Vikings Defense Shines, Offense Struggles amid Injuries but a Win’s a Win

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports.

It’s always tough to beat the house in Vegas. The good news from Sunday’s Vikings win: the defense was terrific in pitching a 3-0 shutout (the team’s first since 2017) with three forced turnovers. After having the 31st-ranked defense last year, DC Brian Flores’ unit now ranks 10th in yards allowed and, more importantly, fifth in points allowed. It’s an amazing improvement on D.

Vikings Defense Shines, Offense Struggles amid Injuries but a Win’s a Win

The other good news for the now 7-6 Vikings is they moved to two games behind struggling Detroit, who lost 28-13 in Chicago. The Vikings face the Lions twice in the last three weeks, with the Packers at home in between, and if Minnesota wins out (including a win in Cincinnati on Saturday), they’ll win the NFC North over Detroit and Green Bay.

A loss against the Bengals followed by three wins would still give the Vikings the division crown at 10-7 (with season sweeps of the Lions and Packers) if the Lions lose at Dallas as expected in Week 17 or against the 7-6 Broncos in Detroit on Saturday night.

The Vikings also were helped in the wild card race by losses for Seattle in San Francisco and the Rams in Baltimore as both teams fell to 6-7. 

Now the bad news: the offense is basically a mess with only 13 points scored in the last two games, uncertainty at quarterback, Justin Jefferson hurt again (chest), the offensive line banged up, and receivers having the dropsies (I counted seven against the Raiders, a problem that occurred too often earlier this season).

amid Injuries
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports.

There were a few positives on offense in Vegas. The Vikings didn’t turn the ball over, ran it fairly well (132 yards on the ground), and Nick Mullens stepped in for the ineffective Josh Dobbs (10 of 23 for yards with 21 rushing yards on five carries) and despite a couple of misfires (including a potential TD pass he overthrew to Jalen Nailor), Mullens made three excellent throws on the drive leading to the game-winning field goal (including the most critical — a 20-yarder to Jordan Addison on 3rd-and-6 from the Raiders 42 with 2:34 left). Mullens completed 9 of 13 passes for 83 yards in his three series. 

We’ll see if Jefferson, Brian O’Neill (ankle sprain), Ed Ingram (who missed his first game with a hip injury), Alexander Mattison (ankle sprain), and Nailor (concussion protocol) make it back on a short week before Saturday’s game at 7-6 Cincinnati who is back in the AFC playoff race after winning their last two games over Jacksonville and Indianapolis.

The Bengals are second in the league in turnover ratio at plus 10 and pounded Indianapolis 34-14 with backup QB Jake Browning (an ex-Vikings practice squad player who has stepped in after Joe Burrow’s season-ending wrist injury) passing for 275 yards and 2 TDs with one interception on Sunday.

Will O’Connell turn over the starting QB job to Mullens, which seems likely after Dobbs struggled for the third straight game following his amazing first two winning performances? It could wind up back and forth between these two career backups down the stretch as Kirk Cousins is looking more and more likely to return as Vikings starter in 2024.

Here are my other reactions to the Vikings escaping Las Vegas with a 3-0 victory to even their record in one-score games at 6-6 this season:

1. Just Get the W: that’s what I always told my teams as a GM and team President, and that’s what the Vikings did on Sunday. There are no style points in the NFL — just wins and losses. And there’s no such thing as an ugly win. Yes, some — like the Monday night victory over the 49ers in October — may be prettier than others, but the bottom line is to get the win, stay in the playoff race, and move on.

And any road win in the NFL is a great achievement. The Vikings are now an impressive 5-2 on the road compared to 2-4 at home this season as they head to Cincy.  

2. It’s been an amazing change of perspective on the 2023 Vikings. The prevailing thought entering the season was the team would have a dynamic, top-10 offense in Kevin O’Connell and Kirk Cousins’ second season together with Jefferson, the best receiver in the league, and the offense would have to carry the defense, which looked shaky talent-wise at several positions.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports.

The opposite is now the case with the defense leading the way for an offense struggling with injuries to Cousins, Jefferson, and on the offensive line while the defense is playing at a level not seen since 2017 under Mike Zimmer as they’ve held seven of the last eight opponents under 21 points (only Denver reached that in their one-point win three weeks ago).  

There are so many surprising contributors under Flores’ excellent scheme with its many variations. For example. Sunday’s star Ivan Pace Jr. at inside backer (13 tackles, 1 sack, 1 interception, and relaying Flores’ alignment and blitz calls in the absence of injured Jordan Hicks), and Josh Metellus (a safety who plays all over the field; 7 tackles and a key forced fumble in the red zone against the Raiders), safety Cam Bynum who leads the team with 103 tackles and had a key third down pass breakup in the fourth quarter on Sunday.

Moreover, DT Harrison Phillips had a sack to bring his career-high total to three, and he has led the Vikings’ excellent run D with 72 tackles (also a career-high; he is an underrated free agent signing for $6.5 million per year on a three-year deal by GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah in 2022) and OLB D.J. Wonnum who increased his sack total to seven and added five tackles as his play time has increased in the continued absence of Marcus Davenport after his ankle injury.

Then, of course, there’s Danielle Hunter, who has a career year with 13.5 sacks and 62 tackles as he is playing at an all-pro level in a contract year.

