Vikings Quest: Win on Sunday and Shake Up the NFC North
Brian Robison remembers pretty much everything about the last time the Vikings won in Green Bay: the mix of boos and cheers when Brett Favre took the field for Minnesota; the Vikings’ building an early 21-point lead; the pit in his stomach when he fumbled a third-quarter squibbed kickoff that put the Packers back into the game.
It was six years ago when the Vikings last left Lambeau Field with a victory, and six years since Minnesota finished first in the NFC North. Only three current Vikings—Robison, a nine-year veteran defensive end, running back Adrian Peterson and linebacker Chad Greenway—were part of that game, a 38-26 Minnesota win.
On Sunday night, the Vikings have the chance to do both again—a win in Green Bay will improve their record to 11-5 and secure the division title. The key to pulling off that double-double? Winning up front. “The big matchup,” Robison says, “is going to be our D-line vs. their O-line.”
The Vikings have one of the deepest and most versatile defensive fronts in football, while the Packers’ offensive line is both banged-up and reeling. Green Bay finished last week’s game without either of its offensive tackles—David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga are nursing ankle injuries—which resulted in a catastrophic nine sacks, including two strip sacks returned for TDs in a 38-8 loss to the Cardinals.
That game was a defensive line’s paradise. You can’t necessarily expect the same this week—Arizona had built a three-score lead by halftime, forcing the Packers into obvious passing situations—but the Vikings should be able to take advantage of matchups against the Packers, especially if Bakhtiari and Bulaga don’t play.
Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson has so many pieces at his disposal that he says he game plans “like a basketball coach,” setting up one-on-one matchups across the line to maximize skillsets. Everson Griffen, the team leader in sacks, has received the elite rusher treatment from opponents, who chip-block him with backs and tight ends. The other anchor, when healthy, is nose tackle Linval Joseph, whom Patterson describes as “probably the strongest player” he’s ever coached.
Former first-round pick Sharrif Floyd has been dominant at the three-technique position, and he also slides inside and is shaded over the center when Joseph is out of the lineup. Robison and rookie Danielle Hunter are two of the most bendable parts—I borrowed that word from MMQB film guru Andy Benoit—playing inside, outside and even sometimes standing up as an extra linebacker. And one of the coolest stories is the production the Vikings have gotten from Tom Johnson, a career journeyman whose 11.5 sacks the past two seasons are seventh-most among all defensive tackles in the league.
Winning the matchup up front this week isn’t just about sacks, though. The Packers’ third-year running back Eddie Lacy has four 100-yard games against Minnesota in five tries (he had 94 yards in the other), so stopping the run will be the first priority. Plus, pressuring Aaron Rodgers doesn’t necessarily mean bringing him to the ground. With Rodgers’ mobility, and penchant for scooting outside the pocket to make deep throws downfield, a defense can defeat itself by focusing too much on the idea of sacks.
“What happens is D-linemen get desperate,” Patterson says. “They want sacks no matter what. That’s what they get judged by, even though it is overrated. They get desperate through the course of the game. The tackles will set them and show a big hole inside of them, and as soon as the defensive lineman takes it, their right tackle turns and drives inside. And then Rodgers is outside, and now you are in trouble.”
As a cautionary example, Patterson points to Rodgers’ game-winning Hail Mary against the Lions in Week 13. Jason Jones, Detroit’s left defensive end, came inside the right tackle to chase down Rodgers, and he almost got the sack. But when he missed, there was plenty of field for Rodgers to roll right and gather himself for his desperation heave that won the game.
The Vikings, of course, need only look at their 30-13 loss to the Packers at home in Week 11. Rodgers completed only 47.1% of his passes that day, but keeping rush lane discipline over the course of 34 pass attempts is a tall task. “He got out of the pocket twice,” Patterson says, “and he made two big plays down the field.”
They were Rodgers’ longest two throws of the afternoon. On a third down in Packers territory in the third quarter, Joseph and the blitzing linebacker Anthony Barr crashed inside, leaving Rodgers space to roll out to his left and launch a 37-yard pass to James Jones. Later that drive, Hunter, who was lined up at left end, looped inside on a stunt, and Bulaga also blocked Floyd to his inside. Rodgers rolled right, with his eyes downfield, and found James for a 27-yard TD catch that essentially put the game away.
