EAGAN, Minn. (AP) — The directions from the sideline were coming in hot for Joshua Dobbs on the wireless device inside his helmet as Minnesota's new quarterback tried to keep up with the complicated play calls just five days after the Vikings acquired him in a trade.
As a seventh-year NFL veteran, Dobbs had faith in his ability when Jaren Hall was hurt in the first quarter just one week after team leader Kirk Cousins went down with a season-ending injury.
The calm and clear voice on the headset in Atlanta made the situation better. Vikings coach Kevin O'Connell's encouraging and optimistic demeanor and experience as a former quarterback was helping Cousins have a career-best season, and those traits also helped Dobbs deliver the winning rally to beat the Falcons. He'll start again this week, O'Connell confirmed Monday.
“He knows what I’m going through, so he was able to communicate effectively: ‘This is what you’re looking at. This is what you have on this side of the page. That is what you have on that side of the page,’” Dobbs said. "He was able to talk in lingo where I’ve come from to simplify it.”
There was plenty of reason to believe the Vikings hired the right coach when they went 13-4 in his rookie year. After starting 1-4 and losing star wide receiver Justin Jefferson to a strained hamstring this season, O'Connell has provided a far more relevant body of work.
The Vikings (5-4) have won four straight games at a significant disadvantage, particularly at Atlanta when they turned to Dobbs, who had had no practice time with the first-team offense, and they did so without Jefferson and standout left tackle Christian Darrisaw. Wide receiver K.J. Osborn was lost to injury in the process, too.
“I just view it as an opportunity to help these guys, help whoever is playing quarterback,” O'Connell said. “You just try to coach them through the perspective of, ‘What does this player need from me right now to have success?’”
He added: “My job is to lead. It’s not always just scheme.”
With the playbook design and play-calling by O'Connell and his staff as the foundation, the passing attack has still been able to thrive without Jefferson and now Cousins. The Vikings have had 12 different players catch passes this season, and eight of them have 10-plus receptions. Wide receiver Brandon Powell has taken on a larger role in recent weeks, culminating with his go-ahead touchdown catch against the Falcons with 22 seconds left.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The Vikings lost yardage on five runs against the Falcons and rushed for no gain four times, excluding the four times they were sacked for 19 yards. They simply can't afford to keep putting a backup quarterback in those extra-long second and third downs. According to Sportradar, the Vikings have been stuffed for negative yardage on 14.4% of their running plays, the second-worst rate in the league behind Arizona.
Brian Flores has had a strong first season as defensive coordinator, with the Vikings 13th in the NFL in yards allowed per game and 10th in yards allowed per play. They're also 12th in rushing yards allowed per game and fifth in rushing yards allowed per play. These are by far their best rankings since 2018.
Edge rusher Marcus Davenport, Minnesota's most important free agent signing, has missed the majority of the season because of injuries to both ankles. What's more, Flores has been without outside linebackers coach Mike Smith since training camp and defensive line coach Chris Rumph for the last three games. Both are on personal leave.
The 2022 draft class, the first directed by general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, has been a collective disappointment. Safety Lewis Cine, cornerback Andrew Booth and linebacker Brian Asamoah, three of their first four picks, are essentially just special teams players. Ed Ingram has been a fixture in the lineup at right guard, but he's been a work in progress at best. Cornerback Akayleb Evans, a fourth-round selection, has started all nine games and been the most consistent contributor. Evans forced a fumble against the Falcons, his third of the season.
Running back Cam Akers joined Cousins in the torn Achilles tendon club, another blow to the banged-up offense. Hall and Osborn began the week in the concussion protocol, with no clarity yet about whether they'll recover in time to play Sunday against New Orleans. Darrisaw (groin) didn't play at Atlanta after he was a late addition to the injury report, but O'Connell said he'd likely practice this week on a limited basis.
Tight end T.J. Hockenson (ribs) will also be limited after taking a couple of hard hits from the Falcons. O'Connell said he's hopeful Hockenson will be able to play against the Saints.
The most significant injury news to watch this week, though, will be Jefferson's status, given his eligibility to return to practice following the minimum four-game absence on injured reserve. O'Connell said there's a possibility he'll be cleared Wednesday for limited work on the field.
“But we’re going to do what’s best for Justin and make sure that we’re doing everything responsibly to make sure that when Justin does return," O'Connell said, "he can be the Justin Jefferson we all know and expect to see out there.”
3 — That's the number of players in NFL history who've thrown a touchdown pass for two different teams in consecutive weeks, with Dobbs joining Bernie Kosar (1993) and Paul Governali (1947). Dobbs is the only one with three total touchdowns in each game.
The Vikings host NFC South-leading Saints (5-4) this Sunday, their only opponent in the next six weeks that currently has a winning record. Then the Vikings visit Denver (3-5), host Chicago (2-7) and have their bye week before a game at Las Vegas (4-5). Minnesota controls the third wild-card spot with a 5-2 record in the NFC that could prove valuable in tiebreakers.
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