Vikings avoid 0-4 start, persevere after tricky week to beat Houston

What a week it’s been for the Minnesota Vikings.

A COVID-19 outbreak with their Week 3 opponent, the Tennessee Titans, forced the Vikings to close their facility for precautionary reasons and miss a day of practice. The wrench thrown in their week of preparation for the Houston Texans didn’t affect the outcome of the game, with the Vikings grabbing their first victory of the year, 31-23, on the road.

The situation Minnesota faced could have lent the team an excuse to fall apart. Instead, it galvanized the Vikings to halt an early-season skid as their schedule gets considerably more difficult with a trip to unbeaten Seattle on the horizon in Week 5.

Offense is rolling, and responding: Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak used Houston’s weaknesses to the Vikings’ advantage. Knowing how badly the Texans fared against the run in Weeks 1-3, allowing 5.2 yards per rush, Kubiak called on Dalvin Cook often and it yielded back-to-back 100-yard outings for the Vikings’ star running back (27 carries, 130 yards, 2 TDs). Cook had his most rushing yards after contact of the season, and Kubiak hit the Texans where it hurt most by forcing Cook’s runs outside and drawing up plays off of jet sweeps, toss sweeps, swings and screens to force things to the edge. This is what the best version of the Vikings’ offense looks like, predicated off a run game that opens up opportunities elsewhere.

They also showed an ability to respond. After the Texans made it a four-point game at 17-13 in the third quarter, Minnesota scored two touchdowns in 14 plays and 148 yards to give the Vikings a 31-16 lead with 10:50 left in the game. The first scoring drive of the aforementioned series resulted in a 9-yard TD pass from Kirk Cousins to Adam Thielen in the back of the end zone. On that drive, Cousins put his trust in his pass-catchers, stepping up to make big throws in coverage to Justin Jefferson and Kyle Rudolph.

Buy/sell on defensive bounce back? Sell. The Vikings defense looked improved on Sunday. They held the Texans to 96 rushing yards, kept Houston to 3-of-12 on third down, came away with three red-zone stops and forced a bunch of incomplete passes. The final drive, with Houston threatening to score with less than two minutes to play, produced a huge stand at the goal line. That should be celebrated.

But consider who they were doing it against. The Texans' sluggish, sloppy offense was exactly what this young, oft-injured defense for Minnesota needed in order to gain some confidence, but the same issues were evident. The Vikings lead the NFL with nine plays of 30-plus yards allowed, and gave up a 43-yard reception from Deshaun Watson to Will Fuller V.

The Vikings’ safety depth, which has been a problem since training camp, was depleted even further when Harrison Smith was ejected at the end of the first half for targeting. On the first drive of the third quarter, Watson picked apart a Vikings secondary starting two rookie corners and George Iloka in the place of Smith. It resulted in a touchdown by Fuller. Iloka allowed another touchdown late in the game after Watson struck with Kenny Stills. Iloka found redemption on Houston’s final drive of the game, but the issues in the secondary are concerning.

Yes, the Vikings defense looked better, but how are they going to fare when they face an electric offense such as Seattle? That’s the question they’ll have to answer, and that will determine whether this week’s improvement was big enough to carry over against good teams.