If Rodgers is going to move out of the pocket, the Vikings want him going to his left. Robison learned that lesson in the Week 11 game. The Packers’ only other touchdown came after a 50-yard defensive pass interference penalty. It was a deep shot that Rodgers took while rolling out to his right side, after Robison overshot him rushing off the left defensive edge.
“When he escapes to his right, the defense’s left side, that’s when he really can hurt you,” Robison says. “If we can flush him out the other way, it’s a little bit harder for him to get his body turned to make the throws downfield, or make him step up in the pocket to where hopefully our D-tackles are getting a good push and able to get in his face.”
If there’s a year to win in Green Bay, this is it. Both the Lions and the Bears stunned the Packers at home earlier this season, and now the Vikings have a chance to change the power dynamics of the division. That was part of the vision when the team hired Mike Zimmer last year, and to do so with a tough, physical team that derives its identity from its defense.
“I don’t know if a lot of people thought we could be in a situation where we’d be fighting for a division title,” Robison says. “I don’t think a lot of people thought we would be a playoff-contending team this year. There are a lot of things we took from the outside world and just kind of left it out there. We didn’t want to bring it into our locker room. We wanted to play with a chip like we have the last three or four weeks, and we wanted to make sure we were able to put a statement out there that this is who we are, this is who we are going to be, and you can either love us or hate us.”
Player You Need To Know This Week
Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert. He missed the past two games after sustaining a concussion on a helmet-to-helmet hit from Steelers safety Mike Mitchell, but has been cleared to return and told Cincy beat writers he will play this week. The fact that AJ McCarron went 1-1 in two games as a starter without Eifert reflects even more favorably on the game-planning of offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. Eifert is a quarterback’s best friend because the 6-foot-6 target just goes up and gets the football, particularly in the red zone; and he would particularly be an asset for McCarron, giving the quarterback who doesn’t have a strong arm more intermediate options. The Bengals are still in contention for a first-round bye, though they need help. Look for McCarron to lean on Eifert a lot.
Stats of the Week
• The Cardinals have more touchdowns (57) than punts (55) this season. According to ESPN, it’s happened at least once every season since 2004. Last year, Green Bay did it. Still, as Bruce Arians said, “That’s the craziest stat I think I’ve ever heard.” There may not be a better measure of a team’s dominance.
• Giants in games decided by six or fewer points in the Tom Coughlin era, including the playoffs:
2004-2014: 34-25 (.576)
2015: 1-7 (.125)
This highlights what a weird season it has been for the Giants. The two-time Super Bowl winning coach has been uncharacteristically aggressive with some of his late-game decisions, and he’s paid for it. But there’s a reason to everything he does, and often that reason has been trying to compensate for a defense woefully deficient in talent. That’s why, for example, Coughlin didn’t kick the field goal in the fourth quarter of the Jets game for a 13-point lead and instead went for the TD on fourth down. He trusted Eli Manning to complete a two-yard pass more than he trusted his defense to not give up two touchdowns in the final nine minutes. You can argue that reasoning, but if this is the end for him, it’s a tough way to go out.
Quote of the Week
“You've got to open your heart to players and everybody you want to achieve peak performance,” Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said at his Wednesday press conference addressing the firing of head coach Chip Kelly. “I would call it a style of leadership that values information and all of the resources that are provided and at the same time values emotional intelligence. I think in today's world, a combination of all those factors creates the best chance to succeed.”
The phrase “emotional intelligence” will be the epitaph on Kelly’s Eagles tenure—and the reputation that will follow him to his next opportunity, wherever and whenever that may be.
10 Things I’ll Be Watching This Weekend
1) Sammy Watkins vs. Darrelle Revis. The first time the Bills played the Jets, they opened with a play call OC Greg Roman referred to as a “Revis route.” It was what’s called a “Dino post,” the kind of full-speed double move on which Revis can be susceptible, particularly against a young receiver with the quickness and explosiveness of Watkins. “He can be beaten deep on certain routes,” Roman said afterward. “If you run a go route, probably not. But the change of direction, full speed—he has never been that kind of guy. And with Sammy’s suddenness, he can flat foot the best of them.” Watkins did beat Revis on the play, but Tyrod Taylor’s throw was slightly misplaced, thwarting the would-be touchdown. At the end of the game, Watkins, if you remember, fought off Revis to catch a four-yard out route on a third-and-2 to help seal the Bills’ win. Revis is still one of the top cornerbacks in the game, but Watkins is the kind of receiver who can give him trouble. This matchup will go a long way toward determining whether the Jets make the playoffs or the Bills play spoilsport.
