Souhan: In losing a crucial season opener, Vikings’ flaws are exposed

Souhan: In losing a crucial season opener, Vikings’ flaws are exposed
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CINCINNATI - After seven months of preparation, the Vikings lined up for the first play of the 2021 season and ... committed a false-start penalty.

Two plays later, they committed another penalty.

They would incur 12 penalties on Sunday, and have another handful declined, and all of the yellow flags led to a loss that represents a red flag for an organization on the brink.

The Cincinnati Bengals defeated the Vikings 27-24 in overtime at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday, an ominous result from the rare must-win season opener.

Adam Thielen, Kirk Cousins, Mike Zimmer and Michael Pierce stood at a lectern after the game and expressed everything from determination to optimism. But this wasn't the usual season-opening loss.

While there is plenty of precedent for NFL teams rallying from slow starts, the 2021 Vikings are in a unique situation. They face a brutal schedule. They have little roster depth. And many of their most obvious weaknesses were exposed by a Bengals team that went 4-11-1 last year.

Beating the Bengals was not an option, it was a requirement.

Twice in the last decade the Vikings have lost their season opener in a way that foretold their fate.

In 2013, the Vikings were coming off a playoff berth and were still publicly optimistic about franchise quarterback Christian Ponder. Then Ponder disintegrated in a 34-24 loss at Detroit in the opener, and it was only a matter of time before Ponder was out of the league and coach Leslie Frazier was looking for a new job.

In 2020, the Vikings were coming off a playoff victory and faced the Packers at home in the season opener. The Packers shredded the Vikings 43-34, highlighting Minnesota's weak pass rush, run defense and secondary. A Vikings team with championship aspirations would start 1-5 and finish the season 7-9.

In 2013 and 2020, you could have watched the opener and accurately extrapolated the Vikings' fate.

That's why this game felt more like an ending than a beginning. The team's brain trust can't afford another bad season. Now the Vikings head to Arizona to play a talented Cardinals team that should be much more capable than the Bengals of exposing their flaws.

The Vikings could be facing an 0-4 start that would effectively end their season, and perhaps precipitate an offseason of dramatic change.

Sunday, the Vikings never would have made it to overtime if Bengals coach Zac Taylor hadn't offered them a gift.

The Bengals led 21-7 in the third quarter and had the ball at their own 30. They faced fourth-and-1. If Taylor had called for a punt, the Vikings would likely have required two long touchdown drives and defensive perfection to tie the score.

Instead, Bengals halfback Joe Mixon was stopped short and Kirk Cousins hit Adam Thielen with a 24-yard touchdown pass, making it 21-14 with plenty of time left.

Taylor had waved smelling salts under the Vikings' noses.

"Yeah, that was good for us," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said.

The Vikings' patchwork offensive line looked overwhelmed. Cousins looked skittish. New tight end Chris Herndon looked lost.

The defensive tackles brought in to bolster the run defense — Pierce and Dalvin Tomlinson — allowed Mixon to rush 29 times for 127 yards and a score. New cornerback Bashaud Breeland allowed a long touchdown and committed a lengthy pass-interference penalty.

"This was a gut-wrenching loss," Pierce said.

Linebacker Anthony Barr missed the game with what appears to be a chronic knee injury. Cornerback Cameron Dantzler was a healthy scratch.

Offensive tackle Rashod Hill, playing because first-round draft pick Christian Darrisaw is injured, couldn't handle the Bengals. Now he will likely face Arizona pass rusher Chandler Jones, who beat Tennessee standout Taylor Lewan for five sacks on Sunday.

Despite their problems, the Vikings were moving into position to try a game-winning field goal in overtime before Dalvin Cook fumbled.

That's the problem with this team: Their best players can't afford to be mortal.

"Very disappointing today,'' Zimmer said. "Way too many penalties, shot ourselves in the foot way too many times.''

He might not need many toes to count his team's victories this year.

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