Big Win in Green Bay Clouded by Cousins’ Achilles Injury
An NFL season includes lots of twists and turns for teams, but one thing the Vikings thought they could count on was quarterback Kirk Cousins staying healthy. After all, he has never missed a start due to injury in his 12-year NFL career.
Big Win in Green Bay Clouded by Cousins’ Achilles Injury
That will change next week in Atlanta after Cousins shockingly tore his Achilles tendon in the fourth quarter as he led the Vikings to their third straight win without Justin Jefferson, 24-10 on Sunday in Green Bay. It was the team’s fourth victory in five games as they’ve climbed to two games behind the Lions in the NFC North and currently hold the third wild card spot.
It seems bizarre and a cruel twist of fate that after all the hard hits Cousins has taken over the years (including two roughing-the-passer penalties by the Packers), it was a non-contact injury caused by getting his cleats stuck in a grass field that knocked him out during a time when he’s playing better than ever. But that’s life in the NFL, where a team’s resolve is constantly challenged.
This turn of events reminds me of my second year in the league back in 1977 when our Hall of Fame QB Fran Tarkenton broke his leg in a Week 9 win over Cincinnati. Vet Bob Lee (with help from rookie Tommy Kramer) directed the Vikings to three more regular season wins, the NFC Central title, and a playoff win against the Rams in L.A. before an NFC Championship defeat in Dallas.
There are at least two other times in Vikings history when the backup QB has come in due to the starter’s injury and led the Purple to late-season success. In 1987, Wade Wilson stepped in for the injured Tommy Kramer and played great in road playoff wins at New Orleans and San Francisco before a last-minute loss in the NFC title game in Washington. Then, in 2017, Case Keenum replaced Sam Bradford and went 11-3 as the starter in the regular season before throwing the famous Minneapolis Miracle pass to Stefon Diggs that beat the Saints in the divisional playoffs. The Vikings then lost the NFC title game in Philly.
So, while there was a feeling of gloom (but not doom) in the Vikings locker room and among the fan base post-game despite the 24-10 win, all is not yet lost, and the team still can have a successful season. But it will be a lot tougher without Cousins, who has played great the past two games and leads the NFL in TD passes with 18 (after scoring tosses to T. J. Hockenson and Jordan Addison in Green Bay), ranks second in passing yards and third in passer rating as he was headed towards a likely fifth Pro Bowl selection.
Coach Kevin O’Connell said Cousins is “having maybe his best season as a pro.” O’Connell and the Vikings players on both sides of the ball saluted him post-game as the undisputed team leader.
And I don’t agree with people who say this is the end of the line in Minnesota for Cousins, who will be a free agent in March. Given his close connection with O’Connell and his knowledge of the offensive scheme, the supporting cast he has here, the excellent season he’s had, and the fact he has young kids and would likely not relish a move to a new city, I think there’s a reasonably good chance he remains with the Vikings despite the challenges of his contract situation.
Here are my other reactions to the Vikings-Packers game:
1. The question now is, who will quarterback a surging team the rest of the season? Rookie Jaren Hall showed good composure, according to the players and coaches, when he came in for 11 fourth-quarter snaps, but he had a lost fumble on a sack before completing a big third-down pass to Hockenson that helped drain the clock. He’s the likely starter in Atlanta next Sunday, and then it could be Hall or, more likely, Nick Mullens (17 career starts in San Francisco and Cleveland) if his back is healed when he can return from injured reserve in Week 10 at home against the Saints or possibly vet Sean Mannion (who is on the practice squad but is not a good option after his past sub-par play).
The Vikings could make a trade for a QB such as Andy Dalton or Ryan Tannehill or go to the free agent market and sign Colt McCoy, Matt Ryan, Carson Wentz, or Nick Foles. Sorry, social media speculators, it won’t be Tom Brady (although O’Connell was on the Patriots roster with Brady in 2008).
Whoever quarterbacks the Vikings will have one of the NFL’s best supporting casts on offense, especially when the All-Pro Jefferson returns as soon as the Saints game to join Pro Bowler Hockenson, star rookie receiver Addison, and a solid vet in K.J. Osborn, along with an improving offensive line and several fine backs (although the run game must be better to take some pressure off the new QB).
2. About that running game: while the Vikings passing game ranks second in the league, the rushing attack is a dismal No. 31. The Packers have a good front seven on D and held the Vikings to 62 yards on 31 carries (2.0 yards per carry). It’s apparent that Cam Akers, who scored the team’s first rushing TD of the season in the first quarter, should be the starting back with Alexander Mattison, a quality No. 2 who should rotate in. And Ty Chandler can continue to provide speed on outside runs.
O’Connell knows that with a less experienced QB, controlling down and distance with a decent running game is critical. If it becomes third-and-long, the blitzes will be coming.
3. Hockenson, Addison, and Osborn had excellent games: all three contributed big third down receptions, and Hockenson made several diving catches, including on his 2-yard TD in the third quarter (he did have one drop on a ball purposely thrown a bit behind him).