2) How Carolina rebounds from its first loss. You barely had to take one step into the Panthers’ locker room at MetLife Stadium two weeks ago to see the toll the close call against the Giants took on that team. It wasn’t just them blowing a 28-point lead to eke out the win on a last-second field goal; it was the battle between Josh Norman and Odell Beckham Jr. that swallowed up the entire team. They were spent and shaken, and it’s no surprise it carried over into a loss the following week against the Falcons. This Week 17 game is not just for home-field advantage; it’s Ron Rivera’s chance to get his team back on track before the playoffs.
3) Cam vs. Carson. A few weeks ago, it looked like Newton was the shoo-in for the MVP. But if the Cardinals win, and the Panthers lose, the NFC will run through Arizona. Does that mean the MVP should, too? Cam has fewer weapons, and has played QB in a way the position has never been played before. Palmer is coming off an ACL tear to direct the league’s most prolific offense. You really can’t go wrong with either QB, who has taken his franchise to new heights this season. I’ve been planning to vote for Newton, but there are 16 data points in a season, and I’ll wait for the last one until I make my final decision.
4) Malcom Floyd’s farewell to San Diego. He’s not the most recognizable player in the AFC West saying goodbye to the NFL on Sunday—that’s Charles Woodson—but he’s a huge part of Chargers history. Union-Tribune sports columnist Kevin Acee wrote a lovely tribute to Floyd, the career Charger, calling him “perhaps the greatest receiver ever to not believe he was.”
5) How many times will DeMarco Murray carry the football without Chip Kelly calling the shots? (I feel like this question should be typed in all CAPS in homage to the season-long saga.)
6) Peyton Manning’s backup demeanor. Largely out of curiosity, because we haven’t seen this before. I keep thinking about the classic video of Brock Osweiler late in a Broncos blowout during the 2014 season, when Osweiler headed to the bench to grab his helmet, thinking he’d have a chance to get in, only to throw his hand up in the air when he realized Manning wasn’t coming out. Manning no doubt will be a picture of professionalism on the sideline. But there’s at least a chance he keeps his helmet on, ready to go in at all times, no?
7) Julio Jones needs 127 yards to surpass Jerry Rice for the second-most receiving yards in a season in NFL history. (Calvin Johnson, with 1,964 yards, set the record in 2012.) Jones has 1,722 yards, and the Falcons may not finish above .500. What a weird season it’s been for Atlanta.
8) The Colts’ long odds. Nine games have to go their way for them to make the playoffs and, according to an ESPN report, for Chuck Pagano to save his job. Even if every game had 50-50 odds—which isn’t the case—the odds of nine different games resulting in a specific outcome is 1 in 512. How many games will actually go the Colts’ way? My guess: Five.
9) How hard will Mario Williams play? The AP reported yesterday that the Bills have already decided to cut the expensive defensive end after the season. Let’s be honest: It would have been a surprise if they didn’t cut him. He’s scheduled to count nearly $20 million against the salary cap next season, and he clearly hasn’t bought into Rex Ryan’s scheme, as evidenced by his public comments and the fact that he’s been pretty much invisible on the field. Real talk: Being asked to drop into coverage a handful of times has been far less of an issue than his not being able (or willing?) to win one-on-one matchups on the line of scrimmage. Now the question is: Will Williams completely bail on the Bills after a report that they plan to bail on him, or will he use the Week 17 game as a showcase for his next employer?
10) Tom Coughlin’s Giants farewell? The Giants’ lifeless 49-17 loss in Minnesota last week only made a coaching change in New York seem all the more likely. I’m still not convinced it’s the right move, even after a fourth straight year without the playoffs. To be able contend with teams like the Patriots and Panthers with a deeply flawed roster is a feat, and I’m not sure who you’d find as a better replacement. As Coughlin himself said before the season, in a rare display of cheeky confidence, “John [Mara], you can’t do any better!” But everyone around the Giants, even his own players, seems acutely aware of the possibility that this could be the end. Though fans won’t know if it’s the end, I hope they give him the kind of sendoff he deserves.