The GM Reacts: Vikings Lose Another Winnable Game to Rams
Vikings Insider, The GM’s View
If you told us Kirk Cousins would outplay Matthew Stafford and the Vikings would win the turnover battle 3-1 over the Rams, it certainly would have seemed likely that Minnesota would emerge with a win thus holding onto an NFC wild card spot.
Alas, a bevy of Vikings and officials miscues combined with a crushing punt return TD, too much Rams power running and the beast that is Aaron Donald cost the Purple an essential home victory. This leaves the 7-8 Vikings once again playing the what if game after an exciting but ultimately disheartening defeat and facing the difficult task of heading to Lambeau Field for a Sunday night matchup with 12-3 Green Bay as the season likely hangs in the balance.
Here are my other reactions to a day after Christmas downer:
1. The game really turned for the worse for Minnesota in a third quarter sequence after Anthony Barr’s second interception set up Alexander Mattison’s 2-yard touchdown run to pull the Vikings within three points at 13-10.
The Vikings D then held the Rams and with momentum on their side on the ensuing possession, Brian O’Neill’s false start penalty took Minnesota from 3rd-and-4 to 3rd-and-9. Pressure from Donald forced Cousins to scramble for 8 yards (that would’ve picked up the first down if it was 3rd-and-4).
Then, a killer blow came as Jordan Berry’s mediocre punt was returned 61 yards for a TD by Brandon Powell as several Vikings were either blocked or out of their lanes and Troy Dye was the victim of an uncalled block in the back that would’ve wiped out the play. Suddenly it was 20-10 L.A. and an uphill battle the rest of the way for Minnesota.
2. Another key non-call by this asleep at the wheel officiating crew: on the first play of the fourth quarter and clinging to a 20-13 lead, Rams star receiver Cooper Kupp was stripped of the ball by Cam Dantzler as he was fighting for more yards on the sideline. The officials ruled forward progress which blows the play dead and did not allow for a Mike Zimmer attempted challenge. I don’t think it’s apparent on replay if the ball hit Kupp after he stepped out of bounds so the turnover would have held up if it was called a fumble on the field.
Zimmer clearly disagreed with the call, saying “They let these guys get in these piles and run forever. They never blow the whistle, and all of a sudden we have a one-on-one thing there, and they’re going to say it’s blown dead.” It may have wound up as a fumble return for a TD by Eric Kendricks but instead the Rams drove to a TD and a 27-13 lead that a couple good late Vikings drives couldn’t overcome.
The officials also missed holding calls that could’ve been made on Jalen Ramsey covering Justin Jefferson and an obvious hold by a Rams lineman on Kendricks on a second quarter drive that led to a Rams field goal. And I’m tired of the inconsistency in taunting calls league-wide as Ramsey could’ve been flagged for getting in K.J. Osborn’s face after his reception that set up 2nd-and-Goal at the L.A. 4-yard line. A taunting call would’ve given the Vikings a first down at the L.A. 2-yard line but instead Minnesota was held to a field goal and still trailed by 7 points.
3. Rams coaches outschemed Vikings coaches on a critical late-game play: with seven minutes remaining and the Rams leading 27-20, they faced 3rd-and-6 from their 29 yard line. It was obvious that Stafford would look for the NFL’s leading receiver Kupp, especially when he saw him being single covered by slot corner Mackensie Alexander. Alexander fell down on the 37-yard catch and run by Kupp, setting the Rams up for the field goal that put the game away at 30-20 with two minutes left.
This play was one of several times Kupp was covered one-on-one by Alexander (to help him on a 10 catch, 109 yard day). Kupp should’ve been constantly doubled and Patrick Peterson along with Harrison Smith should’ve been on him at critical junctures such as this fourth quarter play.
Also the Rams defensive coaches often stunted Donald into one-on-one matchups or too often the Vikings mistakenly chose to single block the best defensive player in the league. He blew by Minnesota’s offensive linemen most of the game, on his way to five tackles, one sack, three tackles-for-loss, two QB hits and one forced fumble. A game-wreaker like Donald must be doubled on every play.
4. Vikings dropsies: three times the ball was in their hands and dropped on potential game-turning plays. Osborn had the ball bounce off his hands in the end zone resulting in a first quarter interception. And two potential interceptions were dropped, by Dantzler and Kris Boyd on drives in which the Rams produced 10 points. So those three drops led to a net gain of 17 points for L.A. in a seven point Vikings loss.
5. Vikings offense not capitalizing enough on turnovers and red zone opportunities and lousy on third down: Stafford’s three interceptions resulted in only 10 Minnesota points and the Vikings scored just 20 points on five red-zone trips. That won’t cut it against a quality opponent such as the now 11-4 and playoff bound Rams.
On too many occasions, offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak called a running play that was stuffed at a time when the Vikings were moving the ball through the air. Then there was the bad decision by Cousins to throw an incomplete checkdown to Mattison on 3rd-and-Goal in the third quarter (when down 20-10). He had time to wait for Jefferson to get open in the right corner of the end zone on that play. A deflating field goal was the result.
Another major issue was the Vikings converting 2 of 12 third downs while the Rams went 7 of 14.
6. Go up-tempo earlier and stick with it: Cousins got in a nice rhythm and made his best throws of the day to Jefferson, Osborn and Tyler Conklin on a couple second half drives when the offense went no huddle and up tempo. It was a great strategy by the coaches but should have been implemented more often during the game against a tiring Rams team that had to travel after playing a Tuesday night game due to Covid issues.
I also liked the extensive use of the screen game to Mattison, Jefferson and Conklin. On the running back screens, Mattison executed them well but rookie Kene Nwangwu didn’t wait for his blocking to set up on one screen. The plays would’ve worked even better if Dalvin Cook—with his great speed and vision– had not been out with Covid.
7. Rams win the battle in the trenches: L.A. outrushed Minnesota 159-66 (131 yards for Sony Michel) which was a critical factor in offsetting one of Stafford’s worst passing games this season (197 yards, 3 picks, 46.8 rating). The Rams also kept the Vikings league-leading pass rush sackless. It was surprising to see the Rams offensive line so effective despite missing two starters although Vikings pressure helped contribute to the three interceptions.
Kendricks—perhaps the Vikings best defensive player with Danielle Hunter out–had seven tackles but was not as impactful as usual, likely due to dealing with injuries lately including a back problem that cost him practice time last week and he missed the Detroit loss on December 5 with a biceps injury.
The Rams defense produced three sacks and plenty of pressure on Cousins while holding Mattison and Nwangwu to 59 yards on 18 carries (a 3.3 yard average). Cook being out obviously was a factor in the run game.
Around the NFL Observations:
1. Among the biggest surprises in this wild NFL season is Cincinnati sweeping all four games against Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Joe Burrow threw for 525 yards and 4 TDs in Sunday’s 41-21 win over the Ravens.
2. Dak Prescott and Josh Allen were the other big QB stars of Week 16. Prescott torched Covid-ridden Washington for 330 yards and 4 TDs in the 56-14 shellacking as the Cowboys clinched the NFC East. Allen had 314 passing yards and 3 TDs in a huge 33-21 road win at New England that gave the Bills a tie-breaker edge on the Patriots if both teams win their final two regular season games.
3. With their win over the Giants, the 8-7 Eagles supplanted the Vikings in the final NFC wild card spot with two games remaining. Two wins can still get the Vikings into postseason but they would need the Eagles and Saints to lose some games to make it work.
Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl