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Vikings’ Takeaways: Justin Jefferson takes another step toward stardom, breaking down Kirk Cousins’ day

Deshaun Watson, Eric Kendricks
Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) throws over Minnesota Vikings middle linebacker Eric Kendricks (54) during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The Vikings’ 31-23 victory over the Houston Texans on Sunday afternoon at NRG Stadium will be seen as a potential springboard to success by some and an unnecessary win that takes away from the potential Tank For Trevor by others.

Either way, the Vikings’ first victory of the season puts them in a tie with Detroit (1-3) at the bottom of the NFC North and will put coach Mike Zimmer in a bit of a better mood this week (maybe) as  his team prepares to play next Sunday night in Seattle.

Here are takeaways from the Vikings’ first win since they upset New Orleans in a first-round playoff game last January.

  • It would be unfair to compare Vikings’ first-round pick Justin Jefferson to Stefon Diggs after only four games, but the past two weeks have confirmed the Vikings hit on a heck of a wide receiver with the 22nd pick in the draft last April. Jefferson’s breakout game came in last week’s loss to Tennessee as he caught seven passes for 175 yards with a 71-yard touchdown. He followed that by catching four more passes for 103 yards, an average of 25.8 yards, against the Texans. Jefferson was targeted five times and had no chance on the Kirk Cousins throw he did not catch. Opposing defenses will not have the luxury of focusing the majority of their attention on Adam Thielen, given Jefferson’s big-play capabilities. Thielen benefited from this Sunday, finishing with a season-high eight receptions (on 10 targets) for 114 yards and a touchdown.

  • Running back Dalvin Cook tied his career-high with 27 carries for 130 yards and two touchdowns and also caught two passes for 16 yards. This is a lot of work for a player with an injury history, but that’s not something the Vikings can worry about this season. Cook was replaced by his backup, Alexander Mattison, for three plays in the fourth quarter on Sunday on a drive in which the Vikings stalled and ended up giving the ball back to Houston only up by eight. The Texans nearly scored and could have tied it with a two-point conversion. Cook was shaken up late in the game — he did return — and he should have been given at least 30 carries. Cook didn’t get a big contract just before the season so he could be saved, he got the contract because he’s one of the NFL’s best running backs. On this team, he needs to have a minimum of 25 carries each week (that doesn’t include receptions) and at times that number is going to go north of 30. This isn’t up for debate, given the state of the Vikings’ defense.
  • As we wrote in our game preview, this is the first time that Zimmer does not have a good defense. Some of this is on him (not bringing in any veteran help at cornerback is a head-scratcher) and some of it isn’t (injuries to Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr and Mike Hughes and Michael Pierce’s decision to opt-out). The Vikings suffered another big loss on Sunday, when safety Harrison Smith was ejected from the game for leading with his helmet on a tackle late in the first half. Fortunately for the Vikings, Texans coach and play-caller Bill O’Brien had a terrible day and there were times when it appeared as if Houston quarterback DeShaun Watson (300 yards, two touchdowns, no picks) didn’t know what he should do.
  • The Vikings entered Sunday with four cornerbacks active (Holton Hill and rookies Jeff Gladney, Cameron Dantzler and Harrison Hand) and with veteran safety George Iloka having spent the week working at nickel corner in case he was needed. Dantzler had missed the past two games because of a rib injury and left again in the opening quarter. He was replaced by Iloka. Dantzler quickly returned but when Smith got ejected, Iloka had to go in and play safety, a position he hadn’t practice at all week. There was clearly confusion, no surprise, on Watson’s 24-yard touchdown pass to Will Fuller that pulled the Texans within four in the third quarter. Such is the state of things in the Vikings’ once-strong secondary.
  • Kirk Cousins finished 16-of-22 for 260 yards with a touchdown, no interceptions, three sacks and a 127.1 passer rating. That’s far from a bad line in the box score, but as is always the case with Cousins, you didn’t get a full picture of this game without seeing his performance. Let’s focus on two second-half series that involved Cousins.
  • The first came in the third quarter with Minnesota up by one point. On second-and-8 from the Vikings 40, Cousins was sacked for a 2-yard loss by defensive tackle P.J. Hall. Fox analysts Greg Jennings and Brock Huard were quick to point out that Cousins missed an opportunity to hit Jefferson on a pass, and thus put the Vikings in a third-and-10. This is the exact type of play a highly paid quarterback has to make. But on third down, from the Vikings 38, Cousins hit Jefferson on a 23-yard pass to the Houston 39 to erase his previous mistake, and he followed that with a gutsy 19-yard throw that was caught by tight end Kyle Rudolph at the Houston 20. Two plays later, Cousins threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to Thielen. This was quintessential Cousins. Following up an indecisive play that leads to a sack and drives offensive coaches crazy, with two plays that lead to a touchdown.
  • The second example: The Vikings were up by eight with 3:10 left in the fourth quarter and faced a third-and-6 at their own 48-yard line. A first down would have gone a long way toward ending the game. Cousins took a shot down the left sideline for Thielen but it was broken up, in part because the ball was underthrown. Thielen would have caught an on-the-mark pass and Cousins’ paycheck means he’s a guy who has to put that ball on the money. He didn’t and the Texans had life.
  • Houston got to the Vikings’ 1-yard line but actually managed to move back 4 yards and had a fourth-and-goal from 5 with 1:15 left. Fuller, who beat Gladney to make a 43-yard grab at the Vikings 8 in the third quarter, made an unbelievable catch over Hill in the corner of the end zone but was unable to hold onto the ball as he came down. It was called a touchdown initially but reversed upon review. Hill was fortunate that Fuller could not maintain possession, but no one should count on the Seahawks having similar issues next week against this secondary.
  • The Vikings time of possession in the first half on Sunday was 19 minutes, 37 seconds. Their time of possession for the entire game against Green Bay in Week 1 was 18:44. The Vikings ended up having the ball for 36:31 on Sunday.