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Vikings vs. Ravens: Game Notes

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Minnesota Vikings Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings game against the Ravens was setup to be a defensive grinder, and that’s what it was. The Ravens were missing pretty much all their key players on offense most of the game, except starting QB Joe Flacco, and facing a Vikings defense playing championship football. On the other side, the Vikings offense was missing starters at QB and RB, and also once again Stefon Diggs at WR, and also up against a very good Ravens defense. And so the defenses on both teams had the upper hand, with the Vikings defense dominating the game.

Vikings Defense Once Again Dominating

Statistically it wasn’t as dominating a performance as it appeared on the field, but with only 207 yards of offense allowed, the Vikings defense shut down the Ravens about as well as you could hope for. The only real slip-up came on the last play of the game, when Trae Waynes gave up a TD reception on an otherwise meaningless play.

But the Vikings shut-down performance came from stand-out performances from some familiar names once again. Linval Joseph looked like he was there for every run stop, on just about every run play the Ravens ran all day. And there were a lot of them. He just completely dominated the interior of the Ravens offensive line, early and often.

Anthony Barr also has elevated his game this year, and that continued with one of his best games of the season against the Ravens. He had a sack, six tackles and five assists, including 7 defensive stops, and excellent coverage en route to an impressive performance that showcases his being one of the best, and most complete linebackers in the NFL. He hasn’t missed a single tackle in five weeks.

Everson Griffen also continued his streak of excellent performances off the edge, adding two more sacks and extending his sack streak to seven games. The Vikings had a total of five sacks on Joe Flacco, but equally important gave up next to nothing in the run game as well.

Xavier Rhodes had another quiet game of not many targets, and didn’t give up much either. I saw one slant pattern that he was targeted that resulted in a decent (10-15 yard) gain, but that was about it. Joe Flacco had only 3 passes go for more than 10 yards all day.

In third-down and red-zone conversions, it appeared to be an off-day for the Vikings defense, which allowed a 37% conversion rate on third downs (better than their stifling 25% rate through week 6) and a 1/1 100% red zone conversion rate. But take away the Ravens last drive in garbage time, and those stats look to be about as good or better than their season averages. The fact that the Ravens did not enter the red zone for 59 minutes says a lot about how dominating the Vikings defense was against an injury-depleted Ravens offense.

Offense Adequate Against a Tough Ravens Defense

As Mike Zimmer said in his comments to the team this past week, this game was going to be a grind, and so it was for the Vikings offense. The Ravens have a very solid defense, even though some starters have had down performances so far this year. Given that, 24 points by the Vikings offense wasn’t so bad, even though 18 of those points came on field goals.

It was unfortunate that Keenum’s first pass of the day, following a big punt return by Marcus Sherels setting up excellent field position, was a deep TD pass attempt to Laquon Treadwell that was tipped and intercepted. It was unfortunate not just because it was an interception, but also as it seemed to result in Keenum losing trust in Treadwell, perhaps narrowing his target list. On the interception, you can see that Carr hooked Treadwell’s other arm for a second, resulting in that awkward attempt to bring in the catch- something that could have been flagged.

In any event, Keenum went on to have an okay day against a good Ravens defense, not allowing any more turnovers, and going 20/31 for 188 yards. Nothing to write home about, but good enough to sustain some scoring drives, albeit most of them field goals. The thing about Keenum is that watching him, you have some confidence he’ll be at least adequate, even if he isn’t stellar. He has the poise and command that give you confidence in his ability, even if that isn’t top notch. That contrasts rather sharply with other backup-caliber QBs the Vikings have started in recent years, such as Shaun Hill and Christian Ponder, who never really gave you that confidence, even in games they played relatively well.

The Vikings continued to feel the absence of Stefon Diggs in the passing game. Jarius Wright was able to make up for that somewhat, stepping up for 54 yards on 3 receptions, each key in extending scoring drives. But Keenum seemed to spread the ball around less, focusing mostly on targeting Adam Thielen (13 targets, 5 receptions, 41 yards), whom he targeted 42% of his passing attempts. It’s not secret anymore that Thielen has been a big part of the Vikings passing game, and undoubtedly opposing defenses are game planning to minimize his impact- particularly with Stefon Diggs out. As a result, Thielen is drawing more attention, making completions a little more difficult to come by. That being the case, it helps to be able to spread the ball around more, rather than focus too much on Thielen if well covered. Hopefully getting Diggs back will help in that regard, but it would also be nice to be able to spread the ball around more effectively, making it more difficult for opposing defenses to shut down the Vikings passing game.

