In a 23-20 loss to the Denver Broncos, the Minnesota Vikings went up against an undefeated team and kept them undefeated.
It didn’t have to be that way. There were plenty of plays the Vikings missed in a could-have, would-have type of game. The Vikings could have put themselves on the national map with an upset win over the Broncos if they would have eliminated mistakes. Three were particularly painful for the Purple, each of them accounting for the difference on the scoreboard.
1. WALSH’S WORRIES: Blair Walsh can’t seem to find the natural kick that was so effective in his rookie season, and his slump has gone from “worrisome” – Mike Zimmer’s word a couple weeks ago – to “disappointing” – Zimmer’s word, actually used twice in a short answer, after Sunday’s loss.
Trailing 3-0 in the first quarter, rookie LB Eric Kendricks sacked Peyton Manning at the 2-yard line and the Vikings had the ball at their own-48-yard line. Another rookie, Stefon Diggs, caught a 25-yard pass on third down and the Vikings were in scoring position. But Walsh’s 38-yard field goal attempt was pulled wide left. On the next play, Broncos RB Ronnie Hillman went 72 yards for a touchdown. On their next series, Brandon McManus gave the Broncos as a 13-0 lead with 47-yard field goal. It put the Vikings in a deep hole they eventually overcame in tying the game 20-20 in the fourth quarter, but Walsh’s miss had the Vikings playing from behind most of the game.
“It’s disappointing. He needs to make those kicks,” Zimmer said. “It’s disappointing.”
2. BLANTON BLUNDER OR BAD CALL: On Hillman’s 72-yard touchdown run, he took the ball around left end and backup DE Danielle Hunter couldn’t reach Hillman from the inside, getting only an arm on him. CB Terence Newman got pinned on the outside. But safety Robert Blanton likely could have gotten to Hillman if not for the angle he took to the ball carrier. Instead, Blanton came in too shallow and never touched Hillman, relegated instead to chasing him from behind and never catching him.
Despite the positioning of his backup safety, Zimmer took the hit on that play.
“The long run was a bad call on my part,” Zimmer said. “Some of the other runs we didn’t play well against. This offense is difficult because they go flat and they cut and get on guys knees and legs.”
3. TOO LOOSE ON THE TIGHT END: While Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders were the focus for the Vikings defense in the passing game, it was TE Owen Daniels who really hurt them. Broncos coach Gary Kubiak made a gutsy call with his team leading 13-10 early in the third quarter when facing fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line after gaining only 2 yards on the previous three plays.
But Peyton Manning dropped to pass, Daniels came behind the line of scrimmage from right to left and nobody picked him up. Manning needed only a weak floater to a wide-open Daniels and the Broncos reclaimed a 10-point lead. It was either miscommunication or the fact that the linebackers got picked off on a crossing route, but either way it was a defensive mistake that proved costly less than four minutes into the second half.
“I think we had the chance to win, but I think Denver played better than we did,” Zimmer said. “I think we made to many mistakes to win.”
1. RAISING THE BARR: Anthony Barr has arguably been the Vikings’ best defender all season, many of his big plays coming while blitzing, which he did heavily the week before in roughing up Philip Rivers. This time, however, Barr was astute in pass coverage.
The Vikings might have made a tactical mistake taking a timeout before a third-and-10 play for the Broncos with 40 seconds left in the first half. Manning found Thomas for a 24-yard completion and the Broncos were in Minnesota territory with 32 second left. But on first-and-10, Barr came off his receiver when he read Manning’s eyes and intercepted a pass intended for Andre Caldwell when he stepped right in front of the route. Barr returned the interception 27 yards to the Denver 32. Two plays later, Mike Wallace pulled the Vikings within three points with a 4-yard touchdown grab.
“He stepped in front of a drive route they were running and made a good play,” Zimmer said.
2. LINVAL’S LINE: The statistics didn’t do Linval Joseph’s effort justice. In the end, the Broncos rushed for 144 yards on 24 carries for a 6-yard average. But Joseph was stout as ever in the middle of the defense. He ended the game with three tackles, one for a loss and one pass defensed, but he continually won his battle in the middle.
One of his stops came on third-and-goal from the 1-yard line for no gain.
3. TEDDY TWO-LEGS: Zimmer said early last week that Teddy Bridgewater would probably have to make some plays with his legs against the Denver Broncos. They had him scrambling for his life much of the game and Bridgewater was judicious with his run selection.
Bridgewater was sacked seven times, the final one causing the game-ending fumble, and was hit another 11 times. It was a day of siege for the NFL sack-leading Broncos. But when Bridgewater was able to escape the heavy pressure, he ran three times. All three of them resulted in first downs, including a quarterback sneak for 2 yards on fourth-and-1 in the first quarter, an 11-yard run on third-and-10 in the second quarter and a 10-yard run on third-and-10 in the fourth quarter.
“Throughout the course of the game, teams are going to play some great coverage. Teams will pick up on our tendencies,” Bridgewater said. “Team will have time to break down our plays and things like that, so if I have to use my legs, I don’t mind.”