MINNEAPOLIS — The Vikings stumbled out of the gate and never regained their footing in a 40-23 loss to the Falcons on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Minnesota turned the ball over via an interception on the first play of the game, which was one of three pickoffs by Atlanta that resulted in 17 points off turnovers and an insurmountable 20-zip lead for a previously winless squad in its first game under Interim Head Coach Raheem Morris.
Pre-game question: After playing well for three games but suffering a pair of 1-point losses to undefeated teams, would the Vikings be able to bounce back, get their first win at home and build momentum on the way into their Week 7 bye?
View game action images as the Vikings take on the Falcons on Sunday.
In a word, nope.
The interception on the opening snap was particularly grueling because it set the tone for the rest of the day.
Minnesota went on to lose the turnover battle three to one, the field position battle throughout the day and the time of possession by about a two-to-one ratio in each half.
Linebacker Deion Jones returned the pass that Kirk Cousins intended for Justin Jefferson to the Minnesota 29-yard line.
"Well, when you turn the ball over on the first play, that's about as tough of a start that you can have, giving their offense a short field," Cousins said. "That's not the way you want to start."
Five plays later, Atlanta QB Matt Ryan calmly and easily found Julio Jones for a 20-yard touchdown pass to convert a third-and-11. It appeared that the combined coverage of Jones by rookie cornerback Cameron Dantzler and safety Harrison Smith didn't have the proper leverage.
The Vikings failed to convert a third-and-5 and a third-and-9 on their next two possessions that bookended a 50-yard field goal by Younghoe Koo.
The Vikings had a shot at regaining momentum after Jeff Gladney forced a fumble by Brian Hill that Eric Wilson recovered and returned three yards to the Minnesota 24-yard line just before the end of the first quarter.
Minnesota followed with a 36-yard gain on a pass from Cousins to Irv Smith, Jr., on the next snap, but the drive stalled at the Atlanta 2-yard line.
A run by Alexander Mattison lost 1 and was followed by a handoff to the second-year pro for a gain of 2. That set up a third-and-goal at the 1. Cousins was pressured and hurried on a throw to Smith that the second-year tight end was unable to secure.
After unsuccessfully going for a fourth-and-1 at Seattle last week to put the game away, Head Coach Mike Zimmer again opted to go for it. An inside run by Mike Boone was stuffed for no gain.
Atlanta eventually punted on its ensuing possession but not before flipping the field, and the Falcons picked off Cousins a second time four plays later.
The Falcons needed just 40 yards for another touchdown and a 17-0 lead with 1:54 left in the first half.
Cousins' third interception of the first half — the first unwelcome trifecta in one half of football by the nine-year pro — occurred on the following drive when his hand was hit on the release. It resulted in another field goal.
Although the Vikings tried to rally against a Falcons squad that blew leads of 15 and 16 points, respectively, in losses earlier this season, Atlanta put the game away by scoring touchdowns of 40 and 35 yards on fourth-down plays in the final 18 minutes of the game.
"You know, there's so many ebbs and flows with the momentum throughout the course of the ball game. Obviously, [the first interception] was not a good one. I think [Cousins'] second [interception] didn't help any, [either]. You know, we weren't able to run the football today. They laid their ears back and tried to pressure him in different ways. We just didn't play very well."
"The first one, I thought, was the worst one of the game, if you will. First play of the game, the coverage was not confusing, it was just a zone drop. I simply forced the football into coverage and tried to do too much. That's a mistake I may have made in Year 1, but I am disappointed that I would do that now. The second one, third down, saw Cover 2 and felt him squeeze Adam [Thielen], double Adam. I wanted to replace the squeeze with throwing it to Justin [Jefferson]. The cloud corner made a good play and jumped it. Then the third one, I was trying to work the bender to [Chad] Beebe and my arm got hit. It obviously went up in the air and was intercepted."
On the fourth-and-1 play:
"Well, we had a different personnel group called, and that was a play we worked on in fourth down."
"Yeah, I don't get too involved in those decisions. The play comes in, and we run it. That's a play that's been good for us and worked several times. Obviously it didn't there, but I look more at the plays before that of, 'How could we have scored prior to that play,' because I would like for it to not even get to fourth down and be able to score earlier. I felt like there was an opportunity there to Irv where I would have liked to, even though I'm hot, to be able to get that ball to Irv where he can score."
On Sunday's setback after trying to build momentum:
"[We've] been gaining ground each week, growing as a team, growing as an offense, and then kind of taking a step back today. But it is what it is. It's part of the game, and you've got to find a way to fight through it and get back on a roll."
"It's foreign for us but at the same time, regardless of the record, the formula is showing up each week. Whether you're 1-5 or 5-1, you have to come to play. It's the NFL and there's a lot of talent; anything can happen each week. As long as you carry that identity, you'll have a chance to compete and be prepared to go. That's what we're preaching. That's what leaders do. We pride ourselves on being vocal, holding ourselves to a high standard regardless of what has happened or what the record is. We're going to keep this thing going. Guys are going to continue to rally, keep showing up each day, come to work looking to improve and whenever we have games look to win. That's the attitude we'll have from here on out."
— Anthony Harris