Minneapolis - The Minnesota Vikings couldn’t have asked for a much better start to the 2019 season in front of more than 65,000 fans at U.S. Bank Stadium.
The Vikings controlled all three phases, got on the scoreboard early and dominated the Atlanta Falcons in a 28-12 victory. It might ultimately prove to be Mike Zimmer's blueprint for success if the trends can continue. Create turnovers on defense, run the ball effectively and score touchdowns instead of field goals. Making a big play on special teams always helps too.
Minnesota scored all 28 of its points off Atlanta turnovers and ran for 174 yards. About the only thing the Vikings didn’t accomplish in their first game of 2019 was shutting the Falcons out.
The first play of the game set the tone for the afternoon. Anthony Barr sacked Matt Ryan for a loss. It was one of four sacks on the day. The Vikings forced a three-and-out, and Eric Wilson blocked the ensuing punt. Just a few plays later, Kirk Cousins found Adam Thielen over the middle for a 23-yard touchdown and the early 7-0 lead.
"Any time you start your season with the field position we had, our defense and our special teams gave us some gifts there. It makes a huge difference," Cousins said.
Anthony Harris had a huge day for the Vikings’ defense with two interceptions. His first came in the first quarter as Ryan was looking for his favorite target, Julio Jones. Minnesota took over at the Atlanta 41, and it took four plays to make it 14-0.
Dalvin Cook scored his first touchdown of the season from 19 yards out, and the Vikings were in control.
"I think today showed signs of what we can do when we play as a team and how impactful this special teams unit needs to be. I think right out of the gate, setting the tone getting that block was definitely big. It definitely sparked everybody," Harris said.
Cook finished with 21 carries for 111 yards and two scores, averaging nearly 5.3 yards per carry. It was a welcomed sight for the team and Vikings' fans, after Cook has only played 15 games the last two seasons while dealing with knee and hamstring injuries.
He was ready Sunday.
"Dalvin’s a great player. His feet are amazing. He’s a terrific weapon for us, obviously we’ll have to continue to use him to the best of our ability," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said.
The Falcons had a potential second quarter scoring drive stalled after a Devonta Freeman fumble, which the Vikings recovered. Minnesota took advantage with a 10-play, 79-yard scoring drive capped by a Cousins sneak over the goal line to take a 21-0 lead. The drive featured a mix of seven carries between Cook and Alexander Mattison that combined for 51 yards.
The Vikings as a team averaged 4.6 yards per carry in the debut of Kevin Stefanski at offensive coordinator and Gary Kubiak as offensive advisor.
"We know that’s the strength of our team. We know we have one of the best running backs in the NFL, if not the best. We know we have an offensive line that can just ground and pound, we’re very fortunate there," Thielen said. "We gotta continue to do those things because that will only help this team."
The Vikings got the ball to start the second half, but had to punt after getting one first down. Again, the Falcons had a potential scoring drive end with a turnover. Facing heavy pressure, Ryan appeared to be trying to throw the ball out of the end zone. He didn’t put enough on it, and Harris got his second interception of day.
It was Ryan’s first multi-interception game since December of 2017. It’s the second multi-interception game of Harris’s career, and it tied the franchise record for Week 1 interceptions by a player with Jeff Siemone and Paul Krause.
The Vikings made the most of the opportunity with a six-play scoring drive, capped by Cook’s second touchdown of the game, from seven yards out.
The Vikings’ defense forced three turnovers, sacked Ryan four times and pressured him most of the afternoon. They also limited Atlanta to 73 rushing yards, and limited Julio Jones to six catches for 31 yards and a meaningless touchdown late in regulation.
Cousins called the game "unique" after throwing just 10 passes, completing eight. He had previously never had a start in his NFL career where he completed fewer than 10 passes. He told his teammates in the locker room he hasn't had that few passes in a game "probably since Pop Warner."
He's the $84 million quarterback, but he's also wanting to do whatever it takes to win. So when you're up more than two scores in the second half, you're running the football.
"I was telling the guys in the locker room it felt like a youth football game where you really don’t get to throw much and you just kind of run right, run left, run up the middle. That’s what it felt like, and it was working. No reason to change it up," Cousins said.
One thing the Vikings do need to clean up? Penalties. They had 12 of them, including four defensive off-sides infractions.
It’s only one game, but the Vikings answered plenty of questions that lingered after two shaky preseason games, especially on offense. They ran the ball effectively, the defense forced turnovers and Cousins only had to complete eight passes. There will also no kicking issues, with Dan Bailey making all four extra points.
But it's only one win.
"You can’t win them all unless you win the first. It’s like that birdie them all. You can’t birdie them all until you birdie the first.," Zimmer said.
Up next is their first divisional match-up, at Green Bay next Sunday.