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Monday Morning Mailbag: Repeat Losses, Smith's Absence & Nwangwu's Spark

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Another loss that's hard to swallow. What really bothers me is how the Vikings can play such a good game and still lose. We were on the plus side on turnovers and ran a kickoff back for a TD (how often does that happen?) Dalvin Cook ran for over 100 yards, and we rallied to tie it up in the last minute.

Even with all that going for us … we lose! It's starting to get depressing.

— Curt in Valdosta, Georgia

Where to begin?

I think Curt sums it up succinctly when he noted this one was "hard to swallow." But truth be told, you can say that about last week's loss to Dallas. And the loss to Cincinnati. And Arizona. And Cleveland.

But I actually disagree with Curt when he says the Vikings played a good game. Were there strong moments? Sure. But overall, no, I think it was an up-and-down game, just another one of many for Minnesota so far this season.

"Frustration" was the theme of the week after the Cowboys game, mostly because the Vikings lost at home to a backup quarterback in prime time.

This week's word, at least from the vibe of the postgame press conferences, is "disappointing." Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer and quarterback Kirk Cousins both used the word right out of the gate in their opening statements.

And that word certainly fits. The Vikings seemingly had all the chances in the world to prove something this week with a road win against a good Ravens team.

Minnesota led by double-digits in the first half. And lost.

The offense had numerous opportunities to put a drive together to end any hope for a Ravens comeback. And couldn't.

The Vikings defense once again gave up a late first-half touchdown to give the Ravens some life. And the unit simply ran out of gas down the stretch as Baltimore ran a whopping 89 plays on offense.

That leads me to my own word I'd use to sum up the state of the team right now: drained.

When the scheduled was released, many opined the first six games of this season were supposed to be where Minnesota made some hay before getting to this daunting four-game stretch out of the bye.

Instead, the Vikings couldn't close out games against the Bengals and Cardinals and ended up with losses. They let the Lions and Panthers hang around before managing to squeak out last-second wins.

And, now that Minnesota has hit that four-game stretch, it is once again struggling to find an answer (and wins).

"We were winning the game early and we were winning the game most of the time, but we've gotta finish," Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks said after the game. "We gotta finish the game. We find ourselves in these close games, we gotta come through with wins and we're not making it happen right now."

The Vikings now sit at 3-5 on the season and are at a crossroads.

All five of the Vikings losses this season have come by seven or fewer points. Cousins is one who believes that luck will change if he and his teammates keep putting in the work.

"You take it one day at a time, one play at a time as you play, and you just grind and work really hard and stick to the same habits you've always had and believe that if you do that, it can turn," Cousins said.

Perhaps it will. But as these losses pile up, the Vikings slip a little further back in the playoff race each week.

Right now, they are only a game behind the Falcons for the final Wild Card spot. Yet, given the way this season has gone, you wonder if the Vikings will have anything left in the tank mentally, emotionally and physically in the final stretch of the 2021 season.

Think it's time for that coaching change yet or do the Vikings wait until Black Monday and get rid of Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman?

— Mark Altshuler

As I wrote in last week's Mailbag, it's not my job to decide on the status of other people in the organization.

Am I aware of the fan frustration with this regime? Of course. The 150-plus emails I responded to last week is evidence of that.

I did notice that both Vikings Owner/President Mark Wilf and Vikings Owner/Chairman Zygi Wilf were on the sideline pregame, so those two got an up-close view at another narrow loss.

And, like I noted last week, I doubt they are thrilled with how things have gone this season.

What do you make of Harrison Smith going on the COVID list? How do you think Camryn Bynum did?

— Jim Jenkins

The tough news came down about 90 minutes before kickoff that Smith was going on the Reserve/COVID-19 list.

That thrust Bynum into his first start, and I thought did he all right. He had the highlight play with the interception, and Zimmer said he was decent overall when I asked the coach about the rookie.

"Well, he made the interception and, for the most part, he was in the right place today," Zimmer said. "He had some mistakes, like the young guys do."

