Unimpressive win over Lions highlights flaws with Vikings' conservative approach

MINNEAPOLIS – It’s possible Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer’s job was saved on Sunday by an unlikely and ironic source.

After a wild final two minutes, Greg Joseph booted a 54-yard field goal to help the Vikings narrowly escape the winless Detroit Lions 19-17. Considering the problems Zimmer has had with kickers over the years, a kicker taking the heat off the head coach was an interesting twist -- for the moment.

It was the third time in five weeks the Vikings had a game decided on a last-second field goal attempt. They’re 1-2 in those situations.

“I’m usually saying, if they’re kicking, ‘Miss this, blankety-blank,’ and if we’re kicking it it’s, ‘Make this, blankety-blank,’” Zimmer said after the win.

The Vikings are 2-3 and travel to Carolina on Sunday to face the Panthers (1 p.m. ET, Fox) with a chance to head into a Week 7 bye with a .500 record. But this win carried a different feeling, one that was reflected in the exhausted body language of a coach and his players who missed countless opportunities to put their opponent away.

Sunday’s win felt like an indictment of where the Vikings sit under Zimmer; a team that played not to lose rather than to win convincingly.

At the close of the 2020 season which resulted in the Vikings missing the playoffs with a 7-9 record, Zimmer found a silver lining with the state of his offense. It was the most explosive unit he said he’s had during his tenure in Minnesota, having ranked fourth in yards and 11th in scoring.

It looked anything but elite against Detroit and has only flashed that vigor through the first five games.

The Vikings have scored two touchdowns in their last two games and have not scored in the second half since Week 1. There is plenty of blame to go around, from penalties to the offensive line’s struggles to the mistakes of first-time playcaller Klint Kubiak, but it has felt like the Vikings offense has gotten worse, not better, as games wear on.

Minnesota found early success Sunday going to wide receiver Justin Jefferson, who had five catches for 104 yards in the first two quarters, but the Vikings seemed to abandon that strategy before halftime.

Leading 13-6, Minnesota had 41 seconds and two timeouts at the end of the first half. A strike to Jefferson or Adam Thielen, who saw one target go his way until the game’s final moments, could have opened up an opportunity to score a touchdown, or at least put the team in field goal range.

Instead, Kubiak called back-to-back runs for Alexander Mattison, who was playing in place of an injured Dalvin Cook, that totaled six yards.

The Vikings chose to run the clock out on themselves. A loud chorus of boos let coaches and players know what the fans thought of that decision.

“I shouldn’t have to explain all of this to you,” Zimmer said postgame, “but the plan was to run the ball the first play, see how many yards we get and then go from there. If we get a first down, then we get on the ball and we move. But we got like no yards so that was that.’’

Minnesota thought a more conservative approach offensively was good enough to get it done against a struggling Lions team. Instead, the Vikings invited Detroit to hang around.

Zimmer does not call offensive plays, but his influence is stamped all over Minnesota’s approach. The Vikings coach said he thought the only situation his team was too conservative in was in the fourth quarter with 3:39 remaining. After the defense sacked Jared Goff on third and fourth down and put the Vikings offense at Detroit’s 34-yard line, Minnesota called two runs for Mattison that netted three yards, and then lined up Joseph to kick a 49-yard field goal, which he missed.

But the self-sabotaging felt constant. Cousins was a perfect 6-of-6 for 115 yards on passes thrown more than 10 air yards downfield to Jefferson, according to ESPN Stats and Information. But Jefferson was targeted twice in the second half, catching both for 20 yards.

“I guess you just move on to the next play,” Jefferson said. “I mean, throughout the game, you're not going to get every single ball, open or not. You've just got to keep moving and keep playing. I know the ball is going to come to me eventually.”

There were seven instances of runs called on second-and-7 or longer, none of which yielded a first down. The Vikings have the fourth-highest designed run percentage on such plays this season. Only four of those runs out of 29 called in the first five weeks have resulted in first downs.

It wasn’t until the final 33 seconds of the game that Cousins found Thielen. Cousins led the Vikings on the game-winning drive to set up Joseph’s 54 yarder by hitting Thielen on throws of 21 and 19 yards, respectively.

Had it not been for the way the Vikings tried to run down the clock and hang onto the ball the series before, Minnesota wouldn’t have needed that final drive to beat a winless opponent.

With two minutes remaining, the Vikings handed it off to Mattison on third-and-7 instead of calling a pass. A first down effectively ends the game. Instead, Mattison’s fumble let Detroit take the lead on the next series.

“We have a lot of confidence in the receiver room, in this offense,” Thielen said. “Yeah, do we want the ball in our hands to end the game? Absolutely. But at the end of the day, that’s not our job. Our job is to make the play when it’s there.

“We have a lot of faith in our offensive coaches. They do a heck of a job game-planning, doing their job and they are very critical of themselves as of us. At the end of the day, like I said before, you’ve got to make plays work. It doesn’t matter what’s called, we’ve got to make it work.”

For now, the win sets Minnesota up to stay in the playoff hunt, but the Vikings approach that nearly cost them their second win might be the cause of more losses. For weeks, players and coaches have reiterated how talented this team is in spite of a losing record. But a good team establishes its dominance over lesser opponents instead of counting on a last-second 54-yard field goal.