MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota Vikings receiver Adam Thielen was candid this week when discussing the team's inability to consistently finish drives.
"We're kind of hurting ourselves," said the veteran receiver following the Vikings' narrow 28-25 win in London Sunday over the New Orleans Saints. "Kind of making some plays and having some penalties that are really costly to the driver and the momentum."
The offense has been a work in progress. Even in the Vikings' most convincing victory — a 23-7 win over the Green Bay Packers — the offense was stagnant for much of the second half. Sunday was more of the same.
Minnesota's offense finished with a so-so 344 total yards — 263 yards passing, 81 yards rushing — but only crossed the goal line twice. Greg Joseph's five field-goal performance — a career-high — earned him NFC Special Teams Player of the Week and helped the Vikings to escape with a win.
"In this league, when you get down to the red zone — and we got down in the red zone quite a bit — you've got to score touchdowns," Thielen said. "You've got to get seven points and take some pressure off your defense, and we're going to go back to work and try and do that."
Minnesota had an abysmal showing in the red zone in Week 2 against the Philadelphia Eagles — 1-for-4 with two interceptions — and then went 2-for-5 against the Saints on Sunday. While it didn't cost Minnesota on Sunday, thanks in part to a missed 61-yard field goal as time expired, the Vikings have been living dangerously, partially to do with drives stalling out at inopportune times.
"We don't want to kick five field goals, we want to score touchdowns," said Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, who finished 25 of 38 for 273 yards, one touchdown and an interception. "I think that more success in the red zone would have enabled us to pull away a little bit, so that was a disappointment."
Cousins came through for the second straight week for the Vikings, leading a scoring drive in the final minute to lift Minnesota to victory. One week after connecting with K.J. Osborne on a game-winning touchdown in the final minute against the Detroit Lions, Cousins hit receiver Justin Jefferson on a 39-yard pass over Saints defender Marshon Lattimore to set up Joseph's fifth field goal.
"We definitely have to get in the end zone way more," said Jefferson, whose first career rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter gave Minnesota a 25-22 lead. "Just executing our plays, and of course those flags hurt. Being second-and-20 — those types of downs definitely hurts a lot."
Jefferson bounced back in a big way after struggling to find open space against the Philadelphia Eagles and the Lions. The third-year receiver had 10 catches for 147 yards and a 3-yard TD run. Despite the big numbers, there were still missed opportunities, especially near the goal line.
"We're four games into this thing, and tons of opportunities for me to coach better, get our guys to be a little bit more consistent, and hopefully when we do that, we'll start seeing a little bit more of a pattern of results where we don't feel like we need to come back in the end," said Vikings first-year coach Kevin O'Connell.
The Vikings will meet up with a Chicago Bears team that is among the top defenses against the pass. The stats are a little slanted due to rainy weather conditions in Week 1 and a run-heavy New York Giants attack that passed just 16 times, but the Bears' secondary has made some plays, including two interceptions against the Houston Texans.
This could be the perfect opportunity for Minnesota to finally get its rushing attack going, as the Bears possess the worst run defense in the league. The Vikings have gotten a few splash plays out of running back Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison, but the rushing attack has yet to really get going.
Cook and the Vikings appeared to have settled into a groove a bit late in the third quarter in Week 3 against the Lions, but Cook got injured, and subsequently fumbled the fall, just as the ground attack was gaining steam. Cook had 96 yards and a touchdown before exiting the game late in the third quarter.
Against the Saints, Cook averaged fewer than four yards per carry, while Mattison had just three yards on three carries.
"When you're able to go and have a lot of things to correct after winning, it's a good thing," said Thielen. "We kind of break our season into every four games, and to be 3-1 through four games is definitely where we want to be, but I think when you look at the tape, there's a lot of things that we can correct."
Despite the struggles, Minnesota is 3-1 — the first time in Cousins' career he's started a season 3-1 — and sits atop the NFC North standings. A win over the Bears would give the Vikings a 3-0 record within the division and could help set them up for a tougher middle portion of the schedule that includes games against the Miami Dolphins, Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys.
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