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Vikings at Jets Preview: New York! New York?

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The Vikings have Jets have both had great games mixed in with a few clunkers in 2018. Which version of each team will we see this Sunday?

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Minnesota Vikings
“Dead Arm Dance” in the end zone: dorky as hell, but fine. “Dead Arm Dance” whenever a pass rusher gets close to you in the pocket: not cool.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

He is not easy to describe. There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point. He’s an extraordinary-looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way. No, sir; I can make no hand of it; I can’t describe him. And it’s not want of memory; for I declare I can see him this moment.

This excerpt from the classic gothic novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde struck a chord with me while researching the Week 7 game between the Minnesota Vikings and New York Jets. Neither team is easy to describe. There are some facets that have been downright detestable about each team, although they’re hard to specify at times. On the other hand, there are other parts that are extraordinary looking. Even though there are now six games of film we can see at this moment, I can make no hand of it.

The age-old adage of the NFL being a parity-driven league can be backed up by the roller coasters that Vikings and Jets fans alike have been riding through the first six weeks of the NFL season. To wit, here’s how New York’s year has unfolded thus far:

  • They opened the season on Monday Night Football as a seven point road underdog against the Lions. Despite Sam Darnold throwing a pick six with his first NFL pass, the Jets forced five turnovers en route to a 48-17 beat down of Detroit.
  • A home clunker to the Dolphins where they trailed 20-0 at halftime and couldn’t recover.
  • A loss on a Thursday night in Cleveland, giving the Browns their first win since Christmas Eve of 2016 and kick-starting the legend of Baker Mayfield.
  • An ugly 31-12 smothering in Jacksonville where they were outgained by 325 yards despite being +3 in turnover differential.
  • Back-to-back home wins over the Broncos and Colts in which they put up 76 points and 886 yards of offense.

Minnesota has been just as unpredictable through the first month and a half:

  • A solid home win over the (then) up-and-coming 49ers that made them look like early contenders.
  • A crazy tie in Green Bay where each team had plenty of chances to win yet couldn’t get out of their own way.
  • An unfathomably embarrassing 21-point home loss to the Bills despite being gigantic favorites.
  • A loss in a Thursday night track meet in Los Angeles where the once-dominant defense was boat raced for a whopping 556 yards by Jared Goff and the Rams.
  • A road victory over the defending Super Bowl champions that had embarrassed them on the same field in the NFC Championship Game less than nine months prior.
  • A promising yet flawed home victory over the lowly Cardinals in the kind of result that everyone expected in their previous home game.

To paraphrase famed United States Poet Laureate Eminem, won’t the real Vikings and Jets please stand up? With all the ups and downs that each team has been through in the first 37.5% of the season, can we possibly predict how either will perform at MetLife Stadium on Sunday?

Short answer: probably not, but we’re going to try anyway.

A lot of the Jets’ seesawing performances can be attributed to having a new guy learning the ropes. For the second straight week and the third time in five games, the Vikings will be facing a first round rookie quarterback. While Josh Allen and Josh Rosen were both quickly appointed the starter after early incompetence from the veterans in front of them, Darnold has been The Guy since the start, taking every snap for the Jets this season. Like Rosen a week ago, Darnold has shown flashes of brilliance mixed in with taking his obligatory first NFL lumps. I thought he was the most pro-ready in this year’s quarterback class, and that appears to be holding true early in the season. Darnold has enjoyed a bit more success than his peers because he possesses a lot of veteran traits. He quickly scans the field to go through his progressions and excels at looking off defenders to create space for his receivers. He has the arm strength and accuracy to make all the necessary throws in the NFL. This little shoulder feint last week against the Colts made the defender bite on the route and gave Darnold an easy touchdown pass to Chris Herndon.

That said, it can’t be a roller coaster without the steep dives. Darnold has thrown an interception in all but one game, has been held under 200 yards in all but two games, and has completed 50% or less of his passes three times already this season. The beyond-his-years characteristics seem to completely disappear at times. The turnover concerns from USC have followed him across the country in his new NFL home. On this Week 2 interception against the Dolphins, he completely stared down his receiver instead of noticing the safety right in front of him.

Darnold will be without his favorite target, Quincy Enunwa, who has 16 more targets than anyone else on the team but is sidelined with a high ankle sprain. The remaining wide receiver corps of Robby Anderson, Terrelle Pryor, and Jermaine Kearse can be surprisingly potent yet frustratingly inconsistent. The Jets’ passing attack can’t afford to make the big mistakes, but that’s exactly what Mike Zimmer’s defense will try to force on Sunday. Andrew Krammer outlined how the Vikings utilized well-timed and expertly disguised blitzes on third down to keep Rosen uncomfortable all day and prevent the Cardinals from converting a single third down. Minnesota is back at the top of the league in defensive third down percentage (25.0%) while New York ranks 23rd at conversions on offense (37.5%). Keeping Darnold unsure of where the pressure is coming from could cause more splash plays for the Vikings defense.

