"At some point, you're not going to be able to run the ball for 180 yards, even with the best running back in the NFL," Thielen said after the game, per The Athletic. "That's when you have to be able to throw the ball. You have to be able to make plays. You have to be able to hit the deep balls. You have to do that."
You don't often see a receiver critique his quarterback in public like that, but he's not wrong. On Monday, Thielen walked those comments back, but I don't blame him and fellow receiver Stefon Diggs -- who exited the locker room in full pads when the media entered after the game, ultimately declining any interviews -- for being frustrated. They have every right to be, given the way Minnesota's offense has performed.
On Sunday, the Bears stymied the Vikings run game, holding Dalvin Cook -- who was coming off three straight 100-yard games -- to just 35 yards and a garbage-time touchdown on 14 carries. With the ground game not going anywhere, Kirk Cousinsfloundered in a big way (again) as he had completed 9-of-14 pass attempts for 53 yards with two minutes remaining in the third quarter. The Vikings' offense had 59 total yards in the first half, and its first seven drives ended in either punts or fumbles.
Thielen caught just two passes for 6 yards on six targets, and one of the few deep throws the $84 million quarterback attempted came on a first-half heave to Thielen. Unfortunately, the ball was overthrown by several yards. Diggs finished with seven catches for 108 yards, but the vast majority of that production came late in the second half when the game felt like it was out of reach. Though the Bears never had more than a two-score lead, it felt more like a 40-point advantage, because Minnesota's offense never really threatened the Bears' defense -- until it was too late.
The bottom line is Minnesota (2-2) has lost each of its games against division opponents this season and now sits at the bottom of the NFC North a quarter of the way through the season. When you're a proven player (Thielen/Diggs in this case) and you don't get opportunities to help your team win, that's when frustration boils over. I think that's what happened on Sunday. A comparison between Thielen and Diggs' production through four games last season, when the receiving duo set multiple records, and this year shows just how far they have fallen.
Thielen in 2018: 55 targets, 40 receptions, 473 yards, two TDs.
Thielen in 2019: 21 targets, 13 receptions, 179 yards, two TDs.
Diggs in 2018: 39 targets, 27 receptions, 311 yards, three TDs.
Diggs in 2019: 19 targets, 13 receptions, 212 yards, one TD.
The thing is, I'm not sure things are suddenly going to get vastly better for the duo, given the type of team Mike Zimmer wants to put on the field. Zimmer wants to win with a dominant defense and run game, but if the threat of throwing the ball downfield is so small, like it was against the Bears, it's easy for teams to load up the box and take away the run. To be fair, the Bears' pass rush, led by Khalil Mack, was all over Cousins. Yet, five of the Bears' six sacks came after the Vikings QB had more than 2.5 seconds to throw, per Next Gen Stats. Cousins had the lowest percentage of aggressive throws among Week 4 passers (2.8%), and he tied for the second-lowest average intended air yards. The Vikings have to find a way to generate offense even when the run game is not clicking. Cousins has the weapons to do it, but he's just not getting it done.
Thielen and Diggs aren't the only players who have been a victim of their circumstances this season, though. Here are a couple more offensive players that have the right to be frustrated right now:
Jets RB Le'Veon Bell: With Sam Darnold missing the last couple games due to mononucleosis, Bell has been the sole focus of opposing defensive coordinators. He's doing everything -- no, really, EVERYTHING -- for an 0-3 team that doesn't have clarity as to when its franchise QB will return to the lineup. Bell has 76 touches in three games (25.3 per game) -- 55 more than the next-closest Jets skill-position player, Jamison Crowder (21 total touches) -- and recorded a touch on 46 percent of his offensive snaps this season, per NGS. It doesn't take a genius to see that he's asked to do a ton in Adam Gase's system (and wants the responsibility). On one play vs. the Cleveland Browns in Week 2, Bell chipped Olivier Vernon to give Luke Falk more time to throw, caught the pass in space, made several defenders miss, which included a hurdle over safety Eric Murray, and picked up a first down. There's not much more Bell can do at this point, and yet, his team is winless and Gang Green's offense ranks dead last in the NFL.
Chargers RB Austin Ekeler: The Chargers have utilized Ekeler appropriately in the run game and have been able to get him in space, where he does a lot of damage. He has been very productive as the starter (220 rush yards, 270 receiving yards, six total TDs) in four games. That's the good news. The bad news for him is that head coach Anthony Lynn said that Melvin Gordon, who joined the team last week after a lengthy holdout, will be the Chargers' RB1 when he is ready. It's not all that surprising, considering Gordon is a better back who will run hard inside the tackles and close games out, but Ekeler has performed well in the role and has been with the Chargers since the team reported back in July. Losing the job under these circumstances doesn't sit well if I'm Ekeler.
Each week in the 2019 campaign, former No. 1 overall pick and NFL Network analyst David Carr will take a look at all offensive players and rank his top 15. Rankings are based solely on this season's efforts. Now, let's get to it -- the Week 5 pecking order is below.
