Early in the season, closing out games was a problem for the Vikings’ young defense. And it seems to have become an issue again.
In Week 3, Minnesota blew leads of 24-12 in the third quarter and 30-25 in the fourth, and Tennessee kicked a late field goal to beat the Vikings 31-30. In Week 5, the Vikings lost leads of 13-0 in the third quarter and 26-21 in the fourth before a last-second touchdown pass by Russell Wilson won it 27-26 for Seattle.
The Vikings entered Sunday’s game against Dallas with three straight wins, and the defense had been playing much better. But that was before they lost fourth-quarter leads of 21-16 and 28-24 to fall 31-28 at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“We had a couple of mistakes,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said Monday, Nov. 23. “Honestly, I think a little bit had to do with (the fact that) these guys are kind of feeling their oats a little bit. Now, they (feels as if they are) going to be playmakers and go out and do this and do that instead of just doing their job, and I think that’s showed up a few times as well.
“Sometimes, with young guys, when they start thinking they’re pretty good — ‘Hey, I’m going to go to this, I’m going to make this play’ — instead of sticking to the things in the defense that you’re supposed to do, I think that showed up a few times (Sunday). More than a few times, actually.”
Zimmer singled out one player he had an issue with Sunday. With the Vikings leading 21-16, Zimmer did not believe cornerback Chris Jones, a third-year player making his fifth career start, exerted enough effort in trying to tackle Tony Pollard when he ran past Jones and went 42 yards virtually untouched for a touchdown with 12:02 left in the game.
“Yeah, I had a problem with it,” said Zimmer, who said he has spoken to Jones about the play.
The Vikings did regain the lead at 28-24 before Andy Dalton threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Schultz with 1:37 remaining for what turned out to be the winning score.
On the Cowboys’ final touchdown, there a mix-up on coverage involving rookie cornerback Cameron Dantzler and all-pro safety Harrison Smith, which left Schultz wide open, but Zimmer didn’t single anyone out Monday on the play. Fox analyst Jonathan Vilma said on the air it was Smith’s fault, so that might not have had anything to do with youth.
Two plays earlier, though, second-year cornerback Kris Boyd dropped a Dalton pass that hit him in the chest at the goal line and could have been a game-clinching interception. And on the final play before the two-minute warning, Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper beat rookie cornerback Jeff Gladney to catch a 10-yard pass from Dalton on fourth-and-6 that brought Dallas to the Minnesota 19.
“I’m disappointed we didn’t win the game,” Zimmer said. “We had some opportunities. Fourth-and-six. We didn’t play good enough on defense, for sure. … I thought we were getting better defensively the last three weeks, but that didn’t show up.”
Over their three previous games, the Vikings defense gave up 17.3 points per game. On Sunday, they gave up 31 to a team that started the day averaging 22.7.
In their previous game, a 19-13 win at Chicago, the Vikings gave up a season-low 149 yards, although it must be noted that the Bears are 31st in the NFL in total offense and were without running back David Montgomery. On Sunday, the Cowboys rolled up 376 yards after averaging 257 over the previous three games.
“We didn’t really do a good job on first and second down to put ourselves in position to do well and be successful on third down,” safety Anthony Harris said. “So, I think throughout the levels from the secondary down to the defensive line and the linebackers, we all kind of took turns making mistakes and maybe not being where we needed to be to execute.”
The Vikings didn’t get much pressure on Dalton, who was sacked just once. He completed 22 of 32 passes for 203 yards and three touchdowns.
“He was getting the ball out quick for the most part,” Zimmer said. “It was (run-pass options), quick throws, so if we were tighter in coverage it would have been better.”
Mostly, it’s been a trying season defensively for Zimmer. The Vikings rank No. 27 in the NFL in scoring defense and No. 22 in total defense. In Zimmer’s first six seasons, their lowest rankings were No. 11 and No. 14, respectively.