The Rams coming to take on the Vikings at US Bank stadium may be the game of the week, as both teams are 7-2, leading their division, and have been rolling off the victories over the last month. It is a game with playoff implications, among two teams that are leading contenders for the post-season NFC playoff tournament.
Looking at some of the Rams previous games this year, particularly the game against Seattle and the most recent game against the Texans, there were a few things that stood out in both games that are key for the Vikings to come away with a win on Sunday.
STOP TODD GURLEY
One thing I noticed in the Rams games I watched, is that when Todd Gurley is held in check, the Rams offense tends to stall. They can still come up with big plays to other players on occasion, but without Todd Gurley making plays, the Rams offense is missing a key cog in their offensive machinery which really helps the whole thing work. Stopping Gurley means not only stopping him as a runner, but also a receiver- where he may be more productive coming out of the backfield.
Fortunately, the Vikings are #3 in the league in run defense, and really haven’t given up a dominant run performance to an opposing running back this season. The Rams are ranked 5th in rushing offense, so this will be one of the key strength-on-strength match-ups in the game.
MAKE GOFF BEAT YOU
Taking away Gurley, and putting more of the load on 2nd-year QB Jared Goff, could be the way to go for the Vikings defense. The other thing I noticed about Goff in the games I watched, is he throws some turnover-worthy passes with some regularity. He likes to go for the deep pass, and is near the bottom of the league in time to throw. This should give the Vikings pass rush some opportunity to get to Goff. But even when Goff gets his passes off, he’s not the most accurate passer, and he’ll occasionally put up some wobblers or throw into good coverage. I also noticed a more than average number of balls tipped or bobbled by receivers that had potential for a turnover as well. Goff has only 4 interceptions on the season, but the Rams were fortunate in the games I watched that Goff didn’t give up more interceptions during the course of the game.
As I mentioned, Goff likes the deep ball, so it will be important for the Vikings secondary to limit those catches, which they have done for the most part this season. It’s not often a receiver gets behind the Vikings secondary for a long TD, like Robert Woods did last week against the Texans (on a play Rams RT Rob Havenstein should have been called for holding Jadeveon Clowney). The Vikings play a 2-deep safety shell often, and when they have given up big pass plays down the field they’re usually at the boundary, where Goff hasn’t been as effective.
Goff is also near the bottom of the league in adjusted completion percentage (completions/attempts, excluding throw-aways, batted balls, etc.), in part perhaps due to having a deeper mix of passing attempts, but also just not being as accurate delivering the ball at times. He can throw some darts to be sure, but he also can make some off-balanced wobblers and overthrows too.
Goff has been very effective against the blitz, so I would be surprised if coach Zimmer brought the blitz much against him, although sending a linebacker on occasion up the A-gap could be effective. But the better way to go may be to be to rush four and play coverage most often. Watching RT Rob Havenstein against Jadeveon Clowney last week was also kind of a preview of Havenstein against Danielle Hunter, who shares Clowney’s athleticism and some of his moves. I could imagine Hunter having a more productive game against Havenstein, but we’ll have to see how it plays out.
But the bottom line is stopping the very productive Rams offense is first to minimize Todd Gurley, while limiting Goff’s deep ball.
Minimizing Gurley should help create some third-and-not-so-manageable situations for the Rams offense, which is best in the league in converting on third down. The Vikings defense is 2nd best in the league in preventing third down conversions, so this is another key clash of the titans situations. Playing on the road in the din of US Bank stadium on 3rd down should add a degree of difficulty for Goff, as will the Vikings style of defense.
One of the key characteristics of the Vikings defense is doing many things out of the same look pre-snap, which effectively takes away pre-snap reads from opposing quarterbacks. There is a report out there (behind a pay wall) that the Vikings believe Goff is getting help from the sideline in reading defenses, so don’t be surprised if the Vikings are especially careful not to reveal much pre-snap until after the play clock reaches 15 seconds, when the helmet communication with the QB must be turned off. That will leave more for the 2nd year quarterback to process on his own and after the snap, and could lead to him holding the ball a little longer, or perhaps some misreads, both of which could turn into big plays for the Vikings defense.
Additionally, working to minimize the Rams’ big plays on offense will make them work to extend drives and score in the red zone, which oddly for the top point-scoring offense, is not something they do particularly well. In fact, the Rams are only ranked 22nd in the league in converting TDs in the red zone, at 51.22%. The Vikings are 3rd best in the league on defense in denying TDs in the red zone (allowing only a 41.67% conversion rate), so the red zone is a situation that favors the Vikings defense.
In any case, the fact that the Rams are not that good in the red zone, but yet have the top scoring offense in the league, shows how much their offense depends upon big plays and turnovers for it’s success so far this year.
