It's always a challenge when you're a fan of the Minnesota Vikings, but this year has been particularly grueling so far. What started out so promising, with narratives of a beefed up and deep offensive line, a quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater that was going to take a big step forward, and a hungry and motivated Adrian Peterson, has changed drastically. And fast.
But surprisingly, not negatively, at least so far. Despite all of the injuries and adversity that has hit, the Minnesota Vikings are 2-0, with a win over their arch rival Green Bay last Sunday, and currently sit in first place in the NFC North. And we eagerly await Sam Bradford to keep handing off to Jerick McKinnon while having his blindside protected by T.J. Clemmings.
Just like we all envisioned when the Vikings headed to Mankato for training camp.
So now, the Vikings must travel to play the defending NFC Champions, sans their starting quarterback, Hall of Fame running back, and starting left tackle, and figure out a way to win. Can they do it?
I'm here to tell you they can. Let's figure out how.
It all begins and ends with slowing down Cam Newton. The reigning league MVP is going to make plays. He's too good not to, and that's okay. But the key here is to limit the big plays, and don't let him string together several in a row. The Denver Broncos have laid out the blue print to largely neutralize Newton, and the Vikings defense is well equipped to employ that blueprint--keep him bottled up in the pocket, force him to become a passer, and don't let him get away and make plays with his legs. In their last two meeting, Super Bowl 50 and week one of this year, Newton is a combined 36/74 (48% completion pct) for 459 yards, 1 TD, and 2 picks. On the ground, he's run for 99 yards on 18 carries, with no scores. Denver won both of those games by putting continuous pressure on Newton while taking away his running lanes, while largely taking away his first receiving option. If there is a defense besides Denver that can do this, it's Minnesota's.
Neutralizing Kelvin Benjamin would be awesome, too. If you've watched any of the Panthers game action this year, Benjamin is a guy that just jumps out at you, and he's Cam Newton's primary target. He's a big, physical guy that catches anything thrown his way, and even if Xavier Rhodes returns this week (he practiced yesterday), Benjamin will be a big match up problem for the Vikings. TE Greg Olson is quietly having another great year, too, and he might be the best TE in the game not named Rob Gronkowski. So these two guys need to be accounted for all the time, but especially Benjamin. A healthy Rhodes on Benjamin is a lot better matchup than either Trae Waynes or Terence Newman, and if they can cover him consistently, the Vikings will be in business. If they can't, it could be a very long day. Not Steve Smith with the rowboat celebration on Fred Smoot long, but yeah, long day.
The running game just needs to be effective. Let me be clear--Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata are not better running backs than Adrian Peterson. Anyone who promotes that notion is just being silly...or a Skip Bayless wannabe. BUT...I do think the Vikings running game has a chance to be more effective this Sunday than it has in the first two games. Why? Carolina isn't going to load the box with 7, 8, or 9 guys in an attempt to bottle up McKinnon or Asiata like they would for Peterson. That means if the offensive line can somehow get untracked (a big if, I get it, but hear me out) there should be running lanes available, and the Vikings should be able to move the ball on the ground. They're probably not going to get a big run, like AP can provide, but having the offense in consistently advantageous down/distance situations, and not having to continually deal with 2nd and long or 3rd and long will help immensely.
Let's keep Bradford to Diggs trending. Last week, Sam Bradford's performance was incredible, but it probably doesn't happen without Stefon Diggs. Diggs has really emerged as a true number one, and even when Green Bay was accounting for him with over the top help, he still beat it and made one great play after another. So keep feeding him, force Carolina to put two guys on him, and that will open up the entire passing offense, to include Charles Johnson. And if the running game cooperates this week, Carolina will not know what to defend or when to defend against it.
Adversity schmadversity. With word that the game might move out of Charlotte do to the recent protests and riots, this is like literally the fifth major event the Vikings the Vikings have had to deal with in just over two weeks. From Teddy's knee blowing up like an IED, to the Bradford trade, to AP's (probable) season ending knee injury, and Matt Kalil's season ending hip injury, it's like this team gets handed adversity as often as we grab a cup of coffee in the morning. The one constant in this maelstrom, though, is Mike Zimmer. If ever there was a coach for this team in time of crisis, it's Zimmer. This is something he will adjust to, and make sure the Vikings are prepared for. And if we're being completely honest, if this becomes what is essentially a neutral site game, it now becomes a road game for the Panthers, too. And that benefits the Vikings. Now...before anyone twists my words around, no, I don't want the game moved from Charlotte, and I hope peace and calm comes to the city between now and Sunday so the game can be held there. I'm just pointing out that if the game were, in fact, to move, it's going to negatively impact the Panthers, and from a purely football perspective, that helps the Vikings. Cool? Cool.