Historic failure in loss to Bengals: Vikings struggles with third-and-long situations

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Viewed through how horribly they fared at what might be football's most essential task — gaining 10 yards and a new set of downs — the fact the Vikings were close to pulling out a win in Cincinnati on Sunday might register as a bit of a shock.

It's probably also not something they have any interest in repeating.

Teams talk of keeping their offenses "on schedule" or playing "ahead of the sticks," two phrases that essentially mean the same thing: gaining enough yards on early downs that third-down conversions become manageable and drives continue toward the end zone. By that measure, the Vikings' performance was one of their worst in the modern NFL era.

In Sunday's 27-24 overtime loss to the Bengals, the Vikings faced nine third downs of 10 yards or more, and six of at least 15 yards, their most in a game since Pro Football Reference began compiling play-by-play data in 1994.

It reduced the number of plays available to offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak in his first regular season game, limiting his ability to turn to Dalvin Cook for conversions. It allowed the Bengals to turn up their pressure on Kirk Cousins (two of Cincinnati's three sacks came on downs of third-and-10 or longer), and it often forced the Vikings into positions where they threw well short of the sticks, either hoping someone could create a big play or simply attempting to recoup some yardage before punting.

Cousins averaged just 6.1 air yards per attempt, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

"It just has you play a little different game," Cousins said. "Your call sheet and what you're pulling from is a lot different when you're looking at long-yardage situations on first and second down and never ahead of the chains, so that was certainly an aspect into some of the struggles we had."

Improbably, the Vikings finished the day with a higher percentage of third-down conversions (37.5) than did the Bengals (21.4), despite the fact Cincinnati needed six yards or fewer on 10 of its 14 attempts. The Vikings' defense had stops on six straight third downs in the fourth quarter and overtime, though the last stop came before the Bengals' 32-yard fourth-down conversion that set up Evan McPherson's game-winning field goal.

The fact that the Vikings picked up three third downs of eight yards or longer could be treated as a bit of a silver lining. That, at least, seemed to be how wide receiver Adam Thielen was looking at it.

"To be honest, I thought Coach [Kubiak] did a great job calling plays. We had some really tough situations that we converted on," Thielen said. "We just kept putting ourselves in those situations. Coach did a great job. But as players, the play's called, it doesn't matter what it is, we've got to go out and execute. That was kind of the message. Dalvin said it at halftime, 'Hey. I don't care what's called. Let's go out and execute and let's play clean football.' That's kind of what we were able to do a little bit there in the second half."

As Thielen said, though, the pattern is crippling for an offense, and it's particularly concerning for the Vikings how many of the third downs were set up by their own issues.

On 14 first-down runs, the Vikings gained just 20 yards, with six of Dalvin Cook's carries going for no gain or losing yardage. One of those six was a play that lost a yard before Oli Udoh committed a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty. The Vikings were flagged a total of four times on first downs, and gave up a nine-yard sack on a first down when the pocket collapsed on Cousins.

Their staggering number of penalties — 11 accepted against the offense, including nine in the first half — and their first-down ineptitude actually meant their second-down workload (20 plays with 10 or more yards to go, and seven plays with 15-plus to go) might have been more harsh than third.

The biggest issue for the Vikings might be if the things that contributed to Sunday's inefficiency — penalties, sacks and unproductive first-down runs — are all products of their retooled offensive line. Each member of the group was penalized at least once on Sunday, Garrett Bradbury and Ezra Cleveland were beaten for sacks. and Cook got just 18 of his 61 yards before contact on Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus. Other than Christian Darrisaw returning from groin surgery to take the left tackle job (which coach Mike Zimmer said could be a ways away) or Wyatt Davis developing enough he can start at right guard and Udoh can move to left tackle, the only obvious fix is the group improving throughout the season.

Next Sunday's trip to Arizona puts the Vikings in a matchup with Chandler Jones (who had five sacks against Tennessee on Sunday), J.J. Watt and a defense that bottled up Titans star Derrick Henry. It's not the ideal matchup for a more efficient offensive performance, and the Cardinals' offensive firepower could set up a long day if the Vikings can't emerge from their doldrums.

"We know what kind of team we have," Thielen said. "We know what kind of guys we have. We know what kind of playmakers we have. It's just playing clean football. That's every team is going to say the same thing when they lose games. You have to play clean football, because that's what loses games."

