Coming off a disappointing overtime loss in Week 1, the Vikings have a stiff challenge ahead of them as they look to bounce back and pick up their first victory of the season.
They're on the road once again in Week 2, taking on a Cardinals team that couldn't have gotten off to a better start. Arizona demolished a good Titans team in Nashville last week, winning 38-13 behind several dominant individual performances.
The Vikings, 3.5-point underdogs in this one, will need to cut down on the penalties and play much better on both sides of the ball if they're going to avoid falling into an 0-2 hole in a critical season for the long-term direction of the franchise.
Here are a couple of the key storylines heading into this game.
Can the Vikings slow down Kyler Murray?
After a merely decent debut performance against the Bengals, the Vikings' rebuilt defense has a very difficult task this week in trying to slow down Murray. The third-year quarterback was lights out in Week 1, dicing up the Titans with 289 passing yards, 20 rushing yards, and five total touchdowns. His speed and quickness are reminiscent of the likes of Michael Vick and Lamar Jackson, but Murray might be a better pure passer than both of those players.
And neither of those comparisons works all that well in terms of play style, either. Murray is unique in the way he darts in and out of the pocket, avoids defenders, and continues looking downfield to either throw the ball or take off running.
"You’ve got to be pretty disciplined in the rush lanes, but saying that we’re going to keep him in the pocket all day is not realistic," Mike Zimmer said this week. "We’ve got to do a great job and if he gets out of the pocket, we’ve got to do a great job of locking on our receivers. I can say that we’re going to keep him in the pocket all day, but I don’t think that’s truly going to happen."
Zimmer also described Murray's play as "unorthodox." He has the freedom within the Cardinals' offense to run to the opposite side of where the play is designed or extend plays far longer than most QBs would. Just look at this:
"Watching the tape, he looks like a video game," Vikings co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson said. "He's not real tall and he doesn't have long legs, and his feet are moving so fast, he looks like somebody hit a button. He just looks like a different speed than everybody else. To me, that's the element that makes him different. And when the ball is in his hand, he's like a running back. He can make a move and make you miss. That's the issue that he causes you."
Murray ran for over 800 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, but his passing numbers were merely solid. If Week 1 is any indication, he's in line to take another stride forward as a passer this year. Murray threw two touchdowns to DeAndre Hopkins and two to Christian Kirk, leading all quarterbacks with six "big-time throws," as charted by PFF.
The Vikings' pass rushers, linebackers, and secondary are all going to have to be on their A-game on Sunday, because Murray can beat you with his arm or his legs. Coaches have talked about giving him different looks, spying him with various players, changing up the gaps they attack him from, and staying tight in coverage. All of that is easier said than done against a playmaker of Murray's caliber.
Will Chandler Jones wreak havoc again?
For as great as Murray was in the opener, he wasn't even the most impressive player on his team. That would be Jones, who recorded an absurd stat line of five sacks, two forced fumbles, and an additional tackle for loss in just the first three quarters of the game. He beat three-time Pro Bowler Taylor Lewan like a drum, which should raise serious concerns for the Vikings and backup left tackle Rashod Hill, who was called for holding twice and generally struggled against the Bengals' Trey Hendrickson.
The Vikings are going to have to account for Jones' presence and give Hill help. Whether that's double teams, chips, running it away from his side, getting Kirk Cousins out in space on bootlegs, or any other strategies, they can't count on Hill blocking him 1 on 1.
"We’re going to know where 55 is lined up on the field at all times," Brian O'Neill said.
The risk with paying too much attention to Jones is that the Cardinals also have J.J. Watt on their defensive line, plus versatile chess pieces in linebacker Isaiah Simmons and safety Budda Baker who can be used as blitzers at any time. It's going to be a big test for Minnesota's much-maligned offensive line and the game-planning and play-calling of offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak.
Will Patrick Peterson be tested in his return to Arizona?
This figures to be an emotional game for Peterson, who spent the first ten years of his career with the Cardinals and was vocal this offseason about his displeasure with how GM Steve Keim treated him on the way out. He'll be fired up to stick it to his old team and help the Vikings come away with an upset victory on the road, even though he's doing his best to treat it like any other week.
"Sunday will be another game for me," Peterson said. "It’s just the next game on the schedule ... I have to go out there and be at my best for my team, I have to go out there and be dialed in for 60 minutes, not allow any big plays, not allowing catches. Doing whatever I need to do to make sure my guy doesn’t show up on the stat sheet."
It'll be interesting to see what the reception is like for Peterson from the Cardinals organization and its fans. He was one of their best players of the modern era, making eight straight Pro Bowls to open his career before falling off a bit the past couple seasons.
More importantly for the Vikings, Peterson is going to play a very important role in this game. He's not going to shadow Hopkins, but the two figure to be lined up across from each other frequently on Sunday afternoon. Peterson wasn't tested much in Cincinnati, as the Bengals chose to go after Bashaud Breeland instead, but that could change this week. The Cardinals know Peterson well, he knows them well, and it all makes for a fascinating subplot in this matchup. How well he does against Hopkins and Arizona's other receivers could go a long way towards determining the outcome, especially if Murray decides to challenge him regularly.
Other matchups and players to watch
- Once again, the Vikings' receiver duo of Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson should have advantageous matchups. The Cardinals' outside cornerbacks are a fourth-round rookie (Marco Wilson) and a 32-year-old who missed the past two seasons with injuries (Robert Alford). If Cousins can stay upright, those two should be open.
- The Vikings will look to get Dalvin Cook going on the ground after he was held to 61 rushing yards last week, but the Cardinals impressively limited Derrick Henry to just 58 yards in their first game.
- Containing Murray and the Cardinals' running back duo of Chase Edmonds and James Conner will be much more difficult for the Vikings if Eric Kendricks can't play (Anthony Barr is already out). Kendricks is questionable with a quad injury, but it sounds like he's expected to go.
- The Vikings' pass rush could have some good matchups against a beatable Cardinals offensive line. Keep an eye on Michael Pierce vs. Rodney Hudson and Danielle Hunter vs. both Cardinals tackles. Losing Everson Griffen (concussion) hurts the Vikings, but the Cardinals could be without starting RT Kelvin Beachum (ribs), who is a game-time decision.
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