The first time the 2023 Vikings faced a rash of fumbling issues, after three turnover-filled losses to start the season, coach Kevin O'Connell spoke as firmly as he has all year about what the Vikings would do to fix the problem.
"Either guys are going to do it, or we're going to have to put guys in the game that have ball security," O'Connell said on Sept. 25.
The day before, Alexander Mattison had lost the ball twice, though he was ruled down on one play and officials blew the other play dead after ruling Mattison's forward progress had stopped. His two near-fumbles came after his fumble the previous week in Philadelphia, though, and occurred four days after the Vikings had traded for Cam Akers.
Mattison lost his second fumble of the year Sunday night, on a drive where the Vikings had a chance to build a commanding lead against Denver. The fumble was the second of the Vikings' three turnovers in the game, reigniting issues they'd faced earlier this season and helping the Broncos come back for a 21-20 win.
The Vikings' situation at running back in November, though, isn't the same as it was after trading for Akers. It's one of the reasons why Mattison might remain a big part of the rotation despite the fumble.
When the Vikings lost Akers for the season because of a torn Achilles on Nov. 5, it meant they'd primarily use a rotation of Mattison and Ty Chandler, with Kene Nwangwu getting an occasional carry. The Vikings lined up in heavier personnel groups Sunday night in Denver, using more gap scheme runs to apply force to the Broncos defense, and ran for a season-high 175 yards. Mattison's 81 yards were his most since Oct. 1; Chandler carried 10 times for 73 yards, with 31 coming on a fake punt.
"We knew it was going to be like that with how we wanted to possess the ball from a time standpoint. We did a lot of the things that we wanted to accomplish in the game," O'Connell said. "Really, the two things that you look back on — the turnovers, clearly, but then the red-zone finishes. You would love to finish with four touchdowns when you get down there, and that could have been the difference, as well. So, a lot of things we can do better, a lot of things we can execute better, better plays I can call. It is all of us making sure that we completely exhaust our attempts to [get] what we think it is going to take to win the game. But I liked the way we were able to establish the run and maintain that throughout the night."
The Vikings' seasonlong struggles running the ball near the goal line continued, with Mattison losing 2 yards on an attempt from the Broncos 3 in the second quarter after Alex Singleton beat Brian O'Neill off the snap. On the Vikings' final field goal drive, both Mattison and Chandler got stopped for no gain from the Denver 12. But Chandler didn't handle Josey Jewell's blitz on the play that forced Joshua Dobbs' interception; Chandler had a solid blitz pickup early in the game but still seems to be trying to improve in pass protection. The Vikings are incorporating Chandler more to add a more explosive runner to their offense, but Mattison still got the ball after his fumble and led Chandler in offensive snaps, 48 to 23.
Myles Gaskin, who returned to the Vikings practice squad last week, could give them another option at running back. Chandler could get more work in future weeks, but even if the Vikings share snaps at the position, it'd likely take more than one fumble to cost Mattison his job. If the Vikings hold Justin Jefferson out for one more week, Mattison and Chandler could try to mimic what the Lions did Sunday when David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs combined for 112 yards on 20 carries against a Bears defense that ranks second in the league against the run.