TWO PLAYERS WHO STOOD OUT

Michael Pierce: The nose tackle has talked about his sweet spot being somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 snaps per game; he got 41 against the Bengals, and had the first two-sack game of his career, including a six-yard takedown of Joe Burrow in overtime to force a Cincinnati punt. His game wasn't perfect — Pierce jumped offside to set up a free play that resulted in a 26-yard pass interference call against Bashaud Breeland, and the Bengals ran for 123 yards after halftime — but the nose tackle showed the pass rushing ability that co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson has been talking about for weeks.

Greg Joseph: Be honest: When the kicker lined up for his game-tying 53-yard attempt at the end of regulation, you were worried he'd miss it, weren't you? There's enough fraught history with Vikings kickers to create plenty of worried fans in these moments, and Joseph had missed a pair of long field goals in the preseason. But when the Vikings needed him on Sunday, he drilled a career-long kick to send the game to OT and the visiting sideline into a frenzy. Joseph made his first attempt, too, before the Bengals called a timeout to ice him, and booted four of his five kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks.

TWO TRENDS TO WATCH

How the Vikings use their defensive front: Mike Zimmer and Patterson have alluded to some changes in the Vikings' defense this year, and on the first drive of the game, they used what functioned as a 3-4 look, with Pierce lined up at nose tackle, Dalvin Tomlinson and D.J. Wonnum lined up over the tackles, and Danielle Hunter set up wide enough to be positioned almost like an outside linebacker, even though he usually played with his hand on the ground. It's an adjustment to try putting the front in better position for the wide zone runs and run-pass options that have taken over the game, and it'll be interesting to keep watching for it on early downs.

The Vikings also moved Everson Griffen inside in several obvious passing situations, using him as a third defensive end. It's almost a return to the role he played early in his career for Leslie Frazier, though Zimmer had Griffen do it in the Vikings' wild-card playoff win over the Saints two years ago.

How teams approach the Vikings' secondary: The Bengals didn't throw at Patrick Peterson much, choosing instead to pick on Breeland, who was targeted eight times and gave up five completions for 107 yards, according to PFF. The Vikings played Peterson exclusively on the right side and Breeland on the left, and it seems unlikely they'll ask either player to shadow receivers much. Peterson figures to see more of each team's top target split out wide, though offenses can line up their receivers to get the matchups they like. Sunday will be a particularly interesting test for how offenses choose to attack the secondary; the Cardinals have DeAndre Hopkins and A.J. Green, and they obviously know Peterson better than any opponent the Vikings will face.

ONE BIG QUESTION

Was Sunday a fluke, or is this who the Vikings will be? This is my 10th year on the Vikings beat, and my eighth covering Zimmer's teams. They've only lost three times in season openers under Zimmer; there's a natural tendency to overreact to what happens in an opener, good or bad, and each of those losses has stoked that tendency in a unique way. The Vikings looked more unprepared in their season-opening 2015 loss to the 49ers than they have at most moments in the Zimmer era, and the sting that normally comes with losing to Green Bay was compounded last year by the shock of Aaron Rodgers turning an empty U.S. Bank Stadium into his personal playground.

Sunday's loss to the Bengals was jarring simply because of how many mistakes the Vikings made, especially in the first half, and the degree to which the game matters probably depends on how many of the mistakes repeat themselves.

From a pure wins-and-losses standpoint, it probably matters less than the 49ers or Packers defeats; it's not a division or conference loss, there are still 16 (not 15) games left and every other team in the NFC North lost on Sunday. In fact, if you'd like to get technical about it, the Vikings are in first place in the division — they're the only team that didn't lose to a conference opponent.

But the way the Vikings lost, and how little they did to assert themselves against a team that won four games a year ago, is the more concerning thing, especially given the upcoming schedule. The Cardinals' offense will test them in different ways, before two home games against 2020 playoff teams (the Seahawks and Browns). The Vikings have never beaten Russell Wilson, and the Browns matchup figures to have a little extra emotion with Kevin Stefanski returning to Minneapolis.

The Vikings' loss in Cincinnati doesn't have to be a death knell for their 2021 season, but only if they fix their issues quickly.

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