EAGAN, Minn. – After returning for a short break following last Thursday’s loss to the Los Angeles Rams, the Minnesota Vikings practiced on Wednesday and preached confidence despite back-to-back losses.
The extended break between games might have served Minnesota well. Losses to Buffalo and Los Angeles – and a tie at Green Bay previously – might have uncovered problems for the Vikings, such as a league-worst rushing offense and a precipitous slip from last year’s league-leading defense.
Minnesota is holding no such beliefs.
“This isn’t a time for ‘woe is me,’” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “If people remember, we were 2-2 this time last year. We finished 13-3. We were 5-0 the year before and we finished 8-8. We were 2-2 the year before that and we finished 11-5, so all the predictors, this isn’t a good time to predict.”
This week wouldn’t be a good time for self-doubt.
Minnesota (1-2-1) travels to Philadelphia (2-2) for a rematch of last year’s NFC championship game. Both teams are still looking to recapture the success of last season. The Vikings’ offense has been explosive in the passing game with new quarterback Kirk Cousins and offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, who was the Eagles’ quarterbacks coach last year.
Philadelphia is trying to get healthy and reintegrate quarterback Carson Wentz back to the offense.
“These two teams are very similar from the standpoint there’s injury or people missing at key spots,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said in a conference call with Minnesota reporters on Wednesday.
For Minnesota, it’s getting back to the basics. Like the reigning champions in Philadelphia, the Vikings entered the season as one of the favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
“We just have to start doing things a little bit better than how we’ve been doing them,” Zimmer said. “I obviously addressed some things with the team the last couple days. We got some points of emphasis that we have to continue to get better at.”
Minnesota’s defense took a beating in Thursday’s 38-31 loss to Los Angeles, allowing 556 yards to the Rams. Los Angeles quarterback Jared Goff threw for five touchdowns without an interception and was sacked once.
The Vikings have allowed at least 27 points in three straight games, though the defense was in a tough position against Buffalo due to turnovers by Cousins.
“It’s a bunch of things, small details,” defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson said. “You’ll be surprised when you go back and actually watch film and re-evaluate everything; how far we’re not off. Little plays here and there, misstep here, got beat on a coverage block, whatever it may be, didn’t wrap up in tackling, it’s small things of that nature that make you great.”
Zimmer and Richardson both expressed confidence Minnesota’s fortunes will turn, at least in how the team will perform.
“Definitely, definitely will, no doubt in my mind whatsoever,” Richardson said. “I don’t even want to brag on it. We’re coming to play, period.”
Facing Philadelphia should offer a unique look at the Vikings’ defense. It was the Eagles who, perhaps, started the defensive downfall for Minnesota. The Vikings led the NFL in fewest points and yards allowed last year. The defense slipped a bit in the second half in the playoff win against New Orleans and then allowed 38 points and 456 yards to Philadelphia a week later.
Minnesota’s defense hasn’t looked the same since.
“I don’t know about that as far as what we did tipping things off,” Pederson said Wednesday, downplaying the Eagles exposing a weakness in the Vikings’ defense. “I think that, obviously as an offensive coach, you look at something like that and you go, ‘OK, how did they attack the defense? How did they handle such a good front and good secondary?’ They might try to mix it into their scheme. But I don’t think it was necessarily about that.
“I just think, right now, the team is dealing, they’re just missing some guys on defense and guys that helped them last year. I’m not going to speculate, I just know dealing with our own injury and guys that are out, how it can affect your football team. I would assume something like that could take place.”
DeFilippo has come to Minnesota and orchestrated a passing attack that ranks fifth in the NFL this season. The Vikings have the league’s fewest rushing attempts and fewest rushing yards per game, but the offense with Cousins and DeFilippo are trying to keep pace with opponents.
“I think in a lot of cases, we’ve looked at our call sheet, and coach Flip’s looked at it and felt like our best chance to win this game right now is to drop back and throw it,” Cousins said. “You can’t do it all, so you do what you think is best and hope that it will turn into a win.”
With some time to reflect, Zimmer is hoping for more balance offensively.
Running back Dalvin Cook has been dealing with a hamstring injury and Latavius Murray hasn’t gotten on track. In the loss to Buffalo, Minnesota only had six rushing attempts, including two scrambles by Cousins.
Cook had 10 carries for 20 yards in the first half last week, but had his snaps limited because he’s not fully healthy. Cook admitted Monday that he’s not 100 percent healed from the hamstring injury that caused him to miss Week 3. Murray is averaging 3.4 yards per carry.
“It has been difficult,” Zimmer said of finding balance. “We have to be patient with it, No. 1. Honestly, a little bit has been dictated with some of the scores throughout the last couple ball games. It’s important for us to have balance. It keeps the defensive line from pinning their ears back all the time. I think it helps the football team overall. We just have to do a better job.”
The Vikings have a chance to prove their confidence isn’t misguided and that there’s no reason to panic with the defending champions, and the team that ended their season one game shy of the Super Bowl, waiting on the other side.
Brian can be found on Twitter at @MNBrianHall. See all of the Vikings’ coverage at footballmaven.io/vikings