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Vikings vs. Texans preview: Pick your poison

How will the Vikings attack Houston this week? To be honest, we’re not sure—and that’s what should worry the Texans.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Houston Texans
How will the Vikings try to stifle DeAndre Hopkins? Only Zimmer knows, which is why the Vikings have been so successful.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

“That’s it. I don’t know what to do. I have tried everything. I give up.”

On more occasions than I care to admit, I have hopelessly muttered those sentences either to myself or to my wife when it comes to parenting my 3 12 year old daughter. For those of you that follow me on various forms of social media or have read my previous work in this space, you might recognize the little tornado of bouncy curls and impossibly adorable big blue eyes that is my first born, Gemma. She melts her parents’ hearts on a daily basis with her sweetness and funny quips. Gemma even makes cameos when I fill in for Ted on the Stock Market Report. We’re wild about our oldest daughter.

But she’s still 3 12 years old. As any parent of a toddler can attest, those little people that you’re so crazy about can drive you absolutely crazy from time to time. Without any warning or reason, Gemma can suddenly morph into a “threenager.”

For example: that food she liked so much last week? Now it’s revolting and she won’t touch the stuff. Getting her dressed might have been a cinch yesterday, but the one morning you’re already running late she decides to throw a tantrum because she doesn’t like the color of the shirt she has worn a dozen times before. And her favorite toy? Nine times out of ten, it’s the one her little sister happens to be playing with, which often leads to the dreaded double meltdown.

I’d like to say it gets easier with experience, but it’s impossible to prepare yourself for something that can be so unpredictable. Sometimes you exhaust every option you have in your parenting arsenal to no avail. In the end you just pick your poison then try to forge ahead and minimize the damage.

It’s kind of like what Bill O’Brien and the Houston Texans coaching staff must feel like when preparing for this week’s game against the Vikings.

Seriously, how do you even begin to prepare for the Zim Reapers*? This defense is playing at such a high level in such a variety of ways that I wouldn’t even know where to start.

(* = Yep, that’s what we’re nicknaming the Vikings defense going forward. Purple Reign has been another popular option, but we have already used that one before. Besides, we want a nickname that conjures fear and doom, not one that conjures rhythmic swaying. So “Zim Reapers” it is. Deal with it.)

In last week’s preview you might recall that we discussed how the Vikings were doing lots of different blitzes and coverages out of the same looks. I used this example of an eight-man front bringing lots of pressure on the tight end’s side to force a quick incompletion:

Fast forward to Monday night, where the Vikings showed a nearly identical pre-snap look for the Giants. Eli Manning, who undoubtedly watched the tape from the previous week, recognized the alignment and adjusted his blocking before the snap to give additional help on the tight end’s side. Good recognition by a veteran quarterback that had obviously done his homework.

But this time, the Vikings brought only one additional rusher and rolled coverage to the very area they had blitzed from against Carolina. The result? A short completion that forced the Giants to punt.

It was pretty clear that the Giants wanted to minimize the hits to Manning on Monday so they made sure to call lots of quick-hit passes to counteract Minnesota’s ferocious pass rush. Mike Zimmer appeared to realize this early on because the Vikings didn’t bring extra rushers nearly as much as they did in previous weeks. Since Xavier Rhodes and the rest of the secondary are performing on the same high level as the front four, Manning was forced to do his best Donovan McNabb impression and chuck the ball into the ground several times. Manning only took a couple shots deep all night, one of which looked more like a game of “500” that Rhodes easily picked off. The secondary did an excellent job against a talented group of receivers.

It won’t get any easier for them when the Texans come to town on Sunday. Rookie Will Fuller has burst onto the scene on both offense and special teams, giving us another reason to be depressed about Laquon Treadwell’s current situation. Fuller is averaging 80 yards per game and has already found the end zone three times (two receiving, one punt return).

Meanwhile, DeAndre Hopkins might have killed your fantasy team the past couple of weeks, but he’s still capable of making some of the most difficult catches look routine. His ability to adjust his body and come down with the ball is unparalleled. Unfortunately for Hopkins, the guy throwing him the ball might be making things more difficult than they need to be.

Brock Osweiler has had a shaky start to his Texans career. He is the 23rd ranked quarterback by Pro Football Focus and 30th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Avearage). Osweiler has already matched his 2015 season total of six interceptions in half the games played. Five of those six interceptions have been on passes intended for Hopkins. Most of the time it was because Osweiler was trying to force the ball into windows that weren’t there.

Houston’s offensive line hasn’t exactly been a strong point of the team thus far, so look for the Vikings to rattle Osweiler early and often to force him into more mistakes. The Texans quarterback certainly has some nice weapons at his disposal, but I foresee more misfires than bullseyes on Sunday.

The only way I see the Vikings getting into trouble against Houston is if they miss a bunch of key tackles and get gashed for big plays. They had nine missed tackles on Monday according to Pro Football Focus’ count. Four of those whiffs came from Eric Kendricks, who really had an off night. If the tackling isn’t sound, Lamar Miller can make you pay.

But don’t assume Miller has suddenly become a much better back since he moved from Miami to Houston. He’s poised for a career year due to sheer volume, not efficiency. Miller is currently averaging a career-low 3.8 yards per carry. Football Outsiders has him graded as the second worst qualifying running back in both DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) and DVOA. After watching film on Miller, I think he appears comfortable on making a quick cut and bouncing to the outside. But when he has to go between the tackles, he gets indecisive and dances too much.

