Mullens Not Good Enough as INTs, Injuries Costly in Loss to Lions
In the Vikings’ 30-24 loss to Detroit that put their playoff hopes in serious jeopardy, Nick Mullens threw four interceptions, the Lions should’ve had a fifth, and Mullens nearly lost two fumbles. He did throw for 411 yards and two TDs, but his mistakes and careless throws ultimately cost his team, especially on his final interception when he made a wobbly pass behind an open Justin Jefferson at the Lions’ 2-yard line when a good pass, leading Jefferson into the end zone would’ve given the Vikings the lead in the final minute.
Mullens Not Good Enough as INTs, Injuries Costly in Loss to Lions
Jefferson talked postgame about missing Kirk Cousins, saying, “I think it goes to show the rest of the world the type of player Kirk is. This is a tough league, and everybody is not meant for this job. So it’s tough not having 8 (Cousins) out there, the captain and leader that he is, and he’s a great player.”
Then he caught himself and gave what could be interpreted as half-hearted praise of Mullens, saying, “Not to take anything away from Nick. He’s an outstanding player as well.” Six interceptions in the last two losses and too many other inaccurate throws say otherwise on Mullens.
There’s little doubt the loss of Cousins is the main reason the Vikings are 7-8 and need to win their final two games against the Packers and Lions, along with needing the Rams or Seahawks to drop a game to earn a wildcard playoff spot. It’s still possible, but if the erratic Mullens remains the starter, it’s not probable for him to win these last two games unless he dramatically improves his consistency and is not so careless.
With Cousins, the Vikings likely would have won one-score games against Denver, Chicago, Cincinnati, and Detroit (games in which Josh Dobbs and Mullens turned it over 12 times). If the Vikings had emerged victorious in those games, they would lead the NFC North with 11 wins. If they had split those four games (which Cousins surely would have managed), they’d have nine wins heading into the final two games and be a likely playoff team and still in the division race if he’d beaten Detroit as he did the past five years in the matchup in Minnesota.
The critical team-building error by GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Coach Kevin O’Connell was their belief that the 35-year-old Cousins would continue to be the iron man he had been in not missing a start over his entire 12-year career. So, they didn’t invest in a top-quality backup. That’s a dangerous bet that has proved their undoing in 2023.
Dobbs and Mullens have had some good moments, but they are not a No. 2 QB at the level of four other backups in Vikings history who have stepped in for injured starters, and all led the team to the playoffs and the NFC Championship game in 1977 (Bob Lee), 1987 (Wade Wilson), 1998 (Randall Cunningham) and 2017 (Case Keenum).
Perhaps rookie Jaren Hall could have been such a player this season if he hadn’t suffered a concussion on his first (and successful) series in Atlanta. After Mullen’s careless play in the losses to the Bengals and Lions, I’d say now’s the time to find out more about what Hall can do in these final two regular season games. Maybe he can be the savior to the 2023 season that Dobbs and Mullens haven’t been.
Whoever is starting at QB now has to play without Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson, who sustained injuries to his ACL and MCL on a low hit by Lions safety Kerby Joseph.
Here are my other reactions to the Vikings falling short against the Lions, who clinched the NFC North at 11-4, while the Vikings are now tied with the Packers at 7-8, a disappointing drop from when they were 6-4 and on a good path to the postseason:
1. Injuries took a toll & Lions safety Kerby Joseph is a cheap shotter: It was a gutsy effort by the undermanned Vikings, who were missing seven starters by the fourth quarter, three of whom were hurt during the game — Hockenson, Jordan Addison and D.J. Wonnum.
Joseph went low at Hockenson’s knees, causing the injury that knocked him out of the game early in the third quarter. Then Joseph went head hunting with a helmet shot on Jefferson that was penalized and should draw a fine from the league. Players like Joseph need to be suspended so they get the message on how to tackle correctly.
Wonnum is lost for the rest of the season with his torn quad, which is a significant loss to the Vikings’ defense since he’s their second-best pass rusher behind Danielle Hunter. O’Connell said Addison is considered “day-to-day” with his ankle injury that knocked him out of the game in the second quarter.
