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Zulgad: Top priority: Mike Zimmer must make sure Vikings avoid the blame game

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Tennessee Titans kicker Stephen Gostkowski (3) celebrates after kicking a 55-yard field goal during the second half of an NFL football game against the Minnesota Vikings, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, in Minneapolis. The Titans won 31-30. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

MINNEAPOLIS — In the aftermath of the Vikings’ 31-30 loss to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday in U.S. Bank Stadium, Mike Zimmer talked about what comes next with his team off to an 0-3 start for the first time in his seven-year tenure. “The thing I have to figure out right now is to keep this team understanding what’s causing them to lose,” he said before running through a list of miscues. “Things like that, that the good teams don’t do.”
In a perfect world, Zimmer is right and getting things turned around would be that simple. But this world is far from perfect, and Zimmer needs to realize that his main job at this point has nothing to do with explaining to his team why it’s losing games. The reason for that is simple: It isn’t very good.
Rather, Zimmer’s primary goal has to be making sure the blame game doesn’t start at TCO Performance Center. Right now, it appears it might be headed in that direction, and the impatient and oftentimes very candid Zimmer did nothing to avoid participating in that game himself on Sunday. Zimmer deserved credit for pointing out that the Vikings’ last offensive possession was “a complete disaster” and “chaos” at different points in his postgame interview.
He’s not wrong but the problem is his quarterback, Kirk Cousins, can’t handle that type of criticism and Zimmer knows it. You’ll recall that Zimmer spent much of the Vikings’ magical 13-3 season in 2017 under backup-turned-starting quarterback Case Keenum, discussing that Keenum’s luck was going to run out at some point and fretting about when that day would come. Keenum rolled with it and never let it bother him.
Cousins is a different story and it was pretty clear upon his arrival that Zimmer was told to limit his criticism of the highly paid veteran. Why? Consider how Cousins reacted when informed that Zimmer had said the Vikings’ final possession was chaotic. “I’ll have to go back and watch the film,” Cousins said. “I think you’d have to ask Coach specifically what he meant. We’ll go back and work on what didn’t go well there.”
It’s as if Cousins has spent more time watching Christian Ponder’s postgame press conferences than he has studying film of opponents.
Zimmer was spot on with his assessment. The Vikings’ final drive Sunday was an embarrassment of Ponder-esque proportions. Down by one point with 1:44 left, Cousins’ incomplete pass was nullified by a roughing the passer penalty that moved the ball to the Vikings’ 40-yard line. Remember, the Vikings only needed to get into field-goal range for Dan Bailey. An incomplete pass to Dalvin Cook was followed by a snap from Garrett Bradbury that went over Cousins’ head. Was it all on Bradury, should Cousins have been ready? How about this: It can’t happen.
But it did and now the ball was at Vikings’ 26 and it was third-and-24. There was another incomplete pass to Cook and that was followed by a Hail Mary pass that was intercepted by the Titans.
Zimmer’s frustration over this “chaos,” — or Gong Show, if you prefer — was understandable.  But with the Vikings now facing back-to-back road games against Houston and Seattle and with Zimmer’s defense having given up 102 points and 1,320 yards in its first three games, there should be a real concern that the finger pointing will begin soon and won’t stop.
It doesn’t even take a bad team for the blame game to start. All it takes is the feeling on either side of the ball that the other unit isn’t doing its job. In the Vikings’ case, the offense might have been brutal when it mattered most on Sunday but it did score 30 points, got 181 rushing yards on 22 carries (an average of 8.2 per carry) and a touchdown from Dalvin Cook and seven catches for 175 yards and a touchdown from rookie wide receiver Justin Jefferson.
Throughout much of Zimmer’s time in Minnesota, this much production would have led to an easy victory at home for the Vikings. The problem is Zimmer’s defense isn’t very good and has the ability to meltdown when it matters most. Make no mistake, too, this is Zimmer’s defense and any established offensive player who is criticized by the coach is likely to resent the fact that he’s taking blame, in part, because the defense has so many shortcomings.
So what can be done? That’s pretty simple. At some point here, the Vikings are going to have to accept that this is looking more and more like a lost season in which improvement should come but success almost certainly won’t. The Vikings have many players who aren’t going to turn a corner, that starts with Cousins, and others who only will by getting experience.
The worst thing Zimmer could do is look at this with an eye on a short-term turnaround and, thus, creative a division in the locker room that results in offense blaming defense and vice versa. Zimmer’s primary job will be to hold this team together and look to the future. That doesn’t mean there can’t be some tough love but the salty coach also is going to have to put on his kid gloves more than he likes. Otherwise, the chaos that Zimmer saw on the field Sunday will soon extend to his locker room.