At home in Week 1, the Vikings built a comfortable first-half lead and cruised to a 23-7 win over the Packers with game plans for which Green Bay had no answer. The Vikings' coverage shells frustrated Aaron Rodgers as he looked for open receivers with pass rushers bearing down on him, while Justin Jefferson feasted on free space underneath the Packers' zone coverages.
Kirk Cousins averaged 8.65 yards per pass in the victory, despite having the NFL's third-shortest average throw (5.6 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, according to NFL Next Gen Stats) and Jefferson averaged 9.2 yards after the catch on nine receptions.
The Vikings' 24-7 loss to the Eagles on Monday night felt like a mirror image of the Week 1 win in many ways; among the most noticeable was the manner by which Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts threw for 333 yards on 31 attempts. This time, the Vikings were the team whose zone coverages left the opposing quarterback with plenty of room to turn shorter throws into big plays.
On throws that traveled less than 10 yards in the air, Hurts went 18-for-19 for 150 yards and an interception, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. He went 13-for-13 on short throws outside the left hash, and also did his best work throwing to his left when going downfield. His biggest throw of the game — a 53-yard touchdown to Quez Watkins in the second quarter — came with the Vikings sitting in what appeared to be Cover-6, where safety Cam Bynum covered the same out route from Dallas Goedert as Cameron Dantzler did.
"That's what happens when you get the coverage to kind of declare a little bit with the run game thrown in there," Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell said, "but I thought Jalen threw the ball very well tonight."
For much of the night, though, Hurts subsisted on throws to receivers who'd settled underneath a Vikings defender.
"Those guys did a great job of attacking some of the weaknesses of our defenses, especially that weak-side defender," cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "We know those guys like to come back weak side, try to isolate the linebackers. That's something they did a really good job on — trying to create those mismatches. Now we know other teams are going to try to attack us the same way, so we have to go back, look at the film, put ourselves in better position to defend those plays, and we'll see what happens after that."
The Eagles' game plan, Peterson said, was full of the route concepts the Vikings saw during the week, where Philadelphia tried to flood the front side of a play and get a favorable matchup on the back side of it. The threat Hurts posed as a runner also added another challenge to the matchup, as the Vikings knew they'd have to account for the possibility he could escape the pocket especially if defenders turned their backs.
Zone coverages will be a staple of Ed Donatell's defenses all season; the solution, Peterson said, might be as simple as executing them more effectively.
"For the most part, we just have to be closer in coverage," Peterson said. "It's a good learning experience for us. It's only Week 2; it's something we can learn from, clean up the mistakes and just come out next week with a better focus on our assignments."
ONE TREND TO WATCH
What the Vikings do with their secondary receiving options: A week after the Packers decided not to have Jaire Alexander shadow Justin Jefferson, the Eagles put Darius Slay on the receiver when he wasn't in the slot, and the move had seismic effects on the game's outcome.
A week after Jefferson caught nine passes for a career-high 184 yards and two scores, the Eagles limited him to six catches for 48 yards on 12 targets. Slay broke up an early third-down pass while officials chose not to flag him for contact at the top of Jefferson's route, and intercepted two passes for Jefferson in the second half.
Jefferson will remain the focus for opposing defensive coordinators, so it's worth watching whether the Vikings can get things going with Adam Thielen after a quiet first two weeks. Thielen's first target Monday didn't come until the third quarter, when Avonte Maddox intercepted a pass Cousins targeted for Thielen on a corner route. He finished with four catches on seven targets for 52 yards, but most of his catches came with the Vikings trying to rally late, and he averaged only two yards of separation from the closest defender on those targets, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
"I can think back to a couple of plays that we were trying to get going for him early, but by the look, we ended up checking to a couple of different things based on protection," O'Connell said. "But with Adam, you saw him kind of come to life late, but I know the game had gotten a little bit away from us. His me-to-you factor with Kirk is there, Kirk trusts him inherently, and we have to find ways to continue to get him the ball within the rhythm of the game."
K.J. Osborn had just two catches for 25 yards, and while Irv Smith caught his first touchdown pass since 2020, he dropped a deep ball from Cousins that would likely have been another TD.
Slay was physical with Jefferson throughout the night, betting he wouldn't be flagged for most of the contact, and a week after scheming Jefferson to plenty of free releases, the Vikings weren't able to turn him loose against the team that passed on him in the draft. They will need more from their options beyond Jefferson, especially if they face corners who play him as effectively as Slay did on Monday.
"I thought Kirk battled tonight, and I put him in some tough spots," O'Connell said. "Our overall offensive philosophy when we do not succeed, it puts a lot of pressure on the quarterback, and that's where once again I put this 100% on me to be better for our offense and our team."
ONE PLAYER WHO STOOD OUT
Za'Darius Smith: When the Vikings did pressure Hurts — which happened on only 23.6% of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus — much of the production came from Smith, who had one of the Vikings' six hits on the quarterback to go with four additional pressures. He also brought running back Boston Scott down for a 1-yard loss in the second quarter after cornerback Chandon Sullivan did a good job forcing the run back inside.