Patrick Mahomes looked human for much of Sunday's contest against the Lions by playing far below his usual standard. He had his third career game with zero passing touchdowns, but proved why he should still be in this spot with a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter to improve the Chiefs to 4-0.
After signing a big contract in the offseason, Wilson is having a career year, one worthy of MVP mentions. He has had a 100-plus passer rating in each of the four games this season -- three of those at 110.0 or better -- and has yet to throw an interception on 133 pass attempts, his longest such streak to start a season in his career. His ability to extend plays and come through in big moments has the Seahawks sitting at 3-1 at the quarter mark, a big deal considering they have made the playoffs the last seven times when starting 3-1.
McCaffrey jumped to the top of the rushing ranks after last week's performance and now edges Minnesota's Dalvin Cook by 1 rush yard. The Panthers RB1 put the team on his back in Sunday's win by racking up a whopping 179 scrimmage yards. The rest of the Panthers offense had 147 scrimmage yards combined.
My hat's off to Kamara for what he's done the last two games without Drew Brees. He punished the Seahawks' defense in Week 3 and did the same against the Cowboys in Week 4. According to Pro Football Focus, Kamara forced a career-high nine missed tackles on 17 carries Sunday night, bringing his season total to 23 (five more than any other player this season). As impressive as he was in his first two seasons as a complementary back, 2019 feels like the beginning of a bust-worthy career.
Cook has been great in 2019 as the centerpiece of the Vikings' offense, which is the reason he's moved up to No. 6. (Remember, I am looking solely at this season now.) And though he ran into some trouble against the Bears, who held Cook to 90 rushing yards below his season average per game, the third-year back looks confident as a major part of the run and pass attacks.
Brady sits at No. 7 based on what he did over the first three weeks of the season (304 pass yards per game, 116.5 passer rating, 7:0 TD-to-INT ratio). He was anything but that player against the Bills as his 45.9 passer rating is the fifth-lowest of his career.
We all know Kelce has been a top-tier tight end for years, because his size and athletic ability make him such a mismatch nightmare for defenses. He took it one step further Sunday when he caught a pass from Mahomes, then lateraled the ball to LeSean McCoy, who ran for another 23 yards. This off-the-cuff style makes the Chiefs so much fun to watch.
Allen leads the league in receiving yards with 452 -- almost 100 yards more than the next closest guy, Michael Thomas, who has 361 -- and is the only player averaging more than 100 receiving yards per game. With all of the moving pieces in this offense ( Melvin Gordon's now-ended holdout, Hunter Henry's season-ending injury and Mike Williams currently dealing with a back injury), Allen has been the one constant for Philip Rivers in the passing game. And to no one's surprise, Allen is getting the job done.
Evans has made scoring look so easy -- reminder, it is not -- in his last two games by getting into the end zone four times. He caught Richard Sherman's attention with his notable performance against Wade Phillips' defense in Week 4 (four catches for 89 receiving yards and one receiving TD on seven targets). If that wasn't enough to put the rest of the league on notice, I'm not sure what is.
The Falcons' struggles continued Sunday as they outgained Tennessee in yards and won the time-of-possession battle but fell victim to a costly turnover and poor production on third down (5-of-14) and in the red zone (1-of-3). Looking beyond the team struggles, Atlanta's WR1 is routinely the best athlete on the field and plays that way. With 52 receiving yards Sunday, he became the fastest receiver to reach 11,000 career receiving yards (115 games, 12 games less than Calvin Johnson).
Rodgers has gradually played better each time he steps out on the field, but there are still kinks to work out between the QB and Matt LaFleur. Failing to capitalize on several trips to the red zone against the Eagles had a lot to do with the play-calling. The Packers should be able to confidently hand the ball off to Aaron Jones on the 1-yard line, but they didn't. Rodgers threw four incomplete passes from the 1-yard line on a single drive in the fourth quarter -- the most incompletions by a QB from the 1 in any quarter over the last 40 seasons. I have to give the Eagles' D credit, and I hope Green Bay learned its lesson.
Compared to his record-setting 2018 campaign, Kittle has had a quiet season thus far (165 yards on 17 receptions with zero touchdowns). But the 49ers star is about so much more than the stat sheet. As a pure tight end, who should really have his own blocking tutorial, he consistently helps his teammates make positive plays downfield by willingly doing the dirty work.
JUST OUTSIDE THE TOP 15
DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Texans: Hopkins falls out because his production has dipped across the board since Week 1. It's as simple as that.
Michael Thomas, WR, Saints: Thomas slipped out of the top 15 because he just isn't the same player without Drew Brees throwing him the ball. Don't get me wrong, he is still a great receiver (nine catches for 95 yards on nine targets on Sunday), but he doesn't have quite the same impact without the veteran QB slinging it.
Carson Wentz, QB, Eagles: Wentz was impressive in Thursday night's win at Lambeau Field, with three TD passes, no interceptions and a 113.2 passer rating. The thing that stood out to me was Wentz's ability to keep his team in the game when it could've gotten away in the first half. He stayed calm, executed in a hostile environment and was a big reason Green Bay suffered its first loss.