Life without Stefon Diggs? Vikings run out of time to see new reality

Adam Thielen racks up 110 yards and two touchdowns in the season opener, but it’s not enough as the Vikings fall to the Packers. (0:27)

MINNEAPOLIS — Kirk Cousins and the Minnesota Vikings‘ offense weren’t afforded the time on Sunday to show what’s possible this season without Stefon Diggs.

Stefon Diggs in Buffalo Bills

With just 18 minutes, 44 seconds in time of possession in a 43-34 loss to the Green Bay Packers in the season opener, the Vikings didn’t get much of a chance to gauge their offense. That was the Vikings’ worst time of possession in the regular season since the NFL began recording the stat in 1977, according to Elias.

“But just the time of possession — we didn’t have the ball,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “We didn’t control the ball. That was one of the things that we’re typically pretty good at — our time possession is usually pretty good.”

Added Cousins: “When you don’t run a lot of plays, you don’t have a lot of opportunities to make something happen.”

But the opportunities the Vikings did have mostly went one way.

Cousins finished the first half with just five passing attempts, his lowest in any first half as a starter, with Adam Thielen on the receiving end of four completions.

The 30-year-old wide receiver is the established veteran among a position group that underwent a makeover in 2020. Thielen looked good as a No. 1 receiver in Week 1, posting 110 yards and two touchdowns. Two years ago, he had 100 yards receiving in his first eight games to start the season, a stretch in which Minnesota went 4-3-1.

But what about everyone else?

After leading the NFL with 13 touchdowns off play-action in 201, Kirk Cousins attempted just one such pass on Sunday for a 37-yard TD. Brad Rempel/USA TODAY Sports

Sunday’s glimpse at the offense without Diggs, who was traded to the Bills in the offseason, showed the Vikings still need to find an electric deep-ball player. Diggs was often the receiver clearing out for Thielen or catching the ball over the top on deep post or go-routes off play-action. That player could very well become rookie Justin Jefferson, who has 4.43 speed. But in Jefferson’s debut, the first-round receiver had two catches for 26 yards in 36 snaps. The only receiver to come close to Thielen’s total was No. 2 Bisi Johnson, who had three catches for 56 yards.

And the Vikings got away from what made the offense hum a year ago.

After leading the NFL with 13 touchdowns off play-action in 2019, Cousins was successful on one such pass. That play resulted in a 37-yard touchdown to Thielen at the start of the fourth quarter.

But Minnesota’s late-game rally when the game was already a blowout isn’t indicative of what happened to the offense in the opener. Neither is Cousins’ stat line — 19-of-25 passing for 259 yards with two TDs and one interception.

It’s unfair to fully judge where the Vikings’ offense stands after Week 1. A costly safety in the second quarter stalled any progress from the offense before halftime. Cousins was sacked the following drive, and then the Vikings went three-and-out.

But there are some trends that can be pulled from Sunday’s game.

The Vikings rushed for 28 yards on their opening drive, including a 1-yard touchdown run from Dalvin Cook. That drive started with two throws and then leaned on heavy personnel groupings with multiple tight ends that allowed Minnesota to string together six straight rushes, with the first four going for 5 yards or more.

Minnesota also tried to be aggressive. Trailing 22-10 in the third quarter, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak got the go-ahead from Zimmer to take a shot on fourth-and-3. Except the deep shot went the way of Tajae Sharpe and fell incomplete when Cousins had Thielen one-on-one on the other side of the field.

“The safety was leaning over to Adam and it was in the short field, so with the combination of it being the boundary and the safety cheating that way, I don’t love throwing go-balls with the safety moving over the top,” Cousins said. “That was why I went to Tajaé.”

Much of the blame from Sunday’s loss is pointed at the Vikings’ inability to get Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers off the field. But with the defense expected to take its lumps with young players filling new roles, the offense is going to have to pull its weight. The Vikings may need to score a lot of points, but they’re going to have to do it earlier in the game.

This is an offense that needs time to get into a rhythm. Last season, the Vikings were 8-0 when they had at least 30 minutes in time of possession, but 2-6 in games when they had less than that, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

“When you’re not moving the ball for a couple of possessions, and the defense isn’t getting quick stops and things like that, and you’re not making explosive plays on special teams, when that happens, you feel like you’re kind of behind the eight ball,” Thielen said. “And that’s why I think it’s so important to start fast to keep momentum and shift momentum when things are in lulls. You have to be able to fight through those times, because it happens.”

News Reporter