There were so many great stops by the defense on Sunday: on 12 Raiders drives, they had eight punts, one interception, two lost fumbles, and a drive that concluded with the end of the first half. On the Raiders’ five possessions in the fourth quarter, the Vikings held them to three straight 3-and-outs, followed by an interception and a lost fumble. The Vikings’ defense pressured rookie QB Aidan O’Connell 19 times (on 41.3% of his dropbacks) and sacked him four times. They held last year’s NFL leading rusher, Josh Jacobs, to 34 yards on 13 carries, and the Raiders had only 56 rushing yards.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports.

3. O-line must get healthy and pass protect better: five sacks were allowed, and there was constant pressure on Dobbs and Mullens. The Vikings need O’Neill to recover from his ankle injury and return to top form after rough games against Crosby and the Bears’ Montez Sweat before the Vikings face Aidan Hutchinson, the Lions’ best pass rusher (6.5 sacks after 9.5 last season).

O’Neill and Christian Darrisaw will have two other premier pass rushers to deal with in the last four regular season games—the Bengals’ Trey Hendrickson (13.5 sacks) and Rashan Gary of the Packers (nine sacks).

Maxx Crosby is a terrific player with a John Randle-like motor. He gave a usually excellent right tackle in O’Neill a lot of trouble with two sacks and four pressures as he made it difficult for Dobbs to get in a rhythm. The Vikings did double-team Crosby later in the game to help backup tackle David Quessenberry.   

The Vikings also will hope right guard Ed Ingram can return in Cincinnati, which will help the run game even if his pass protection isn’t always great. Blake Brandel was up-and-down in his relief role in Las Vegas.

4. Mattison reasserted himself running the ball well with 10 carries for 66 yards before he left the game early in the third quarter. I thought O’Connell should have stuck with Mattison running it late in the first half after he ran for 7, 6, and 7 yards before Dobbs threw incomplete on 2nd-and-3 and then was sacked by Crosby on the play that O’Neill was hurt.

Ty Chandler brings speed and moves, but Mattison is the power back who can better move the pile as long as he hangs onto the ball, as he did in this game. The Vikings did rush for 132 yards in the game against the league’s No. 25 rush defense.

5. C.J. Ham showed his versatility and value: he had a strong 7-yard run on the game-winning drive and made a great tackle at the Raider 20 on the opening kickoff, along with being the team’s best pass-protecting back and lead blocker in the run game.  

6. Greg Joseph needs to be more consistent (now 19 of 25 on field goals this season, and he has two missed PATs): his 49-yard miss in the second quarter hurt in a scoreless game, but he came through with a perfect kick on the 36-yard game-winner just after the two-minute warning. Ryan Wright was better than his last outing against the Bears as he had a 47.9-yard gross average, a 43-yard net average, four inside-the-20, and three fair catches forced on a dangerous return man in DeAndre Carter. 

7. I thought the officials missed an obvious helmet-to-helmet hit on Jalen Nailor in the fourth quarter that knocked him into concussion protocol.

Around the NFL Observations:

1. The Bears are surging with wins at Minnesota and at home against Detroit. Justin Fields is stating his case well to remain as the Bears’ starting QB instead of them using the likely first-overall pick (from Carolina in the Bryce Young deal) on a top college QB. Fields threw for 223 yards and one TD and rushed for 58 yards and a TD on an outside scramble where he flashed his speed for the 11-yard fourth-quarter TD that put the Bears up by 12 points.

Fields had no turnovers, whereas Jared Goff continued his turnover issues with two interceptions (he now has eight turnovers in the last four games).

The Bears may well decide to keep Fields, trade the top pick down a spot or two, and draft Ohio State star wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. Pairing him with D.J. Moore (88 combined yards and two TDs against the Lions on Sunday) could create quite the dynamic pair of wideouts.

2. The Ravens helped the Vikings with their exciting 37-31 overtime win over the Rams, knocking them down to 6-7. Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson threw three TD passes (as did Matthew Stafford for the Rams), and Tylan Wallace won it with a 76-yard walkoff punt return TD.  

Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones attends the Big 12 football between Texas Tech and Texas, Friday, Nov. 24, 2023, at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin. © Annie Rice/Avalanche-Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK.

3. The 49ers and Cowboys had impressive wins over division rivals to claim the top two spots in the NFC. San Fran beat Seattle 28-16, helping the Vikings in the process as the Seahawks fell to 6-7 with their fourth straight loss (and they host the Eagles next Monday night).

Dallas forced three turnovers in handling Philly rather easily 33-13 for their 15th straight home victory. The Eagles are reeling a bit with two straight convincing losses to San Francisco and Dallas to fall out of the top seed and NFC East lead.

4. The defending champion Chiefs have also been faltering lately with two straight losses as the Bills stay alive in the tight AFC (one of six 7-6 teams). Patrick Mahomes was incensed by an offsides call late in the game that nullified a touchdown on a pass to Travis Kelce, followed by a lateral to Kadarius Toney (the culprit who was clearly offsides). Mahomes said the officials warn players before making such a call, but it’s certainly not required, and it’s the latest miscue for Toney, who dropped a key late pass in the opener that led to Detroit’s upset win in K.C.  

I’m back on Friday with my preview of the Vikings’ tough matchup in Cincinnati against the Bengals, who, like the Vikings, are starting a backup quarterback and trying to return to the playoffs. We’ll see if it’s Mullens who would be the fourth starting QB for the Vikings this season (not the best recipe for continuity on offense but O’Connell is looking for whatever works on offense to go with his surprisingly good defense). 

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