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Vikings vs. Ravens Preview: Caught Looking

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With the return of a certain quarterback and a trip to London looming, the Vikings must not overlook Baltimore this week.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Baltimore Ravens
It has been an odd season for Joe Flacco and the Ravens.
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Most of the time in this space, I’ll start my weekly preview with some sort of gimmicky theme. This year alone, I have began my articles with Shakespeare, video games, Choose Your Own Adventure, a Jay-Z song parody, and references to 43 different Tom Petty songs.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately depending on how you view my silly introductions), there is no time for that this week. There is simply too much going on in the world of the Minnesota Vikings for such long-winded nonsense!

Most of the talk for the past few days has revolved around Aaron Rodgers breaking his collarbone after Anthony Barr hit him on Sunday. If you’re a Packers fan or Mike McCarthy, the hit was late and unnecessary and illegal and very bad. If you’re a national news outlet that covers football, the hit irrevocably changed the entire landscape of the NFL and we’ll never be the same again because Rodgers makes each of our lives better every day like that dog in the State Farm commercial. If you’re a logical person, the hit was 100% within the rules and the injury was an unfortunate side effect of an inherently violent game.

But that hit was four days ago. It’s ancient history in today’s 24/7 news cycle. The big news is a certain quarterback returning to practice yesterday. Teddy Bridgewater is officially back playing football again! Our prayers have been answered! We can finally resume the vigorous debate of his merits on Twitter in full capacity! Let the wild speculation of his eventual return to game action commence!

And if that wasn’t enough, the Vikings are heading across the pond next week to take on the Browns in London. It’s the first time the Vikings have played abroad in four years, and yours truly will be there to catch all the action live. For those of us staying stateside, it’s still a cool opportunity to watch the hometown team first thing in the morning.

There is certainly a lot going on in Vikings Country these days. And oh yeah, I almost forgot—the Baltimore Ravens are coming to town on Sunday.

Minnesota’s Week 7 opponent has been largely ignored or lumped in with Cleveland as “winnable games before the bye week.” While the Ravens have proven to be extremely beatable at times this season, the Vikings can ill afford to get caught looking ahead.

In a season where most of the league has been extremely up-and-down from week to week—27 of the NFL’s 32 teams are currently somewhere between 2-4 and 4-2—the Ravens might be the most up-and-down of all. One one hand, they have won three games by double digits. They have forced 14 turnovers with their talented defense. John Harbaugh is one of the longest tenured and highly regarded head coaches in the league.

On the other hand, those three Ravens wins came against the listless Bengals, the hapless Browns, and the Derek Carr-less Raiders. They lost by 37 points to the Jaguars in London, barely put up a fight against the Steelers, and are coming off an ugly overtime home loss to the Bears. The have committed 12 turnovers themselves. Baltimore could almost make a separate 53-man roster consisting solely of players that have been put on the IR this season. And their $120 million, Super Bowl MVP quarterback has definitely not been elite.

Joe Flacco has been statistically atrocious in 2017. His quarterback rating (66.1), interception percentage (4.3%), and adjusted net yards per attempt (3.26) would all be the worst in the league if it wasn’t for struggling rookie DeShone Kizer. Flacco’s 167.2 yards per game average is the worst out of any quarterback with multiple starts. He leads an offense that is 28th in DVOA in passing and 26th in DVOA overall. He has looked extremely uncomfortable in the pocket and often doesn’t appear to be on the same page with his receivers. Many of Baltimore’s offensive plays look like some variation of this:

However, the blame for Baltimore’s offensive woes doesn’t fall solely on Flacco. The offensive line looks much different than they hoped heading into the season. Center John Urschel retired in late July and All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda fractured his ankle the second week of the season. Ronnie Stanley and Austin Howard have been solid at the tackles, but the line has gone from being to potentially one of the best in the league to middle of the pack.

