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NFL: Searching for answers

Zimmer, Vikings left to ponder where to turn in 1-5 season

EAGAN (AP) — Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was assessing his team’s 40-23, Week 6 loss to the Atlanta Falcons with reporters on Monday when the coach stopped talking and paused for several seconds, seemingly done answering the latest question.

Zimmer then started back up, without being prompted by a question, to reflect more on how his team fell flat after making strides in previous weeks, including a one-point loss at Seattle the prior week.

“If we lost a game by one point and we had a letdown in the next game, that would be surprising to me,” Zimmer said. “If you lose a game, you shouldn’t have a letdown. You should put a foot on the grinder and get back to work.”

A day after describing the loss as “strange,” Zimmer seemed to still be searching for answers.

Minnesota (1-5) returned all the key pieces to its offense this season, aside from rookie Justin Jefferson replacing the traded Stefon Diggs. The Vikings believed they could rebuild a defense missing five starters from last season on the fly, in part because of Zimmer.

Reality has set in.

“When it’s time to win the game or time to win the series, we’re not very good,” Zimmer said of his defense. “And then offensively, it’s maintaining the football and controlling drives. I think we’re minus-7 in turnovers. All those things lead to bad football.”

Heading into the bye week, Zimmer said he will look at possible changes. At least for this season, there might not be many places for Minnesota to turn.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins signed a two-year, $66 million extension in March and holds a hefty cap $41 million cap hit next year that will give the Vikings pause. The options behind Cousins are veteran backup Sean Mannion, 2019 undrafted Jake Browning and Nate Stanley, a seventh-round rookie out of Iowa.

Many of the other 2020 draft picks are already playing after second-round offensive lineman Ezra Cleveland made his first career start on Sunday at right guard. Jefferson is an every-down player, as are cornerbacks Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler, first- and third-round picks, respectively.

“Some of these young guys need a lot of work but some of them are playing every play,” Zimmer said when weighing how to handle the bye week of rest and instruction. “I’m kind of going through that a little bit now.”

What’s working

Cousins is struggling, but the team’s pass catchers are thriving when given a chance to make plays.

Jefferson has been a quality replacement for Diggs with 28 catches for a team-high 537 yards. Adam Thielen has 32 receptions for 415 yards and seven touchdowns. Pro Football Focus rates Jefferson as the top wide receiver in the league, with Thielen fourth overall.

Tight ends Irv Smith Jr. and Kyle Rudolph have also become more involved, combining for seven catches and 102 yards on Sunday.

What needs help

Minnesota could use more of a pass rush to help its young cornerbacks. The Vikings have 13 sacks in six games. Yannick Ngakoue leads the team with five sacks.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan had plenty of time on Sunday to throw to complete 30 of his 40 passes for 371 yards and four touchdowns. He was sacked twice for a total of 8 yards lost.

Injured

Cornerback Mike Hughes left Sunday’s game with a neck injury, leaving only the three rookies. He missed two games earlier this season with a neck injury and has missed 14 games in his three-year career. Cornerbacks Holton Hill (foot) and Kris Boyd (hamstring) missed Sunday’s game.

Cleveland started in place of Dru Samia (wrist), while running back Dalvin Cook (groin) missed the game.

Key number

7 – Minnesota owns a minus-7 in turnover differential. Only Dallas, playing Monday night, has a worse differential this season at minus-8.

Next steps

The Vikings get a week to reset before going on the road to face the Green Bay Packers.

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