KANSAS CITY — The Minnesota Vikings succeeded through the first eight weeks of the season with a simple formula: Step 1: Run with Dalvin Cook. Step 2: Avoid second/third-and-long situations. Step 3: Use play-action to throw deep. Step 4: profit. But on Sunday in a 26-23 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium, that formula did not have the same effect as it has in previous weeks.
Right away it was clear that the Chiefs — who entered the game as the 30th ranked rushing defense — had an advantage on the defensive line. That made life difficult all day for Cook. He gained just 71 yards on 21 carries and the Vikings averaged just 3.6 yards per carry as a whole.
“They weren’t doing anything, we had what we wanted,” Cook said. “We just didn’t take advantage.”
With Step 1 struggling, Step 2 did not follow.
The Vikings went 5-for-15 on third downs, eight of which were third-and-6 or longer.
“We had a really good short yardage menu and we just never got to it this week,” Cousins said. “We never had a third-and-1 and some games you hit four or five of those and you feel really good about your third-down offense. If you’re having third-and-1 it’s just a lot easier.”
With very few short yardage situations, the Vikings couldn’t use play-action as much. Coming into the game they led the NFL in play-action percentage and Cousins ranked at the top of the league in play-action passer rating.
“I think some of their coverages did a pretty good job of taking away some of our bigger shots,” Cousins said. “We missed a couple in the flat where they could have been completions where the throw was high, one where I went to the [running back back in the flat but Irv was a good option down the field but I kind of got to my [running] back quickly.”
The biggest plays through the air for Kirk Cousins came on screen passes. Fullback CJ Ham gained 32 yards on a screen and Cook gained 22 on a quick pass but Stefon Diggs caught just one pass for four yards. His previous three weeks totaled 21 receptions and over 140 yards in each contest.
Instead Laquon Treadwell led the team in receiving with 58 yards.
“Their defense is really good,” Treadwell said. “They did a good job of trying to take [Diggs] away. It was up to the rest of the receiving corps to make those plays and fill that gap for the offense.”
At times they did but not when it was needed most. With two shots at putting the Chiefs away late in the fourth quarter, the offense came up with six plays for nine yards and two punts.
“You certainly have a great opportunity to make it yours and to go do something, it was certainly one of the disappointments to not do more on those final two drives,” Cousins said.
“We’re a good close-out team,” Cook said. “Today we didn’t close out the game and that’s what it came down to today.”
While 23 points and 4.7 yards per play is hardly worth going into freak-out mode, the Vikings’ loss in KC does bring about the question of whether the Chiefs figured out a model for slowing down Minnesota’s offense that teams like Washington, Detroit, Philadelphia and New York could not.
The biggest weakness may still be an inability to adapt when the opposing team’s defensive line is winning the battle. Or defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo may have found ways to keep the Vikings from hitting deep.
“[The defense] worked hard this week to make sure they started with [run defense] but made sure they kept their pass rush ability up and cover on the drops there,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said.
Or it might have simply been a case of failed execution, as Cook suggested. We will find out as the season goes along and the Vikings face more tough teams, including next week at Dallas.
We do know that the Vikings have their formula for success on offense — and that the Chiefs seemed to know it too.