MINNEAPOLIS — If Mike Zimmer had it his way, the Minnesota Vikings would always win the way they did on Sunday — by whooping the other team in the running game and on defense.
The Vikings set the tone from the first series of the season.
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked by a blitzing Anthony Barr on the second play from scrimmage. On the fourth play of the game, linebacker Eric Wilson flew through the Atlanta line untouched to block a punt.
Three plays later the Vikings were up seven on a Kirk Cousins 23-yard pass to Adam Thielen.
“Any time you start your season with the field position we had, our defense and our special teams gave us some gifts there, it makes a huge difference,” Cousins said. “Great to be able to capitalize off turnovers. Coach Zimmer always talks about that. He also always talks about coming away with touchdowns in the red zone and not field goals which was great to do today.”
On the Falcons second offensive attempt, Danielle Hunter blew past his blocker and forced an off-balance throw by Ryan into double coverage. The wobbly pass was picked off by safety Anthony Harris, setting up great field position for the second straight drive.
At that point it was worth remembering when Zimmer called out the defense for being too complacent during training camp. They were anything but complacent. Instead you might use words like: Dangerous, nasty, terrifying etc.
Where the defense left off, the Vikings running back picked up and put on a 1990s style ground-and-pound performance. Following the interception, running back Dalvin Cook ran twice — once for 21 yards, the other for 19 yards — and the Vikings were up 14 points with 8:22 remaining in the first quarter.
Early in the second quarter Atlanta showed some signs of life.
Ryan hit back-to-back throws of 14 and 20 yards and then scrambled for 12 yards to bring the Falcons to the Vikings 26-yard line. But cornerback Trae Waynes made it clear that he did not need extra preseason work to maintain his status as one of the NFL’s best tackling corners. Waynes put his helmet into the arm of running back Devonta Freeman and popped it loose.
Vikings recovered, threat avoided.
There wouldn’t be many threats after that by the Falcons offense but there would be more hammering by Minnesota’s running game.
Several penalties by Atlanta put the Vikings in Falcons territory and the ground game’s domination commenced. Cook burst through the defense for 22 yards and then rookie Alexander Mattison, who impressed the Vikings in training camp, picked up 17 more. Cook then slammed in from one yard out for a touchdown.
By the end of the first half the Vikings had 12 Cook runs for 74 yards, four for 39 yards from Mattison and only seven Cousins passes.
Imagine Cousins’ delight after his team ranked 30th in rushing last year.
“I was telling the guys in the locker room, it felt like a youth football game where you really don’t get to throw much and you just kind of run right, run left, run up the middle,” Cousins. “That’s what it felt like, and it was working, it was effective, and no reason to change it up. Lot of credit also to our coaching staff, just very impressive, the scheme they put together and the plan this week, the runs they dialed up. It worked.”
Imagine Zimmer’s joy seeing double-digit rushing first downs considering he parted ways with John DeFilippo in part because the offense wasn’t balanced enough.
“Even though it looked boring at times and you’re just running the football, that’s what we had to do to win the game. Now, if it was 14-7 it wouldn’t have looked like that,” Zimmer said. “Each game is dictated a little bit differently, I really thought it was going to be a fourth-quarter game today because I know how talented they are offensively and defensively. So, it was good to get up there. But we had a lot of things go right for us today, the interception that Anthony made in the end zone stopped a goal-line stand for them. There’s quite a [few] good things that happened for us today.”
The Vikings offseason moves tell you that these results were by design.
They drafted zone-blocking expert Garrett Bradbury with the 18th overall pick, signed veteran Josh Kline and bought back everyone on defense rather than moving on from players like Anthony Barr, Everson Griffen and Xavier Rhodes to create cap space.
With the Falcons driving early in the third quarter, Griffen blew by his man and sacked Ryan. His dance on the logo screamed out “we’re back.”
So did the pass rush on the goal line by the Vikings that forced an out-of-character throw from Ryan that was intercepted by Anthony Harris.
By the end of the third quarter the Vikings defense had three turnovers, three sacks, zero points allowed.
This is Matt Ryan's first multi-interception game since 12/7/17.
— Justin Felder (@Justin_FOX5) September 8, 2019
Just before the start of the fourth quarter, Cook put the finishing touches on a superstar-caliber performance, scoring his third touchdown of the day behind a lead block from rookie tight end Irv Smith.
Entering the fourth quarter Cousins had 98 yards. He finished with 10 total throws. It was 2017 Keenum-esque.
“I never thought we’d throw it 10 times,” Zimmer said. “The score of the game dictated that. You get midway into the third quarter and the clock is our friend, we really had no reason to throw the football being up 28-0 or whatever it was. So, when you get in those situations, the clock is your friend, the faster that clock goes the better it is.”
Atlanta scored two garbage-time touchdowns and the Vikings wrapped things up with a 28-12 victory.
Of course future games will call for more passing from the Vikings — they won’t routinely score 28 off turnovers — but for Week 1 Zimmer’s plan worked. And if the Vikings play this style on a consistent basis in 2019 they will be one of the most dangerous teams in the NFC.