“Why not us?”
It was the question that Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer asked when his team was set to enter the playoffs as the NFC’s six-seed. As the lowest seed, the Vikings would need to travel on the road and win three games to reach the Super Bowl. Following a thrilling victory over the 13-3 New Orleans Saints in the Wild Card round, some expected that the Vikings would carry momentum over and give the San Fransisco 49ers all that they could handle on Saturday afternoon. A win would send the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game for the second time in three years.
So, “Why not us?”
How long do you have? Minnesota’s offense produced only 147 yards and seven first downs, the third-fewest in postseason history. They allowed six sacks and never got the running game going. When it was all said and done, the Minnesota Vikings season ended with a 27-10 to the 49ers who punched their ticket to the NFC Championship Game for the first time since 2013.
Offense No-Shows As the Minnesota Vikings Season Comes to An End
Failing to Get the Run Game Cooking
One of the keys to the Vikings beating the Saints last weekend was their ability to run the ball. Racking up 140 yards on the ground, Minnesota was able to keep New Orleans honest as they ran well which, in turn, helped the rest of the offense function as well. And coming into Saturday’s game against the 49ers, it appeared that running the ball would serve the Vikings well as the 49er run defense was sometimes suspect in 2019.
That never happened though, as the Vikings ran a total of 10 times for 21 yards. Star running back Dalvin Cook carried nine of those times for 18 yards and was near the line of scrimmage all day. This took the Vikings ability to run their play-action and bootlegs off of run fakes and the rest of the Minnesota offense never got flowing because of that.
Inability to Sustain Drives
When Mike Zimmer talks about third-down defense, he stresses the importance of first- and second- down defense. If offenses can gain yardage on their first two downs, they have the ability to keep defenses from keying on the pass on third-and-short.
So it’s no surprise that when the Vikings only gained 21 yards on the ground that they also struggled mightily on third-down. Going 2-of-12 on third down and 0-for-2 on fourth down, Minnesota only possessed the ball for 21:33. This, in turn, affected a Vikings defense that, while not perfect, had kept the game close. As the Vikings offense had six three-and-outs on the day, the Minnesota defense had to keep going onto the field and attempt to stop a 49er run game that ran 47 times for 186 yards.
Manhandled in the Pass Game
Things didn’t get much better as the Vikings went to the air. Outside of a 41-yard touchdown pass from Kirk Cousins to Stefon Diggs in the first quarter that tied the game 7-7, the Vikings did nothing to threaten San Fransisco’s top-ranked pass defense. Diggs only added one more reception on the day. Adam Thielen, whose playing status was in question leading up to the game, added five catches for 50 yards but never was able to stretch the field. And tight end Kyle Rudolph, who was the hero last week in New Orleans, was limited to two receptions for four yards.
It wasn’t all on the receivers, and it wasn’t all on Kirk Cousins either. The 49ers had defensive end Dee Ford finally back in the lineup and he helped lead a ruthless pass rush. Following an interception by Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks right before half, Minnesota looked like they had a chance to tie the game at 14. Instead, on third down at the San Fransisco 17-yard line, Ford embarrassed Vikings guard Pat Elflein and took down Cousins for a sack. Minnesota kicked a field goal that felt like a missed opportunity, and the Vikings never scored again. The six sacks came mostly from a standard four-man rush that bullied the Vikings undersized line.
The Final Word on the Minnesota Vikings Season
Saturday’s loss is the third playoff loss for the Vikings under Mike Zimmer. It won’t sting like many of the team’s other playoff losses, but the team is entering a bit of a crossroads. Cousins will enter the final year of his $84 million contract in 2020. Will the Vikings draft a quarterback in the upcoming draft, bracing for the future? What will they do now that offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski has left for the Cleveland Browns head coaching job? With a defense that will likely start saying farewell to many long-time pieces, the Vikings will be looking at a talented but aging roster that may need to hit the reset button. Hopefully, the offense doesn’t look any worse in 2020 than it did against the 49ers.