Bad Defense, ‘Checkdown Kirk’ Lead to Playoff Exit

Jan 15, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings fans react during the fourth quarter during a wild card game against the New York Giants at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Vikings Insider, The GM’s View 

We thought we had seen the last of Check Down Kirk at crunch time, but he came back to life at the worst possible time — on 4th and 8 down seven points late in the fourth quarter with the season on the line in the wildcard playoff against the Giants

Instead of throwing past the first down marker for superstar receiver Justin Jefferson, Kirk Cousins dumped a 3-yard pass to a well-covered T.J. Hockenson (who also should have been required by a better Kevin O’Connell play call to run a 9-yard route). Cousins said he thought he was about to be sacked with  Giants star Dexter Lawrence bearing down on him (as he did much of the day against the Vikings shaky offensive line) but still — just throw it in Jefferson’s vicinity, which Cousins amazingly did not do at all in the fourth quarter. And on 3rd and 8 preceding the ill-advised pass to Hockenson, Cousins did not lead K.J. Osborn enough — a throw Cousins said post-game that he should have made — and the pass was broken up.

Bad Defense, ‘Checkdown Kirk’ Lead to Playoff Exit

This final offensive sequence — combined with another bad performance by the defense, especially in allowing Giants QB Daniel Jones to run and pass for 379 yards — led to the Vikings 31-24 defeat and their elimination from the playoffs to put a damper on what had been an excellent regular season for the NFC North champs. The NFL record the Vikings set of going 11-0 in one-score games finishes at 11-1.

Here are my other reactions to the Vikings playoff loss to the Giants:

1. The Vikings are a good football team with a potentially great offense if the offensive line is at full strength and Cousins plays at the top of his game. The Giants defensive line overpowered the O-line too often in this game. It was a huge loss to be without top tackle Brian O’Neill and with a rusty center in Garrett Bradbury, who needed to be at his best against a Pro Bowl defensive tackle in Dexter Lawrence, who was dominant with six tackles, four QB hits/pressures, and one tackle-for-loss. If the O-line had been intact, they would’ve had a better chance to take advantage of the Giants’ No. 27 run defense (Dalvin Cook only ran it 15 times for 60 yards), which could have helped the time of possession (33 ½ minutes to 26 ½).  

Cousins played well overall until the last drive with lots of great throws under pressure as he threw for 273 yards and two TDs and also ran for a score on an opening drive QB sneak. I would’ve liked to see O’Connell call a few more bootlegs off playaction to get Cousins away from the pressure of Lawrence and Leonard Williams inside, especially on the final plays when Lawrence was beating Bradbury and Ezra Cleveland. It’s a shame that the Cousins detractors will focus on that final play after his best season with 13 wins, including eight come-from-behind victories. 

Bad Defense
Jan 8, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) passes the ball against Chicago Bears during the first half at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings’ offense was in a tough spot most of the season as they needed to overcome the team’s defensive shortcomings in scheme and personnel that are exposed when the D does not force turnovers, as was the case against a Giants team that was second-best in the league at protecting the football. The Vikings forced two turnovers in the December 24 win over the Giants (the team was 8-0 this season when forcing at least two turnovers), but there were none in the playoff game. 

2. It’s beyond belief that O’Connell and Cousins did not target Jefferson more in the second half and on the final drive, even as he was double-covered. J.J. had six catches on the first two drives, then one catch on three targets the rest of the game. Inexcusable. Just throw it up to him like in the Buffalo game and, yes –in the first Giants game — and so many others this season as he led the league in targets, catches, and yards.

3. The Vikings defense’s best chance in the playoffs was for Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith to dominate. Hunter was just ok against a shaky tackle in Evan Neal, with one sack and two QB hits. Smith was ineffective compared to his first half of the season play when he was among the league leaders in sacks and pressures. He had only a half-sack over the last eight games and none in the Giants loss (with no QB hits). 

4. The Giants are a very well-coached team under likely Coach of the Year Brian Daboll, and he put in some new wrinkles, including more designed runs for QB Daniel Jones that the Vikings D did not have a solid plan to deal with, such as spying him more often. Jones was the star of the game with 78 rushing yards on 17 runs, including seven first downs, and he passed for 301 yards. Most important for the Giants, he didn’t have a turnover in his 52 times handling the ball on passes or runs.  

vikings and giants
Dec 4, 2022; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New York Giants head coach Brian Daboll. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports.

A key stat was the Giants converting 9 of 15 on third and fourth downs while the Vikings were 5 of 12, which is acceptable except when the opposition does better. 

5. The defense’s tackling was poor on Saquon Barkley’s 28-yard first-quarter TD run. The Vikings D suffered from a lack of speed at inside linebacker with Jordan Hicks and slow reactions from Chandon Sullivan at slot corner and Cam Bynum at safety. Defensive coordinator Ed Donatell’s loose coverage scheme and lack of blitzing also were a problem most of the season. Pro Bowl linebacker Eric Kendricks had an up-and-down year in which he did not seem to adjust well overall to the new 3-4 scheme, as both he and Hicks often were a step late in coverage and picking up QB runs from Jones and other mobile QBs this season. Kendricks is a Pro Bowl-caliber player who should be more effective next year in whatever scheme the team utilizes. 