But Zimmer also said after Sunday's loss that he expects Smith to miss the Week 10 game in Los Angeles against the Chargers.

Smith told reporters in June that he had not been vaccinated. While I don't know if it was a confirmed case or close contact, an unvaccinated player who tests positive misses at least 10 days. Zimmer's comments seem to suggest it's the latter.

And if it is, that's a huge blow to a Vikings defense that is already operating without veterans Danielle Hunter (out for the season) and Patrick Peterson (eligible to come off Injured Reserve before the Packers game).

Players who have spoken to the media about the decision said they were aware of the implications that came with that, including the possibility of missing games.

It's disappointing for the Vikings that they will likely be without one of their captains at a time when they need him to help try and get the ship righted in Los Angeles.

But this is the world we live in now, and this is what most teams will likely have to deal with at one point or another this season.

View game action photos of the Vikings battling the Ravens during the Week 9 matchup at M&T Bank Stadium.

When can we see more of Kene Nwangnu in the backfield? I'm tired of Alexander Mattison and Ameer Abdullah. They're going nowhere with those backs.

— Nicholas Balkou

First off, Abdullah is now on the Panthers. So he won't be of any help to the Vikings offense anytime soon.

As for Nwangwu, I believe the next time we see him in the offensive backfield will be the first time we see him in the offensive backfield.

He's only been active for two games, and didn't have a touch in the first one as he only debuted as a kickoff returner on five touchbacks.

But he certainly brought a spark to the Vikings on Sunday, showing off that dynamic speed we all talked about in training camp with a 98-yard kickoff return for a score.

That score felt like a breath of fresh air for a Vikings special teams group that had been dormant for a couple of years.

Nwangwu's kickoff return for a touchdown was the first since Cordarrelle Patterson against the Cardinals during the 2016 season. He is the first Vikings rookie to return a kickoff for a score since Patterson against Green Bay and Baltimore in 2013.

He later moved the chains with a 9-yard run on a fake punt, showing the team is putting more and more trust in him.

Will that lead to a heavy workload in terms of carries? I highly doubt it, as the Vikings will likely continue to rely on Dalvin Cook and Mattison as the 1-2 punch. For what it's worth, I think Mattison is among the more capable backups in the league.

But I do envision a scenario where perhaps the Vikings get the speedy rookie involved with some certain packages or plays. Speed is king is the NFL, and Nwangwu certainly has that.

Why does Mike Zimmer struggle so much with game/clock management? His lack of clock management at the end of the first half cost the Vikings this game. Will he admit to that?

— John A. in Burnsville, Minnesota

Zimmer has indeed admitted to this as recently as last week, when he said he messed up by calling back-to-back timeouts when that is not allowed.

I do see your frustration with the end of the first half, however. Bynum's interception gave the Vikings the ball at the Ravens 16-yard line with 1 minute and 41 seconds left in the half. Both teams had all three timeouts.

But the Vikings, who had a 14-3 lead, not only failed to put the clamps down with a touchdown, they also did next to nothing on offense and only used 16 seconds off the game clock.

Cook was stuffed for a loss of one, the Ravens called a timeout and Cousins promptly threw back-to-back incompletions.

The Ravens, armed with two timeouts and plenty of time when perhaps they should have had no timeouts and much less time, marched down for a score. (For those keeping track, Minnesota's defense has now allowed an incredible 45 points in the final two minutes of first halves this season).

That, my friends, is another chapter in the story of the 2021 Vikings. Maybe a 21-3 halftime lead was the cushion the Vikings needed to leave Baltimore with a win?

It's a moot point now, since the Vikings once again couldn't capitalize, later allowing the Ravens to eventually take the lead before ultimately ending with yet another crushing loss.

I feel like I've written that exact sentence after every loss this week. But when things are going the way they have for the Vikings through eight games, that shouldn't be a surprise.

This team has talent. They will continue to be in games. But it will be up to them to find a way to turn these painful losses into exciting wins. Or else the rest of the 2021 season could be dismal and dreary as winter approaches.

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