So far, 2018 hasn’t gone quite as Minnesota Vikings’ head coach Mike Zimmer would have hoped. On paper, the Vikings were considered perhaps the most stacked team in the NFL heading into the season. However, through their first three games the Vikings currently stand at a perfectly symmetrical record of 1-1-1.
Battling through injuries, the Vikings offensive line, once considered a team-strength, has struggled mightily. Center Pat Elflein is working his way back, and will be a major upgrade over his substitute, Brent Grimes. But the line’s struggles certainly run deeper. Last week against Buffalo, tackles Riley Reiff and Rashod Hill allowed a ridiculous 20 pressures on quarterback Kirk Cousins. Overall, according to Pro Football Focus, Cousins was pressured on 32 of his 60 dropbacks. Needless to say, it was difficult for Cousins to find a rhythm, and consequently he fumbled the ball away twice. Also of note, left tackle Reiff may not be able to play against the Rams, which could spell disaster for Minnesota.
The lack of control up front not only hurt Cousins ability to match his Week 1 and Week 2 performances, it has also hurt the Vikings ability to run the ball. Of course, playing from behind early is the primary reason the Minnesota abandoned running the ball against Buffalo, but they were also missing starting running back Dalvin Cook. Cook, who hurt his hamstring against the Packers in Week 2, has had limited participation in practice this week, but may play against the Rams.
The strength of the Minnesota offense is their passing attack, where Cousins will look to pick apart the Rams makeshift secondary with some of the best tools in the NFL: wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, along with tight end Kyle Rudolph. With Aqib Talib out, and Marcus Peters highly questionable for Thursday, the Rams will rely heavily on the ability of their pass rush to disrupt Cousins, as they did last week against Philip Rivers.
On defense the Vikings were one of the best units in the league last season. So far this season, they’re 10th in in yards allowed and 16th in points allowed. Despite the early drop-off, they are loaded at every level and should be a real test for the Rams high-octane offense.
Nothing will come easy up the gut with big Linval Joseph and Sheldon Richardson manning the interior of the Vikings defensive line. The zone run-schemes where Todd Gurley normally feasts won’t come easy either, with speedsters at linebacker like former UCLA standouts Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr going sideline to sideline, along with help from safety Harrison Smith. Last season the Vikings were 2nd in the league in rushing yards allowed; yet, the Vikings have given up over 100 yards per game so far, so on a short week the Rams dominant offensive line has a chance to do some serious work, and possibly control the game.
The Vikings will miss the services of defensive end Everson Griffen, who is out dealing with personal issues. They will rely on their other defensive end Danielle Hunter to be able to apply some heat to Jared Goff. If Goff is able to consistently sit back in the pocket, then Minnesota’s talented corners will likely fair no better than Casey Hayward or Patrick Peterson did in the Rams’ previous two games. If his injured ankle checks out, look for Trae Waynes to try to pick up Rams deep threat Brandin Cooks, leaving Xavier Rhodes to likely guard Robert Woods more often. First round cornerback Mike Hughes will also see plenty of time, as the Vikings try to slow the Rams potent triad of receivers.
What might happen
Look for the Rams to try to punch the Vikings in the mouth early, and reduce the Vikings to a one-dimensional offense, as Buffalo did last week. The Vikings will try to clean up their turnovers and play a cleaner game this week, but we’ll see what they look like traveling west on a short week. It’s hard to picture such a talented team falling to 1-2-1, but if the Rams can beat the hope out of them early, that’s just what they’ll be. One thing is for sure, expect the Vikings best shot with their backs against the wall.