KEENUM’S MOBILITY COULD HELP OFFENSIVE PRODUCTION
Another take-away from the Rams’ games I watched was what a difference a more mobile quarterback had against the Rams’ pass rush. Last week Tom Savage, who isn’t particularly mobile, had much more difficulty under pressure than Russell Wilson, who is known for his scrambling ability. But simply being able to escape the pocket on occasion, or using designed rollouts, may help Keenum to extend plays - something he has been doing pretty well since taking over the starting job.
Being able to extend plays should help the Vikings offense to produce some big plays of its own, using favorable match-ups against the Rams cornerbacks, particularly Adam Thielen against 5’8”, 180 pound Nickell Robey-Coleman and Stefon Diggs against Trumaine Johnson. The Vikings have matched the Rams in terms of big plays in their passing game this season, but lag a little in big running plays.
A BALANCED ATTACK AND VARIED PACE MAY HELP TOO
The Vikings also need to establish a credible run game to make play-action effective, and keep the Rams’ stout front seven off-balanced. It will be interesting to see which back the Vikings use the most against the Rams- it really seems to vary week-to-week whether Latavius Murray or Jerick McKinnon gets more carries or has more success running the ball. I get the sense that Sunday may be McKinnon’s day, even though Murray has had more success most recently, in part because McKinnon’s quickness and elusiveness may be more effective against a Rams defense that won’t be overpowered by Murray. We’ll see.
The Rams under Wade Phillips won’t be shy in bringing pressure and blitz packages against the Vikings on Sunday, which will require effective blocking from both Murray and McKinnon. McKinnon has been doing a better job than Murray in that respect this year, and is also more effective in running screens- something Pat Shurmur dials up to counter blitzing defenses.
Another tactic Shurmur may use Sunday is the hurry-up offense, which can also help to keep the Rams defense off-balanced, and Wade Phillips from dialing up his full arsenal on a given play or series.
The last key to beating the Rams is to not give the ball away. The Rams are #1 in the league in generating turnovers, averaging just over two per game. It’s not just Keenum needing to take care of the ball, but also running backs Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray. Both backs have fumbled on runs up the middle, where guys are trying to take the ball away in the scrum, which the Rams do as well. Hopefully there was attention paid to taking care of the ball in those situations in practice this week.
So far it looks like the Vikings could possibly be without Andrew Sendejo, as he hasn’t practiced this week with a groin injury, not including today (Friday). Backup Anthony Harris has also been limited this week in practice. My guess is if neither can go then Terence Newman will play safety, and MacKensie Alexander will take over in the slot against Cooper Kupp, or possibly Jayron Kearse is called upon to play safety and Newman stays in the slot. Other than that, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mike Remmers is back on Sunday- he has been limited in practice with a concussion, and Everson Griffen has said he will play as well.
Update: Sendejo and Remmers have been ruled out for the Rams game, and will be replaced by Anthony Harris and Rashod Hill.
The Rams have a long list of guys limited or not practicing this week. Starting center and former Viking John Sullivan, along with LB Mark Barron, have apparently taken not one but two veteran days off so far, and Andrew Whitworth took one, and was limited yesterday, suggesting all three are fairly beat up. Conor Barwin hasn’t practiced so far this week, and looks like he may be replaced by Robert Quinn, who was also on the injury list, but was a full participant yesterday.
But perhaps the biggest potential loss for the Rams may be their top safety Lamarcus Joyner, who hasn’t practiced this week with a hip issue. We’ll see what happens.
The Rams have feasted on big plays and turnovers to fuel their top scoring offense, averaging 32.9 points per game. The Vikings have both the secondary and run defense to slow down the Rams passing game and Todd Gurley. But they must also take care of the ball and force Jared Goff and company to sustain drives against a Vikings defense near the top of the league in denying 3rd down conversions and red zone TDs.
On the other side of the ball, the Vikings need a strong performance from the offensive line, going up against an attacking Rams front seven full of talent, particularly on the interior line. If the offensive line can hold it’s own, Keenum will have opportunities down field to connect with Thielen and Diggs to generate big plays.
A big game by Jerick McKinnon could also be instrumental in coming away with a Vikings win on Sunday. A quick look through the Rams defensive starters on PFF suggests that outside of the stout interior line, the Rams defense is not as strong against the run, particularly if Lamarcus Joyner is out, which could lead to some big runs if the Rams interior line can be avoided or contained.
It will be an interesting play-calling battle between Wade Phillips and Pat Shurmur as well.
Overall I like the Vikings on Sunday, as I wouldn’t be surprised if Goff and company have an off-game on the road against a defense that matches up well, and an offense that has been increasingly productive. Making the Rams work on offense- and not giving up big plays and turnovers, should work to the Vikings advantage, while playing the Rams tough up front should yield some big plays down the field on occasion for the Vikings to come away with a win.
The Vikings are 2-point favorites at home against the Rams. What do you think?
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The Vikings win and beat the spread
The Vikings win but don’t beat the spread
The Vikings lose