MINNEAPOLIS – The Vikings offense faced third-down situations 13 times Sunday night.
They converted just once.
It's hard to ignore the lopsided stat following a disappointing, 20-16 home loss to Dallas on Sunday Night Football.
"It was no particular reason," quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "Combination of factors to not be better on third down."
On the third play of the night, Minnesota converted on third-and-2 with an impressive pass from Cousins downfield and an even better grab from tight end Tyler Conklin for 31 yards. That drive was capped five plays later by an Adam Thielen touchdown to give the Vikings an early lead.
But for the rest of the night? The Vikings simply couldn't get anything going offensively.
Minnesota's offense has sputtered after the first drive on more than one occasion this season, and the exact issue has yet to be diagnosed.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer acknowledged that the team has an opening-drive script but said a script also is used coming out of halftime, so the problem doesn't seem to lie solely with unscheduled plays.
"I don't think it's that. You know, during the first part of the game, everybody makes adjustments. They did some new things and we had to adjust to that defensively, and vice versa," Zimmer said. "I just feel like we're just not as consistent overall as a football team as we need to be.
"We go right down and score — we did it in Carolina two weeks ago — and we get stagnant and then we pick it up again at the end," he added.
The Vikings did see ups and downs offensively, with bright spots that included a 32-yard catch by Thielen, Conklin's Moss-like snag over Jayron Kearse, a 19-yard run by Dalvin Cook and an 18-yard catch by Justin Jefferson.
But a failure to capitalize on key opportunities sank the Vikings ship.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Minnesota faced a favorable first-and-goal from the Dallas 4-yard line. A touchdown – well within reach – would have given the Vikings a 20-13 lead. Instead, they lost 4 and 3 yards, respectively, on the first two plays, and a completion to Thielen on third-and-11 fell behind the sticks.
Time and time again, it seemed, Cousins checked down and completed a shallow pass short of the first-down marker.
"I think because of the pressure. Sometimes they were in coverage to get the ball checked down," Zimmer said. "First play of the game we tried to hit them deep on a big play, and if I remember right, we checked that one down. They did a good job."
Thielen assured it's "never part of the game plan" to settle for such situations.
"There's so many factors, right? It could be pressure. It could be guys not getting open, myself included," Thielen said. "There's so many factors that lead into that, why a quarterback throws a checkdown. We've gotta look at the tape and see what that was."
Added Cousins: "I think it was a combination of coverage and pressure."
The Vikings struggled but either led or were tied with Dallas throughout most of the night. When given the opportunities to put the game away, though, they couldn't get into a rhythm.
From late in the third quarter and into the fourth, Minnesota had three consecutive three-and-punt possessions.
"Yeah, we've had too many three-and-outs. We have to correct that," Cousins said. "Three in a row is just far too many, so that's one area to improve in a major way going forward."
Cousins finished the game 23-of-35 passing for just 184 yards and the touchdown. His passer rating was 88.3. Thielen led the team with six catches for 78 yards receiving and the score, and Cook also had 78 yards on the ground.
Losing to a team without starting QB Dak Prescott, and in front of a U.S. Bank Stadium crowd, certainly is less than ideal. Especially ahead of back-to-back road games against the Ravens and Chargers.
"This was a tough loss tonight," Zimmer said. "We had a good crowd; it was loud. Home, prime-time game. And we had plenty of opportunities to win that football game, and we didn't do it."
Zimmer's postgame message to the team, Thielen said, was simple: Put teams away.
"Every game, we just hang around, hang around, hang around. Let the team hang around. Instead of just putting our foot on the gas and goin'," Thielen said. "We score on that first drive, you've gotta put the foot on the gas. I don't know what we need to do [to do] that, but we can't just say it. Because we've been saying that since Week 1.
"We've got to find a way collectively, as an entire team, again, look ourselves all in the mirror and say, 'What can we do to not do that?' " Thielen continued. "Because we know what we need to do, right? But it's easy to say, and you need to go out and find a way to do that. You've got to talk about how you're going to do that and have a plan for that, and that starts with each one of us individually."
The Vikings did have one final shot at making something happen inside the last minute of the game. Cousins has helped lead successful 2-minute (or less-than) drives more than once this season, but nothing went right this time around.
A 13-yard completion to Thielen to start gave Minnesota a slim chance, but an incompletion followed by a false start penalty on Garrett Bradbury sent things awry.
Thielen noted that it was a "completely different situation" than Week 5 when Greg Joseph kicked a game-winning field goal or Week 6 at Carolina when the Vikings won in overtime.
"No timeouts [left tonight], have to score a touchdown. [Dallas was] playing everybody extremely far back, so it's a little bit not putting ourselves in a great position there to have success," Thielen said. "So now, is that an excuse? No, we still gotta find a way to move the ball and clock it and do that. But when you put yourself in that situation with no timeouts at the end of the game like that, that's going up against a brick wall."
Sunday night's loss dropped the Vikings to 3-4. Emotions are running high for the team – as they should be.
"I would say if you're not frustrated, there's something wrong with you. And you shouldn't be on this team. You shouldn't be a coach. If you're not frustrated," Thielen said. "We want to win. We want to put the effort – we do put the effort in – week to week, every single day at practice.
"We have the guys, quality guys, good football players, on this team to do it," he added. "So if you're not frustrated, there's something wrong. We've got to find a way."