Central Norris (hey, I miss the in-his-prime Chris Berman, simply the best studio host ever) rival Tampa Bay comes to US Bank Stadium this Sunday, in a big early season matchup. Although it’s no longer a divisional game, it’s an important conference game that could have playoff implications by the end of the year. Tampa Bay is coming off a 9-7 season, and has a young team that looks to be in the post season dance party. Whether Sam Bradford plays or not, this is going to be an early barometer on what kind of team both the Vikings and Buccaneers have.
So how does 2-1 compare to 1-2 in terms of making the playoffs? Yeah yeah yeah, 5-0 and all that from last year, but that was just a weird year all the way around with the Teddy injury/Bradford trade, the Adrian Peterson injury, and the The Great Offensive Line Massacre of 2016. I really like this playoff percentage chart from fivethirtyeight.com, and I refer to it fairly regularly:
I get it’s a long season and anything can happen, and the Vikings have been outliers on both ends of the playoff percentage spectrum in the past. In 2008, the Vikes made the playoffs after starting 0-2, and they’ve missed the playoffs after starting both 5-0 last year, and 6-0 in 2003. But I still like to play the odds, and as you can see, 2-1 is a lot better than 1-2 in terms of improving your playoff odds.
So how do the Vikings get that second win, and a possible late season tiebreaker over the Bucs they can put in their pocket?
Start Cooking early. Dalvin Cook is a member of what might be the best rookie running back class in awhile. Currently Cook is among the leaders in the NFL in rushing, with some pretty impressive stats:
#Vikings Dalvin Cook — 2 Games— BJ Reidell (@RobertReidell) September 21, 2017
Carries: 34 (T-7th)
Yards: 191 (3rd)
Yards/Game: 95.5 (4th)
Yards/Attempt: 5.6 (5th)
20+ Carries: 3 (T-1st)
What’s more impressive is that Cook hasn’t really been getting untracked until the second half:
There are some ‘holy crap’ stats that I’ve come across early in the season, but the yards per carry by quarter stat might be the ‘holy crappiest’ of them all. If the Vikings can get Cook going early, especially if Sam Bradford can’t go, it’s just going to make things easier for Case Keenum and the offense. Keenum isn’t going to lose a game for you, but if the Vikes get in to an early deficit, like they did last week at Pittsburgh, it’s going to be really tough for them to climb out of that hole, especially if they’re a one dimensional offense. We saw that play out last week, and just between you and me, my eyes still sting a bit.
Is Sam playing? Although they haven’t come right out and said it, the smoke signals emanating from Winter Park indicate that Sam Bradford, the latest in a line of franchise quarterbacks that have defective knees, looks like he’ll play Sunday. This would make the Vikings a definite favorite, or at least increases their chances of winning immeasurably. The Vikings offense hummed with Bradford under center against New Orleans, and I think if he plays against Pittsburgh, the game is a lot closer than what we saw, mistakes and all.
Keep the pocket clean, whoever starts. Whether it’s Sam or Case Keenum, the Vikings offensive line will have to do a better job of establishing a clean pocket to work in. They didn’t do that against Pittsburgh:
Case Keenum had 46% of his dropbacks come under pressure, according to @PFF - and had a QB rating of 46.9 on them. 80.7 with clean pocket.— Arif Hasan (@ArifHasanNFL) September 17, 2017
This week, they have their work cut out for them again. Note the overall grades of Pat Elflein and Nick Easton:
Also note DT Gerald McCoy. And that chart doesn’t even include Buccaneers defensive end Noah Spence, who did this off the edge last Sunday against the Bears:
Noah Spence with great speed and ability to turn the corner off the edge for the strip sack: pic.twitter.com/DtuWQDa37V— Connor Rogers (@ConnorJRogers) September 21, 2017
The Vikings are facing a defensive line that’s as good as, if not better than, what they faced last week in Pittsburgh. Bradford handles pressure a lot better than Keenum does, though, and can make the Bucs pay if he has just enough time to throw:
My bottom line is if Bradford can go at close to 100%, I like the Vikings chances. If it’s Keenum, and they can’t protect him, it’s going to be a long day.
Let’s go Hunter-ing. While Everson Griffen has started off fast in 2017, Danielle Hunter is lagging a bit. He’s had his moments, yes, but the consistency he brought with his pressure isn’t at the level it was last year, at least not yet, and not at the level of Griff:
One of the things that excited me most about this defense is the heat both Griffen and Hunter can bring to the table on every play. I would love to see Hunter get on the board with his first couple sacks of the year Sunday.
It’s called Special Teams, not Stupid Teams. Unless Percy Harvin in his prime or Cordarrelle Patterson are back receiving kickoffs, there should be no kicks returned from eight yards deep in the end zone. Period, full stop. I get that a big kickoff return can spark an offense...but a bad kickoff return can have the opposite effect. Starting at the
25 15 last week with a limited offense did the Vikings no favors, and against a good Bucs defense, driving 85 yards for a TD just isn’t going to happen a lot. Once, maybe, and that’s if Sam plays. Minnesota needs to be smart about field position and not put themselves behind the eight ball before the offense even takes the field.
Let’s get a turnover! the Vikings have yet to record their first turnover, which is a far cry from last year’s blistering start. Through two games last year, the Vikings had already generated six turnovers and two defensive touchdowns in wins over Tennessee and Green Bay. This year, they have no turnovers and a 1-1 start. The thing about Jameis Winston, the Tampa Bay quarterback, is that he turns the ball over on a fairly regualr basis. In 33 career games, he has 33 interceptions and 16 fumbles, nine of which were lost. If the defense can generate pressure, I get the sense they’ll force Winston into making a mistake, and that will bode well for the good guys.
Prediction: Sam Bradford plays, and the Vikings win. Let’s call it 27-17.