Coaching, QB, and Secondary Miscues Lead to Costly Loss at CIN

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I thought the Vikings had a really smart head coach and defensive coordinator. But that was not the case in the fourth quarter and overtime as the Vikings blew a 14-point lead and lost a highly winnable game in Cincinnati, making the road to the playoffs more difficult even as the Vikings held onto the sixth seed in the NFC.

Coaching, QB, and Secondary Miscues Lead to Costly Loss at CIN

Kevin O’Connell and Brian Flores have done well to keep the Vikings in playoff contention with so many key injuries — especially to Kirk Cousins and Justin Jefferson — and a bunch of new starters on defense where Flores has gotten only four games out of high-priced OLB Marcus Davenport and is missing Jordan Hicks at ILB. But I was shocked to see O’Connell call for two consecutive failed QB sneaks by Nick Mullens with Brandon Powell as the pusher on third and fourth down from the Bengals’ 42-yard line when a field goal would have won the game and Flores’ excessive blitzing on Jake Browning and coverage schemes against Tee Higgins were costly.

and secondary
Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins (5) makes a touchdown over Minnesota Vikings cornerback Akayleb Evans (21) in the 4th quarter at Paycor Stadium Saturday, December 16, 2023. © Cara Owsley/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK.

How could O’Connell believe it made sense to have a 180-pound wide receiver behind Mullens on the “tush push” as opposed to lining up 258-pound tight end Josh Oliver (reputed to be the NFL’s best blocking tight end) and 248-pound T.J. Hockenson or perhaps 315-pound extra lineman Blake Brandel behind Mullens to do the pushing?

How about handing the ball on one of the plays to Ty Chandler, who had rushed for 132 yards in the game, instead of having Mullens get shoved in the back when he had recently recovered from a back injury that landed him on injured reserve? And Mullens is no Jalen Hurts in terms of lower body strength on the QB sneaks.

Then there was the crazy play call by O’Connell with 3:38 left in the fourth quarter on 1st-and-Goal from the 1 after Chandler had just ripped off a 30-yard run. Mullens had already thrown two terrible interceptions in the second quarter when the Vikings were inside the Bengals’ 25 and in field goal range. Yet O’Connell called for a pass play, and Mullens retreated 10 yards before throwing a TD pass to Jordan Addison in tight coverage that could’ve resulted in another interception for Mullens, whose accuracy runs hot and cold.

As for Flores, the shutout in Vegas was great, and the defense has been surprisingly good this season until late in close games. But this is the third loss in the past four games where the defense lost the lead at the end. The Vikings dropped those three games to Denver, Chicago, and Cincinnati by 1, 2 and 3 points. That makes seven one-score losses this season by a total of 26 points, a significant negative turnaround from last season’s success in one-score games (11-1).

Brian Flores Weighs
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There were too many easy completions in crunch time as Flores stuck with his blitz-happy scheme even though Browning entered the game with a 128 rating against the blitz. The Vikings secondary — especially corner Akayleb Evans — was repeatedly beat by Tee Higgins and had no safety help to double team an elite receiver in Higgins (with top receiver Ja’Marr Chase out of the game by then) on the game-tying 21 yard jump ball thrown to the right corner with 39 seconds left in regulation. Evans also got away with a blatant pass interference as he was again in single coverage against Higgins on the Bengals’ first drive in overtime.  

Also in O.T., the Vikings’ highest salaried corner, Byron Murphy, couldn’t stick with third receiver Tyler Boyd on a crossing route that turned into a 44-yard gain when Murphy, Evans, and Cam Bynum missed the tackle after the catch. That set up the chip shot 29-yard winning field goal by Evan McPherson.

Since this was a fourth loss to an AFC opponent, the Vikings kept their hold on the NFC’s sixth seed due to their 6-3 conference record and better record vs. common opponents than the Rams. But the Vikings have the same 7-7 record as the Rams and New Orleans (who the Vikings beat head-to-head as the first tie-breaker), so the margin for error has shrunk heading into the final three games.

Next up are the Lions at U.S. Bank Stadium. Detroit had lost two of their last four games before ripping the Broncos 42-17 on Saturday night behind Jared Goff’s five TD passes (three to rookie tight end Sam LaPorta). So, the Lions will come to town with renewed confidence. The Vikings then host the Packers on New Year’s Eve (they’re reeling after consecutive losses to the Giants and Buccaneers) before the Vikings’ regular season finale at Detroit.

The Vikings probably have to win two of the next three to make the playoffs, and they have to hope they hold the sixth seed so they can likely go to Detroit in the wild card round instead of traveling to Dallas, Philadelphia, or San Francisco. Perhaps when the Vikings finish the regular season at Detroit, the Lions will have wrapped up the NFC North and be locked in as the No. 3 seed so they can pull their starters early in the game, which would help the Vikings’ cause.

Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Devonte Wyatt (95) chases Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff (16) during their football game Thursday, September 28, 2023, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. © Wm. Glasheen / USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin / USA TODAY NETWORK.

Three straight victories would still win the NFC North if the Lions also lose in Dallas, as expected in Week 17. But that’s a tall order for the Vikings, who have been hampered by key injuries (right tackle Brian O’Neill and running back Alexander Mattison, the latest with their sprained ankles that kept them out in Cincinnati). The Vikings are also QB-challenged unless Mullens plays more consistently and are having coaching miscues in a few of their losses, such as on Saturday.

The bottom line is the Vikings dropped another winnable game in Cincy to go along with games they had a great chance to win earlier in the season against the Buccaneers, Chargers, Broncos, and Bears. The games they’ve lost are due to “self-inflicted wounds,” as Justin Jefferson astutely said after the Bengals game. That has to change over the final three weeks and if they are fortunate enough to return to the playoffs.

