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It’s the Turnovers, stupid.

Before the Tennessee Titans game in Week 3, the Minnesota Vikings were holders of an abysmal time-of-possession ranking. The team ranked dead last in time of possession and was retaining the football just one-third of the time offensively. It was (and is) a sure-fire way to lose football games, and that’s precisely what happened to Minnesota against the Green Bay Packers and Indianapolis Colts through two weeks.

Low and behold, the Vikings got the memo and evened theirtime-of-possession disparity quite admirably in Week 3. Minnesota had the ball north of 28 minutes and consequently almost won the game versus Tennessee – and probably should have.

uOf course, the Titans ultimately deserved the victory as evidenced by their clutch performance. Yet, the Vikings had two blazing playmakers bust out of their holstered positions withheroic showings by Justin Jefferson and Dalvin Cook. They still lost, albeit by one point. Mike Zimmer-coached teams usually win games when four or more touchdowns are scored, so the contest felt like one the Vikings should have left victorious.

The Titans are a formidable squad. They visited the AFC Championship eight months ago and are well-coached by Mike Vrabel. While the Vikings would have preferred a victory, losing by a point to one of the NFL’s best teams is not cause for doom-and-gloom jersey burnings.

Let’s assume the time-of-possession follies are remedied. Yes, that’s a big ask, but it’s normative Vikings football. The defenseis a maturing work in progress and one that likely won’t be fixed in a single week. Think incremental progress. Mike Zimmer and the gang will continue to adjust and compensate for life without Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr. It’s marathon-not-sprint stuff.

The next corrective action pertains to turnovers. That means forcing them defensively and preventing them on offense.

Not Enough Takeaways

Through three weeks, the Vikings have two takeaways. That ranks 24th in the NFL. Notably, the Philadelphia Eagles are worse as they have forced just one turnover. The Houston Texans — on tap for Sunday — have zero takeaways. Therefore, it could be lousier.

Turnovers are the impetus of a Mike Zimmer-led defense, especially when the team isn’t as defensively rigid as years past. A Zimmer defense at its peak acts as a vice on third down and is virtuous in getting off the field.

This is generally coagulated with sacks upfront and outstanding coverage in the secondary. Neither of those Zimmer calling-cards has been left for opponents this season. The pressure didn’t arrive until last week, and the secondary has been pervious on the whole.

Ergo, turnovers are absolutely mandatory if this defense is to play poor-to-average for an undetermined amount of time. One could hope for a “bend but not break” output, but the Vikings are only exalting that philosophy in spots. Zimmer’s 2020 defense is breaking far more than usual. Takeaways will be the most apropos medicine until Danielle Hunter returns.

Fun fact: The Vikings two turnovers through 3 games is the fewest through three games the team has notched since the beginning of 2014 – Zimmer’s rookie voyage.

Too Many Giveaways

In fairness, two turnovers for the Vikings this year can be perceived as meaningless, particularly the halftime Hail Mary at Indianapolis. However, through the course of an NFL season, most teams will encounter such nonconsequential turnovers, so the rankings are static.

Regardless, the Vikings have turned the ball over on offense seven times in three games. It’s concerning. This ranks 29th in the NFL. Only the Eagles (eight) have coughed up the football more through three games.

If the defense was garnishing its typical share of turnovers, this could be glossed over, to a degree. But that isn’t happening per the commentary above. Kirk Cousins has thrown an interception in each game thus far. Historically, Cousins is not a pick-machine and some of his interceptions this season are no fault of his own. But, in a team game, that is irrelevant.

Whether it’s goofy route-running, last-minute Fail Marys, or boneheaded-ness by Cousins, Minnesota must temper the recent habit of giving the opposition the ball. It stymies momentum, gives opponents a short field, and ravages the now-precious time-of-possession battle.

From 2015 to 2017, the Vikings turned the ball over a cumulative five times in the first three weeks of the season (nine games). That’s two fewer turnovers in six fewer games. Yikes.

The Differential is Unbecoming of Success

We know that the Vikings have forced just two turnovers and have given the pigskin away seven times. That parks the team at a -5 turnover differential – otherwise known as second-worst in the league.

It’s no wonder a team that has endured time-of-possession follies and a ruthlessly upside-down turnover differential owns an 0-3 record. That is exactly what should happen to a squad bottom-feeding in both of these crucial metrics. Justin Jefferson and Dalvin Cook can have 175+ yards from scrimmage in every game from here on out, and it will be futile if the turnover calamity and time-of-possession woes aren’t rectified.

There’s a reason head coaches write stuff like “TURNOVERS” and “TIME OF POSSESSION” on their locker room blackboards. This is it.

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Dustin Baker

Writer. Host of Bleav in Vikings Podcast w/B-Mac & Baker.

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