0-3 Vikings Have a Big Hole to Surmount

Sep 24, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) is tackles by Los Angeles Chargers safety JT Woods (22) and safety Derwin James Jr. (3) in the third quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports.

It’s a truism that the success of an NFL team’s season is determined by the ability to convert a handful of key plays that lead to victories.

The Vikings made these plays on an astounding basis last season when they were an NFL-record 11-0 in one-score games with eight comeback wins engineered by quarterback Kirk Cousins.

0-3 Vikings Have a Big Hole to Surmount

The playoff loss to the Giants that ended with the ill-fated Cousins check down to T.J. Hockenson started a downward trend that has continued through the first three games of the 2023 season. Despite the gaudy stats of Cousins, Justin Jefferson, and the Vikings passing game, the team is 0-3, putting their chances to repeat as NFC North champions in early jeopardy as they now sit two games behind the Lions and Packers after their Sunday wins over the Falcons and Saints, respectively.

Six teams have started 0-3 and made the playoffs since 1978, but only Houston has done it in the last five years (and Pittsburgh would have made it in 2013 if the current system with 14 playoff teams was in place). Playing 17 games and having an extra playoff spot in the NFC improves the chances for the Vikings, and they have all six divisional games ahead.

big hole
Mar 1, 2023; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Minnesota Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell speaks to the press at the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The team faces an uphill climb to turn their season around beginning next Sunday in Carolina against the similarly winless Panthers with the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs in the on-deck circle.

Coach Kevin O’Connell understands the urgency as he said, “Our backs are against the wall now. We’ve got to find a way to get our first win this week and stack the wins from there. There’s a lot of football left.” 

Here are my other reactions to the 28-24 loss to the Chargers:

1. Red zone failures, Chargers gifts, and a bizarre finish: the Vikings made five trips into the red zone, and four of them ended without a TD (and two with no points). T.J. Hockenson fumbled (the Vikings’ seventh lost fumble this season) at the Chargers 17 to end the team’s first drive. They got only a field goal out of 1st-and-Goal from the L.A. 3 in the second quarter. The Vikings turned it over on downs at the Chargers 2 with 2:57 remaining and down by four points on a messed-up play that included an incompletion and illegal motion (declined) on Jefferson.

Then Chargers Coach Brandon Staley made the stupid decision to go for it on 4th-and-1 from the Chargers 24 with 1:51 remaining. Jonathan Bullard and the Vikings D made the stop, but Cousins and the offense turned that gift into the end zone interception after Cousins and Hockenson converted a fourth-down pass to the Chargers 6, but 30 seconds ticked off the clock. Cousins said he couldn’t hear O’Connell’s play call, didn’t spike the ball as he should have done, and forced a throw to a covered Hockenson (shades of the Giants playoff finish) that was deflected and picked off with seven seconds left. 

Sep 24, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings tight end Josh Oliver (84) celebrates his touchdown with tight end T.J. Hockenson (87) against the Los Angeles Chargers in the second quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports.

The Chargers also tried to give the game to their hosts with 12 penalties, including seven that resulted in Minnesota’s first downs.  

2. The Vikings are doing some good things (big passing numbers—second-ranked in the league, better run game on Sunday with 130 rushing yards and a 5.4-yard average, and the huge late defensive stop on fourth down), but it’s not enough to overcome their many issues. 

This includes defensive breakdowns (454 passing yards for the Chargers after 259 rushing yards for the Eagles), too many miscues on offense, including three pre-snap penalties vs. the Chargers in a home game, converting only 4 of 14 on third downs in this game, and their league-worst minus 7 turnover ratio (lost the turnover battle again 2-1). There should’ve been another turnover after Alexander Mattison fumbled but was incorrectly ruled to have forward progress on the second-quarter drive that ended with a field goal. 

3. A huge problem has been Cousins’ mistakes in clock management and turnovers, which have been a big reason for home losses to the Bucs and Chargers. Cousins and Jefferson have made a lot of big plays this season, but the losses overshadow their big stats. 

Cousins made a bunch of good throws during his 367-yard passing day against the Chargers lousy secondary, but he was off target on too many throws, including many that were caught but not in stride, so receivers could have run for more yards after the catch. The worst was with 1:47 left when Cousins overthrew an open K.J. Osborn on a deep route that would have given the Vikings the lead on the first play after the Vikings D stopped the 4th-and-1 play with 1:51 left. 

In the stats can be deceiving category, Cousins leads the NFL with 1,075 passing yards and ranks third with a 108.2 passer rating, but his team is 0-3, and he’s turned it over five times. 

