Fans of the Minnesota Vikings and Los Angeles Rams have spent most of the 2017 NFL season feeling a lot like Will Byers at the beginning of Stranger Things Season 2.
[NOTE: I promise there will be no major Stranger Things spoilers in this article. I still have four episodes left of Season 2 myself. So if you haven’t watched it yet, don’t worry.]
Like Will, we’re both one year removed from nightmarish ordeals that almost killed us. In Minnesota, we endured a catastrophic knee injury to the future face of our franchise. Then we witnessed the end of the former face of our franchise. Then we watched the offensive line disintegrate and torpedo a promising 5-0 start.
In LA, they suffered through a brutal rookie campaign from their number one overall pick, Jared Goff. After a rocky preseason deemed him not ready for prime time, he was finally thrust into action halfway through the season. The results were truly awful—Goff lost all seven of his starts while putting up historically bad numbers.
After starting the 2016 season 8-2 through the first five weeks, the Vikings and Rams finished with a combined record of 4-18. It was a terrible ordeal for both teams. However, the implosions meant they were mercifully able to exorcise their respective Demogorgons in the offseason; the Rams renounced Jeff Fisher and his staff while the Vikings ostracized most of their O-line.
So far, it appears that the teams have escaped The Upside Down in 2017. But just like Will Byers, we can’t shake that feeling that something isn’t quite right. We don’t know what it is exactly—it feels like some sort of alien force is slowly inhabiting our bodies. Its roots are slowly spreading throughout the NFL landscape and laying waste to everything in its path. Is this the return of the existential dread both franchises have experienced for most of the past decade?
Or is the unfamiliar sensation simply, you know, both teams actually being really good for a change?
Through the first ten weeks of the season, it appears to be the latter. The Rams are the top team in defensive, special teams, and overall DVOA after finishing 30th overall last year. The Vikings have moved up from 20th to 5th overall. Both squads lead their divisions over teams that were heavily favored at the beginning of the season, in large part due to vastly improved offenses.
The offensive resurgence for both teams can largely be attributed to upgrades in the trenches. Los Angeles picked up veterans Andrew Whitworth and (old friend) John Sullivan. They have only two carryovers from last year on the line. They are now averaging almost a full yard more per carry as a team. Todd Gurley is picking up over 50 more yards from scrimmage per contest. The Rams were dead last in percentage of drives that ended in scores (21.8%) last season. This year they’re first with 51.9%(!). They are fifth in rushing and sixth in passing after ranking 31st in both a year ago. The Rams already have six more touchdowns than they scored all of last season!
Meanwhile, Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers highlight a revamped Vikings offensive line that has only one returning starter and new players at every position. Despite being without Sam Bradford for all but six quarters and Dalvin Cook for all but three and a half games, the offense is still chugging along as a top-ten unit.
Of course, neither team would be excelling this much without solid output from the most important position on the field. Both quarterbacks are playing much better than expected. The transformation of Jared Goff from year 1 to year 2 cannot be overstated. In 2016 he was dead last of all qualifying quarterbacks in adjusted net yards per attempt; this year he’s first, increasing his number from 2.82 to 8.28. Goff is doing a much better job at just about everything. What stands out the most on film is how well he is going through his progressions and finding the open receiver compared to last year.
Goff also has better options to throw to this time around. Los Angeles jettisoned Kenny Britt, Lance Kendricks, and Brian Quick, who were three of the four highest targeted players in 2016. If you look at how those three are doing with their new teams, it appears the Rams made the right choice getting rid of them. Now Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, and Sammy Watkins are getting those targets. The offense is better for it.
It will be interesting to see where the Vikings choose to put Xavier Rhodes on Sunday. While Watkins has the pedigree, Woods has been the most productive receiver for the Rams this season. Woods leads the team in receiving by over 200 yards and has four touchdowns over the past two games.
No matter how the Vikings line up against the LA wide receivers, they’ll need to remain very aware of Todd Gurley in passing game. Gurley has evolved into a true all-purpose threat this season with 35 catches for 403 yards and 3 touchdowns. It will be a big test for Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, and the Vikings secondary to keep him contained when he isn’t doing his usual ground and pound.