2. Badly out rushed: what happened to the Vikings’ run game that was so effective against Cincinnati when Ty Chandler rushed for 132 yards? He was held to 17 yards, and Alexander Mattison returned from his ankle injury with no success. The Lions came into the game ranked eighth in run defense, but the Vikings must run it better to balance the offense, especially when a backup QB is playing.
The Vikings’ offensive line also allowed four sacks, including a late sack by Roman Okwara against Christian Darrisaw. The return of tackle Brian O’Neill from a sprained ankle is needed up front after he missed the Detroit game.
The Lions’ duo of David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs combined to run for 135 yards and three TDs against the Vikings run defense that ranked fifth going into the game. The Lions have one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, and they won the battle on Sunday against the Vikings’ defense with an effective day of run blocking and pass protecting (only one sack for the Purple).
3. Jefferson back in All Pro form: J.J. made several sensational catches on a day with six receptions for 141 yards and a diving second quarter TD. His best catch was a leaping grab against double coverage on 3rd-and-27 for a first down on the final drive before Mullens’ bad pass missed him for what could’ve been the winning score. He also had a great hustle play to recover Mullens’ fumble the play before.
Jefferson did set a record on Sunday as he passed Michael Thomas to become the player with the most receiving yards in his first four seasons. He’s now at 5,648 and needs only 177 yards over the next two games for his fourth straight thousand-plus-yard season despite missing seven games.
4. Mullens had too many inaccurate passes to open receivers or never saw them: on a key 3rd-and-8 with the Vikings behind 23-21 late third quarter, he checked it down to C.J. Ham short of the first down when Brandon Powell was open downfield on the same side he threw short to Ham.
Mullens underthrew a wide-open Johnny Mundt on a cool trick play with 6:27 left. The pass play still gained 23 yards to the Detroit 9, but it should’ve been a touchdown. On the next play, Mullens threw too high to an open Jefferson in the end zone.
The Vikings wound up kicking a field goal to still trail by six points when a TD would’ve brought them within two points and set them up to only need a field goal at the end to win instead of a TD. Too often, Mullens locks in on a receiver and doesn’t look around for who may be more open, which is not a good trait for a seventh-year QB.
5. In looking at the players who must step up in the last two games: After Mundt replaced Hockenson, he let a catchable ball go through his hands on what would’ve been a big gainer on the third quarter drive that ended in the check down to Ham but at least he had the 23-yard big gain and fellow tight end Josh Oliver had a big reception for 33 yards on the Vikings first offensive play so he and Mundt will contribute but Hockenson is an elite tight end having his best season (95 catches, 960 yards, 5 TDs) and he’ll be sorely missed.
K.J. Osborn had one of his best games (5 catches, 95 yards, 1 TD on a slick play call by O’Connell). Brandon Powell has done a good job this season filling in when Jefferson was out and caught the winning score in Atlanta. He stepped in for Addison and made clutch catches of 21 and 26 yards on the final drive. Osborn and Powell are valuable players, but they don’t have the talent level of the first-rounder Addison, who has nine TD receptions in his rookie season.
Rookie corner Mekhi Blackmon also suffered a shoulder injury, which threw the Vikings’ secondary into having too many backups playing as they already were missing their best corner- Byron Murphy Jr., who was inactive with a knee injury.
6. Only one sack of Goff: the Lions’ offensive line was impressive in keeping the Vikings’ blitzes off of Goff, who had struggled with the blitz this season. He completed 30 of 40 passes for 257 yards, 1 TD, and no turnovers, with most of his completions against the blitz. Flores’ past success against Goff with Miami and New England didn’t carry forward on Sunday.
I said before the game that the Vikings needed great games from their two best players–Jefferson and Hunter–to beat Detroit. Jefferson delivered, but what happened to Hunter? He had seven tackles but no sacks, and only one QB hit on Goff’s 40 dropbacks.
Much more was needed from him, and it seemed Brian Flores had him lined up more often on the left side, going against the Lions’ much better tackle in Pro Bowler Penei Sewell instead of on the right side against Taylor Decker, who gave up a lot of pressures and sacks in recent Lions losses to the Packers and Bears. Hunter also had several snaps rushing up the middle, making it easier to double-team him.
There will be more pressure on Hunter to produce against the Packers and Lions in the next two weeks with Wonnum and his eight sacks out.
