Vikings vow to solve their ball security problem, whether by special drills or lineup changes

Published 9:32 am Thursday, September 28, 2023

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EAGAN — The winless Minnesota Vikings have had trouble hanging onto the ball, with an NFL -high nine turnovers and a handful of costly drops.

If the trend continues, certain players might well lose their grip on spots in the lineup, too.

“That’s definitely what we’re going to fix one way or another,” coach Kevin O’Connell said earlier this week, comments as blunt and concise as he’s ever made in public about his team. “Either guys are going to do it, or we’re going to have to put other guys in the game that have ball security.”

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Running back Alexander Mattison, fair or not, is under the most scrutiny because of the recent acquisition of the capable Cam Akers. O’Connell said Wednesday the Vikings are planning to incorporate Akers into the game plan Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, after he was inactive last week.

Mattison, who lost a fumble in the previous game and another one that was reversed by a defensive penalty, dropped a wide-open pass in last week’s loss to the Los Angeles Chargers at the 12-yard line in the second quarter when he might’ve had enough space to turn and score. The Vikings settled for a field goal on that drive in the 28-24 defeat. Mattison also caught a break when his fumble in the fourth quarter was ruled a dead ball because of forward progress.

“We need to end every snap with the football in our hands, and that’s going to be continued urgency and emphasis like it was last week, and we’re going to continue to do it differently and emphasize it in different ways until that value is received, because that is a losing formula, being where we are at in the turnover differential right now,” O’Connell said.

The Vikings are minus-7 in that vital statistic, tied with the Las Vegas Raiders for worst in the league. Seven of their giveaways have been fumbles. The worst part is they haven’t recovered any of their own.

Tight end T.J. Hockenson lost one at the 17-yard line to halt a promising opening drive, when four Chargers surrounded him after a first down. As Hockenson tried to push forward, he dropped his right hand for balance against the turf, and safety Alohi Gilman ripped the ball out of his unprotected left arm.

That’s the exact scenario O’Connell and the coaches had the Vikings working on last week, called a “see-two, split-two” exercise where the ball carrier practices holding on as two defenders converge. That’s one of “six or seven” drills for ball security the players have been put through.

“We work different types of gauntlets where we incorporate punching different hammers — every piece of equipment you can find on the internet to work ball security,” O’Connell said. “If we didn’t have it before, we purchased it, and we will continue to do so and build drills to emphasize what we want to see out of our players.”

For all the trouble with fumbles, the drops against the Chargers actually hurt the Vikings more. Cornerback Akayleb Evans had a sure interception slip between his hands as he gracefully dived to try to deny a pass to Joshua Palmer. The ball bounced off his helmet and into the air to Palmer for a touchdown. Then there was Hockenson’s mishandle of a hard throw from Kirk Cousins into the end zone near the end of the game. The ball glanced off his hands and into the air for an interception.

“That’s one of those that you sleep at night and you see the ball come at you, 1,000 different times,” Hockenson said. “It’s a tough one, but obviously I hold myself to a standard and I know I can make that.”

Hockenson’s too important to be benched, but he realizes his ball security has to improve.

“We do have a target on our backs. That’s just the facts of it,” he said. “These guys are going to go for the ball, and they’re not going to be thinking about much else because we’ve shown that we’re putting it on the ground on tape.”