The running back duo of Bilal Powell and Isaiah Crowell will hope to ease some of the stress on their rookie quarterback. Despite being held under 50 yards rushing by both of the Florida teams they have played this year, the Jets still rank seventh in rushing yards, thanks in large part to their 323-yard explosion against the Broncos two weeks ago. The two backs have accounted for 42.6% of the Jets’ total yards from scrimmage this season. While the Vikings still need to be wary of giving up chunk plays in the air—something they have allowed at an alarming rate at times this season—they should key in on stopping Darnold’s safety valves to make his day even more difficult.

Speaking of running games, the Vikings might actually have one now! The ground attack finally got going last week against the Cardinals. As Sam Ekstrom of Zone Coverage detailed in his breakdown of Minnesota’s five runs of 20 yards or more, four of them came out of 12 personnel. The Vikings have run the two tight end set on 23% of their snaps this season, which is seventh most often in the league. They used multiple tight ends on 26 of their 71 snaps (37%) in Week 6. The Jets are more stout against the run than the Cardinals, but they’re still toward the middle of the pack by most metrics. If the Vikings can keep opening holes for Latavius Murray and/or Dalvin Cook, it will help keep the offense balanced and allow John DeFilippo to continue being creative with his play calling. Even if Kyle Rudolph and David Morgan haven’t been lighting up the box score this season, Matthew Coller astutely pointed out how important they have been to the overall success of the offense. Maybe we’ll see the uptick in big sets continue on Sunday.

Staying more balanced and unpredictable could open up a ton of opportunities in the passing game for the Vikings. Last week, the Cardinals picked their poison by lining up premier cornerback Patrick Peterson across from Stefon Diggs most of the day. It worked well, as Diggs was held to three catches for 33 yards. Of course, that allowed the NFL’s leading wide receiver to run amok yet again. Adam Thielen caught 11 of 13 targets for 123 yards and a touchdown. Eventually you would imagine that teams would start rolling more coverage in Thielen’s direction. Diggs may be the bigger deep threat, but Thielen has been death by 712 very large paper cuts through the first six weeks of the season. It will be interesting to see where the Jets line up Morris Claiborne throughout the game. Their secondary is fairly depleted as well. Trumaine Johnson has missed the last two games, Buster Skrine hasn’t played since sustaining a concussion early in Week 5, and safety Marcus Maye is out with broken thumb.

Even if the Jets get a player or two back on the back end of their defense, stopping Thielen and Diggs is much easier said than done due to how they can excel from anywhere on the field. Thielen ranks first in the NFL in targets, yards, and receptions out of the slot, playing 60.6% of his snaps there. Diggs ranks sixth in yards out of the slot despite playing only 23.7% of his snaps in the slot. Just take a look at Thielen’s Next Gen route chart from Week 6. It’s extremely difficult to put extra coverage on a guy that can hurt you from anywhere on the field, especially when you already have to account for Diggs. The Raiders might be moving to Vegas in a couple years, but the real slot machines are in Minnesota.

Arif had an excellent breakdown of how John DeFilippo picked apart Arizona’s Cover 2 by exploiting mismatches with Thielen at the slot in his film room article. The Jets pose a different challenge this week, as they run a lot of single high safety looks. Rudolph could find some space in the middle or up the seams if New York is overly determined to slow down Diggs and Thielen. The Jets are currently 23rd in DVOA against tight ends this year. Last week, the Colts tight ends had over 100 yards and a touchdown.

Minnesota’s aerial targets could have acres of space all day, but it still won’t mean anything if Kirk Cousins can’t get the ball in their hands. As Ben Goessling detailed, the six batted passes the Cardinals had last Sunday are a concern for the Vikings offense. Turnovers remain a huge problem as well. Cousins has turned the ball over at least once in each of the past five games; it has been the glaring weak point in an otherwise stellar season. The Jets have 15 takeaways, which is one off the league lead. Turnovers aren’t exactly the most predictable or sustainable statistic in the NFL, but if both trends continue on Sunday, the Vikings could find themselves in big trouble. The Jets certainly don’t have the most formidable pass rush in the league, but they still have a couple strong pieces in the middle. Namely, former first round pick Leonard Williams, who did this to celebrated sixth overall pick Quenton Nelson last week.

Williams was credited with three of the four quarterback hits on Andrew Luck in Week 6 and leads the Jets in total pressures. Tom Compton, Pat Elflein, and Mike Remmers will have their hands full.

