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- Courtney CroninESPN Staff Writer Close
- Covered the 49ers, Raiders and Warriors for the San Jose Mercury News. She joined ESPN in 2017.
EAGAN, Minn. — The Monday Night Football audience didn't just sense Adam Thielen's frustrations, they heard them. Loud and clear.
After a 35-yard catch-and-run ahead of the two-minute warning in the second half of the Minnesota Vikings' 21-7 loss at the Seattle Seahawks, ESPN's field mics picked up a colorful outburst when the Pro Bowl wide receiver voiced his concern with what was transpiring on offense.
Thielen leads the NFL in receptions, with 103, but his production has decreased considerably since he posted 100 yards receiving for eight straight weeks to open the season. In Seattle, Thielen wasn't targeted and didn't catch his first pass until 6:12 left in the third quarter. For the first time in the past two seasons, he didn't catch a pass in a half.
"A little bit frustration of not moving the ball," Thielen said of his outburst. "When you're an athlete and a competitor, you feel like you can win. So, you want the ball in your hand, you want opportunities. So that's probably where that came from."
It's not like he wasn't getting open. On Minnesota's second drive of the game, Thielen was free of defenders 20 yards downfield. Sensing pressure, quarterback Kirk Cousins dumped off a pass behind him to running back Latavius Murray that went for 2 yards. Instead of finding Thielen on fourth down from Seattle's 1-yard line with more than nine minutes to play in the game, Cousins targeted tight end Kyle Rudolph in double coverage in the back of the end zone. The pass was broken up, and the Vikings failed to score.
Thielen's production dip has been noticeable since Week 9, when his 100-yard streak was snapped by the Detroit Lions. With Stefon Diggs sidelined due to an injury to his ribs, the Lions zeroed in on Thielen, limiting him to four catches for 22 yards.
After averaging 115.6 yards receiving in the first eight games of the season while catching 76 percent of his targets, Thielen has caught 64 percent of his targets over the past five weeks while averaging 62.2 yards per game. Amid a rough stretch for Minnesota's offense, Thielen was back to his ways against the Green Bay Packers in Week 12 (eight catches for 125 yards and a touchdown), but he has been quiet outside of that.
Thielen isn't the only one whose numbers have decreased after a hot start. Diggs has gone three straight games without eclipsing 100 yards receiving, and he was visibly frustrated during a defeat at the New England Patriots as cameras caught him ripping off his helmet and screaming after being left wide open.
So what's happening?
"I think a lot of discussion, even talking to my own family after the game, that they noticed watching on TV of Adam and Stefon are being doubled and taken away," Cousins said following the tilt in Seattle. "That was true probably the first two third downs of the game, and then really the rest of the game I didn't notice it showing up. So, while that is happening — that happened against the Lions, that happened against the Patriots and it's going to happen. But it's not play in and play out all game long. So I don't want to overstate that. Certainly, from time to time they'll be doubled."
Teams typically utilize bracket coverage when putting two defenders on one player, but the way the Patriots and Seahawks chose to routinely double Thielen and Diggs with defenders playing man coverage is less common. But it's far from surprising that teams have begun to deploy this strategy to contain the prolific receiving duo.
"I didn't ever think I'd get triple-teamed," Diggs said. "That's something that I've never experienced in my life. For me, I can beat double-teams. I feel like I can still win. And if it's three guys, I've got to beat three guys. It don't really matter how it comes up. But more importantly, we've got guys on the outside that can win, and if I'm occupying three people, I know we've got some guys out there that can get involved."
Interim offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski hopes to reignite Thielen and Diggs on Sunday at home against the Miami Dolphins in a game that could establish the tone offensively for what the Vikings aim to do the rest of the season.
"I think it's our job and we're charged with getting those guys the football in space," Stefanski said. "It changes, and it varies by game, because certain teams have a certain plan to take those two guys away. The nice part is we have a very unselfish group, so if it's going to be a big Stefon Diggs game, Adam's great about it. If there is going to be a big Kyle Rudolph game, those guys are great about it.
"So, I think the ball goes where the ball goes; but we as coaches, need to try to design plays to get the ball, obviously, to our playmakers."
Another way Stefanski could do that is by getting running back Dalvin Cook more involved in the passing game.
Cook has 50 yards receiving on just 13 catches over the past two games, and opportunities to get him involved in the passing game could help him evolve into the Vikings' No. 3 receiver. The two touchdowns he has scored this season have come as a pass-catcher.
The influences Stefanski pulls from the previous offensive coordinators he has worked under will start to become evident on Sunday. But judging by the success former Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur had utilizing running backs in the passing game, particularly with screens, Cook could get more involved.