Penalties, sacks and key fumble by Cook pile up in Vikings 27-24 overtime loss

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CINCINNATI — The premise on which the 2021 Vikings are built goes something like this: There is enough proven talent on a top-heavy roster to engineer a return to the playoffs, the obvious issues with depth in some spots and inexperience in others notwithstanding.

The events that transpired through 70 minutes of football at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday had already peppered that theory with plenty of objections before Evan McPherson's 33-yard overtime kick sailed through the uprights.

But in addition to the concerning developments that unfolded throughout Sunday's season opener, the Vikings headed home with another problem: A game that appeared to be one of the more favorable matchups on their early-season schedule had slipped away.

The Vikings' 27-24 loss to the Bengals on Sunday was much of their own making: They committed 12 penalties for 116 yards, with nine calls accepted against their offense that cost them 65 yards in the first half alone. The penalties and two sacks meant they faced 12.9 yards to go on 11 third downs through the first three quarters, limiting their ability to get Dalvin Cook involved early.

And after Greg Joseph sent the Minnesota sideline into a frenzy with a career-long 53-yard field goal to force overtime, Cook fumbled on his final carry of the day, costing the Vikings a chance to win the game. On the ensuing drive, Joe Burrow checked out of a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1 and hit C.J. Uzomah for 32 yards to set up McPherson's game-winner.

The Vikings (0-1) lost for only the third time in eight season openers under Mike Zimmer. They now head to Arizona to face a Cardinals team that beat the Titans 38-13 on Sunday before two home games against 2020 playoff teams (the Seahawks and Browns).

"It's a gut-wrenching loss — there's definitely plays on both sides we think we need to have back," said nose tackle Michael Pierce, who had his first-ever two-sack game but jumped offside on a key first-half play. "Got to clean up penalties and stuff like that. They're a good young team, but I feel like we gave this one away. You've just got to go out, practice, watch the film, take your butt-chewing like a man and keep it moving."

Pierce's offside penalty gave the Bengals a free play that turned into a Burrow deep ball and a 26-yard Bashaud Breeland pass interference penalty, but the other 11 were against the offense. The Vikings had five holding penalties, five false starts and an unnecessary roughness call on Oli Udoh in the second half; the Bengals declined another holding call and two illegal formation penalties.

It meant only eight first-half carries for Cook and an inability for Kirk Cousins to set up deep shots off play action; his average throw traveled only 6.1 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

"Personally I'm not a huge fan of saying, 'You've got this many runs, you've got this many passes, you've got to be balanced,'" wide receiver Adam Thielen said. "Obviously that's your goal, but game situations totally depend on, like, if you're starting first-and-20, you have a smaller playbook, and you have to get some yardage back to be able to manage a third down. We just have to be clean on first down so that we can be us."

The Vikings were down 21-7 early in the third quarter and had punted back to the Bengals after Udoh's personal foul. A bold fourth-down call from Bengals coach Zac Taylor, though, gave the Vikings new life.

Taylor opted to run Joe Mixon on fourth-and-1 from the Bengals' own 30 in the third quarter, betting on Cincinnati's ability to continue its drive after Burrow hit Ja'Marr Chase for 15 yards on third-and-16.

BOXSCORE: Cincinnati 27, Vikings 24 (OT)

Analytics models called the decision a toss-up, but Vikings stopped Mixon and turned the favorable field position into a touchdown with their own fourth-down call, when Cousins threw from a clean pocket against a five-man blitz and Thielen won his one-on-one matchup with an inside release on Mike Hilton. Thielen scored a 24-yard touchdown on fourth-and-6 to pull the Vikings within seven.

Asked if he was surprised the Bengals went for it on fourth down, coach Mike Zimmer said, "I mean, yeah. That was good for us."

The Bengals got their lead back to 10 with a McPherson 53-yard field goal, but Cousins directed a drive to the Cincinnati 1, hitting Justin Jefferson for 34 yards on a play where the receiver's back hit the ground as he stretched for the goal line.

Zimmer decided to challenge the play, and officials upheld the call on the field. The Vikings scored with one of their favorite goal-line calls — a wide-zone toss to Cook — on the next play, but narrowed the lead to 24-21 with 9:23 to play without one of their timeouts.

"Justin's [catch], I thought, I was surprised we had to punch it in," Cousins said. "I thought he had scored. Great run by Dalvin there, great job to get it in."

The Vikings' next drive collapsed when Ezra Cleveland (the only lineman who hadn't yet been called for a penalty) was flagged for holding, and Bengals tackle B.J. Hill beat the right guard for a sack on third down. Cincinnati ran the clock inside of two minutes, forcing the Vikings to call their final timeout, before punting the ball to the Vikings' 5 with 1:48 left.

After Cousins hit Cook for no gain and the running back stepped out of bounds with 1:07 left, the Vikings needed 58 seconds to run their next four plays, leaving Joseph with a 53-yard field-goal attempt. The kicker drilled it to send the game to overtime.

Cook's fumble at the Cincinnati 39 came on the Vikings' second possession of overtime; a lengthy review did not provide the evidence Minnesota needed to overturn the on-field call that Vonn Bell had stripped Cook of the ball before he hit the ground.

The Vikings had one more chance to get the ball back with 48 seconds left in overtime. Taylor came back with one more call: the QB sneak on fourth-and-1 near midfield with a built-in check to the play-action throw.

"They had that check in there last year, the exact same play. So we talked about it," Zimmer said. "It's just that they did a nice job when they checked it."

The Vikings were one of two NFC North teams to lose early on Sunday afternoon; the Packers were then throttled in a late-afternoon 38-3 loss to the Saints that's bound to raise even more questions about the defending division champs.

But Minnesota will spend the week trying to figure out how to slow down Chandler Jones and J.J. Watt, while its secondary will contend with De'Andre Hopkins and A.J. Green after Burrow picked on Breeland on Sunday. Then comes Russell Wilson, and a Browns team that figures to be geared up to win for coach Kevin Stefanski in his return to Minneapolis.

For the season to be a fruitful one, it seems, the Vikings' theory of success will have to come around quickly.

"I hear it all the time from college coaches, high school coaches: that jump from Week 1 to Week 2, now we have something to look at," Thielen said. "We didn't really know our identity. We didn't really know — we had an idea, right? But you just don't know until you get out there and play games. Now we have something to work on, get better, get back to work."

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