4. Time for Risner to replace Ingram: it was another game with too many missed blocks by second-year guard Ed Ingram that resulted in a portion of the four sacks and 13 QB hits on Cousins by the Chargers, along with some key run stuffs on Mattison. Dalton Risner was in uniform on Sunday, and he needs to be in the starting lineup at Carolina this Sunday and especially when All-Pro DT Chris Jones comes to town the following week with the Chiefs. The Vikings O-line also misses center Garrett Bradbury as his replacement, Austin Schlottmann, is not as effective.

5. J.J. needs to be targeted throughout any game: he had no targets in the first 20 minutes against the worst pass D in the league, which can’t happen. Jefferson wound up with another big day (7 catches, 149 yards, 1 TD, where he showed his speed on the 52-yard play that was a great throw under pressure by Cousins and gave the Vikings a short-lived 24-21 lead). But J.J. easily could have had a 200-plus-yard day.

Sep 24, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) runs after the catch against the Los Angeles Chargers in the fourth quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports.

6. We heard a lot about situational masters meetings last year, where the team discussed what to do in certain critical situations. They’ll surely spend some time this week reinforcing when to clock it at the end of the game.

7. Ugh, Akayleb Evans: he’s got to make the interception that went through his hands on the deep ball that Joshua Palmer then caught for the winning score. Winning teams make those plays.   

8. Back off a bit on the blitzing, Brian Flores: he called for blitzes on almost unheard of 81% of the snaps for the Chargers, and once again, the opposing OC adjusted, in this case with Kellen Moore calling numerous quick wide receiver screens to counteract the blitzes. Or the Chargers picked up the blitz, and a red-hot Justin Herbert (40 of 47, 405 yards, 3 TDs) would hit Keenan Allen, a five-time Pro Bowler who torched the Vikings highest-priced corner Byron Murphy (who was most often covering Allen with no safety help). Allen had a club-record 18 catches for 215 yards.

The ultimate insult was the 49-yard TD play on a lateral from Herbert and then a pass downfield from Allen to Mike Williams that put the Chargers up 21-10. Murphy was totally fooled by the play.

In all three losses, the Vikings defensive coordinator has been too slow to adjust his schemes when the opposing OCs adjust. It was Baker Mayfield going to quick passes in the opener, the Eagles running the ball at will against a three-man front, and too many blitzes against an excellent QB in Herbert and a smart OC in Moore. 

Around the NFL Observations:

1. It’s already a wild NFL season, and the Vikings can take solace in looking at the results around the league on Sunday and believing they can get back in the NFC North race if, as Jefferson says, they “stop shooting ourselves in the foot.” 

The Chargers win in Minnesota was a mild upset since the Vikings were 1 ½ point favorites, but there were much bigger surprises on Sunday, led by Dallas getting upset 28-16 in Arizona. The lowly Cardinals rushed for 222 yards against the vaunted Cowboys D, and QB Josh Dobbs threw for 189 yards and ran for 55 yards as he outplayed Dak Prescott. Presumed AFC South favorite Jacksonville lost convincingly 37-17 at home to Houston as second-overall pick C.J. Stroud had a great day with 280 yards passing and 2 TD tosses. Another semi-shocker was the Colts giving the Ravens their first loss in a 22-19 win in Baltimore. 

2. Green Bay QB Jordan Love was missing four key starters on offense—Aaron Jones, Christian Watson, David Bakhtiari, and Elgton Jenkins—and still was able to lead three fourth-quarter scoring drives and overcome a 17-0 deficit in the Packers’ 18-17 win over the Saints.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Jordan Love (10) celebrates following a missed field goal by New Orleans Saints placekicker Blake Grupe (19) during their football game Sunday, September 24, 2023, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. The Packers defeated the Saints 18-17. © Wm. Glasheen/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin / USA TODAY NETWORK.

3. The seismic eruption in Denver came from the Dolphins offense that destroyed the Broncos 70-20 as they scored the most points in the league since 1966. Tua Tagovailoa competed all 16 of his first-half passes on his way to a day with 23 of 26 completions for 309 yards and 4 TDs. Coach Sean Payton is not making progress in his first season in Denver (0-3). 

If the unbeaten Dolphins beat the Bills in Buffalo this Sunday, it will be time to consider them a legitimate Super Bowl contender, at least after four weeks.   

I’m back with my Vikings-Panthers prediction on Friday as the Vikings prepare to face their former Pro Bowl receiver Adam Thielen, who is coming off a game at Seattle where he had 11 catches for 145 yards and 1 TD. 

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