The Vikings opened their season with an up-and-down, penalty-plagued game that lasted through overtime in the Cincinnati heat and ended in heartbreaking fashion.
The final score is ultimately all that counts, but there were some positives from Minnesota's rebuilt defense.
First and foremost, the Vikings revamped defensive line managed to put pressure on second-year quarterback Joe Burrow. Minnesota recorded five sacks after totaling just 23 QB takedowns through all of last season.
The sacks came from all three levels of the defense, too, with defensive tackle Michael Pierce leading the way. Pierce notched two sacks, his first in Vikings Purple, and looked plenty pumped off both times. He finished the game with seven tackles, 2.0 sacks and two tackles for loss – not too shabby for someone who missed the 2020 campaign due to COVID-19 concerns.
Oh, and by the way: Pierce only had 3.5 sacks over four seasons before signing with the Vikings as a free agent.
"It feels great. For a person that has 3.5 career sacks to come out with two after a year-and-a-half off, it was great," Pierce said postgame. "It was just about me proving Coach Dre (Assistant Head Coach/Co-Defensive Coordinator Andre Patterson) right, and them bringing me here, and just being thankful to be on the field again and having fun."
Danielle Hunter also made a "He's back!" play after missing last season due to injury. The defensive end recorded a sack of Burrow on third-and-5 in the fourth quarter, forcing the Bengals to punt.
In addition to Hunter and Pierce's sacks, linebacker Nick Vigil and safety Harrison Smith added one apiece.
Vigil recorded his first sack as a Viking – and the team's first of the season – during Cincinnati's second possession of the day. The play cost Burrow and the Bengals 12 yards and ended their series on a three-and-punt.
Smith made a big play in the second quarter, racing basically untouched through the Bengals defense to drop Burrow for a loss of 10.
A sack by "The Hitman" was great to see, but unfortunately the play didn't stall Cincinnati's drive. Three plays later, Pierce jumped offsides and Burrow used the free play to take a deep shot toward Tee Higgins. Cornerback Bashaud Breeland was flagged for defensive pass interference on the play. The penalty placed the Bengals on the end zone's doorstep, and Higgins scored a touchdown on second-and-goal from the 2.
Breeland's first outing for Minnesota was an up-and-down one, to be sure.
Besides the interference call, Breeland also gave up a 50-yard touchdown to Bengals receiver Ja'Marr Chase in 1-on-1 coverage. Chase's first career touchdown gave Cincinnati a 14-7 lead.
The cornerback did help in run support multiple times and made a fourth-and-1 stop.
"I thought he did some good things, and then obviously … there were a couple shots, they hit a dig route on him early, and then when we jumped offsides on defense, they ran deep and he threw it up, and he got the P.I. there," Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said.
Minnesota's accepted defensive penalty didn't come close to the 11 committed by the offense. But the Vikings did seem to tire down the stretch defensively.
Temp at kickoff was recorded at 84 degrees Fahrenheit with 48 percent humidity; players on both teams were taking a hit from the heat, including Higgins, who received an I.V. during the game for dehydration.
After allowing just 26 rushing yards by Cincinnati in the first half, Minnesota gave up 99 yards on the ground over the course of the third and fourth quarters. Joe Mixon led the Bengals with 29 carries for 127 yards and a touchdown on the day.
"I don't know [what went wrong], really. We gave up one long run on the sideline, but I think in the first half, we were doing well," Pierce said. "I haven't really looked at the film, but sometimes it's blitzes and they hit the option side. You never know exactly, but I think Coach Zim' will be able to answer that. We just can't have those miscues, and we've got to bottle it up and take it from there."
View game action photos of the Vikings before the season opener against the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.
Another crucial passing play the Vikings gave up was a 32-yard completion to tight end C.J. Uzomah on fourth-and-inches late in overtime. The checkdown pass wasn't entirely unexpected by Minnesota's defense but was plenty-well executed at that point in the game.
"They are a good quarterback-sneak team, and they do have that, they had that check in there last year, the exact same play. So we talked about it. It's just that they did a nice job when they checked it," Zimmer said. "[Burrow] was quarterback sneaking and then checked it to that play … So it was a play that we practiced."
Pierce pointed out that it was the perfect opportunity for the Bengals.
"It's unfortunate they converted. If they wouldn't have gotten down the field, that wouldn't have happened," Pierce said. "He's had great success with quarterback sneaks, so as my job as the nose, I was in the 0 [gap]. I just wanted to get as much knock-back as I could. They run a pass, and the dude ends up open. There's not much you can do in that situation. It shouldn't have come down to that.
"You can take a negative out of a lot of things. But it's about play after play after play," Pierce emphasized. 'That was a great call by them. Great execution. We've got to clean it up."
Burrow finished the game 20-of-27 passing for 261 yards, two touchdowns and a 128.9 passer rating. Chase led the Bengals in receiving with five catches for 101 yards and a touchdown, followed by Higgins' four catches for 58 yards and a score.
Sunday's outcome certainly wasn't the one Minnesota strived for, but it's time to turn attention to a Week 2 challenge at Arizona.
"We lost, but especially in the first half after we gave up those two big plays, we settled down and everybody got back to doing what they need to do," Pierce said of the Vikings defensive line. 'It's about stringing those drives together over and over and over again for four quarters. We didn't do that today. We put some good things on film, but also some bad things on film."
Minnesota is scheduled to visit Arizona in Week 2.
"Arizona has very explosive receivers," Pierce said. "We've got to get to Kyler Murray and stop the run, obviously, and help our DBs with DeAndre Hopkins and A.J. Green."