Jones picked on Sullivan and corner Duke Shelley repeatedly in this game, and even a usually dependable corner in Patrick Peterson was beaten several times. The Vikings loose coverage allowed a receiver with 33 catches in the regular season—Isaiah Hodgins (who was cut in mid-season by Buffalo) — to have eight receptions for 105 yards and a TD. It was his first career 100-yard game.  

6. The Vikings D was hurt by season-ending injuries to three of their first five 2022 draft picks—safety Lewis Cine (who appears to be more athletically gifted than Bynum) and corners Andrew Booth Jr. and Akayleb Evans, who should become better players with more speed than Sullivan and Shelley. And third-year corner Cam Dantzler turned from an early-season pleasant surprise to a late-season disappointment when he did play after missing several games with an ankle injury. It’s hard to count on him for the future with his uneven play over the past three seasons. 

Thing at Stake for
Dec 17, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports.

The Vikings need to flush several members of their secondary, hope Harrison Smith can stay healthy (he had only three tackles on Sunday as he had battled a knee injury all week), and draft another starting-caliber cornerback with their first-round pick (23rd overall) if there is a worthy corner at that spot.

7. It hurt the Vikings when linebacker Brian Asamoah left the game with a concussion in the first half, as he likely would’ve played more on defense to bring his added speed. I expect Asamoah, the team’s third-round pick last April, to start with Kendricks at inside linebacker as Hicks likely will be released for the $5 million cap savings.

8. It will be interesting to see if O’Connell decides to stick with Donatell as his DC. I’d say it’s more likely he’ll make a change. O’Connell had a great first season overall, and his offensive scheme is excellent, but his playcalling has room to improve in Year 2 as he sometimes went away from the run too early when the o-line was intact. I also think he should’ve called a timeout with the Giants facing 3rd and 7 from their own 13-yard line with 37 seconds left in the first half so the offense could possibly get the ball back with a stop and move into field goal range for Greg Joseph’s big leg. And the 3rd and 1 throwback from Jefferson to Cousins in the first quarter was a dud call when the Vikings needed to get a first down and keep the offense on the field.    

9. Two false starts were critical: one that wasn’t called on the first-quarter TD pass from Jones to Hodgins and one that was called against Christian Darrisaw on 4th and 1 from Giants 16 early in the fourth quarter that nullified a first down sneak by Cousins and forced a tying field goal instead of an opportunity to go on to a TD and take the lead.  

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10. The special teams were fine in this game, besides Jalen Reagor’s muffed punt that Kris Boyd recovered. Ryan Wright closed out a fine rookie season with a 54.7-yard average on his three punts. Greg Joseph made all four of his kicks and kicked off well, with only one kick returned for 19 yards. Joseph is one of many free agents who should be re-signed this offseason.

Around the NFL Observations from Wild Card Weekend:

1. Even if the Vikings had beaten the Giants, it would’ve been very tough to win in San Francisco next weekend. The 49ers rolled to their 11th straight win with a 41-23 victory over Seattle in which rookie seventh-round QB Brock Purdy continued his terrific run with 332 yards passing and three TD passes plus one TD run. He’s now 6-0 as the starter and will face a tough defense against either Dallas or Tampa Bay next Sunday.

2. The Chargers blew a 27-0 lead in Jacksonville in shades of the Vikings massive comeback from 33-0 down to beat the Colts. Except this was on a much bigger stage in the playoffs. Hats off to Jaguars Coach Doug Pederson and QB Trevor Lawrence, who threw four interceptions in the first half but bounced back with four TD passes to lead the comeback. 

Jan 1, 2023; Houston, Texas, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) throws the ball during the third quarter against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not impressed with Brandon Staley as a head coach. I don’t think one game should cost a coach his job, but blowing a 27-0 lead on top of other questions should be enough for the Chargers to let him go.  Staley’s sometimes off-the-wall fourth down decision-making has produced mixed results, and in the playoff loss to the Jaguars, he opted for a field goal attempt (that failed from 40 yards) on 4th-and-3 with a 10-point lead and 8:51 remaining when a fourth down conversion followed by another TD would have produced a three-score lead. Staley should’ve won more games in the past two years with a top 5-10 QB in Justin Herbert.

3. Buffalo and Cincinnati won divisional matchups against Miami and Baltimore, respectively. The games were closer than expected, with backup QBs forced to play for the Dolphins (Skylar Thompson) and Ravens (Tyler Huntley). It will be an exciting divisional playoff on Sunday when Josh Allen and Joe Burrow duel in Buffalo. It’s unfortunate for the Bengals that they have to go to Buffalo when they could’ve hosted this game if they had beaten the Bills in the Week 17 game in Cincy that was postponed after Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest. But I salute Burrow, who said the league did the right thing, and the Bengals just have to find a way to win in Buffalo. 

4. The Giants will go into Philly as a big underdog next Saturday night (as will the Jaguars in Kansas City on Saturday afternoon). But I think the Giants will play the Eagles tough, even though they’ll face a much better defense than was the case against the Vikings. 

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