With Linval Joseph & company clogging up the middle, I would expect a lot of runs from Miller to go for small gains or negative yardage with a couple big chunks mixed in.

While the Texans can certainly present some problems, my level of worry is at French Montana levels as long as the Vikings defense keeps playing like they have. But the offense is still a big question mark, right?

Sure, but Monday night’s performance did a lot towards addressing some of those concerns. Sam Bradford is getting more and more comfortable with his new teammates each week, as evidenced by finding nine different receivers against New York. His raw numbers have been outstanding—you can’t argue with 69.5% completions, 8.4 adjusted yards per attempt, and a 105.5 quarterback rating. Those are the kind of numbers that make Peter King call you the quarter-season MVP! While the stats are great, I have been even more impressed with Bradford’s decision making and accuracy. He has zero interceptions in 95 passes; it’s not like there are even any that stand out as “should have been intercepted” either. He’s playing smart and avoiding costly mistakes.

Bradford wasn’t perfect on Monday—he sailed a couple passes including a third down to Stefon Diggs he’d like to have back—but there were plenty that were right on the money.

Bradford is consistently zinging short and intermediate passes into some tight windows, especially to Kyle Rudolph. But don’t confuse Bradford for Alex Smith—he’s airing out some gorgeous passes as well.

Bradford is also helping to reanimate the corpses of Charles Johnson and Cordarrelle Patterson while Jerick McKinnon is starting to give the running game the spark it so desperately needed. Suddenly, the Vikings offense is moving toward becoming versatile and unpredictable too. (Yes, I said “unpredictable” and “Vikings offense” in the same sentence without being sarcastic. What a time to be alive.) Norv Turner had his charges changing up the pace, personnel, and play calling rather nicely on Monday. It’s refreshing to watch a Vikings game and not be fairly certain of what the offense is going to do on half the plays. The O-line concerns still linger like a fart in a phone booth, but the Giants game showed us that the offense is trending in a positive direction.

Houston has a couple nice pieces on defense but the J.J. Watt injury is a large domino that hurts them on every level. Watt’s absence drops the Texans from very good to average against both the run and the pass. I believe the next game at US Bank Stadium will play out a lot like the last one did—stifling defense coupled with an efficient offense that leads to another Vikings victory.

I really do feel for you, Bill O’Brien. Game planning for the Vikings is a lot like trying to reason with my daughter when she’s in one of her moods. No matter what the Texans try to do on Sunday, it's probably going to end in exasperation and lots of tears.


Vikings 24, Texans 13

And now for the rest of my Week 5 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

Cardinals over 49ERS

The 2016 Cardinals have 2010 Vikings written all over them. An aging quarterback that had a great run the previous year but imploded in the NFC Championship Game, then can’t stay healthy the following season; an offense that dominated through their playoff run but can’t seem to get going; an ugly 1-3 start with more questions than answers. It could definitely get worse with Drew Stanton on the road on a short week.

Buuuut I picked them to go to the Super Bowl before the season, and even the 2010 Vikings went 2-3, so I’m not bailing on them quite yet.

COLTS over Bears

What a way to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Super Bowl XLI! The Colts are a dumpster fire but the Bears might have trouble fielding a full squad with all the injuries they have.

Patriots over BROWNS

My Survivor Pool pick of the week, now 4-0 after Cincinnati took care of business last Thursday. I don’t need to explain this one, do I? OK good.

Eagles over LIONS

I actually think that my fellow NDSU Bison and future Hall of Famer Carson Wentz might struggle a bit against Detroit’s defense. And the fact that the Eagles are favored by only 3 is reeeeeeeeally fishy. But man that Philly D looks good so far. And man I still hate complimenting anything involving the Eagles.

Titans over DOLPHINS

Nobody cares about this game either way—not even in Tennessee or Florida, they have good college teams to worry about—so why not pick the very mild upset?

STEELERS over Jets

Last week I thought New York’s defensive line would harass Russell Wilson enough to pull off the upset. Maybe they should line up against Ryan Fitzpatrick instead and tackle him before he can throw another pick.

RAVENS over Redskins

Hey, DC/Baltimore media: it’s not a rivalry if they only play once every four years. Who cares if they share a stretch of interstate and both have league average quarterbacks that make too much money?

BRONCOS over Falcons

I did NOT see these two teams having a combined record of 7-1 at this point in the season. Bold prediction: Denver’s stout defense holds Julio Jones under 300 yards. Book it.

Bills over RAMS

Case Keenum cannot be the quarterback of a 4-1 team. I’m pretty sure it’s against the law.

Bengals over COWBOYS

Every time I hear Dak Prescott’s name I think of Jack Prescott. He’s a Minneapolis bankruptcy lawyer that used to say “This is all I do, and I do it well” in his commercials that came on during The Price Is Right when I was home sick from school. Does anyone else remember that guy? Anyway, Dallas hasn’t really beaten anyone good yet so I’ll pick against Dak here until he proves it.

RAIDERS over Chargers

Oakland wins all their games in the last two minutes and San Diego loses all of them in the last two minutes. They are the David Dunn and Elijah Price of the NFL.

PACKERS over Giants

What is this, a consolation bracket or something?

PANTHERS over Buccaneers

Carolina has looked really shaky this year, but Tampa Bay won’t know what to do without their usual second half weather delay.

(Now watch Hurricane Matthew prove me wrong. Stay safe down there everyone.)

Last week: 9-6
Season so far: 36-27