MINNEAPOLIS – The Vikings knew going into Sunday's game that it likely would be a matchup decided in the trenches, and that's exactly what it was.
Minnesota came out on the wrong end of the 14-7 final score, though, as Cleveland shut down the Vikings ground game and, on the flip side, capitalized on its own.
The Vikings were without Dalvin Cook last week but utilized Alexander Mattison in a big way en route to a victory over Seattle. Cook, who was listed as questionable entering Sunday's contest, was well-contained by the Browns – and likely also not at full strength – and Mattison averaged just 2.0 yards per carry.
Vikings Offensive Coordinator Klint Kubiak did try to work in some screen plays, but the Browns quickly took those off the board.
Minnesota finished with just 65 yards rushing, its lowest total of the season. Cook led the way with a just 34 yards on nine carries, and Mattison added 20 yards on 10 attempts. The Vikings only touchdown of the day was scored through the air and caught by Justin Jefferson.
"I thought they did a really good job of pressuring us today," Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said postgame. "They didn't allow us to get the run game going very well, so that played [into it]."
He later added: "When you're running the wide zone like we are, typically you start them one way and you get the back side cut off. I don't think we did a good job of getting the back side cut off today."
Zimmer was asked how much Cook's ankle affected the team's run struggles. There was a spell midgame where the Vikings held Cook out and fed Mattison more opportunities.
"I don't think it was an issue. He came out of the game one time a little gimpy," Zimmer said of Cook. "We took him out for a while, then he said he was good, and he went back in."
The Vikings did see some success in the passing game, especially on their opening drive that ended with Jefferson's touchdown. That possession traveled 75 yards, digested 7:34 off the clock and featured 11-yard gains by Cook (run) and Jefferson (catch) and a 22-yard reception by Adam Thielen.
The offense was in a groove on that first drive. Kirk Cousins was provided a clean pocket and got the ball out quickly, but the group sputtered the rest of the way. Minnesota's inability to get the run game going allowed a stout Cleveland pass rush to do what it does best.
Cousins was sacked just two times by a defense that notched an impressive nine sacks against the Bears last weekend. But even on plays he stayed upright, the QB was under plenty of duress.
"The Browns did a good job," Cousins said. "After the first drive, they did a good job to make it a tough day for us to try and move the football.
"They had a good pass rush," he later added. "It was understood going into the game, and they did a good job throughout the game. They also did a good job with coverage. One of the sacks, for sure, was a coverage sack, so they did a good job."
Both teams struggled big-time on third downs.
Of 16 third-down attempts, Minnesota converted just five (31.3 percent). Cleveland was 7-for-18, a success rate of 38.9 percent. The Browns were 0-for-7 in the second half.
One of Minnesota's third-down attempts looked like a potentially game-changing play before being called back thanks to a flag. The Vikings faced third-and-12 a ways into the third quarter, and Cousins connected deep down the sideline with Jefferson for a 37-yard gain. A packed U.S. Bank Stadium went from elated to exasperated when it realized a holding penalty on Tyler Conklin was going negate the play.
"I think Conk' was holding on Myles Garrett or something like that. I understood the flag," Jefferson conceded, cracking a grin amidst frustration. "I understood it. It's just how it is. Definitely would have liked to get that one back."
Jefferson finished the day as the Vikings leading receiver with six catches for 84 yards and the touchdown. Thielen added three catches for 46 yards, and Conklin had four catches for 18 yards. K.J. Osborn impressed with a toe-tapping sideline grab that was challenged but upheld early in the second quarter. He totaled three catches for 26 yards on the day.
Cousins entered the game having not thrown an interception since Week 14 of the 2020 campaign. He broke his own franchise record (201 attempts without an interception in 2019) earlier in the game, but had the streak end on his 225th attempt when he was picked off by Browns cornerback Greedy Williams late in the game.
Cousins said he knew the deep pass "would be a jump ball" between Williams and Thielen.
"I knew it was going to be an opportunity ball. I knew I was forcing it a little bit," Cousins said. "It felt like with how we had been doing all day it was worth a shot, worth putting it up there for him.
"I'll certainly go back and talk with my coaches, talk with Adam, 'Hey there's probably, you know, details, I can throw it better so it's not, you know, caught by the DB,' but it gives Adam a better chance in terms of the angle I take him or whatnot," he continued. "That's what I'll go back and look at."
Cousins finished the day 20-of-38 passing for 203 yards, one touchdown and one interception. His passer rating of 66.0 was his lowest since Week 2 of last season.
The quarterback expressed his dissatisfaction over a loss that slid Minnesota to 1-3 to start the season. Next up is Detroit, whom the Vikings will welcome to U.S. Bank Stadium next Sunday.
"Didn't put enough points on the board. Started fast, had a great first drive but then didn't do enough the rest of the game," Cousins said. "Disappointing when we're at home to not do more. We have to learn from it, watch the film and be very critical and correct things. Then we'll move forward."