Vikings Turnover Woes Return in Late Loss to Broncos + Around NFL Observations
An old nemesis — Russell Wilson — and the return of turnover woes, along with the blitz working against them on both sides of the ball, were too much for the Vikings to overcome on Sunday night in Denver.
Vikings Turnover Woes Return in Late Loss to Broncos + Around NFL Observations
Josh Dobbs and the Vikings defense played well enough most of the game to win, but the clutch Wilson and the opportunistic Broncos defense ultimately prevailed as the Vikings’ five-game winning streak was halted before a loud Broncos crowd and prime-time TV audience.
The Vikings fell to 6-5 and still hold a 1 1/2 game lead for the final NFC wild card spot but dropped to 2 1/2 games behind Detroit in the NFC North as, unlike the Vikings (with their three giveaways and no takeaways), the Lions overcame four turnovers and came back from 12 points down in the last four minutes to beat the too-conservative Bears.
The Broncos winning streak now is at four as they have climbed to 5-5 and within one game of the last AFC playoff spot.
Here are my other reactions to the Vikings’ 21-20 loss in Denver:
1. The Vikings must finish better than they did in Denver. Their last four offensive drives ended fumble, interception, field goal, and over on downs, while Denver finished field goal, field goal, and touchdown.
2. Back to harping on ball security: the three turnovers led to only nine points as the defense held in each case, but they were the difference in a one-point loss. Dobbs lost a fumble on the opening drive off on an ill-advised play call with T.J. Hockenson taking the snap and pitching it to Dobbs (but the turnover should have been nullified by a helmet shot from safety Kareem Jackson, who was just coming off a two-game suspension for such a hit).
It would’ve been much better for Kevin O’Connell to call for the Tush Push/QB sneak on that 3rd-and-1 play as the Vikings did successfully several times later in the game. This was the fifth time the Vikings have turned it over on the opening drive this season.
Mattison’s costly third-quarter fumble was a momentum killer as the Vikings were at the Denver 34 with an 8-point lead and 2:52 left in the third quarter, so a TD or field goal on that drive would’ve made it a two-score lead for the Vikings. Dobbs’ early fourth-quarter interception came off a blitz where Ty Chandler couldn’t sustain his block, and Dobbs was hit as he threw.
The Denver D now has 12 takeaways in their last three games, so the Vikings knew coming in that they had to protect the ball. O’Connell said post-game that he’ll be again giving extra emphasis to ball security as he was forced to do early this season when excessive turnovers caused the 0-3 start.
3. The Vikings were the less effective blitzing team: the Vikings’ defense was excellent until the final 10-play, 75-yard drive, but they only sacked Wilson twice (he came into the game with 30 sacks against him, ninth most in the league).
The Broncos had a lot of success pressuring Dobbs with blitzes, including on the interception. They pressured Dobbs on 58% of his dropbacks, the NFL’s fifth-highest rate this season, and many of those pressures came from blitzing linebackers. The offensive line, tight ends, and backs must be better in pass protection, although the run blocking was strong with 175 rushing yards.
Wilson is now 8-1 in his Seattle and Denver career against the Vikings and directed his 38th game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or OT over his 12-year career. Despite struggling on third down much of the night (2 of 12), he came through with the big plays to Courtland Sutton on 4th-and-3 and with the winning TD pass as he managed to escape several sack attempts down the stretch.
4. Dobbs battled hard and made a lot of big plays, but his accuracy was not as good as in the previous two games: he scrambled on a few key runs, including the 10-yard TD that put the Vikings ahead 17-9 in the third quarter but he had only 21 yards rushing on eight carries.
Dobbs said he did not make good throws on two passes to Hockenson that were broken up on the final drive, and he missed more throws in this game than he had in the wins over the Falcons and Saints, which was often due to his lack of protection. On the intentional grounding call with 28 seconds left that set up the 4th-and-25 incompletion, center Garrett Bradbury was knocked backward by the onrushing D.J. Jones, who forced Dobbs to unload the ball.
5. Time for Chandler to be the No. 1 running back: Alexander Mattison ran hard and broke a lot of tackles in his 81-yard rushing night, and he still should be the relief back as he was behind Dalvin Cook. But Mattison has either fumbled or dropped passes too many times to keep his starting job when the Vikings have an excellent No. 2 back who is more explosive and hangs onto the ball in Chandler.
Mattison was in for 48 offensive snaps compared to 23 for Chandler, who rushed for 73 yards on only 10 carries (including the 31-yard fake punt). Chandler added four catches for 37 yards, including the 19-yarder on 3rd-and-20 that helped set up the Vikings’ last field goal. That 2:1 ratio in favor of Mattison should be reversed in Chandler’s favor moving forward.
Chandler is the better back and proved it again in Denver. He is fast, has good vision to find holes, and is an excellent receiving back, but he does need to improve in pass protection (as on the pressure he allowed on Dobbs’ interception). But Mattison has been up and down in pass protection, too. C.J. Ham is the best choice in long-yardage passing situations (despite Chandler’s big gain on the 19-yard swing pass).
6. The negative impact of injuries to key players showed up on Sunday night: it was the first loss without Justin Jefferson, and his return — whether against the Bears next Monday night or after the bye at the Raiders on December 10 — will give the Vikings one of the league’s top receiving groups led by their All-Pro in J.J.
