MINNEAPOLIS – The Vikings season opener was a game of missed opportunities.
Mistakes proved insurmountable, and Minnesota ultimately fell 20-17 loss to Tampa Bay.
With the contest tied at 10 apiece, Minnesota had the chance to drive down the field with just over a minute left before halftime. And at first, everything went as planned.
On third-and-4 from the Vikings 31, Kirk Cousins connected with T.J. Hockenson for a gain of 5 and the first down; Cousins then heaved the ball deep for Justin Jefferson, who hauled it in for a beautiful 42-yard play. A 9-yard pass to K.J. Osborn set up Minnesota with second-and-1 from the Tampa Bay 13. With 23 seconds left on the clock, the Vikings were poised to take a lead heading into the locker room.
But Cousins fired into tight coverage for Osborn, and Buccaneers safety Christian Izien picked off the pass.
"That was tough. One of those situations where you put together a good drive, put together some great plays, and you feel confident," Vikings running back Alexander Mattison said. "And then you start back at square one after that – and [the Buccaneers] gain some momentum."
Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell offered his perspective on the play, pointing out the Buccaneers had doubled Jefferson to the right.
"T.J. has got some inside leverage at the 3 spot. So really, that ball is going to be pretty quickly defined to either K.J. or Jordan Addison, kind of chasing him in there, and Kirk thought he had a chance to put it in there, which it's going to be tight windows down in the red zone."
O'Connell said he "didn't mind" Cousins' decision to target Osborn there.
"We'll take a look at it, whether the location could have been better. But ultimately, I want him to be aggressive. We fit that ball in that window and score, everybody thinks it's a great execution, and that's what this league is against good defenses," O'Connell said.
The turnover was the third of three for Minnesota on the day.
Midway through the first quarter, the Vikings were also in good position to put some points on the board from the Tampa Bay 26. But when Cousins took the snap and stepped back, left guard Ed Ingram accidentally jarred the ball loose from the QB's hands. It was recovered by Tampa Bay's Joe Tryon-Shoyinka.
Though the Buccaneers didn't score on the ensuing drive, the blunder disrupted any Minnesota momentum.
Disaster struck again that same quarter, when Cousins was sacked on third-and-6 by Bucs safety Antoine Winfield, Jr., who forced and recovered the fumble. Tampa Bay took advantage of the turnover with a 36-yard field goal.
Justin Jefferson, who tackled Izien after the pick, expressed frustration following the game.
"Three turnovers to their zero is definitely something that [makes it] difficult to win. The turnover margin, we have to win those battles. We came short of that today," Jefferson said. "Driving the whole field and making those errors, it hurts. It hurts us as a whole team. The momentum goes down, the energy goes down. We've just gotta keep the ball to ourselves and focus on not giving it up."
Jefferson had a statistically positive game personally, finishing with nine catches for 150 yards (16.7 average). But at the end of the day, it wasn't enough.
"It was a tough loss. Of course the opening game, we want to come out with a win to set the momentum of the season, set the tempo," he said. "We fell short [today]. Definitely not what we wanted. We have to look at the film, correct our mistakes and move on. We've got a short week, so there's not much time to really look back on it."
Cousins was 33-of-44 passing on the day for 344 yards, two touchdowns and the interception. His passer rating was 102.8.
The Vikings had just 41 yards rushing, with Mattison's 34 yards leading the way. Minnesota just never had a chance to get a rhythm going, he said.
"We had some good plays dialed up; I think we had some good runs in there. We just, you know, needed to get to them," said Mattison, who scored one of Minnesota's two touchdowns. "We needed to give ourselves the opportunity to do that, and it's hard to do that when you're playing in a situation where you're turning the ball over or have penalties – anything like that. It's just hard to get to the plays you want to get to. Just one of those days where it didn't bounce our way."
Cousins shared similar sentiments from the podium postgame. While there were positives Sunday, the end result was anything but.
"I think there's plays out there. I think we're making plays, but when you turn the ball over, you take away those chances to capitalize on them," Cousins said postgame. "We moved the football, but we turned the ball over. The game will always be about points.
"When you move the football, you're doing a good thing, but it's gotta end with points – obviously, preferably touchdowns – and when you've got nothing to show for it, you take away your chance to win," he later added.
O'Connell called Sunday a disappointing start to the 17-game regular season.
"[We were wanting] to come in and play a clean game from an execution standpoint, wanting to do some certain things in all three phases," O'Connell said. "But when you lose the turnover battle 3-to-nothing and have a few critical penalties on some third downs, or fourth downs, either to allow conversions or to make those opportunities shorter or potentially convert, you're doing a lot of things to help the opponent.
"There were quite a few self-inflicted mistakes that hopefully we can iron out and move forward and feel strongly about what the core of our football team is," O'Connell added.
Addison scores first career TD
The final score will always be most important, but a bright spot Sunday afternoon was Vikings first-round pick Jordan Addison scoring his first NFL touchdown.
On the first play of Minnesota's first second-quarter drive, Cousins found Jefferson deep for a 25-yard gain. Addison complimented Jefferson as they got back to the huddle, saying, "Good catch – keep doing your thing."
Jefferson told the younger receiver, "Your opportunity's coming. When it comes, make sure you make the most of it."
Just five plays later in the same drive, Addison did just that.
Minnesota faced third-and-11 from the Tampa Bay 39, and Cousins connected with Addison in the end zones painted with the Vikings Classic theme.
"I saw it, running at the corner and I knew my route, I had a post, and there ain't no safety back there," Addison recounted. "So once I stuck, I turned around and everything slowed down, the ball was in the air, and I just made the play.
"I scored, cherished the moment, celebrated with my teammates. It was great," Addison said.
The 21-year-old made sure to scoop the football and take it to the sideline after soaking it all in. That will be one for a trophy case at home.
"[Our equipment manager Mike Parsons] was telling me, 'Make sure you give me that ball.' So I made sure I handed it to him,' " Addison said.
Though the experience was tainted by the loss, Addison will still always remember his first pro game.
"It was even more than what I thought it would be," he said, smiling. "Coming out here and hearing that SKOL Chant, like, it's legit. It's legit."
Schlottmann replaces injured Bradbury
Early in the first quarter on a 30-yard completion to Jefferson, Vikings center Garrett Bradbury left the game with a back injury and was replaced by Austin Schlottmann.
Bradbury initially was designated as questionable to return but later was downgraded to out.
Schlottmann emphasized the importance of being ready to go in at a moment's notice, which helped the transition to be smoother.
"This is my sixth year in the league, and I've been doing this all six years, so I've got a routine on how to stay warm," he said.
It helped that the Vikings rotated in some different offensive linemen, including Schlottmann, with the starters during training camp – and he also benefited from playing in Bradbury's place four games last season.
"I have a good idea of how they play. They know my voice and know my calls," he said.
Schlottmann also explained he spends a lot of time with Bradbury during the week to prepare as best as possible.
" 'Hey, what are you going to say on this play? What are you going to do here?' I take some notes on what he's saying," Schlottmann said. "I try to make the same calls as Garrett, same words, same timing, so it feels the same for everybody."
Christian Darrisaw also left the game for a short time with an ankle injury but returned.
"It's part of football. Guys are going to get dinged here and there," Cousins said. "I think Austin Schlottmann did a great job all game handling communication and the snaps and all that a center has to do. So it's part of the game, and that's why you develop that depth."