EAGAN, Minn. (AP) — A deep pass to Justin Jefferson and Dalvin Cook’s longest run of the season had the Minnesota Vikings sitting with a 14-3 lead at Baltimore on Sunday.
Much like the rest of the season, the early success couldn’t sustain Minnesota.
Baltimore came back from a 14-point deficit twice and won 34-31 on Justin Tucker’s field goal in overtime, an all too familiar feeling for the Vikings.
“Personally, it’s very frustrating,” Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer said of his team having good moments but being inconsistent and losing games. “And it’s frustrating for the players. … We fight like crazy and can’t get it done in the end.”
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Midway through the season, the Vikings are 3-5. They somehow are just a game out of the playoff picture. Seven of their eight games have been decided by seven points or fewer.
Minnesota has held a lead in every game. The Vikings have scored on their first possession in seven straight games. They’ve scored first in five of their games.
“Seven out of the eight games have come down to the last play,” Zimmer said. “I’ve got to figure out a way to teach them how to finish these games so we’re on the other side of this thing as opposed to the way it came out yesterday. We’re working on doing that and will continue to work hard and keep going from there.”
Inevitably, after the fast starts, the offense bogs down.
According to SportsRadar, Minnesota is fourth in the NFL in first-quarter scoring. From the second quarter on, it’s 24th in scoring.
“We know we have the guys, we know we have the quarterback, we know we have the skill-position guys, we know we have the offensive line, we know our coaches are busting their tails to do whatever it takes, but it’s kind of getting old,” receiver Adam Thielen said.
“It’s getting old, the talk about that. I know the fans are done with it, us coming in here every single week and saying, ‘We have the guys, we’ve just got to go out and execute.’ So, I don’t really know what to say, because that’s the same thing each week.”
Jefferson hauled in a 50-yard touchdown pass on the first possession on Sunday. On the next drive, Cook rumbled for a season-high, 66-yard run and Cousins finished the drive with a dive over the top of the pile into the end zone.
The Vikings had 173 yards on the first two possessions. They had 145 yards the rest of the way.
“At this point, everybody knows, ‘We got to go. We got to be aggressive. We got to put teams away,’” Thielen said. “We’ve had enough of the kind of hanging in games and losing them at the end.”
With the return of Pro Bowl defensive end Danielle Hunter, Minnesota’s pass rush again has teeth. The Vikings are tied for second in the league with 27 sacks, just one behind the Los Angeles Rams going into Monday night.
Now, the question is how will Minnesota handle being without Hunter, who returned to form after missing all of last season with a neck injury that required surgery. Hunter has a team-high six sacks, but is lost for the season with a torn pectoral.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
There have been defensive breakdowns, but the biggest shortfall on defense has been handling the running game. Minnesota is allowing 136.6 rushing yards per game, the third-highest total in the league.
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One of the expected run stuffers, defensive tackle Michael Pierce, has missed the past four games with an elbow injury. The Ravens ran for 247 yards on Sunday.
A somewhat unexpected reason for the improved pass rush has been the return of veteran Everson Griffen. Griffen signed right before the season and he’s second on the team with five sacks.
Expected to be a situational rusher when he signed, the team has needed Griffen’s production. Even though coaches have talked of limiting his snaps, Griffen played 87 of the 98 defensive snaps on Sunday.
Zimmer has certainly come under fire. The offense hasn’t been the same this season under coordinator Klint Kubiak and it has seemed as if Minnesota hasn’t stayed aggressive offensively, content to grind out games in which it has a lead.
Zimmer’s calling card, the defense, is improved from last season, but still not a standout unit. The Vikings have allowed the sixth-most yards and 16th-most points this season.
Health is becoming an issue, particularly dealing with COVID-19. Veteran safety Harrison Smith, who is unvaccinated, failed a test before Sunday’s game and had to miss the game. He could miss next week, as well. Starting center Garrett Bradbury was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list last week and missed Sunday’s game.
Cornerback Patrick Peterson is on injured reserve with a hamstring injury.
6.8 — Cousins is averaging 6.8 intended air yards per attempt this season, essentially an average depth for his targets this season. It’s the third-lowest total among qualified quarterbacks this season.
Minnesota’s hopes to get back into playoff contention start Sunday on the road against the Los Angeles Chargers.
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