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Zulgad: Vikings’ once-powerful defense offers little resistance when it matters the most

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Minnesota Vikings cornerback Jeff Gladney (20) breaks up a pass intended for Dallas Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb (88) in the end zone during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

MINNEAPOLIS — As flawed and sloppy as the Vikings played against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday afternoon, this was still the type of game that Mike Zimmer had come to expect his team would be able to win during his seven seasons in Minnesota. “I really felt like we were going to win the ballgame throughout the whole course of the game, even as bad as we started offensively, because we were clicking again in the second half, offensively,” Zimmer said.

The Vikings had not won, suffering a 31-28 loss that ended their winning streak at three games and dropped them to 4-6 on the season. A victory would have moved the Vikings into a tie for second-place with the Bears (5-5) in the NFC North, and Minnesota’s win on Monday night in Chicago would have given the Vikings sole possession of the second spot behind the Green Bay Packers (7-3). Instead, the Vikings have the same record as the last-place Detroit Lions.

So what went wrong for the Vikings in the first of a three-game homestand against teams that entered Sunday a combined 6-22 (Dallas, Carolina and Jacksonville)? Minnesota made plenty of mistakes, taking eight penalties and having too many special teams miscues again, but what really did in Zimmer’s team was the unit that once served as its strength proved to be its Achilles’ heel.

The Vikings simply aren’t good enough defensively to execute what Zimmer wants and that was again on display Sunday. The Vikings had been in the Top 10 in the NFL in scoring defense the past five seasons, including three Top 5 finishes, but entering Sunday the Vikings were 23rd in the league, giving up 27.4 points per game.

There were two situations in the fourth quarter when Zimmer’s defenses of the past almost certainly would have slammed the door on a Cowboys team that arrived in town with only two wins and backup Andy Dalton at quarterback.

Minnesota had rallied to take a 21-16 lead on Kirk Cousins’ 3-yard touchdown pass to Adam Thielen early in the final quarter. The Cowboys got the ball at their own 25 and moved 33 yards in four plays. Tony Pollard, a second-year running back from Memphis, took a handoff and went 42 yards for a touchdown. Pollard’s path to the end zone was made far too easy by Vikings cornerback Chris Jones, who offered little resistance when it came to attempting a tackle.

This was the exact type of play that Trae Waynes made on a regular basis for the Vikings, but he left as a free agent during the offseason and the Vikings are now using Jones and Kris Boyd at the left corner spot. As infuriating as that scoring drive had to be for Zimmer to watch — his defense gave up a season-high 180 yards rushing on the day, including 103 to Ezekiel Elliott — the Vikings’ offense struck quickly with Cousins hitting Justin Jefferson on a perfect 39-yard touchdown pass to restore Minnesota’s lead at 28-24.

But after the Vikings and Cowboys traded possessions, Dallas rookie CeeDee Lamb returned a Britton Colquitt punt 20 yards to the Dallas 39. The Cowboys then began a 61-yard, 11-play drive during which Dalton completed 5-of-7 passes for 37 yards, capping it with a 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dalton Schultz with 1 minute, 43 seconds remaining to put the Cowboys ahead by three.

There was a time that this type of drive against Zimmer’s defense would have been almost shocking, but that’s no longer the case. The Vikings beat Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers in their first game coming off the bye in part because the windy conditions in Lambeau Field helped slow the Packers’ passing game. A win over the Detroit Lions can be attributed to the fact that the Lions are, well, the Lions and are mostly checked out. While the Vikings win in Chicago on Monday was impressive, considering their usual struggles in Soldier Field, the fact is the Bears’ offense is awful and that helped.

But the Cowboys, coming off their bye week, appeared to be refreshed and willing to put up a fight for first-year coach Mike McCarthy and that created troubles for Zimmer’s defense. Dalton, who hadn’t played since suffering a concussion against Washington on Oct. 25, finished 22-of-32 for 203 yards with three touchdowns and an interception.

The Vikings had one final chance but for the third time this season they could do nothing on a late drive. The Vikings’ 31-30 loss to the Titans in Week 3 featured a Vikings drive that began with 1:44 remaining and with the ball at the Tennessee 40 after a Titans penalty. Cousins had an incomplete pass, followed by a fumble that was recovered by Minnesota, then another incompletion and finally an interception.

The Vikings’ 27-26 loss at Seattle in Week 5 provided a much more difficult situation as Minnesota got the ball at their own 25 with only 15 seconds remaining. Cousins’ 10-yard pass to Kyle Rudolph — not really what you’re looking for in that situation — was followed by a game-ending sack.

But Sunday’s opportunity was far more like what happened against the Titans. There was 1:37 left on the clock, the ball was at the Vikings’ 25-yard line and the offense had one timeout remaining. In this case, Bailey field goal would have tied the score and almost certainly forced overtime. Cousins’ 4-yard pass to Dalvin Cook was followed by a bad drop by Jefferson on a pass over the middle. Jefferson had room to run if he caught it, but he clearly turned his attention toward gaining yards before securing the ball. That was followed by back-to-back incompletions that Cousins directed toward Thielen. Dalton then took a knee twice to run out the clock as the Vikings’ defense stood helplessly and watched.

Should the Vikings’ offense have been able to move the ball in the final 1:37? Absolutely. There was time and opportunity. But the reality is that what Zimmer was banking on was that his once-vaunted defense would be able to do its job after the offense twice gave it a lead to work with in the final quarter.

Unfortunately for the Vikings coach, Sunday’s game served as the latest reminder that his defense can no longer be considered his team’s forte.