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Zulgad: No (free) pass: Kirk Cousins and Co., provide a performance that’s cause for concern

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Minnesota Vikings
Aug 21, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) throws during the first quarter against the Indianapolis Colts at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said his team needed to “have a little success” in its second preseason game on Saturday against Indianapolis after an atrocious performance by backups in a 27-point loss to Denver last week. If that comment was made in reference to Zimmer’s beloved defense, he got his wish in a 12-10 loss at U.S. Bank Stadium. If Zimmer was talking about his offense, that’s another story.

The Vikings played many of their offensive starters for three series — running back Dalvin Cook, wide receiver Justin Jefferson and rookie left tackle Christian Darrisaw sat out — and the results ranked somewhere between putrid and disturbing. The Vikings’ offense now has scored nine points in two games and has yet to score a touchdown.

Kirk Cousins was in for three possessions in which the Vikings held the ball for 8 minutes, 25 seconds, generated three first downs and 63 total yards. Cousins completed 5-of-7 passes (none to a wide receiver) for 23 yards, had a 75.3 passer rating and was sacked when defensive end Kwity Paye beat left tackle Rashod Hill.

Purple apologists will point to the fact that this was a preseason game, but it’s never good when your offense looks as if it hasn’t been practicing. Cousins hasn’t been sharp since returning from a five-day quarantine early in training camp and the results did not improve on Saturday.

The problems started on the Vikings’ fifth offensive play when Cousins led wide receiver Adam Thielen into a Colts defender on a slant route. Thielen looked shaken up, had his leg checked by athletic trainer Eric Sugarman on the sideline and never returned. If the move was purely precautionary, it was a wise one. Jefferson already is out because of a shoulder injury and the last thing the Vikings need is to lose Thielen in an exhibition game.

The Vikings’ possessions with Cousins in the game went five plays and a punt (23 yards), three plays and a punt (9 net yards) and eight plays (31 yards) before Greg Joseph missed a 51-yard field-goal attempt wide right. Cousins’ longest completion was a 10-yard toss to running back Alexander Mattison.

Because the preseason schedule has been reduced from four games to three, it’s not clear how much Zimmer is planning to play his first-team offense in the exhibition finale on Friday in Kansas City. However, after what Zimmer saw on Saturday night, he might feel he has no choice but to run Cousins and several other starters back out there against the Chiefs and see if they can show some type of continuity in a competitive atmosphere before the Sept. 12 regular-season opener in Cincinnati.

The attempt to get some cohesiveness doesn’t end on the field. It also includes first-year offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak, who was promoted to the job after his father Gary retired.

The concerns about the offense don’t end with Kubiak, Cousins and the first team if you’re Zimmer. In what is almost certainly a make-or-break season for the head coach, it again became clear that Jake Browning can not be this team’s backup quarterback heading into the season. After struggling in his start against the Broncos, Browning replaced Cousins and again looked like running a preseason game is too much for him.

Browning finished 6-of-15 for 82 yards with a 58.2 passer rating. Four of those completions came to Chad Beebe during a nine-play, 55-yard drive that ended with Joseph’s 49-yard field goal with 45 seconds left in the second quarter. The problem was that after Browning completed his first four passes on five attempts in that series, he threw back-to-back passes well over Beebe’s head and then had an incompletion to Ameer Abdullah on third down.

The field goal gave the Vikings a 10-6 lead at halftime, but the only touchdown came in the first quarter when backup linebacker Troy Dye intercepted a tipped pass from Sam Ehlinger and returned it 33 yards.

That was one of the few highlights for the Vikings on a night that featured bad quarterback play on both sides — at least the Colts have the excuse that starter Carson Wentz is injured — and has to have Zimmer wondering if the return of Cook and Jefferson will be enough to get things on track.

The issue is that a season in which the Vikings have big expectations on both sides of the ball starts three weeks from Sunday and there is only one dress rehearsal remaining. Right now, only one side appears as if it’s capable of coming anywhere close to meeting expectations.