MINNEAPOLIS – The Vikings unveiled their much-anticipated new defense on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Led by new Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores, the Vikings defense attacked Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield all afternoon with a flurry of different fronts and coverages. But the Buccaneers called the perfect play when Minnesota needed one more stop while down three points with two minutes to play.
Receiver Chris Godwin caught an 11-yard out route on the right sideline near the Vikings 28-yard line. The pitch-and-catch from Mayfield to Godwin essentially ended the game because the Vikings had exhausted their timeouts.
Despite allowing just 242 yards, the Vikings lost 20-17 on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.
"They made a good play on the out-cut. And then we just couldn't get back on the field. Our defense had been great all day long, but [their] four-minute offense versus our four-minute defense, and they found a way to make that play at the end," Head Coach Kevin O'Connell said. "Leaning on [our defense] as much as you do when you lose the turnover battle, three to nothing. They did everything they could to help us win this game."
Minnesota committed three first-half turnovers that resulted in three points for the Buccaneers, but two denied prime scoring opportunities.
A fumbled snap exchange on third-and-2 at the Tampa Bay 26 occurred in the first quarter, and just before halftime, Cousins was intercepted at the Bucs 2 on a second-and-1 from the 13.
"We made too many mistakes. Team game; you gotta play together. When we get a chance to go up a little bit, then you gotta go up a little bit," safety Harrison Smith said. "You gotta make, make more plays on defense and get the ball from them. Some penalties in critical situations, stuff like that."
Week 1 is filled with ups and downs as teams try to find their rhythm and establish and identify. The Vikings defense swarmed Mayfield in the first half. Tampa Bay converted its first third down at the 1:50 mark of the second quarter. The Buccaneers were 0-for-6 before Mayfield found an open Godwin, which kept their sixth drive alive.
But then the Buccaneers started playing with tempo. Four plays later, receiver Mike Evans caught a 28-yard score from Mayfield. Cornerback Akayleb Evans allowed Evans a free release off the line of scrimmage. Mayfield squeezed a pass between safety Josh Metellus and a trailing Smith that Evans grabbed for the touchdown.
"They kind of caught us, and they were going tempo," Metellus said. "I was expecting the double move. So I expected the 7 route, and he ran straight down the middle, which is kind of what we weren't expecting. But we have to be better on those quick-hitting plays. It happened fast."
The Vikings forced six Buccaneers punts and two field goals. But Minnesota's penalties proved costly. A fourth-down offsides on what would have been a Buccaneers 31-yard field goal and 13-10 lead in the third quarter turned into a new set of downs. The Bucs scored on a 7-yard pass from Mayfield to receiver Trey Palmer three plays later.
Those three plays (Godwin's catch, Evans' touchdown, and Palmer's score) proved most costly. After the game, rookie cornerback Mekhi Blackmon said the team was not expecting a quick throw on the out to Godwin.
On Palmer's score, the Vikings rushed three and dropped eight defenders into coverage. Mayfield had time to throw and made Minnesota pay for it.
"I wish I would've made a few more plays," Blackmon said. "We needed to help the offense out more. That is our job to help them out with the turnover margin. I feel like we could have made some plays to get the ball back, but we didn't."
There were bright moments that Minnesota can build on heading into a short week of preparation for a Thursday night game in Philadelphia. Blackmon and fellow rookie Ivan Pace, Jr., were trusted in several critical situations. Both were consistent contributors on defense coming off the bench.
"He played really well," linebacker Jordan Hicks said of Pace. "He showed he can handle it."
Pace finished with a team-high six solo tackles. He made eight combined tackles.
The Vikings defense faces a challenging matchup on Thursday against the reigning NFC Champion Eagles and quarterback Jalen Hurts.
"I remember Mekhi made a nice play down the right sideline, down the field," O'Connell said. "I thought there was a lot of guys across the board that really got either their first action or significant action. They showed up. But if you ask those guys in the locker room right now, nobody did enough to win the game today and collectively as a team, we've got to own that and move forward."