Vikings still on track for playoffs, but questions persist
Published 10:32 pm Tuesday, December 3, 2019
MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Vikings remain on a clear track for the playoffs, closer in perception to the four teams ahead of them in the NFC than the pack behind.
After their setback in Seattle on Monday night, though, there’s a persistent question about whether they can produce a complete, winning performance on the road against the league’s elite.
That’s the scenario the Vikings (8-4) will probably find themselves in the postseason next month, if they avoid a late collapse. The biggest concern, believe it or not, might be whether the defense is still capable of delivering.
Though the offense had two turnovers the Seahawks turned into 10 points toward the 37-30 victory and the defense pitched in a touchdown of its own, the Vikings allowed the most points against them in 24 games. Only five times in six seasons under coach Mike Zimmer have they given up a higher score.
“I think we have a football team that can go on the road in a tough environment and get a win,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “I think this was an opportunity that we missed, and that’s disappointing. I think tonight we were able to at least show resilience, and we’re going to need that.”
Here’s a closer look at the Vikings entering the last quarter of the regular season:
The red zone offense. The Vikings rank third in the NFL with a 68.3% touchdown rate on possessions that advance past the 20-yard line, converting on both such drives at Seattle. Last year, they were just 21st in the league with a 54% touchdown rate.
What needs help
The run defense. Though the season-long performance against the pass has been a greater concern, the Vikings were vulnerable on the ground far too many times as Seattle gained 218 yards, a season most against them. The average of 5.1 yards per rush allowed was their third-highest total this year, with the Seahawks frequently using a third tackle for more blocking power.
“I thought they would be throwing the ball a little bit more than they did,” coach Mike Zimmer said.
Defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo. After spending most of the past two seasons on the practice squad, the 2017 seventh-round draft pick has worked his way into the rotation and is third on the team with four sacks. He took down Russell Wilson for a 13-yard loss on second down late in the fourth quarter, leading to a Seahawks punt that gave the Vikings the ball for their last-chance drive.
Cornerback Xavier Rhodes. The 29-year-old’s performance has fallen off since he was an All-Pro pick in 2017. Though he forced a fumble in the fourth quarter, Rhodes had a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty early in the third quarter that negated his tackle for loss on Chris Carson and would have put the Seahawks in second-and-long. They scored the tying touchdown three plays later. Rhodes also trailed on the 60-yard touchdown pass from Wilson to David Moore late in the third quarter. Though that was attributable to an assignment miscommunication, Zimmer later chided Rhodes for chucking his helmet to the sideline turf in frustration.
4 — games in six seasons under Zimmer with more than 200 rushing yards allowed by the defense. The only two in the past two years have come by Seattle.
Wide receiver Adam Thielen had another setback with his hamstring injury before the trip and has not played in more than a month. He has taken only 12 snaps over the past six games. While offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski has crafted a strategy that Cousins has largely thrived in even without the two-time Pro Bowl pick, the Vikings need Thielen back to take some of the attention away from Stefon Diggs and keep defenses from selling out too much to stop the run.
Making matters more complicated for the offense were the departures of left tackle Riley Reiff at halftime to a concussion and running back Dalvin Cook in the third quarter to an injury in the collarbone area. Cook confidently said he would be “good to go” for the next game against Detroit.
Nose tackle Linval Joseph returned to the lineup in Seattle, after missing the previous two games with a knee injury, and free safety Anthony Harris was back with an interception return for a touchdown after sitting out the previous game. Linebacker Ben Gedeon was placed on injured reserve prior to the game on Monday with a concussion, his second of the season suffered on Nov. 17, leaving his strong side spot in the base defense to Eric Wilson.
Getting Thielen and Cook back to full strength will be the short-term goal, as the Vikings try to take advantage of an unusual schedule that assigned all three NFC North foes to play in Minnesota in the final month of the season. Their only remaining road game is on Dec. 15 against the Los Angeles Chargers.