It was nice to see Latavius Murray have a big game- rushing for 113 yards on 18 carries, including a 29-yard touchdown run that opened things up for the Vikings in the 2nd half. The Vikings combined for 169 yards rushing, which was needed to help make up for the tepid production in the passing game.

Going 0/3 in the red zone probably added most to the sense that the Vikings offense wasn’t particularly stellar, even as it was adequate and moved the ball reasonably well between the 20s against a good Ravens defense.

Offensive Line Somehow Manages To Do Well

The Ravens have a very good defensive front, led by Suggs, Williams and Pierce. And yet, the Vikings offensive line once again manages to not allow any sacks, while also leading the way in over 160 yards rushing. Both Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers had very good games at tackle. Reiff held off Suggs all day- who is not only a good pass rusher, but also stout against the run - allowing only one pressure and some good run blocking en route to his highest PFF grade of the season at 83.4.

Meanwhile Mike Remmers allowed just one hurry while also leading the way for big runs off the right side. According to Pro Football Focus, the Vikings averaged 9.1 yards/carry on eight runs off the right side. Remmers is the highest graded Vikings offensive lineman so far this season, and is on pace to have the best season of his career. Remmers finished the game with an 87.1 grade from PFF.

But apart from the tackles, and Joe Berger for the most part, the rest of the offensive linemen that have seen duty so far this season have been given much lower grades. Nick Easton and Pat Elflein, for example, both have overall season grades in the low-40s - very much in ‘poor’ territory. Jeremiah Sirles isn’t much better at 50.8 overall in less than two complete starts. Danny Isidora, who came in replacement of Sirles at LG, seemed to start well, getting to the second-level on a block that led to a big run by Murray, didn’t finish as well, missing some assignments and finishing with a 39.4 grade overall. In Isadora’s defense, it was his first start, and at left guard as well, not right guard where he has spent nearly all his time in practice. Rashod Hill also saw 19 snaps of action for the injured Riley Reiff (believed not serious), and turned in a 49.1 grade overall.

Perhaps the notion that it’s more important that the offensive line function well as a unit, rather than focus on individual performances, holds true here. Keenum’s mobility has also helped, as has his feel for the pocket and ability to get the ball out quickly most of the time. But the Vikings have also averaged 4.3 yards/carry rushing the ball this season, tied for 10th in the league, while only allowing 9 sacks on the season (4th best) - both of which shows how well the offensive line has been performing overall so far, despite some weak individual performances along the interior line.

Rolling Up Needed Victories

The Vikings last three opponents (Bears, Rodgers-less Packers, Ravens) have suffered some significant injuries and been relatively weak opponents, which helped the Vikings to a three game winning streak. With the 0-7 Browns up next, the Vikings need to capitalize on a weak 2nd quarter of their schedule and come out 6-2 heading into their bye-week and tougher 2nd half schedule, with 5 of those 8 games on the road. The Vikings look well positioned to follow-though on Everson Griffen’s goal of going 4-0 in the 2nd quarter.

The Browns will likely be without the services of their perennial All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas, who suffered what was thought to be a torn tricep against the Titans. Having a backup left-tackle go against Everson Griffen probably isn’t the ideal scenario for the Browns, who are still looking for their first victory of the season after losing in overtime to the Titans at home.

Looking Ahead

The formula in recent weeks of dominant defense combined with adequate offense has worked to build a 5-2 record, an early lead in the NFC North, and current 2nd seed in the NFC playoff race. Hopefully after the bye-week the Vikings will see the return of Stefon Diggs and possibly Sam Bradford, and later Teddy Bridgewater, to help give the offense a needed spark. I’m skeptical that Bridgewater will start unless both Bradford is unable to go, and Keenum proves to be less than adequate down the road. My guess is the plan is for Bradford to start against Washington, allowing his knee another couple weeks to improve, and see how it goes. I would be very surprised if he started every game the rest of the season, however.

But if Keenum ends up starting most or all of the remaining regular season games for the Vikings, they can continue to win. Looking ahead, there aren’t many opposing offenses that look so fearsome that, with continued good defensive play, the Vikings can’t outscore with 20-24 points/game.

Games on the road against Atlanta and Green Bay, and at home against the Bengals that looked tougher when the schedule came out, don’t look quite so tough at the moment. But the home game against the Rams and road game against the Redskins look tougher now too.

But for now, it’s nice to savor the win over the Ravens and sole possession of first-place in the NFC North, and look forward to the game in London against the Browns.