Costly penalties prevent Vikings from opening playbook in loss to Bengals

Penalties on the Vikings' offensive thwarted any type of rhythm the offense tried to create, especially with play-action. Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire

CINCINNATI – Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer was baffled by the repeated issues his offensive line struggled with in a 27-24 overtime loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.

Minnesota racked up 116 yards on 12 penalties. Outside of a 26-yard pass interference penalty on cornerback Bashaud Breeland, the rest of those infractions were called on the offense. The Vikings were flagged for false starts and offensive holding 11 times, which was their most such penalties in a single game since at least 2000, according to ESPN Stats and Information research.

The blame was spread along the offensive line equally, with each lineman flagged at least once.

This wasn’t how this group looked in the lead-up to their season opener, even with Rashod Hill (left tackle), Ezra Cleveland (left guard) and Oli Udoh (right guard) assuming new starting roles. Yet from the offense’s first drive, the O-line looked like it hadn’t jelled at all.

“I have no idea about the false starts,” Zimmer said. “We haven’t had hardly any of those in camp. We’ve been harping on them about where their hand placement is and things like that.

“We’ve just got to clean it up.”

The mistakes kept forcing the Vikings into unfavorable downs and distances, which made it difficult to execute a game plan.

“It was tough to be able to call our plays,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said. “Whenever you talk about an offense, you talk about giving yourself opportunities to open up a playbook. When you’re second-and-20, when you’re third-and-15, third-and-12, your playbook goes from wide open to very narrow.

“So we have to be able to put ourselves in good positions on first and second down, and then [that] allows us to open up that playbook up and really make it tough on defenses.”

Minnesota found itself in 21 instances of second-and-long (situations longer than second-and-6). From the start, the offense failed to establish the run with Dalvin Cook, who averaged 3.1 yards per carry on 20 attempts, so any play-action attempt would have been less effective.

“It’s too many zones,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “Those play-actions are designed for when people want to stop the run. Second-and-20, they’re going to let you run, so there are too many zones.”

Play-action has long been a major part of the Vikings’ offensive identity. Without it, Cousins had limited opportunities to establish a deeper passing attack and looked uncomfortable under pressure while he tried to chip away at the negative yardage. In total, Cousins was sacked three times, all of which were allowed through the interior of the offensive line.

The concern that came out of the past six weeks stemmed from the lack of time Minnesota’s offensive starters played together in the preseason. Players and coaches maintained that the lack of time and overall stale feel on offense would have no carryover to the regular season.

Sunday’s story told something different.

The Vikings face the same issues with their offensive line that they’ve been dealing with for several seasons, and there does not appear to be a quick fix coming anytime soon. Rookie left tackle Christian Darrisaw won’t be ready to play for a while, according to Zimmer, and Minnesota hits the road again in Week 2 to face the Arizona Cardinals, whose pass rush totaled six sacks in a rout of the Tennessee Titans, five of which came from defensive end Chandler Jones alone.

The Vikings ranked fourth in yards and 11th in points last season because of how effectively they ran the ball to set up play-action and deep shots to their star receivers. That is and has been their recipe for success, which only comes when they’re not fighting field position to stay afloat.

“I hear it all the time from college coaches, high school coaches, [talk about] that jump from Week 1 to Week 2, now we have something to look at,” Thielen said. “We didn’t really know our identity. We didn’t really know – we had an idea, right? But you just don’t know until you get out there and play games.

“Now we have something to work on, get better, get back to work. We have a bunch of fighters on this team. We have 16 more weeks of football, so that’s exciting.”