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Vikings safeties caught in play-action woes. Here's how it happened

Safety Anthony Harris had at least one eye on Titans running back Derrick Henry when receiver Nick Westbrook-Ikhine sprinted past him for what could’ve been another huge play for quarterback Ryan Tannehill. But safety Harrison Smith made a bigger play.

“An unbelievable interception,” head coach Mike Zimmer said moments after the 31-30 loss. “But the front-side safety should’ve been there.”

Smith, the All-Pro in the dynamic safety duo, still was not immune to mistakes for a Vikings secondary continually torn between stopping Henry or scrambling to find which routes to cover off deep play-action throws. The defense’s big-play problem persisted as the safeties have carried a heavier load in run support for a weakened defensive front. The Vikings rank 31st allowing eight yards per throw through three games.

“We gave up three catches for 143 yards,” Zimmer said. “That’s kind of been the Achilles heel the last three weeks.”

1. Play-action passes thrashed the Vikings secondary from tight end Jonnu Smith streaking down the middle of the field to receiver Corey Davis’ 38-yard catch and run that sparked the Titans’ comeback while the Vikings led 24-12 in the third quarter. Tannehill averaged — averaged — 17.2 yards per throw after faking a handoff, compared to just 3.5 yards per throw when the Vikings got him into obvious passing situations, according to Pro Football Focus.

Vikings defenders were eager to bite on the Titans’ rushing attack, “but that’s the name of the game” against them, said linebacker Eric Kendricks. Even when Zimmer called a two-deep safety coverage, like on this first-and-10 play in the second quarter, they were positioned to get beat with a deep throw.

Harris (#41) said defenders put themselves in a “tight situation,” with both deep safeties aligning just 10 yards off the ball. The Titans give off many run signals here — receivers close to the formation, tight end Jonnu Smith (#81) in a similar motion out of I-formation as a 3-yard run earlier in the game. So Harris is caught in the middle, watching the run fake and an underneath crossing route while Westbrook-Ikhine (#15) runs past him.

“We had a two-high look. They’re a good run team, gave good run play-action,” Harris said. “Just taking a look at it and going with the flow of the game on some things that they were doing. Guys are just trying to play, put themselves in a position to limit them from gaining as much yards as possible, so we put ourselves in a tight situation.” 

Smith saved the possible touchdown catch with a leaping interception, his first of the year.

2. Another first-and-10 play in the third quarter led to a Titans receiver running past a Vikings safety after a fake handoff. 

Kalif Raymond’s 61-yard catch — the biggest pass play completed against the Vikings defense since Sept. 27, 2018 — appeared to be a case of beating rookie cornerback Jeff Gladney (#20) with a double move going deep. But Gladney should’ve had safety help over the top, according to Zimmer.

Before the snap, Smith (#22) seems to toy with the look the Vikings are giving by aligning in the box before dropping into his deep assignment. Whatever coverage the Vikings are playing (maybe quarters?), Smith loses Raymond (#14) behind him while appearing to watch the deep over route from the other side.

“We had two safeties bite,” Zimmer said of the 61-yard pass. “These guys have to got to do what they’re supposed to do, too.”

3. The Vikings’ pressure problems continued against the Titans offensive line, and Minnesota didn’t get sack Tannehill until beating backup left tackle Ty Sambrailo, who replaced the injured Taylor Lewan at the end of the first quarter.

But the “catch-22,” which is how Zimmer described scheming up defensive plays for a unit with new players, is within making calls that can stop the opponent but also not exposing yourself elsewhere.

So on this third-and-13 play below, the Vikings should be able — and have been for a long time — to rely on a four-man rush. It’s an empty backfield. It’s an obvious pass. The Vikings’ desired pass-rushing line for the moment is Yannick Ngakoue (#91), Ifeadi Odenigbo (#95), Jalyn Holmes (#90) and rookie D.J. Wonnum (#98).

Once again, Saffold (#76), the Titans left guard, reacts seamlessly to the twist run by Ngakoue (#91) and Odenigbo (#95) to prevent any pressure on Tannehill. The Titans quarterback has all afternoon to wait for the opening and complete this pass to Adam Humphries. Each rusher is stymied, including Odenigbo vs. the fill-in Sambrailo.

4. The Vikings had a chance to sign Titans left guard Rodger Saffold during 2019 free agency, but the front office took the budget option in taking Tennessee’s castoff in Josh Kline. That decision by general manager Rick Spielman stood out during Sunday’s loss, when the Titans better controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.

Some of Henry’s big gains came behind Saffold (#76), who helped spring the running back for this 12-yard run in the third quarter.

This is the kind of outside zone play the Vikings like to run with Dalvin Cook, and the 32-year-old Saffold could’ve fit well into Minnesota’s offensive line. Saffold has dealt with knee injuries throughout his career, and signed for $11 million per season in Tennessee, but it pays off when Henry sets up Saffold’s block on Kendricks (#54) like this.