Thankfully the Vikings have a pretty good player in the middle of their defensive line that was also drafted in the first round by the Jets. This will be Sheldon Richardson’s first game against the team that selected him 13th overall in the 2013 NFL Draft. Richardson has been quietly excellent with Minnesota this season. His total of 22 pressures is one ahead of Williams, second on the Vikings behind Danielle Hunter, and sixth among all interior linemen. Perhaps Richardson will have a little something extra for his old team on Sunday.

If Richardson might be seeking a bit of redemption, will the Jets be extra motivated to stick it to the quarterback that spurned them for (slightly) less money in the offseason? Some of the New York media certainly seems to think so. Can it be a revenge game against Cousins if he never actually played for the Jets? Do we call it a pre-venge game?

As I stated on Monday, the Vikings have yet to play what you would consider a “complete” game. The Arizona win looked most like the team we expected to see all season, but there were still significant flaws on display. If the Vikings fall behind early from turnovers and other crucial mistakes, the Jets might be able to pound the ball and keep them at arm’s length. All the newfound efficiency in the Minnesota ground game could evaporate if they’re chasing it for most of the afternoon. On the flip side, if the they can jump out to an early lead, I could see them terrorizing Darnold and forcing the errors that lead to a third straight Vikings win.

If the game is close throughout, the Jets’ special teams could be the difference. They’re currently ranked second in special teams DVOA. Andre Roberts is a very dangerous returner that already has a punt return touchdown to his name this season. Defending AFC Special Teams Player Of The Week Jason Myers has made 31 of his 33 kicks this season, including all seven field goals and three extra points against the Colts. While the Vikings special teams looked much better last week, they remain 28th in DVOA. With Mike Hughes out for the season, it remains to be seen who will return kicks for the Vikings this week.

So what will happen on Sunday in this battle of two such dichotomous teams? Your guess is as good as mine. I don’t think we’ll see that mythical “complete game” from the Vikings just yet, but I believe they will be able to do enough to get the franchise’s first ever road victory over the Jets.

More Jekyll, less Hyde.

Prediction

Vikings 23, Jets 16


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

Broncos over CARDINALS

The very, very sad “It Looks Like The Vikings Made The Right Choice At Quarterback” Bowl.

CHARGERS over Titans (in London)

My Survivor Pool pick of the week, now 4-2 on the year after the Packers pulled one out of the deepest recesses of their rectums on Monday. The Chargers’ only two losses came to the Chiefs and the Rams. They might be the fourth or fifth best team in the NFL right now without Joey Bosa. If he comes back full strength, watch out.

COLTS over Bills

Buffalo signed Derek Anderson about five minutes ago and they’re probably going to start him on Sunday over Nathan Peterman. So...why is Peterman even on an NFL roster at this point? Should he have ever been on an NFL roster in the first place?

Patriots over BEARS

I could see Chicago getting over their disaster in Miami last week and putting up a good fight against New England on Sunday. But I have a steadfast rule when picking NFL games: anytime you allow Brock freaking Osweiler to rack up 380 yards because you somehow allowed a this-has-to-be-a-typo 274 yards after the catch, I can’t pick you to win the following week.

Browns over BUCCANEERS

The Bucs fired Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith after their loss to Atlanta last week. That should solve everything!*

*No it won’t

Lions over DOLPHINS

I have another steadfast rule when picking NFL games: don’t ever expect Brock freaking Osweiler to pass for 380 yards against back-to-back NFC North opponents.

EAGLES over Panthers

I’m not quite sure what to make of either team at this point. Give me the home defending champs and recency bias.

JAGUARS over Texans

I’ll take the underachieving supposedly good AFC South team at home over the overachieving crappy AFC South team. Although if Jacksonville loses this one, we can remove that “decent” label posthaste. Man the AFC South sucks.

Saints over RAVENS

Because picking Drew Brees outdoors against a good defense on the road has never backfired before! I look forward to New Orleans eking out an ugly victory while Brees scores 6.2 points for my fantasy team.

REDSKINS over Cowboys

I should have written a Jekyll and Hyde preview for this game. These two teams make the Jets and Vikings seem more consistent than a sunrise.

Rams over 49ERS

Just take care of business in this one, Sean McVay. Nothing fancy. Don’t pull all the tricks out of your bag until you host Green Bay next week.

CHIEFS over Bengals

Can we just suspend Vontaze Burfict forever? I really want to root for this Bengals team but his constant headhunting makes it really difficult.

FALCONS over Giants

I had a really good Odell Beckham Jr. joke for this game but decided against it. Those of you that follow me on Twitter will probably understand why; I should probably take a break from those. Enjoy Week 7 everyone!

Last week: 11-4
Season so far: 55-36-2