The Vikings' 24-7 loss to the Eagles on Monday night breathed new life into many of the questions that followed the team into the season. Kirk Cousins' three second-half interceptions, which ensured he would fall to 2-10 on Monday nights after winning his past two starts, triggered plenty of commentary about whether he can truly reach new heights under Kevin O'Connell.
And after he caught nine passes for 184 yards and two touchdowns against the Packers, Justin Jefferson was held in check by an aggressive Eagles secondary that asked Darius Slay to shadow the receiver. Slay's two interceptions, and the Vikings' inability to find big plays for Dalvin Cook or Adam Thielen, invited concerns about what the team will do when Jefferson isn't taking games over.
But where the Vikings' offense has a fairly well-established floor and ceiling, there's more to learn about a defense that's playing a new scheme this season after two years of disappointing results cost Mike Zimmer his job. After holding the Packers to 7 points — fewer than they'd ever scored in a game Aaron Rodgers started against Minnesota — the Vikings' defense was dissected by Jalen Hurts on Monday night. Heading into Week 3, the team still seems in search of a foundation on defense.
This is more a question of consistency than one of identity; through two games, it's fairly clear how the Vikings' defense will look under Ed Donatell. According to ESPN Stats and Information, they've played a Cover-2 defense on a NFL-high 46.2% of their snaps, while spending a league-low 7.7% of their snaps in man. They've rushed Danielle Hunter and Za'Darius Smith from different spots in their formation, preferring variety for their top two pass rushers over a heavy menu of blitzes. And they've spent most of their time with at least five defensive backs on the field, making their transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base defense more of a footnote than anything else.
But there were major questions about how the Vikings' secondary would hold up before the season, and while their pass rush got to Aaron Rodgers before he could decipher many of their coverage shells in Week 1, Hurts picked on the Vikings' defensive backs in Week 2, finding success throwing underneath their zones and exploiting a busted zone coverage for a 53-yard touchdown to Quez Watkins in the second quarter.
While O'Connell said after the game the Eagles "nailed down our safety [Cam Bynum] in a quarters look" on the touchdown, it was cornerback Cameron Dantzler who saw more of his playing time reduced in the second half, with rookie Akayleb Evans stepping in for him on 21 snaps.
O'Connell said after the game the Vikings had "talked about maybe getting Akayleb some time here and there," and added Dantzler is still the starter, but the situation at cornerback is worth watching going forward.
And while O'Connell sounded confident Monday night the Vikings could get Harrison Smith back from the concussion protocol in time for Sunday's game against the Lions, he conceded they wouldn't know that with certainty until later in the week. If it's Bynum and either first-round pick Lewis Cine or third-year man Josh Metellus starting at safety, the Vikings could have plenty to sort out against Detroit.
Zone coverage is a hallmark of the Vic Fangio-influenced scheme the Vikings are running; they hired Donatell (Fangio's defensive coordinator the past three seasons) to install it, and they're going to top their defense with shell coverages to make things difficult for quarterbacks to decipher and force passers to beat them a few yards at a time.
But a quarterback like Hurts, who's comfortable taking the shorter throws while adding another dimension with his mobility, can give the Vikings problems. And Hurts' long touchdown to Watkins showed how much the Vikings' relative inexperience in the secondary can still leave them susceptible to coverage busts.
The fix, as veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson said on Monday night, is likely just better execution.
"For the most part, we just have to be closer in coverage," he said. "I think we made some adjustments, just not the proper ones that we felt could put us in better position. But those guys did a great job of attacking some of the weaknesses of our defense. … Now we know other teams will try to attack us the same way. So now we have to go back, look at the film, clean up the mistakes and put ourselves in better position to defend those plays. We'll see what happens after that."
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