5. Holton Hill was beaten on a double move for a 44-yard completion on Tannehill’s first pass, but the uneven Vikings cornerback nearly sealed the win when breaking onto this first-down throw just before the Titans’ game-winning field goal.

Biting on early moves has gotten Hill into hot water before, though it worked against this out route by receiver Corey Davis (#84). The Titans had three timeouts left and two minutes in the game, but the Vikings could’ve sealed a 30-28 win if Hill held onto the pick.

Vikings' biggest blown lead at home in nine seasons was group effort

Welcome to our morning-after Vikings blog, where we’ll revisit every game by looking at two players who stood out, two concerns for the team, two trends to watch and one big question. Here we go:

The “Minneapolis Miracle” ranks as perhaps the greatest moment in Vikings history because of its stakes (sending the team to the 2018 NFC Championship Game) and its suddenness (the touchdown was the first game-winner as time expired in NFL playoff history). But had Marcus Williams’ missed tackle and Stefon Diggs’ improbable touchdown not occurred, the game likely would have been remembered for the fact the Vikings lost at home despite leading 17-0 at halftime.

The Vikings entered Sunday having never blown a double-digit lead on the way to a home loss under Mike Zimmer. They’d only done it three times on the road — all within a six-week span during the 2014 season — and hadn’t surrendered a lead of 10 or more in Minneapolis since Jan. 1, 2012, when they finished a 3-13 season by surrendering a 10-point lead on the way to a 17-13 loss to Chicago.

On Sunday against the Titans, though, the Vikings had a 24-12 lead midway through the third quarter before losing 31-30.

The 2011 and 2014 teams had something in common with the 2020 club: youth, especially on the defensive side of the ball. But while those previous two teams had rookie quarterbacks, the 2020 Vikings have an offense stocked with veterans, which seemed to be what Zimmer expected would help them finish Sunday’s game.

“Those guys are all veteran guys, and I want them to take charge in those moments when we have the opportunity to go down and win the football game,” Zimmer said Sunday. “Instead, it was chaos. We’re going to have to get that squared away.”

On Monday, the coach said he thought the drive was “more of a disaster than chaos,” adding, “Guys knew what they were doing.

“The first play, Kirk got pressured, and then the second play I think it was the bad snap [from Garrett Bradbury]. But he had a lot of people in his face at that time, so it was hard to get the ball down the field.”

In a second half where the Titans punted just once, another defensive stop would have made a difference. Tennessee gained 239 yards on the way to 22 second-half points, and Ryan Tannehill hit throws of 38 yards to Corey Davis and 61 yards to Kalif Raymond on the Titans’ two TD drives.

The Vikings’ defensive issues weren’t confined to their rookies.
On the Davis throw, the Titans ran crossing routes from opposite sides of the field that allowed Cameron Batson to screen Kris Boyd as he tried to chase Davis after the catch, with Anthony Harris in pursuit. On the shot to Raymond, Zimmer said Sunday, both safeties (Harris and Harrison Smith) bit on a route from Anthony Firkser that left Jeff Gladney running alone in coverage.

“I think both guys are just trying to have good vision, having good vision on the QB,” Harris said Monday. “It was a good play, a good setup by them. But we’ve got to play that better. Just being aware of where guys are on the field, where guys are aligned, what our assignment is and the personnel that we’re working with, and adjust accordingly.”

The blown lead, in the end, seemed to be a group effort. After false start and offside penalties, kicker Dan Bailey also missed a 49-yard field goal in the second half.

As the Vikings try to move on and get their first win of the season on Sunday in Houston, they’ll have to shake off the fact they let a victory elude their grasp in a manner they haven’t done for years.

“We’ve got to focus on our individual job, not worry about the defense or other players, just really focus on yourself, hold yourself accountable, keep busting your tail,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said. “I think that’s important — that you don’t kind of let up because it’s not going great. …

“When things are good, it’s easy to have energy and be positive, work hard and things like that. But you really find out what kind of guys you have when you’re in a tough spot and you’re not playing well.”

Here is one other area of concern from the Vikings’ 31-30 loss to the Titans on Sunday:

Interior offensive line: Cousins was sacked only twice, but was hit nine times on Sunday, and spent much of the Vikings’ dismal last drive with pressure right in front of him. The Titans needed just a three-man rush on the first play, when Jeffery Simmons drove Garrett Bradbury — whom the Vikings selected one pick ahead of Simmons in 2019 — back into the quarterback, incurring a roughing penalty when Simmons hit Cousins’ helmet in the process. A four-man rush got to Cousins on second down after Jadeveon Clowney beat Dakota Dozier, and after Bradbury’s errant snap on second down, Simmons overpowered Dru Samia with a bull rush to get to Cousins.