Addison was impressive in beating Pro Bowl corner Jaire Alexander several times (including on a perfectly thrown 20-yard TD from Cousins, which was among his seven catches for 82 yards), and Osborn got a game ball for his eight-catch, 99-yard day that included four catches for 60 yards on the third quarter drive that put the Vikings up 17-3. Brandon Powell also had a diving first-down catch in the fourth quarter.
4. The defense is improving under DC Brian Flores, but there are concerns at corner, and Danielle Hunter must stay healthy: it’s quite the change and improvement to see the Vikings defense now ranked 12th after being 31st last season. That’s largely due to Flores’ aggressive scheme, especially against young QBs such as the Packers’ Jordan Love, who did not play well.
Josh Metellus had a huge third-quarter interception when he made a great play to steal the ball from Jayden Reed, and he returned it 43 yards to set up the TD pass to Addison on the next play.
Metellus is making a bigger impact week-to-week as the third starting safety. His fellow safeties Cam Bynum and Harrison Smith made big fourth-down stops in the fourth quarter to secure the victory.
The Vikings run defense was excellent in holding Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon to a combined 40 yards on 13 carries (3.1 yards per carry). Harrison Phillips had his best game as a Viking with several run stuffs among his eight tackles, and he added a half-sack and 2 QB hits.
D.J. Wonnum (two sacks in Green Bay and now four for the season) is showing up big in his contract year and making more of an impact. And, of course, Danielle Hunter (with his league-leading 10th sack and six pressures) should be in the Defensive Player of the Year discussion at the mid-point in the season. It’s imperative that he stays healthy and keeps producing at this high level for the Vikings to return to the playoffs.
5. Corners still a big concern: Akayleb Evans had a good end zone breakup, but he also was beaten several times and was called for pass interference in the end zone before getting beat on Romeo Doubs’ one-yard TD in the third quarter. Andrew Booth is playing some, but he’s basically a non-factor. Byron Murphy has been ok in coverage, but nothing special
Third-rounder Mekhi Blackmon was the Vikings’ best corner in Green Bay, with three passes broken up, and I think he should start ahead of Evans.
6. Joseph and Special Teams must be better: Greg Joseph missed a 42-yard field goal on the first drive (when I thought O’Connell should have gone for the first down on 4th-and-1 with the Vikings moving the ball). After a good start to the season, Joseph is 6 of 10 on field goals and 5 of 7 on PATs over the past three games. That must improve asap.
The kicking teams were a mess, with Jay Ward lining up offsides for the second time this season, which nullified a missed field goal that was made on the second try. There was a hold by Ivan Pace that cost Chandler a kickoff return TD, and bad interior blocking led to a blocked field goal in the fourth quarter. Lots to clean up on special teams before heading to Atlanta.
Around the NFL Observations:
1. The Falcons are next week’s opponent for the Vikings, who are an impressive 3-1 on the road as they prepare for Atlanta. The Falcons also have QB issues after starter Desmond Ridder was benched when he had his league-leading 12th turnover, and the team scored only three points in the first half at Tennessee. Taylor Heinicke replaced Ridder and got the Falcons back in a game they wound up losing 28-23, and Coach Arthur Smith did not commit to Ridder starting against the Vikings. Atlanta is tied for the NFC South lead with New Orleans at 4-4.
Atlanta also suffered a major injury with their top defensive lineman Grady Jarrett tearing his ACL in Tennessee and ending his season.
2. Upsets continue to be prevalent: Kansas City surprisingly was beaten 24-9 in Denver as Patrick Mahomes threw two interceptions and lost a fumble.
It wasn’t that surprising that the surging Bengals (now 4-3 with three straight wins) handed the 49ers their third straight defeat, 31-17, in San Fran. Joe Burrow has recovered from his calf injury and is playing terrific. He completed 28 of 32 passes for 283 yards and 3 TDs. Brock Purdy followed up his shaky performance against the Vikings by throwing two more interceptions in the loss. The 49ers now are 5-3 and a half-game behind the Seahawks in the NFC West.
3. Trade deadline deals: it should be a busy period before the 3 p.m. deadline on Halloween as contending teams seek to improve while struggling teams unload players. The disappointing 2-6 Giants sent former Pro Bowl defensive lineman Leonard Williams to Seattle on Monday for second and fifth-round picks.
The Eagles acquired two-time Pro Bowl safety Kevin Byard from the Titans for safety Terrell Edmunds and a couple of late picks. Byard started for the Eagles in their win over the Commanders on Sunday and made 7 tackles, but the Philly secondary allowed 397 yards and 4 TDs by Sam Howell. 7-1 Philly hosts 5-2 Dallas (off a big game for Dak Prescott and CeeDee Lamb- 12 catches, 158 yards, 2 TDs) in an NFC East showdown on Sunday, which is one of several great matchups in Week 9.
4. Other big games next weekend are AFC East-leading Miami (6-2) vs. AFC West leader Kansas City (6-2) in Frankfurt, Germany on Sunday morning (8:30 am CT), 5-2 Seattle at 6-2 Baltimore in another matchup of division leaders and Buffalo is at Cincinnati on Sunday night in a key AFC game.
I’m back with my Vikings-Falcons prediction on Friday in the first test for the Vikings after Cousins’ injury, and it’s against a team they could be competing with for a wild card spot, so a head-to-head win is essential.
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