Offensive balance missing early in Vikings' loss to Chiefs
EAGAN, Minn. (AP) — Facing the 30th-ranked run defense in the NFL and featuring the league's top rusher in Dalvin Cook, the Minnesota Vikings opened Sunday's game at Kansas City with three straight passes.
Kirk Cousins overthrew Cook on a first-down screen. There was a missed connection with an open Adam Thielen on second down before the third-down pass sailed over the head of receiver Laquon Treadwell.
An offense that had found its footing with a balanced attack in four straight wins was off the mark early in a 26-23 loss.
"I thought we threw the ball a lot early," Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer said Monday. "Talking about starting fast, we go the first three incomplete passes."
The Vikings strayed from their identity of the four straight wins, perhaps buoyed by Cousins' strong performance. But against Kansas City's struggling run defense, Cook and the balance were overlooked early.
It was reminiscent of last season, when too much of a focus on the passing game led Zimmer to make a midseason change at offensive coordinator, firing John DeFilippo. Kevin Stefanski took over and has helped orchestrate the success of the previous four games.
Stefanski started to work Cook in more and Minnesota drove for a touchdown on its third series. In all, the Vikings had 13 runs and 21 passes in the first half, leading to halftime adjustments.
"I thought we were throwing it a little bit too much, and we had to get back under control and get a little bit more balanced," Zimmer said after the game.
On the final two possessions, with a chance to close out the win, Minnesota couldn't run or pass. Nursing a 23-20 lead in the fourth quarter, the Vikings went three-and-out with a missed screen pass and two runs. The Chiefs countered with a game-tying drive.
Cousins then had three straight incompletions on the ensuing possession, eventually leading to Kansas City's game-winning field goal as time expired.
"They weren't doing anything," Cook said after the game. "We had what we wanted. We just didn't take advantage. We're a good, close-out team. And today, we didn't close the game out. That's what it came down to today."
With the offense and special teams putting the defense in a tough spot late, Minnesota's pass rush picked up the pressure. The Vikings had three sacks — one each by Everson Griffen, Harrison Smith and Stephen Weatherly — over the final two Chiefs' drives, but Kansas City quarterback Matt Moore overcame the yardage and kicker Harrison Butker hit field goals of 54 and 44 yards.
Minnesota finished with five sacks of Moore for 45 yards and is sixth in the NFL with 28 sacks this season.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The offensive line had improved during the Vikings' winning streak, opening holes for Cook and backup Alexander Mattison, and keeping Cousins clean in the pocket. It took a step back on Sunday against a defense that had given up an average of 145 rushing yards entering the game.
Cook was hit behind, or within a yard, of the line of scrimmage on 15 of his 21 carries on Sunday. He finished with a 3.4-yard average and 71 yards. According to Pro Football Focus, zero of his 71 rushing yards came before contact.
"We didn't get as much movement on them as we hoped, and we didn't finish blocks," Zimmer said.
Rookie tight end Irv Smith Jr.'s role continues to grow. After totaling seven catches the first six games, he has 12 catches the past three weeks. On Sunday, he tied a career high with six targets, finishing with four catches for 33 yards.
It's hard to pinpoint one player after Sunday's game because small mistakes ultimately cost Minnesota. Punter Britton Colquitt's 27-yard punt set up the game-winning field goal, but Colquitt has been steady this season. Kicker Dan Bailey missed an extra point but won the NFC special teams player of the week award the previous week.
The offensive line struggled and rookie center Garrett Bradbury had a pair of penalties. He was called for holding and was later flagged for being ineligible downfield that wiped out a 14-yard reception by Smith on a drive that ended in a punt.
Thielen was in for just seven plays before aggravating his hamstring injury. Thielen missed one game with the injury and is likely looking at another absence. Minnesota has two games before its Week 12 bye.
Receiver Josh Doctson is on injured reserve with a hamstring injury but has been designated to return and could perhaps make his way back next week.
0 — The number of wins the Vikings have on the road outdoors against winning teams the past four years. The loss at Kansas City makes Minnesota 0-13-1 in such situations. The previous road outdoor victory against a winning team was Week 17 in the 2015 season, a 20-13 win at Green Bay.
Another road game against a winning team comes up on Sunday night as the Vikings travel to Dallas. Three of the next five games are on the road for Minnesota, which will look to prove that Sunday's missed opportunity in Kansas City was a one-game issue.