The running backs have been bit hard by the injury bug. Danny Woodhead went on the IR six snaps into his Baltimore career. Kenneth Dixon and Jeremy Langford didn’t even make it that far before being shelved for the year. Baltimore has been going with a lot of Buck Allen with some Alex Collins and Terrance West mixed in. If the Ravens offense does have a bright spot, it’s their rushing attack, which has been surprisingly decent despite all the injuries. Baltimore runs “12” personnel (1 running back, 2 tight ends) more often than all but one team. The extra bodies on the line combined with the Ravens’ habit of pre-snap motion is conducive to run success.

Or perhaps the Ravens are running all that “12” personnel out of necessity; the receiver cupboard is extremely bare in Baltimore. Our old friend Mike Wallace is the team’s leading receiver with 239 yards. That’s good for 64th most in the NFL. Jeremy Maclin sat out the Chicago game with a shoulder injury and is questionable to play Sunday. Oft-injured wide receiver Breshad Perriman is having a season makes Laquon Treadwell look like Antonio Brown. The third-year wideout has only four catches for 26 yards on 18 targets this season, despite playing at least 35 snaps every week. Except last week, because he suffered a concussion against Chicago, which means he could miss the game on Sunday too.

If Perrmian or Maclin can’t go, expect Chris Matthews to get more looks. You may remember Matthews from his improbably great performance in Super Bowl XLIX as a member of the Seattle Seahawks, where he caught 4 passes for over 100 yards and a score. Since then, he has amassed 16 total receptions. If you Google “Chris Matthews Ravens”, this picture appears:

Maybe he’ll do well at U.S. Bank Stadium because he’s an “indoor” receiver?

So in summary: yeah, that Baltimore offense isn’t great. As long as the Vikings defense doesn’t allow the token “why didn’t he do that in Minnesota” deep strike from Wallace, I don’t see how the Ravens will be able to consistently move the ball.

That said, it won’t be easy for the Vikings to waltz all over the turf either. The Ravens defense is formidable and opportunistic. They can get after the quarterback too. The ageless Terrell Suggs leads the team with 4.5 sacks. How he’s still this effective despite being roughly 73 years old and filming all those episodes of Ballers is beyond me, yet here we are.

The Baltimore pass rush is good; their pass defense is better. Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr are a nice corner combo while Lardarius Webb and Marlon Humphrey provide good depth against extra receiver sets. Eric Weddle might not be what he used to be in San Diego, but he can still line up all over the field and confuse opposing offenses. Baltimore does an excellent job at disguising their coverage and pouncing on mistakes.

Case Keenum is going to have to play sharp in order for the Vikings offense to succeed. He honestly didn’t look that great against an extremely depleted Packers secondary last week. He missed a couple open shots to extend drives...

...and had a few passes that easily could have been intercepted.

Don’t get me wrong—I do not intend to bash Keenum’s overall play or turn this into a Teddy propaganda piece. Keenum has acquitted himself quite well for the most part. He’s everything we could have hoped for from a backup quarterback. However, saying that the Vikings should unequivocally stick with him because he’s the “hot hand” is irresponsible. Keenum provides the luxury of allowing Bridgewater to knock the rust off and make sure he’s 100% physically. But once Bridgewater is all the way back and ready to go—whenever that may be—this should be Teddy’s team.

Of course, if Sam Bradford comes all the way back as well, then that could be a different conversation. I have hoped since the moment the trade with the Eagles was announced that one day the Vikings would have to decide between a healthy Bridgewater and Bradford playing at the top of his game. Unfortunately for Bradford, it’s his long-term health that is now the bigger question. We started the season wondering whether Teddy would play in 2017; now we’re wondering whether Bradford will play more than six quarters.

Thankfully the Vikings offense has proven it has the pieces in place to succeed and take pressure off of whoever is taking the snaps. Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers have been a revelation in pass protection this year, especially when compared to the blobs of flesh that used to occupy each end of the offensive line. The interior of the line still leaves a bit to be desired—Jeremiah Sirles struggled in place of Nick Easton last week and Pat Elflein is still taking his rookie lumps from time to time. But the improvement is palpable, which is finally allowing Pat Shurmur to call a wide assortment of plays. The screen pass touchdown to Jerick McKinnon last week was the perfect play call against what the Green Bay defense had dialed up.