7. Find St. Brown and double him in the next meeting: Amon-Ra St. Brown is an excellent receiver (fifth-ranked in the league with 1,286 yards and third in catches with 106. Yet the Vikings didn’t appear to double him much as he had 12 catches for 106 yards and one TD and he regularly beat corner Akayleb Evans including on the third quarter TD (where Cam Bynum didn’t help out).
8. The defense did have stops on the last two Lions series, with Pat Jones contributing several big defensive plays in the best game he’s played for the Vikings (6 tackles, 1 sack, 3 tackles-for-loss). But ultimately, it’s hard to win a big game with a backup QB, as Mullens proved for the second straight week.
9. Two bad officials’ calls create a 10-point swing in Detroit’s favor in the second quarter: on a day when the Vikings battled injuries and Mullen’s turnovers, they needed all the help they could get, and the officials made it tougher by missing two critical calls on the second quarter Lions drive that resulted in a field goal. First, there was a poor call of roughing the passer on Jones when he hit Goff in the shoulder and not the head (and let up as he hit him).
Then in the biggest play of the game, a strip sack by Jordan Hicks (who played well with nine tackles in his return) that was returned for an 82-yard TD by Cam Bynum was ruled an incompletion after it was ruled a fumble on the field but overturned on an expedited review. I thought (and so did O’Connell) that it certainly appeared Hicks hit Goff’s arm before it went forward.
And if it was close, the call on the field should’ve stood. Further damaging was that O’Connell was not allowed to challenge it which is absurd on such a huge play that resulted in a 10 point swing. Instead of the Vikings going ahead 14-7, they trailed 10-7 after the Lions kicked a field goal.
Around the NFL Observations:
1. The Packers come to town this Sunday still alive for a wild card spot at 7-8 but with a struggling defense that gave up 30 points in a three-point win at lowly Carolina, who have the 30th-ranked offense. Aaron Jones had a 127-yard rushing day, and he’ll test the Vikings’ run defense that came up short against the Lions. Jordan Love threw two TD passes as he continues to be up-and-down this season. The Vikings beat the Packers 24-10 in Lambeau on October 29 and will seek their first series sweep since 2017 (the season when Aaron Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone on a hit by Anthony Barr).
2. The two teams immediately ahead of the Vikings in the wild card race — the Rams and the Seahawks — had one-score wins on Sunday over the Saints and Titans, respectively.
The semi-good news for the Vikings this week is the Rams and Seahawks should have challenging games on Sunday. L.A. plays at the Giants, who beat the Packers in their last home game and played the Eagles tough in a 33-25 loss on Christmas. Seattle hosts 8-7 Pittsburgh, who is in the AFC playoff hunt after they intercepted Jake Browning three times in a surprising 34-11 home victory over Cincinnati.
The Vikings play the inconsistent Packers on Sunday night, so they’ll know at kickoff if they can reclaim a playoff spot with a win.
3. The Ravens have claimed the “best NFL team currently” after their impressive 33-19 win in San Francisco, highlighted by four interceptions of Brock Purdy and one against Sam Darnold. The Ravens got another strong performance from Lamar Jackson (252 passing yards with 2 TDs and 45 rushing yards). Baltimore can wrap up the No. 1 AFC seed with a home win over Miami next week.
It was good news for the Vikings that the Ravens beat the 49ers in this battle of teams holding the top seeds in each conference. That’s because the Rams close the regular season at San Francisco, who likely will need a win to wrap up the top NFC seed over Philadelphia, who should win the NFC East over Dallas after the Cowboys lost at Miami. The Seahawks close their regular season at Arizona.
And there’s a chance Detroit will be locked into either the second or third seed before their Week 18 rematch with the Vikings, so they could decide to sit some starters or pull them out of the game early.
4. It’s strange to see the Chiefs struggling at 9-6 with a 3-5 record in their last eight games, as the offense has not been efficient due to a lack of quality weapons at wide receiver for Patrick Mahomes. In Monday’s 20-14 home loss to the Raiders, the Chiefs gave up a fumble return TD and a Pick 6 on successive offensive snaps.
I’m back Friday with my preview of the Vikings-Packers’ New Year’s Eve border battle, with the season on the line for both teams.
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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