The Vikings have the red zone blues with an up-close touchdown rate that’s keeping them down
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — After Kirk Cousins delivered a must-convert fourth down completion for Minnesota to T.J. Hockenson, the Vikings had the ball at the 6-yard line with 35 seconds remaining when the tight end climbed to his feet.
Instead of a quick spike to stop the clock without any timeouts, coach Kevin O’Connell tried to relay a quick play to Cousins to keep the Los Angeles Chargers from setting their defense the way they wanted.
Cousins couldn’t hear him clearly, because of a choppy connection on the headset and the crowd cheering in anticipation of a dramatic go-ahead touchdown, so the quarterback took an educated guess on the call and frantically told his teammates.
When the snap came, only 12 seconds were left. Cousins’ hunch about his coach’s preference was correct and his throw across the goal line was in the right place to Hockenson’s outside shoulder as he boxed out Chargers linebacker Nick Niemann, but the ball deflected off his hands and into the air for Kenneth Murray to intercept it.
Game over. Maybe the season, too.
“You have to score touchdowns in the red zone to win in this league,” a dejected Cousins said after a 28-24 defeat to the Chargers on Sunday left the Vikings as one of the NFC’s three remaining winless teams.
The Vikings had four possessions inside the 20-yard line that yielded only one touchdown, dropping them to 50% for the season (5 for 10) in a tie for 21st in the NFL entering Monday. They ranked eighth in 2022.
Cousins is the only passer yet this season who’s been picked off more than once in the red zone entering Monday. The Vikings have run 30 plays inside the 20, with 11 incompletions and four negative rushes.
“There were definitely some plays to be had there,” O’Connell said on Monday. “We just didn’t make a couple of those plays, and I just have to have a couple better calls, especially on some of those sequences where we could possibly either run the football in or find a way to throw it in.”
Alexander Mattison was wide open when he dropped a pass at the 12 in the second quarter and might’ve had enough space to turn and score. Mattison was uncovered again on that same drive when Cousins tried to hit him, but had his elbow pushed back by a pressuring Joey Bosa on third-and-goal, forcing the Vikings to settle for a short field goal.
With 3:40 left, O’Connell sent in the short-yardage group for second-and-goal from the 1. Fullback C.J. Ham followed tight end Johnny Mundt to the left where there was nobody to block, allowing Murray to blast through the hole and drop Mattison for a 2-yard loss. The next two plays were incomplete passes.
The litany of these red zone blues doesn’t even include Hockenson’s fumble that thwarted a promising opening drive, when his 9-yard catch in traffic at the 17 ended with Chargers safety Alohi Gilman wrestling the ball away on his fall to the turf.
That’s how the Vikings are second in the NFL in yards per play (6.21), yet still searching for a victory.
“It’s been like that the past three games. It’s tough. We’re still hurting ourselves and shooting ourselves in the foot,” wide receiver Justin Jefferson said. “We have to do better as players by executing the plays.”
The running game finally got going, with 130 yards on 24 attempts and six gains of 10-plus yards after failing to reach double digits on any rushes in their first two games. Mattison, whose playing time will be threatened by the arrival of Cam Akers, had 125 yards from scrimmage on 25 touches.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The defense has again been a risk to the entire operation, despite Brian Flores replacing Ed Donatell as defensive coordinator. After giving up 259 rushing yards at Philadelphia the week before, the Vikings were torched by the Chargers for 454 passing yards. Frequent blitzing didn’t help generate much pressure. Edge rusher Danielle Hunter can’t do it alone.
Greg Joseph has made all nine extra points, both field goals and landed all but one of his 14 kickoffs in the end zone.
Marcus Davenport, who was one of three free agents signed this season for a starting role on defense, has played only four snaps with his new team because of a lingering ankle injury. With D.J. Wonnum and Patrick Jones not making an impact in the outside linebacker rotation, the Vikings badly need a healthy Davenport. O’Connell has mentioned his absence repeatedly this month as a roadblock to success.
1,075 — Passing yards for Cousins, the most in the NFL.
Center Garrett Bradbury (back) missed his second straight game with an injury suffered in the opener, but he made progress last week and O’Connell sounded optimistic about his return.
The next two road games for the Vikings are against the two other winless NFC teams, at Carolina this Sunday and at Chicago on Oct. 15. The flip side of their schedule next month is home games against Kansas City and San Francisco, with a trip to Green Bay. Those three opponents are a combined 7-2.
TOP PHOTO: FILE – Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) can’t make a catch in front of Philadelphia Eagles safety Terrell Edmunds (26) during the first half of an NFL football game Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)