Leading tackler Jordan Hicks was missed in coverage, especially on the Broncos’ final drive when relief back Samaje Perine caught four passes for 40 yards (Hicks will miss at least three more games with his shin injury).
Hicks’ replacement in many coverages — rookie Ivan Pace — had nine tackles to lead the team and almost saved the game with his forced fumble on Perine, but he couldn’t make the recovery before the ball went out of bounds on that final drive. Pace was also beaten by Sutton on the fourth down conversion on the winning drive, but it was a mistake to have a linebacker instead of a corner covering the Broncos’ best receiver in that situation.
Third-round pick Mekhi Blackmon was picked on several times by Wilson as he started at corner in place of Akayleb Evans (calf). Blackmon has played well this season in limited duty, and I thought he’d fare better in this game, but his rough night included getting out-jumped by Sutton on the game-winning 15-yard TD pass with 1:09 left.
If often-injured Marcus Davenport can return at some point from his ankle injury, it will help the pass rush (two sacks in his three games played this season) and further aid a strong run defense that ranks seventh after holding Denver to 46 yards.
7. Good night from Joseph: after his almost costly late field goal miss against the Saints (albeit from 54 yards), it was a positive for Joseph to go 4 for 4 on his two field goals and two PATs, and he banged all of his kickoffs deep in the end zone to prevent a return by one of the league’s best returners in Marvin Mims.
Punt cover specialist Najee Thompson has to be better after he failed on two chances to down a punt inside the Denver 5, including once when he was unaware of where he was on the field as he ran into the end zone.
8. We thought the one-score magic from last season (11-0 in regular season prior to the seven-point playoff loss to the Giants) would even out this season, and it certainly has. The Vikings are 5-5 in 2023 one-score games, with the only game that hasn’t fallen into that category being the 24-10 victory in Green Bay in Week 8.
9. The Vikings must bounce back with a Monday night win against Chicago and Justin Fields: the Bears QB returned to the lineup (from his thumb injury sustained on a Danielle Hunter sack five weeks ago) and played well until conservative play-calling killed the Bears chances for a big upset in Detroit. Fields rushed for 104 yards on 18 carries, including a big 29-yard run on 3rd-and-14 in the fourth quarter, and passed for 169 yards and one TD.
The Vikings beat the Bears 19-13 at Soldier Field in Week 6 in a game that wasn’t decided until QB Tyson Bagent’s poor first-down deep throw was picked off by Byron Murphy on the final drive. The other big defensive play came on Hicks’ scoop-and-score off a Josh Metellus strip-sack of Bagent in the third quarter. It was a tough day for the Vikings offense, with only 220 total yards (46 yards rushing) in the first game without Jefferson.
Around the NFL observations:
1. Back to that Bears-Lions game, it may have been the death knell for the head coaching reign of Matt Eberflus as his team blew the 12-point lead in the final four minutes due in large part to overly conservative play calling after Fields’ long run set the Bears up at the Lions 26. The Bears ran it three straight times, including on 3rd-and-7 (with Roschon Johnson carrying instead of Fields on a run-pass option) to set up a field goal instead of trying for the knockout punch with a TD.
After the Lions scored to move within five points, the Bears had Khalil Herbert run twice for one total yard before Fields threw incomplete to the No. 3 receiver Tyler Scott (instead of top receiving targets D.J. Moore, Darnell Mooney, or Cole Kmet). Then, the Lions drove to the winning score.
Members of the Vikings who watched that game probably figured they had an opportunity to move within a half-game of Detroit if the Lions lost and the Vikings won that night in Denver. Instead, it swung the other way in both games.
2. The Packers’ Jordan Love picked on the league-worst Chargers pass defense with 322 yards and two TDs in a 23-20 win that moved the Pack to the fringe of playoff contention at 4-6.
3. The Browns moved to a half-game behind the Ravens at 7-3 in the AFC North with a 13-10 home win over the Steelers. Cleveland’s top-ranked defense held Kenny Pickett to 106 passing yards, and Myles Garrett had two sacks to become the NFL leader with 13 sacks, one more than Hunter. Rookie QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson got his first win as he replaced the injured Deshaun Watson, who is out for the year (shoulder). It’s a tough year for QBs in that division, with Joe Burrow also lost for the season with a wrist injury.
4. Looking ahead to Thanksgiving weekend, key games include 4-6 Green Bay at 8-2 Detroit and 7-3 San Francisco at 6-4 Seattle (for the NFC West lead) on Turkey Day and on Sunday, 7-3 Jacksonville is at hot Houston (6-4 with three straight wins led by sure-fire Offensive Rookie of the Year QB C.J. Stroud) for the AFC South lead (the Texans crushed the Jaguars 37-17 in Week 3 in Jacksonville) and 5-5 New Orleans travels to 4-6 Atlanta with first place on the line in the NFC South.
Also on Sunday, two hot teams meet with 7-3 Cleveland at 5-5 Denver, and Buffalo (6-5) will try to keep its shaky playoff hopes alive in a tough matchup at Philadelphia. The Vikings-Bears Monday nighter rounds out Week 12.
I’m back with my prediction on Friday as the Vikings seek their sixth straight win over the Bears to improve their record to 7-5 and bolster their playoff hopes.
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