Under review: Everything that went right and wrong for the Vikings in Week 1
Kevin O'Connell talked with the media about the ups and downs of the opening loss
By Matthew Coller
EAGAN — The story of the Minnesota Vikings’ opening game was about missed opportunities and a few moments that got away from them in their 20-17 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Moving the ball successfully on a handful of drives wasn’t enough when they suffered miscues and struggled to make second half key stops. With the benefit of the PFF game data and Kevin O’Connell’s insight, we can paint a clearer picture of what happened so let’s have a look at both sides of the Vikings’ coin…
What went right
Kirk Cousins vs. Tampa Bay’s blitz
Todd Bowles must have been listening to all the discussion about Brian Flores’s blitzing nature and said: “OK watch this.” There are different ways of quantifying blitzes but PFF’s tracking counted 25 of Kirk Cousins’s 47 drop-backs as having an extra rusher coming at him. When the Bucs were aggressive, Cousins went 19-for-23 passing with 180 yards (7.8 YPA) and one touchdown. He had 10 first downs on those blitzed passes and got the ball out in a blazing fast 2.27 seconds.
The trouble is that one of the blitzes, an Antoine Winfield Jr. rush early in the game, caused a strip sack and resulted in the Bucs getting three points out of the mistake.
Cousins has historically been good against the blitz, averaging over 8.0 yards per attempt in 2019, 2020 and 2021 but last year that dipped to 6.3. It’s possible that Sunday’s showing vs. the Bucs’ blitz was a small sample size bump, though it could also be something the Vikings aimed to improve this offseason.
Brian O’Neill and Ezra Cleveland
If I told you that the Vikings’ offensive line graded overall as the 10th best blocking unit by PFF in Week 1, you might be a little confused after watching the game but the reason is simple: Brian O’Neill and Ezra Cleveland played great. O’Neill graded as the best tackle in the NFL and Cleveland ranked seventh in pass blocking. Between the two, they only allowed a single pressure while playing 48 pass blocking snaps each.
The quality showing has meaning for both players. O’Neill suffered an Achilles injury in Week 17 of 2022 against the Green Bay Packers and missed a large portion of training camp while he was still recovering. Whether he felt 100% or not, he certainly played like it. O’Neill has been a stalwart on the right side for years, grading over 75 by PFF in three of the last four seasons including a career high 82.7 last year, which ranked eighth among all tackles.
Cleveland ranked 45th of 57 guards in pass blocking in 2022 and gave up the third most pressures in the league at his position so it was notable that he got off to a strong start. Offensive linemen often take a few years before becoming consistent pass blockers in the NFL and the Vikings came into the season hoping he would take a step forward. At least in the first week, Cleveland held down the fort.
The starting corners and run defense
Tampa Bay ran the ball 33 times for 73 yards, which ranked as the second best run defense by yards per attempt in the NFL in Week 1. It might come as a surprise that the Vikings highest graded run stopper was safety Cam Bynum, who largely played in a deep safety role but led the team with four run stuffs. Harrison Phillips led the charge as the highest graded D-linemen against the rush and Flores used Jonathan Bullard more than Khyiris Tonga up front, giving the veteran 29 snaps and only nine to the younger player.
Against two top-notch receivers the Vikings’ corners had an overall strong day. When Baker Mayfield targeted either Byron Murphy Jr., Akayleb Evans or Mekhi Blackmon, he went 9-for-14 with 69 yards, which is just 4.9 yards per pass attempt.
The snap usage was interesting in the defensive backfield. Evans and Murphy Jr. played the entire game, while Blackmon was only in for 15 plays. Instead Josh Metellus played 57 snaps, 21 of which were in the slot, and Harrison Smith had 19 slot snaps of his own.
Distributing the ball
Cousins found eight different receivers on Sunday with rookie Jordan Addison and veteran KJ Osborn both getting six and new additions to the offense Josh Oliver (three catches for 32 yards) and Ty Chandler (one catch, 18 yards) contributing. TJ Hockenson had eight catches on eight targets but he was unable to break free on shorter throws, picking up just 4.4 yards per reception with his longest catch being a 14-yarder.
O’Connell said he was happy with the way the ball was worked around to different receivers.
“I think that’s going to be something where you’ll see a lot of that moving forward depending on what the flavor may be of the week,” the Vikings’ head coach said. “We’re going to try to attack coverage, but you don’t always get the coverage you’re thinking and when you don’t, that’s where you check the ball down or you progress in rhythm, and I thought that’s where you saw that wide range of guys getting targeted.”
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