Unless the Rams lose six of their final seven games of the season, they will finish with a winning record for the first time since 2004, finally escaping the “7-9 bulls**t” that plagued the Jeff Fisher regime. After seeing the vast improvement in Sean McVay’s first season, especially on offense, it’s becoming pretty clear that Fisher might not have been the best at his job.
McVay hasn’t been afraid to shake things up to get rid of the Fisher stench that lingered over the franchise. The innovation he showed in Washington as Offensive Coordinator has definitely carried over to LA. He is also putting his best players out there regardless of status or salary. Despite signing a 4-year, $42 million extension with the team last year, Tavon Austin is averaging under 15 snaps per game this season. On the occasions that Austin is actually out there, it’s almost a tell that the Rams aren’t going to pass to him. Los Angeles has run on two-thirds of Austin’s 130 snaps this year. The “wide receiver” has 36 carries and only seven receptions in 2017. Austin had 106 targets a year ago; he has twelve through the first nine games. McVay evaluated his team and realized that he had better pass catchers on his roster. An offense that relied so heavily on Austin didn’t work, so he made a change right away.
McVay is the youngest Head Coach in NFL history. He might be short on experience, but he certainly seems to be looking to the right places for help in that department. Hiring Wade Phillips, a man nearly 40 years his senior, to run the defense is proving to be a savvy move. (Especially when you compare him to their last Defensive Coordinator, Gregg “how am I still gainfully employed with my track record” Williams.) Last week on the MMQB Podcast with Peter King, McVay freely admitted to borrowing plays from other teams that he liked on film. Being keenly aware of both your strengths and limitations as a coach appears to be a trait that McVay already shares with Mike Zimmer.
While Phillips is one of the best defensive minds in the history of the league, having Aaron Donald on his line makes the job a lot easier. Donald is as close as you can get to a real-life 99 overall rating in Madden. There are zero holes in his game. I love me some Linval Joseph, but Donald is probably the best interior defensive lineman in the game today.
And if you throw extra bodies at Donald, Michael Brockers is usually there right next to him cleaning things up. Nick Easton, Pat Elflein, and Joe Berger will have to play some of their best football of the season to keep the sack rate of Case Keenum as low as it has been.
While we’re on the subject of Keenum, I suppose I should get my weekly two cents in about our quarterback situation. My overall stance from the past couple of weeks remains unchanged: Keenum is playing well enough and the decision to keep starting him makes sense. His pocket presence, propensity to avoid taking sacks, and ability to take care of the ball (for the most part) have been enough to keep the train rolling. He made some of his best passes of the season in Washington last week. Keenum’s performance was unassailable until the two late interceptions.
That said, I still maintain that Teddy Bridgewater could raise the offense to a new level, and we need to see how he’s able to perform sooner or later for myriad reasons. And I believe the coaching staff agrees with that sentiment on some level. Why else would you wait until Wednesday to announce the starting quarterback when your current QB just won his fifth straight game and threw for over 300 yards and four touchdowns? The Keenum vs. Bridgewater debate at Vikings headquarters might not be as intense as it is on Vikings Twitter, but it certainly appears to be happening in some form.
At the end of the day, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a cliché because it’s so often true. Keenum has completely earned the start against his former team. In Case we trust.
For now, that is.
If Keenum struggles out of the gate on Sunday, I’m sure the full-throated “TED-DY! TED-DY! TED-DY!” chants won’t take long to show up. I don’t think Keenum’s leash should be any shorter this week, even if he does have a couple early hiccups. Like I said in last week’s preview, Keenum has been named the starter. He should be under center unless the game goes haywire one way or another.
One way to help Keenum succeed against the likes of Donald will be to establish the run game and keep the Rams defense guessing. Los Angeles is allowing opponents to rush for 4.5 yards per carry and they have been gashed by their fair share of big plays out of the backfield. If Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon can consistently get to the second level on runs and short passes, it should open things up for Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs over the top. Establishing the run will also set up play action, where Keenum has really excelled this year.
