EAGAN, Minn. — Head Coach Kevin O'Connell knows the Vikings offense must protect the football to win games.
Minnesota suffered its first three-turnover game since September (Weeks 1 and 2) on Sunday in a 21-20 loss to the Denver Broncos at Empower Field at Mile High. The Vikings outgained Denver by nearly 100 yards and held Denver to five field goals, four of which were 37-yard attempts or shorter.
But two quarterback Joshua Dobbs giveaways (fumble and interception) and an Alexander Mattison fumble were too much for Minnesota to overcome. O'Connell spoke to local media members on Monday as the Vikings shifted their focus to a prime-time showdown with the Chicago Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium that will conclude Week 12.
Here are four takeaways from O'Connell's Monday press conference.
- Justin Jefferson is questionable for Monday night
The Vikings are within Justin Jefferson's 21-day activation window for returning from Injured Reserve, and the team feels confident its star receiver is nearing a return.
Connell said he views Jefferson as "questionable" for Monday night after a week of limited practices. The team has seven full days to prepare for Chicago. Jefferson has missed the past six games due to a hamstring injury that landed him on Injured Reserve after Week 5.
Jefferson started practicing with the team again on Nov. 8, which prompted his activation window. O'Connell also acknowledged the Vikings Week 13 bye could present an opportunity to rest Jefferson a little longer ahead of the final five games of the regular season, three of which are versus the NFC North (two Lions games and at home against Green Bay).
"There's been some real urgency throughout this whole process, but also a mindset on being smart and making sure that he feels as good as possible, as good as we can, to him feeling 100 percent when he comes back," O'Connell said. "It's one of those things that knowing that you have the bye and knowing you have five critical opportunities to come after that bye, we have to be smart. This is a player that means a ton to our organization."
- Updating other injuries
Like Jefferson, O'Connell also named cornerback Akayleb Evans as questionable for Week 12. Evans suffered a calf injury against the Saints early in the fourth quarter and did not practice last week.
O'Connell said Evans is "doing really well," and continued his rehab over the weekend.
Rookie cornerback Mekhi Blackmon started for Evans and allowed six catches on six targets, including the Broncos go-ahead touchdown with 1:03 to play. But O'Connell was not discouraged by the Vikings secondary. He said the team is asking several young players to "learn in real time" and that there were still several "real quality performances across the board."
Blackmon secured his first NFL career interception in Week 10 against the Saints.
Though Jefferson and Evans are trending in the right direction, O'Connell announced the team put defensive lineman Dean Lowry on Injured Reserve. Lowry suffered a pectoral injury Sunday night and did not return to the game.
- Ty Chandler's role
The Vikings offense line bullied the Broncos on the ground en route to a season-high 175 rushing yards on 36 carries. Starting running back Alexender Mattison netted 81 yards on 18 carries but had a costly third-quarter fumble.
Ty Chandler rushed for a career-high 73 yards on 10 carries, including a fake punt off a direct snap that gained 31 yards on a critical fourth-and-4.
O'Connell said the second-year back plays a "critical role" on the offense.
"It's pretty obvious to see his burst is his athleticism. He's an exciting player with the ball in his hands. We try to find different ways to get it in his hands throughout the game," O'Connell said. I'm excited about his long-term future, but I'm also excited about his opportunities coming up, you know, Monday night and how he can impact the game."
- Dobbs and O'Connell still learning
Despite earning two wins since joining the Vikings just three weeks ago, Dobbs is still early in the process of meshing in the offense.
"I think we learn a lot about each other at every opportunity we get," O'Connell said. "We're making up for a lot of lost time. Some of the things we're learning about and he's probably learning about our offense sometimes don't always equal great results, but they're real growth moments for Josh and our offense."
Against the Broncos, Dobbs completed 20 of 32 passes for 221 yards and two total touchdowns. Both his scores were off-script opportunities courtesy of his athletic playmaking ability. In three games with the Vikings, Dobbs has completed 63 of his 96 pass attempts for 647 yards, four touchdowns and one interception.
Barring injury, he'll be the Vikings quarterback as the team pushes for a playoff berth with six games remaining. O'Connell said he is looking forward to continuing to grow with Dobbs.
"I'm proud of the way Josh is going out there and competing," O'Connell said. "You can tell his teammates just respect the heck out of him for how he's going about his business throughout the week of preparation. He will continue to improve, and I'm excited to keep coaching him to help him do it."