far, but as the Vikings lean heavily on him in their late charge to re-enter the playoff picture, it’s worth monitoring how he holds up, given his injury history (particularly his shoulder injuries at the end of last season).
Two players who stood out
Kyle Rudolph: The tight end, now in his 10th season, has seen his role continue to shift toward that of a blocker as Irv Smith Jr. gets more work in passing situations. But with Smith out because of a groin injury on Monday night, Rudolph’s contributions as a receiver were pivotal on some of the game’s biggest plays. He had four catches for 63 yards, perhaps none bigger than his 21-yard reception just before the two-minute warning, when he blocked Barkevious Mingo before releasing for an easy catch-and-run. He lost a fumble for the first time in his career when Trevathan jarred the ball loose just before Rudolph’s knee hit the ground in the first quarter, but that came after Rudolph ran a nice route on Trevathan to get open. The fumble aside, his oft-unheralded contributions were particularly important on Monday.
Justin Jefferson: Kirk Cousins was pumping his fist after Jefferson‘ s 54-yard catch-and-run on a third-and-11, and for good reason; Jefferson beat the Bears’ split-safety coverage with the Vikings protecting a three-point lead from their own 14 in the third quarter. Jefferson now has four 100-yard games after a quiet few weeks. What makes him different? We’ll let Cousins tell you.
“[I have a] hard time reinventing how to describe him but he’s very natural at tracking the football, catching the football, separating, making the tough catch,” the quarterback said. “He caught a slant on a third down and long tonight that was out in front of him, not an easy catch. He makes that catch look pretty natural. Pretty easy. That’s hard to teach. That’s where you say you can get a guy who’s fast, who’s quick, who’s strong, but is he a natural receiver when the ball is a little bit away from his body, can he be fluid and go get it? Justin has shown that time and again. That’s a trait you can say separates him or feel can take his game to a level that not everyone can.”
Two areas of concern
Third-and-longs for the Vikings on offense: Just as the Vikings’ strong defensive performance against an anemic Bears offense must be put in some context, so should the fact Cook averaged fewer than three yards a carry against a strong Chicago defense that’s given the Vikings plenty of trouble over the years. But while Cousins’ success on third downs (10 of 11 for 149 yards and two touchdowns) was the story of the night, it’s worth asking whether it was sustainable — and whether the Vikings’ commitment to the run needed to be moderated somewhat. Cook carried 12 times on second down; eight of those attempts were on second-and-7 or longer. By the rule of thumb that a successful run gains 40 percent of the yardage needed for a new set of downs on first down, 60 percent on second down and 100 percent on third or fourth down, Cook had successful second-down runs. The Vikings faced 15 third downs on Monday night; they went 2-for-8 when they needed seven yards or more, and 6-for-7 when they needed six yards or fewer. They’ll face the league’s worst scoring defense at home on Sunday against the Cowboys, and things won’t always be as difficult as they were against the Bears, but facing that many third-and-longs is a dangerous way to live.
Special teams: From Patterson’s kick return TD to Austin Cutting’s bad snap on an extra point, special teams miscues directly cost the Vikings eight points in a game they won by six. Dan Chisena stepping into the end zone as he tried to down a punt cost the Vikings 20 yards, and helped the Bears in a field position battle that led to a field goal two drives later. The issues are getting hard to ignore, and while Maalouf could bear the brunt of the blame, the issues are made more concerning in light of how many resources the Vikings have spent on them. Cutting, who’s had bad snaps in the Vikings’ past two road games, was the first long snapper in team history to be drafted, and the Vikings gave three-year deals to punter Britton Colquitt and kicker Dan Bailey after players they spent draft picks to acquire (Kaare Vedvik and Daniel Carlson) didn’t pan out. Things could come to a head soon, if the Vikings’ special teams units don’t improve quickly.
One big question
How strong are the Vikings’ playoff chances, really? The talk about a second-half surge toward one of the NFC’s seven playoff spots will only get louder this week, after the Vikings aced a three-game stretch against division opponents to improve to 4-5 before three in a row at home. They’ll face the 2-7 Cowboys this week, before playing the 3-7 Panthers and 1-8 Jaguars, and it’s not impossible they’ll emerge from the next three games with a 7-5 record, a six-game win streak and a load of confidence heading into a Week 14 matchup with Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. Their offensive line has shown significant improvement, and their defense is at least holding together against offenses more talented than the Bears’ group. But with six NFC teams already sitting with at least six wins, the Vikings’ margin for error remains small.
They’re effectively three games behind the Seahawks, who hold the NFC’s No. 7 seed and beat the Vikings in Week 5. Arizona, which improved to 6-3 on Kyler Murray’s Hail Mary to DeAndre Hopkins, has back-to-back road games against the Seahawks and Patriots, and the 6-3 Rams have games left against the Bucs (on Monday night), Seahawks and Cardinals (twice). The three NFC West teams in contention have four games left against each other; the right distribution of losses between those teams could help the Vikings out. The win over the Bears was big, as well, in the sense that it allows the Vikings to get to nine wins without beating the Buccaneers or Saints on the road in December. But there’s not much room for a slip-up anywhere else.
The Vikings’ best bet is for the NFC West teams to beat up on one another (preferably with the Seahawks winning the division, to eliminate a head-to-head tiebreaker from the equation). With that, and a continued hot streak, a wild-card berth might be possible.