Two players who stood out
Justin Jefferson: He claimed plenty of headlines on Sunday after his breakout 175-yard performance, but it’s worth looking again at how much the rookie receiver jolted the offense simply by how many ways he made himself useful to Cousins. His 71-yard touchdown came from a tight split as the Vikings lined up in 21 personnel and sold a play fake before Cousins targeted Jefferson in single coverage. He caught four passes while split wide to the left, and had his best catch-and-run of the day while split out to the right. Cousins’ interception at the beginning of the second half — which nearly turned disastrous until a Jadeveon Clowney block in the back negated Johnathan Joseph’s pick-six — was thrown toward Jefferson. The quarterback made it sound like he should have thrown it further outside to get it out of bounds with pressure coming, and it’s worth wondering whether Jefferson should have broken outside rather than stopping his route. But overall, the Vikings saw a breadth of the first-round pick’s skills: his ability to run after the catch, leap to make contested grabs over defenders and get open downfield.

Kyle Rudolph: The tight end had a solid day as a blocker, and for as much as his role has declined as a receiving option, he delivered a spellbinding reminder of just how good a red zone target he is when he stuck his left hand in the air to snare Cousins’ pass in the back of the end zone while tapping his feet just inside the back line and getting his right hand on the ball to secure it before he hit the ground. Rudolph had just two catches in the game on 17 receiving routes, but his size and hands mean he should be an integral part of the Vikings’ offense near the goal line.

Two trends to watch
How the Vikings use their wide receivers going forward: Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak talked this week about how the Vikings were bringing Jefferson along carefully, and his smaller workload in the first two games (36 and 29 snaps) might have been similar to what he would have gotten in the preseason. But after starting Bisi Johnson in the first two games, the Vikings all but removed him from the game plan on Sunday, giving him just five snaps while making Jefferson the X receiver and playing Chad Beebe in the slot. The Vikings also deactivated Tajae Sharpe against his former team, three games into a season where they paid him $1 million to sign as a free agent.

As electric as Jefferson was on Sunday, the Vikings still don’t have much depth behind him and Thielen, and haven’t been able to get Irv Smith going in the passing game. Jefferson is now tied with Thielen for the team lead with 12 catches; the two players have 36 of the Vikings’ 73 targets.

What the pass rush looks like: The Vikings entered Sunday’s game tied for 20th in the league in ESPN Stats and Information’s pass rush win rate statistic, and they pressured Tannehill on only 10 of his 39 dropbacks on Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus. Yannick Ngakoue had a strip sack for the second straight week, but neither he nor Ifeadi Odenigbo ranks among PFF’s top 30 edge defenders in total pressures.

The Vikings can activate Danielle Hunter from injured reserve this week, but it’d be wise to retain some skepticism about the Pro Bowler’s availability. The team placed Hunter on IR in part so it would not have to publicly disclose the body part he had injured, and has maintained a veil of secrecy about it, aside from general manager Rick Spielman’s comments to Sirius XM radio (a NFL rightsholder) that the team expected Hunter back in Week 3. The league-owned NFL Media reported on Sunday that Hunter’s neck injury is actually a hernia that could keep him out longer.

Hunter has been rehabbing during the open portion of practice the past three weeks, but the fact he didn’t practice during training camp would suggest a level of seriousness to the injury beyond Zimmer’s characterization as a “tweak.” Hunter, still only 25 years old, is one of the Vikings’ most valuable pieces for the future, and it’s worth wondering how quickly he should try to return with the Vikings at 0-3 before back-to-back road games. With his return still uncertain, and Anthony Barr out for the year, the Vikings could find themselves trying to manufacture a consistent pass rush for a while.

One big question going forward
Do the Vikings shift their focus toward the future? They are one of six 0-3 teams in the league, and their next five weeks include road matchups with Deshaun Watson, Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers (with a home game against Matt Ryan and a bye week on the list). Photoshopped pictures of Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields in Vikings purple aren’t hard to find on social media; neither are “Tank for Trevor” mentions among Vikings fans.

But despite the straits the Vikings find themselves in after three weeks, it’s difficult to see them giving up on the season for several reasons. First, Zimmer has often said any time he’s taking part in a contest where they’re keeping score, he wants to win, to the point where he’s well aware of his 20-5 preseason record. Second, while Zimmer and Spielman signed three-year contract extensions just before training camp to avoid working into the final years of their deals, neither one seems inclined to view the deals as an unqualified vote of security for years to come. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the Vikings simply aren’t set up to do things much differently than they are doing them now. Because their roster is stocked with high-priced veterans, the rest of the group is either made up of young players (like Gladney, Jefferson and center Garrett Bradbury) who are already on the field or affordable players who might have a fixed ceiling. The Vikings could eventually give more playing time on the offensive line to second-round pick Ezra Cleveland, for example, but further changes up front would come with a cost to the efficacy of players like Cousins and Cook.

If the Vikings continue to lose, the best bet is incremental increases in roles for players like rookie James Lynch later in the season and careful treatment of veterans returning from injury, but this isn’t a group set up to turn the roster over to a stockpile of young players who aren’t already active. For now, the Vikings figure to keep fighting in hopes they can build on some positives from Sunday and elbow their way back into the race for the NFC’s new seventh playoff spot.

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