Five thoughts on the Vikings' loss to the Lions.

bad situation
Image courtesy of Vikings.com

1. I have no problem with the third down plays.

Okay, the obvious: that sucked. It sucked badly. Another gut-punch loss (and on Thanksgiving nonetheless, a holiday reserved for overeating and cocktail-fueled joy), a season sweep by the Lions, and a serious dent in the playoff chances. It was a game the Vikings would’ve won if they had the ability to close, and another piece of evidence that they are severely lacking in that department.

But I get the idea I feel quite differently from the masses about the Vikings’ performance on third downs. I’ve seen quite a bit of commentary about how Sam Bradford and the offensive coaches continually checked down and played it safe on money downs, and how this was an overly conservative approach that eventually cost the team the game. Time after time, Bradford completed shorter passes that brought on the punting unit, rather than challenging the Lion’s defense and throw downfield.

Look, I get that it’s frustrating when the team runs five-yard routes on third-and-nine. My extended family was yelling about it all afternoon, as we huddled around the TV and plowed through mashed potatoes and gravy. I understand why a lot of fans would like to see the ball thrown past the sticks. But let’s not forget what this offense is; it’s making the best of a bad situation. From top to bottom, the Vikings offense is one big triage unit, scrambling to do what they can with severely limited resources. No starting quarterback, no Hall-of-Fame running back, no number one wide receiver, neither of the starting tackles, and for parts of the Lions game, no starting center or backup right tackle. They’re just trying to gain yardage at this point. The offensive line—which was never a strength to begin with—is in such shambles, basically every passing play needs to be built around getting the ball out of the quarterback’s hands as fast as possible. Bradford lacks the ability to evade the rush, and the line lacks the ability to block, so it all becomes an exercise in not taking a sack, every down. The simply cannot run plays that are slow to develop. It’s not an option. So yes, it’s frustrating to watch another dump-off to Thielen when what they need is a 15-yard strike, but punting and letting the defense take the field—especially when you’re leading, tied, or within a score, as was the case the entire game Thursday—is a better option than letting the quarterback get killed or throw a wobbly duck with a defender on his back. I know it seems conservative, but it’s just reality.

Remember how, just a month ago, we were pulling our hair out over Norv Turner’s refusal to run the quick routes and three-step drops in order to neutralize the pass rush? And remember how relieved we were when Shurmur immediately started doing it, and the offense improved almost instantly? I guess we forgot where we came from. What they have is far from perfect, but it’s the best of a bad situation.

2. Good God, what could have been.

Oftentimes we talk in clichés about a “game of inches” or something similar. But stats like this remind me of how razor thin the margin of error really is in the NFL; with a few plays either way, the season—and the way we feel about it—can swing dramatically. It feels like the Vikings are not a very good team right now, but I imagine it would feel very different at 8-3.

3. Hello Willie Beavers!

Nice to formally meet you. I really wish this was under better circumstances. Like, your insertion into the lineup wasn’t the result of an offensive line emergency. Or, you were at all ready for the opportunity.

I don’t know if it’s Beavers’ fault for being ill-prepared to play in the NFL, or Rick Spielman’s fault for drafting him in the fourth round (both, probably), but Thursday’s game saw the worst-case scenario play out when Beavers was forced into action at right tackle. The results were predictably appalling; Beavers got routinely abused, and the Vikings lost. Not sure what else to say.

Vikings, your offensive line: woof.

4. Signs of life from Anthony Barr.

One of the most frustrating things about the defensive regression is that the linebackers—specifically Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr—have not been the playmakers they usually are. Through the last six games, they’ve been oddly slow to react and sloppy, with a lot of missed tackles along the way. On Thursday, Barr broke out of his slump and again began playing the way that made him one of the best linebackers in the league last season. He made quick decisions, was disruptive as a pass rusher, and seemed to be near the ball and in position to make plays more often than not. This defense needs him to be great, and hopefully, we’re seeing him turn things around.

5. We’re entering the homestretch.

Here’s a look at the final five games of the season:

Image via Vikings.com
Image via Vikings.com

It’s hard to be positive about much after that one, and the steady erosion from 5-0 to 6-5. But looking at the homestretch of the regular season…there are a lot of winnable games. On paper, a 3-2 finish seems very attainable. That may not be good enough for a playoff berth, but last year, the playoffs also seemed unlikely before the team ripped off three straight wins to close the season. Let’s see if Zimmer can uncork a little magic again.

Etc.

What a weird year. In last week’s Bump & Run, I half-joked about how the only way to get through this as fans is to stop caring so much about the games. Hypocritical advice, because I was of course on the edge of my seat yesterday, and once again felt the crushing blow of another Vikings loss. There’s just no way around it. This season has been pretty special in the unique way it’s torn our collective heart out after the scintillating 5-0 start. But there are five games left. Let’s keep cheering. Let’s give them a chance.