MINNEAPOLIS – At one point late in the first quarter, it seemed that a turnover caused by Minnesota may be the change in momentum the Vikings desperately needed.
Rookie cornerback Jeff Gladney forced a fumble by running back Brian Hill, and linebacker Eric Wilson scooped it up for the recovery and return of possession to Minnesota. The Vikings offense was unable to capitalize, however, failing on fourth-and-goal from the 1 and walking away with no points.
Overall, an inability to put consistent pressure on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, coupled with coverage issues, hurt the Vikings in a 40-23 loss to a previously winless Atlanta team that possessed the ball for more than 40 minutes.
Vikings defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo sacked Ryan once and split another takedown with Jaleel Johnson. But for the bulk of the afternoon, the 35-year-old quarterback made things happen against Minnesota.
Ryan threw four touchdowns Sunday after a two-week gap without a touchdown toss. He finished the outing 30-of-40 passing for 371 yards, with four scores, no turnovers and a passer rating of 136.6.
Two of Ryan's touchdown passes occurred on fourth downs in the second half of the ball game. With two minutes left in the third quarter, Atlanta faced fourth-and-3 from the Minnesota 40; Ryan scrambled and made a toss down the Vikings sideline to receiver Julio Jones, who ran it into the end zone. It appeared on the play that Gladney assumed Jones was blocking, and the rookie corner slipped when Jones twisted to make the catch.
Just before the 2-minute warning, "Matty Ice" effectively put the game on ice when on fourth-and-1 he targeted a wide-open Hayden Hurst for the 35-yard touchdown.
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"They brought [Hurst] all the way across the formation, and Minnesota just absolutely loses him in coverage," FOX analyst Daryl Johnson said during the broadcast.
The Falcons also were successful on third downs, in comparison to the Vikings previous opponents this season.
After Minnesota held Seattle to 0-of-7 on third-down attempts last week, Atlanta converted seven of its first 10 third downs. One of those occurred on third-and-11, when Jones hauled in a 20-yard touchdown despite double coverage from Cam Dantzler and Harrison Smith. The Falcons finished the day 9-for-17 on third downs.
Zimmer was asked postgame about Gladney and fellow rookie Dantzler, who have had ups and downs through Minnesota's first six games.
"Yeah, I still think they're going to be good players. It's a lot of learning by fire," Zimmer said. "The first touchdown, it was third-and-11, Dantzler had help on the inside, and he got in a bad position. Later in the ball game, he was in good position but didn't close to the receiver, and that ball was a little underthrown, and he didn't find the ball.
"Gladney comes off his guy when the quarterback moves there late in the game and throws it to his guy for a touchdown," Zimmer added. "There's a lot on Gladney's plate, playing inside and outside. We've just to continue to get out there and compete and get that mindset."
The Vikings gave up six plays of 20 yards or more to the Falcons.
Jones, who did not practice most of the week due to a hamstring injury, led the team with eight catches for 137 yards and two scores. Hurst, Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage added 57, 61 and 65 yards, respectively, through the air.
Atlanta's offensive weapons are not secret, but Vikings safety Anthony Harris emphasized that it's no excuse for the Vikings defensive performance.
"Obviously they have two dynamic receivers in Julio and Ridley. We respect their talents," Harris said. "But at the same time, we take pride in our craft and the ability that we have. To give up big plays is not what you want to do; it's not the identity that we try to play with.
"We have to get on the tape and see how we can limit those and be better," he added.
The Vikings played better against the run, limiting the Falcons to 99 total yards rushing. Todd Gurley II led the way with 20 carries for 47 yards, and Hill recorded 28 yards on 10 attempts. Atlanta did not score a touchdown on the ground.
Minnesota now enters its bye week with a 1-5 record, the team's worst start under Zimmer's leadership.
Regardless of how the first six games have gone, the team will continue to self-scout, self-correct and work to improve.
"It's foreign for us," Harris admitted of the poor start, "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," Harris continued. "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."
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