As detailed in the first post of this series, things appear to be set up for the Vikings to get off to a fast start in 2009. Hopefully that will be the case, because the second quarter of the schedule for the Beloved Purple looks, at this point. to be absolutely brutal. This isn't to say that we should be automatically chalking up losses for the Vikings in these particular games, but they're going to be tough ones, to be certain. Let's examine this further.
The Second Quarter - Sundays, Bloody Sundays
The second stanza of the 2009 season kicks off with the Vikings travelling to the Edward Jones Dome for a date with the St. Louis Rams. This may or may not be the first game back for the Williams Wall, depending on the circumstances of the StarCaps case. However, it will definitely be Minnesota's third game in their first five against a team with a brand new head coach, as former Giants' defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has taken the reins of what used to be "The Greatest Show on Turf."
The Rams have been pretty bad for a while now. . .after all, you don't pick #2 overall in two consecutive drafts by being great or anything like that. They were 31st overall in the NFL in 2008 in both points scored (14.5 ppg) and points allowed (29.1 ppg). After being outstanding in 2006, Rams' quarterback Marc Bulger has spent the last two seasons looking pretty brutal, throwing for only 22 touchdowns and getting sacked 75 times over that span. Running back Steven Jackson has battled injuries the last two seasons as well, missing four games in both 2007 and 2008. Things don't figure to get any easier for the Rams' offense in 2009 after the losses of WR Torry Holt and future Hall of Fame OT Orlando Pace.
St. Louis was equally brutal on offense. They were near the bottom of the league against the run (29th overall), and while they look slightly more respectable against the pass, they faced the second-fewest pass attempts in the league. . .no doubt a function of trailing frequently and having teams running the ball to eat the clock. . .and allowed right around 63% of those attempts to be completed. Opposing quarterbacks had a QB rating of 92.5 against the Rams' defense in 2008. Only five other teams allowed opposing quarterbacks to be more efficient than that. On paper, the Vikings should be able to get past the Rams with no real trouble. . .but, as we know, games aren't played on paper.
However, it would be nice if the Rams' game was a bit of a "breather," because Minnesota's next two games are going to be absolute slobberknockers.
The Beloved Purple will return to the Metrodome in Week Six for their second inter-conference match-up of the season, as they'll line up against the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens are as great on defense as the Rams were bad, ranking no worse than third in any of the four major defensive categories. They were third in the NFL in points allowed (15.2 ppg), second in total yards allowed (261.1 ypg), second against the pass (179.7 ypg), and third against the run (81.4 ypg). The Ravens are one of the toughest, most physical defenses in the NFL, and they really have been for quite some time. You would also think that they might be due to start slowing down. . .Ray Lewis is getting older, they lost LB Bart Scott to the New York Jets, CB Chris McAlister likely won't be back. . .but the Ravens also have outstanding depth on the defensive side, so any drop-off that might happen will more than likely be minimal.
Offensively, they have a youngster at QB in Joe Flacco who played above and beyond expectations as a rookie in 2008. Thought to be a project when he was selected by the Ravens out of Delaware, Flacco started all 16 games for the Ravens last year, and played very well. He looked brutal in the post-season, completing about 44% of his passes, but he didn't turn the ball over until the team's loss in the AFC Championship Game. He was helped by a three-headed rushing attack that was fourth in the NFL in that department, and with a year under his belt should be even better. This is definitely going to be a fight for Minnesota, because they will absolutely have to get to Flacco to be successful.
And there will be no rest for the Vikings, because their next game will be a trip to the place that the Ravens lost that aforementioned AFC Championship Game.
Yes, after playing one of the best defenses in the NFL the week before, the Vikings will take a trip to Heinz Field to take on the defending world champion Pittsburgh Steelers and what was unquestionably the best defense in the NFL in 2008. Pittsburgh was #1 in the NFL in three of the four major defensive categories in 2008. Minnesota's game against the Ravens will features two of the top three rush defenses in the league from 2008. The game against the Steelers will feature two of the top. . .well, two. Former Vikings coach. . .man, it's painful to write that. . .Mike Tomlin has asserted himself quite nicely in Pittsburgh, and Dick Lebeau's defense will be out to terrorize Sage Rosenfels or Tarvaris Jackson.
I won't lie to you, folks. . .out of the sixteen games on Minnesota's 2009 schedule, there's only one that I can honestly say that I don't think the Vikings have any real shot at winning. And it's this one. The Steelers are just that good. If this game was in Minnesota, I might give us a slight chance. At Pittsburgh, on the other hand? Not so much, no. Sure, we might catch the Steelers on a bad day or something. . .crazier things have happened before. . .but that's not something we should necessarily be betting on.
The first half of our season ends with our annual trip to Corrugated Tin Shack Field in Green Bay for our second bout with the Packers. We briefly touched on the Packers in the previous post, so I won't re-hash everything here. However, it's always been significantly tougher for the Vikings to win at Lambeau than it's been for them to beat the Packers at the Dome. On the bright side, we'll be getting there while the weather should still be fairly decent, which is always nice. But I wouldn't be surprised to see the Packers get a measure of revenge for the slapping down they should get in Week 4 at our house in prime time. I'd be slightly more surprised to see Minnesota complete the season sweep here, but that certainly would be nice.
As things stand right now, I'd be disappointed if Minnesota was worse than 5-3 going into their bye week. But the second quarter of this season, highlighted by games against what might be the two most physical defenses in the National Football League, will certainly be a rough one from a personnel standpoint for Minnesota.
What do you think, ladies and gentlemen? Will the Vikings be better or worse than 5-3 when the first half of the season comes to an end? Discuss it here, and we'll be back with more later!