Here are my other reactions to the Vikings loss in Cincinnati:

1. There was too much standing around and watching by Viking defenders, notably by Mekhi Blackmon, as Higgins extended the ball over the pylon when Evans tackled him, and Blackmon may have been able to knock the ball out. It appeared several defenders could have aided in gang-tackling Joe Mixon after Ivan Pace blasted him in the hole, but he bounced off into the end zone on the one-yard TD that tied the game 17-17 midway through the fourth quarter.

2. The Ja’Marr Chase reception for 24 yards on 3rd-and-21, which kept the drive alive that tied the game 17-17 just can’t happen. It was very reminiscent of D.J. Moore’s 36-yard reception to set up the winning field goal in the 12-10 loss to the Bears in Week 12. Both Chase and Moore found open spots in the middle of the field in zone coverage as the Vikings blitzed.

3. Mullens is not Cousins in terms of accuracy, as he made some good throws but several that forced Jefferson, Hockenson, and Oliver to contort their bodies in order to make difficult catches. The 37-yard TD pass to Addison was released under pressure, but Addison had to grab the ball two inches off the ground in an outstanding play.

It was a definite positive to see so many tough catches with no drops by Vikings receivers in this game after the seven dropped passes in the win over the Raiders. Addison (6 receptions, 111 yards, 2 TDs) benefited from double coverage on Jefferson and now leads all rookie receivers with nine TDs. J.J. looked great and fully recovered from his chest and hamstring injuries, which is good for the Vikings as they head down the stretch.

O’Connell has to be pulling his hair out with the risky throws Mullens made after benching Josh Dobbs for similarly not being more careful in protecting the ball. The two picks by Mullens in field goal range cost the Vikings at least six points and are the kind of plays that lead to losses.

4. The Vikings need to rely more on Chandler and the running game and less on Mullens’ passing unless he improves his accuracy. Chandler shows great instincts and speed, such as when he bounced it outside for 24 yards on the first play of the third quarter to jump-start the TD drive that put the Vikings ahead 14-3.

Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports.

5. It was another excellent game for Danielle Hunter, who had two sacks to reach a career-high 15.5 (a half-sack behind T.J. Watt for the league lead). He also had five tackles, three tackles-for-loss, and two QB hits. It’s unfortunate for the Vikings that Hunter couldn’t get to Browning a couple more times late in the game (he did force him out of the pocket on the last big gainer to Boyd).

And will we ever see Marcus Davenport again this season after his ankle injury landed him on IR two months ago? He would add another quality defensive player up front in the critical upcoming games. It’s pretty clear the pass rush (now with 41 sacks to rank 10th) has to be great every week with the shaky play of the Vikings secondary most weeks, especially the cornerbacks who too often are getting outjumped by tall receivers such as Higgins vs. Evans and Denver’s Courtland Sutton against Blackmon on the winning play in that game.

6. Greg Joseph had a good day with all of his kickoffs, resulting in touchbacks and making all four of his kicks (one field goal from 39 and three PATs). Ryan Wright punted well with a 50.7-yard average. It was a job well done by both in the last outside game of the season until perhaps a playoff game.

Around the NFL Observations:

1. Baker Mayfield had his best game as a Buc with 381 passing yards and four TDs in a 34-20 win that helped the Vikings in the wild card race by knocking the Packers back to 6-8.

2. In the race for the all-important NFC’s sixth seed, the Rams are the biggest threat with a remaining schedule of home vs. New Orleans (who played well in a 24-6 win over the Giants on Sunday), at the Giants (who are better at home with their recent win over the Packers) and at the 49ers (who may have the top seed wrapped up by then and rest their starters).

The Rams have won four of their last five games, with the only loss in overtime at AFC top-seed Baltimore. Matthew Stafford has 13 TD passes and only two interceptions over that five-game stretch.

3. The Bears’ two-game winning streak ended in Cleveland when they blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead and lost 20-17. It was not a good day for Justin Fields, who threw two interceptions against the league’s top defense. That will continue the chatter on whether the Bears should trade Fields and draft the best college QB with their likely first-overall pick from Carolina in the Bryce Young trade.   

4. The Bills were impressive in ripping the Cowboys 31-10 in Buffalo. It was a game they had to win to stay alive in the AFC race. James Cook (Dalvin’s younger brother) led the way with 179 rushing yards, 42 receiving yards, and two combined TDs. The Bills defense was outstanding as they held Dak Prescott to 134 passing yards. It was a costly defeat for the Cowboys as it opened the door for the Eagles to ultimately win the NFC East with their easier remaining schedule.

5. How about the Raiders following up the shutout at the hands of the Vikings D and then scoring 63 points last Thursday against the awful Chargers D? That game ended the reign of Coach Brandon Staley and GM Tom Telesco, who were fired the next day.

We could say that spoke even better for the Vikings’ defense’s performance in Vegas except for the lousy fourth quarter and overtime in Cincy with 24 points allowed after a solid first half when the D held the Bengals to a field goal.

6. Top games upcoming on Christmas weekend besides Lions at Vikings: Saints at Rams on Thursday night; then on Sunday, 9-5 Cleveland at 8-6 Houston, 8-6 Jacksonville at 7-7 Tampa Bay (with both teams leading their divisions on tie-breakers) and a pair of 10-4 teams—the Dolphins and Cowboys—meet in Miami. The game of the week is on Christmas night in San Francisco, with the Ravens and 49ers battling as the top teams in each conference try to hang on to the top seeds.

I’m back on Friday with my preview of the Vikings’ first of two big matchups with the 10-4, division-leading Lions. 

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