Play action will likely be a big part of both offenses on Sunday. Keenum and Goff utilize play action more than just about everyone and are among the league’s best when using it. According to Pro Football Focus, the numbers are outstanding:
|Quarterback||% Play Action||Rank||QB Rating with Play Action||Rank||Yards Per Attempt Difference||Rank|
|Quarterback||% Play Action||Rank||QB Rating with Play Action||Rank||Yards Per Attempt Difference||Rank|
Although nobody expected it when the schedule was first released, this is being rightfully billed as the game of the week. It’s an excellent matchup between two of the NFC’s best teams and could go a long way toward playoff seeding. Just like we all expected back in August!
The Rams don’t have a lot of glaring holes on either side of the ball. Even their kicking combo of Greg Zuerlein and Johnny Hekker is arguably the best in the league. While Goff and the Rams offense is leaps and bounds better than they were a year ago, they certainly aren’t perfect. Los Angeles has been beating up on some pretty poor teams the past few weeks, and now they’re a little beat up themselves; it will be interesting to see how they execute against a more formidable opponent. The US Bank Stadium crowd should be in a frenzy all day, and I think the atmosphere should spark a game-changing play from the Vikings defense to set up the crucial score. CASE KEENUM WILL GET HIS SWEET REVENGE!
And if I’m wrong, I’m more than prepared to feed the “Dart” that is my Vikings fan self-doubt as they head to Detroit for Thanksgiving.
(OK that was a tiny spoiler. Sorry.)
Vikings 26, Rams 23
And now for the rest of my Week 11 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
STEELERS over Titans
I can’t remember two teams with such good records that have looked so underwhelming for so much of the season. But hey, at least the all-black vs. all-”Titan Blue” Color Rush matchup should be decent to look at.
Lions over BEARS
It would be great if the Bears could help us out this week, but they are incredibly...challenging...to watch this season. GET IT, JOHN FOX? CHALLENGING?!
Jaguars over BROWNS
My Survivor Pool pick of the week, now a slightly-less-crappy 6-4 on the year after Detroit beat these Browns last week. If picking against the Browns ain’t broke...
Ravens over PACKERS
I saw stories of Aaron Rodgers rehabbing and taking snaps from a trainer Wednesday. FINISH THEM OFF, BALTIMORE.
Chiefs over GIANTS
Louis C.K. and Harvey Weinstein have higher approval ratings in New York than Ben McAdoo right now.
SAINTS over Redskins
New Orleans is now good at both running the football and defense. Surely, the apocalypse is nigh.
TEXANS over Cardinals
Vikings record since Adrian Peterson left the team: 7-2
Saints record since Adrian Peterson left the team: 5-0
There’s still time, Arizona! Do it before it’s too late!
(Just kidding. Drew Stanton is your quarterback. You’re screwed either way.)
Buccaneers over DOLPHINS
Perhaps the hurricane that washed this game out in Week 1 wasn’t the greatest omen for these two teams’ seasons.
CHARGERS over Bills
Buffalo—a team that hasn’t made the playoffs this century and is currently clinging to the final Wild Card spot in the AFC—decided to switch from Tyrod Taylor to Nathan Peterman this week. You know, because it’s mostly Tyrod’s fault that the Bills allowed 813 yards and 81 points over the past two weeks.
BRONCOS over Bengals
Orange you glad that you aren’t a fan of either of these teams this year?
Patriots over Raiders (in Mexico)
Oakland couldn’t win this game with Ron Mexico.
Eagles over COWBOYS
So Adrian Clayborn apparently got $750,000 for his six-sack performance against Dallas last week. Do you think he should give a bigger cut of that to Chaz Green for doing his best T.J. Clemmings impression, or to Jason Garrett for making absolutely zero adjustments? I’m leaning toward Garrett.
Falcons over SEAHAWKS
Seattle is really beat up, Atlanta finally seems to be past throwing away golden opportunities, and I did way too well on my picks last week. So I’m going with the Falcons.
Last week: 12-2
Season so far: 86-60