The Vikings got the 2018 season off to a perfect start, moving to 1-0 after a 24-16 victory over the 49ers on Sunday.
With any game, there’s going to be things to like and things to dislike, but those observations are amplified in week one when you’re watching your favorite team play for the first time in seven months. Here’s a six pack of takeaways from the season-opening win.
Kirk Cousins impressed in his debut
When a team goes 13-3 and gets all the way to the NFC Championship game, you don’t expect that team to switch quarterbacks. That’s exactly what the Vikings did, letting Case Keenum walk and putting faith into Cousins to lead this franchise to the Super Bowl. Cousins did three things that showed me why Rick Spielman gave him $84 million this offseason. First, he didn’t turn the ball over. With a defense as dominant as this, Cousins number-one priority should be to take care of the ball. He did that on Sunday, and that forced the 49ers to start most of their drives deep in their own territory. Second, he handled pressure well. The offensive line showed flaws (more on that later) and it didn’t seem to bother Cousins. He took sacks when he needed to take sacks, he threw the ball away when he needed to throw the ball away and he delivered accurate passes with pressure in his face. Third, he threw two absolute DIMES for touchdowns.
Cousins decides to throw this ball when Stefon Diggs is near the 15-yard line, and it’s placed right into Diggs’ stride, and close enough to the sideline to avoid Ahkello Witherspoon. The anticipation was great, and his accuracy was perfect.
This throw is even more impressive than the toss to Diggs. Again, Cousins showcases amazing anticipation, as he knows where Kyle Rudolph is going to end up after making the double move, and he places it directly out of the reach of Jaquiski Tart. What made the throw even better is that he delivers it with DeForest Buckner right in his face. Buckner pushes Mike Remmers almost into Cousins, then reaches his paw up and nearly deflects the pass, but Cousins isn’t fazed and he drops a beauty to Rudolph.
The defense is still terrifyingly good
The Vikings led the NFL in points allowed, yards allowed and third-down defense last season. The same defense is back this year and they have a couple upgrades as well. It’s unrealistic to expect the Vikings to boast similar numbers this season, considering they were extremely healthy on defense all year. With that being said, the defense looked as dominant as ever, handing Jimmy Garoppolo his first loss as a starter. All three levels showcased their talent yesterday, but it was the front four that was the key to the defensive success. The Vikings were able to pressure Garoppolo consistently, hurrying his throws and sacking him three times. Two of the three interceptions that Garoppolo threw were caused because of pressure he faced, and the clinching pick by Harrison Smith was the best example of how lethal the defensive line is.
The Vikings are in man here out of their base nickel package, bringing a four-man rush. Garoppolo has 2.3 seconds from the snap until he throws here, and that’s because Sheldon Richardson glides right past rookie Mike McGlinchey to create pressure right up the middle, hurrying Garoppolo into a bad throw that Smith is able to pick off. Richardson had a great debut in purple, and the fact that he gets to play inside with Linval Joseph isn’t fair for the rest of the league.
Daniel Carlson was flawless
This is not as exciting as great quarterback play or turnover-creating defense, but any Vikings fan should appreciate good field goal kicking (we’ve had some issues in the past). After the Vikings cut Kai Forbath during the preseason, Carlson followed that up with two missed field goals against the Seahawks, causing more concern that the kicking situation hadn’t been solved. Carlson made his only field goal attempt, a 48-yarder, and he was 3/3 on extra points. Again, that’s not sexy, but Forbath missed eight extra points over the past two seasons. Incompetence like that makes you appreciate the little things.
The offensive line is frustrating again
The 2016 season proved that no matter the talent surrounding an offense, a bum offensive line can derail a season quickly. Injuries have already been a problem up front, as Nick Easton went down with a season-ending injury in the preseason, Pat Elflein missed this game with multiple injuries and backup guard Aviante Collins was ruled out for the year after the win. The line was put together last-minute, as Brett Jones started at center just two weeks after the Vikings traded a seventh-round pick for him. It certainly looked like a line that hasn’t played much together, as Cousins took three sacks and Dalvin Cook had no running lanes. Buckner had a destructive day against the interior of the line, racking up 2.5 sacks.
The offense couldn’t seal the game
After the Rudolph touchdown, the Vikings led this game 24-6 with 4:23 left in the third quarter. Given how dominant the defense was, this should’ve been a cakewalk to a 1-0 record. Instead, the offense would run nine plays and take up 2 minutes and 42 seconds of game clock in the next three drives, keeping the Niners comfortably in the game. This was a combination of poor offensive line play and conservative play calling. It’s not a bad idea to try and run the ball when you have a lead, but every first and 10 turned into second and 10 quickly when Cook got stuffed at the line of scrimmage. The offense became conservative and predictable. The best play they had in the fourth quarter was making Solomon Thomas jump offside on a fourth-down play where everyone in the stadium knew they were trying to get the defense to jump offside.
Solomon Thomas just cost the #49ers big time, giving the #Vikings a first down and the opportunity to run out the clock. #SFvsMIN #49ers pic.twitter.com/hoxwhSyf8X
— Rob Lowder (@Rob_Lowder) September 9, 2018
If this happens against the Packers on Sunday, Aaron Rodgers won’t have trouble leading a comeback victory, even if he plays on one leg.
Covering (or the lack thereof) tight ends and fullbacks
The defense did a great job of making Garoppolo uncomfortable for most of the game, pressuring, sacking and turning him over. However, they did struggle at times with their pass coverage, and George Kittle took advantage of it multiple times. Here’s a look at four of his receptions.
TE George “Over the Middle” Kittle had a big first game. This is our red zone threat so we got to him him the ball when the time comes. Stats: 5 Rec, 90 Yards, 18.0, Avg, 36 Long. @gkittle46 #GeorgeKittle #49ers #IowaHawkeyes pic.twitter.com/3lvfyIlZkE
— 49er_Edits (@49er_edits) September 11, 2018
The first two were simple passes to the flats after play-action, and the Vikings are slow to react. Both of those catches came on the same drive, and then, inexplicably, Kyle Shanahan stopped attacking with the play-action pass.
Then there was this lucky mistake.
Again, after play-action, Kittle finds an open spot in the defense after faking as a run blocker for a second. No defender pays him any attention while he breaks down the field, and he gifted the Vikings by dropping what would have been a gain of at least 40 yards.
Then there was the 56-yard play they gave up to a fullback.
Since there’s no camera focusing on the secondary, it’s hard to breakdown who messes up here. Ben Gedeon drops back into zone, while Mike Hughes looks like he’s playing man against Pierre Garcon. With Andrew Sendejo covering deep, no one picks up Kyle Juszczyk, who’s a fullback that lines up in the slot. Shanahan certainly is creative.
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