The feel-good story that is the Minnesota Vikings season is no longer feeling so good. The Vikings are still a first-place team in the NFC North, and they are going to win the division. But there are major issues and Kevin O’Connell knows it.
The issues start with the defense. The defense that was supposed to be improved because the Vikings brought in veteran coach Ed Donatell. That defense is now in shambles. The latest team to take that defense apart was the Detroit Lions, and they did so in a 34-23 victory in Week 14. Unlike last year, when the Lions beat the Vikings, this game was not a fluke.
The Lions beat the Vikings because they were the better team from start to finish. The Lions ripped the Vikings defense as Jared Goff surgically took them apart. The Vikings put no pressure on Goff, as neither Za’Darius Smith nor Danielle Hunter could come close to getting to the quarterback.
The performance marked the 5th consecutive game that the Vikings gave up 400 yards or more, and that’s something that had never happened before in team history.
O’Connell is clearly troubled by his team’s defensive issues. “We’ve got to take a look at what we can do to help our guys be in position to make more plays,” O’Connell said. “Be a little more aggressive, possibly. I think we’ve got to generate some more rush, however we do it, and then just try to limit explosives.”
The Vikings need more help from pass rusher Danielle Hunter and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell. Hunter has been healthy for the majority of the season, but he has 7.0 sacks this year and just 1.0 in his last 4 games. He was held to 2 tackles against the Lions. When Hunter was at his best in 2018 and 2019, he had 14.5 sacks in both seasons. He does not appear to be that player any more.
This is very troubling to O’Connell, long-time observers and the team’s long-suffering fans. Once upon a time, in a village far, far away, defense was the calling card of the Minnesota Vikings. They were Purple People Eaters who destroyed running backs and quarterbacks with aplomb. That has not been the case in years and decades.
It does not appear to bother Donatell, who appeared to be satisfied with a “bend but don’t break” type of defense. One that gave up yards up and down the field but found a way to stop opponents in the red zone. That approach had led to a 10-2 record, but when the Jets were able to use their passing game to slide into the red zone with regularity and put field goal after field goal on the board, it should have been a sign.
And not a good one. The Jets may play hard as they start to gain an identity under head coach Robert Saleh, but they are not a good offensive team. Nevertheless, Mike White threw for 369 yards while attempting 57 passes. He was sacked just 1 time in the game.
That was surely an indicator to Lions head coach Dan Campbell, who looked at his team and knew that Detroit had a better offensive line than the Jets and a much better quarterback. It was the beginning of a coaching strategy that gave Campbell an advantage over O’Connell.
That edge played out at key points throughout the game. The Vikings went for a 1st down on a 4th-and-1 from their own 46 on their first drive of the game and failed. They also fell victim to a fake punt on a 4th-and-8 play on Detroit’s first series of the second half, allowing up back C.J. Moore to take the snap and run 42 yards around right end.
After falling behind 21-7, the Vikings scored on 4th down Kirk Cousins to Adam Thielen TD pass, and boy genius O’Connell decided to go for 2 – because analytics told him to.
That was a ridiculous maneuver. O’Connell has seen other NFL teams go for two at odd times, but the only time that makes sense is when a coach does not believe his team can win from even terms.
Obviously, teams should go for two points when down by 8 or 11 points and a 2-point conversion will allow a team to either tie or get within one score in the 4th quarter. But when a team goes for 2 at an odd time, it sends the message to the team that it is not good enough. “We have to resort to weirdness and trickery in order to have a chance against this opponent.”
That is not a message that makes sense for a confident team.
The Vikings should be confident – based on their record. But the defense is abominable, and it will keep this team from beating good teams when it matters most. O’Connell must demand a change from Donatell and ask his best players to step up.
If that doesn’t happen, this promising season will end in disappointment – once again.