You know it’s a great play call when your quarterback reacts like this.

With Stefon Diggs veering into Fred Taylor territory with his constantly injured groin and Michael Floyd nursing a hamstring of his own, Shurmur will have to remain creative to keep Baltimore’s swarming defense on their heels. This is another big opportunity for Treadwell to build on his career day last week and start making consistent contributions to the offense. If McKinnon, Adam Thielen, and Kyle Rudolph are the only viable options Sunday, the burden may be too great against a Baltimore defense that is much better than the injury-ravaged Packers unit we saw last week.

Whatever the Vikings do, they shouldn’t let this game come down to special teams. The Ravens have a significant advantage there. Justin Tucker and Sam Koch are one of the best kicker and punter combos in the league. Baltimore has been great in all phases of the return game. They’re first in kick return average, third in punt return average, and have already taken one of each back for a touchdown. Michael Campanaro and Bobby Rainey can flip a close game in a hurry, which is why the Ravens are ranked #1 in special teams DVOA. (Meanwhile, the Vikings are 20th.)

Last week, the Vikings let a shell-shocked Packers squad hang around before the defense finally shut the door with some big plays. This week, I think they have an opportunity to take control and never look back. If the Vikings can get an early lead and play sound football once they get it, this Ravens team simply isn’t built to play catch up. Minnesota’s defense should be able to dominate and give the offense some short fields. Opponents have been able to wear down the Ravens on the ground late in games due to their offensive woes. As long as the Vikings don’t get caught looking ahead and focus on the task at hand, they should be headed to Merry Olde England with a 5-2 record.

Prediction

Vikings 24, Ravens 9


And now for the rest of my Week 7 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

Chiefs over RAIDERS

Oakland is already getting into must-win territory early in the season, but I don’t see them getting back on track this week. NaVorro Bowman isn’t going to magically cure all the Raiders ills.

BILLS over Buccaneers

A banged-up Jameis Winston or a normal Ryan Fitzpatrick against that Buffalo defense on the road? No thank you.

Panthers over BEARS

Chicago has completed a grand total of 23 passes in their two victories this season. Mitchell Trubisky will likely be asked to do a bit more against Carolina this week, and I don’t think he’s up to the task quite yet.

Titans over BROWNS

The only chance Cleveland has this week: I’m going with Tennessee as my Survivor Pool pick, which has been a kiss of death half the time so far this year.

Saints over PACKERS

Two weeks ago, Green Bay would have been a double-digit favorite here. Now they’re six-point underdogs. Do you hear that? It’s the world’s tiniest violin playing for those poor Packers fans.

Jaguars over COLTS

I’d feel a lot better about this pick if I knew Jacksonville was switching to a quarterback-free offense.

Cardinals over Rams (in London)

Adrian Peterson averages 134 yards per game as a Cardinal and 140 yards per game in London. How could I go against such convincing stats?

Jets over DOLPHINS

How on God’s green Earth is one of these teams about to get to four wins?

Cowboys over 49ERS

Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension has been on and off more than the street hockey game in Wayne’s World. Meanwhile, the Niners have perfected the art of losing close games—picking them to beat the spread but lose the game has become as close to a sure thing as you’ll get in today’s NFL.

STEELERS over Bengals

They should give Vontaze Burfict a personal foul penalty before kickoff just to get it out of the way.

Broncos over CHARGERS

The Broncos completely laid an egg last week, but they’ll have a strong home field advantage in Los Angeles.

Seahawks over GIANTS

Seattle won’t make the same mistake that Denver made last week. They’ll actually force Eli Manning to throw to...um, Evan Engram...and...those other guys.

PATRIOTS over Falcons

Twenty. Eight. To. Three.

EAGLES over Redskins

Carson Wentz has led Philly to the NFC’s best record and is now the current favorite to win the MVP.

Go Bison. RIP Arif.

Last week: 6-8
Season so far: 49-42