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Vikings at Rams Preview: Changing Perspective

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The Vikings have received a couple of jarring reality checks in recent days. Can they rebound on a short week to hang with one of the league’s best teams on the road?

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NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Minnesota Vikings
We love you, Griff.
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

For most of my weekly game previews, I like to start my articles with some sort of ice-breaking attempt at being clever. (“Attempt” usually being the operative word.) Whether it’s a personal anecdote, a quasi-comedic theme I try to weave throughout the preview, or even a song parody, I usually make an effort to keep things lighthearted before delving into the football.

This week, it doesn’t feel right.

Not because of the egg that the Vikings laid this past Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium against the formerly winless Bills. If anything, I usually ramp up the comedy and snark after a particularly bad loss; reading most of my articles from the 2013 season will confirm that. It doesn’t feel appropriate because of the ongoing situation with star defensive end Everson Griffen.

By now you have likely heard about the sad and bizarre series of incidents revolving around Griffen last weekend. While there have been countless rumors and innuendo swirling around the internet, especially Twitter, here are some of the aspects of the story that have been vetted by some of the most reliable reporters in the area:

There are lots of other details, but that is a high-level overview of what has apparently unfolded over the past few days. For purposes of this article, the minutiae of exactly what happened isn’t the important part here. What matters is that one of the Vikings’ star players appears to be struggling with a pretty significant mental health issue.

(An important side note: When you are looking for more details about this story, please carefully consider the source first. We recommend sticking to well-trusted journalists that are known for carefully covering the team. For example: the Star Tribune, Pioneer Press, and The Athletic beat writers; Courtney Cronin of ESPN; Tom Pelissero of NFL Network; and the reporters at KSTP. That isn’t intended to be an exclusive list. We’re just warning you to be aware of where you’re getting your information before blindly retweeting and speculating on unfounded rumors.)

Everson Griffen has always been one of my favorite athletes to cover since I started getting access to the team. His energy and enthusiasm is infectious. He has been a quote machine and quite literally a vocal leader throughout his career. Anyone that has ever been within earshot of a Vikings practice for most of the past decade has undoubtedly heard Griffen’s distinctive voice bellowing above the bustle at a mile a minute. Watching Griffen joyously interact with his family after practices is always one of the highlights of every Training Camp.

It’s extremely eye opening when someone as seemingly care-free and easy going as Griffen has personal struggles like this. His NFL Films “Mic’d Up” segment from Week 1 portrays the Griffen we have come to know and love over the years—a loquacious and passionate player that appears to love what he does. It goes to show that mental health is a battle for more people than we know, and it’s often a battle we don’t see. Everson is obviously going through a very difficult period right now. Hopefully he gets the help he needs, regardless of what it means to his future with the Vikings. Seeing Griffen back in purple is secondary. We just want to see him OK.

Knowing what we know now, seeing how the game unfolded last Sunday is a bit less surprising. It looked like the Vikings were wholly unprepared for the Bills, who took advantage of early mistakes and established a big lead that they never relinquished. It’s hard to imagine that Griffen’s dilemma didn’t have at least some impact on the game, but the fact remains that the Vikings let a very winnable game get away from them.

The offensive line was atrocious against the Bills, giving up 29 total pressures according to Pro Football Focus. Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers were the main culprits as they were credited with 20 pressures between them. It’s hard to excel at the quarterback position when you’re under pressure on the majority of your dropbacks. Forty-five of the 55 passes Kirk Cousins threw against Buffalo were ten yards or less past the line of scrimmage. Falling behind early with a shaky offensive line can make a Bradford out of anyone. But Cousins didn’t have a particularly good game even when given time to throw. Arif had a thorough film breakdown on The Athletic of how Cousins missed a handful of opportunities for big gains. Some of the examples he used were more nuanced; some of them were clear as day on the broadcast. On Minnesota’s second play from scrimmage, Stefon Diggs juked Tre’Davious White out of his zip code, yet Cousins sailed the open pass. The very next play was the first strip sack that put the Vikings behind by double digits for the rest of the afternoon.

Cousins still ended up with decent final stats, but the vast majority of his numbers were accumulated with the game well out of reach. Again, nobody involved with the offense had a banner performance, including John DeFilippo, so pinpointing the biggest culprit for their woes is a bit of a chicken/egg proposition. The bottom line is that the Vikings need to be much more efficient on that side of the ball when they take the field on Thursday night.

Efficiency has been hard to come by thus far against the Rams defense. They have allowed a league-best 36 points through three games. The gigantic investments they made on that side of the ball in the offseason have paid dividends. Putting Ndamukong Suh and Aaron Donald together in the middle is something that can usually only be dreamed up on Madden. Yet there they both are on the Rams, constantly wreaking havoc in the middle. Throw in Michael Brockers and you have one of the more lethal defensive line combinations in the league.

The secondary has a bunch of shiny new toys as well. However, a couple of them will be left on the shelf Thursday. Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib are both going to miss the game. While losing those two definitely hurts, the secondary toy chest isn’t completely bare without them. The aptly named Nickell Robey-Coleman is one of the best slot defenders around and Vikings should be familiar with Sam Shields’ work from his Green Bay days.

Perhaps the Vikings will try going with more big sets on Thursday to give the struggling offensive line more help against the behemoths on the Rams D-line. (The return of David Morgan to the lineup would be crucial for this; it’s definitely something to keep an eye on as kickoff approaches.) It would leave fewer players to run routes, but you would still have to like the chances of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen getting open against backups. Los Angeles’ linebacking corps lacks the luminaries of the other areas of their defense. Minnesota could try to exploit the Rams in that area with quick slants and crossing routes. It would ease the burden on the line and make Cousins more comfortable.

The Rams will try everything they can to make Cousins anything but comfortable, and they have someone who probably has a good idea of how to do so. Head Coach Sean McVay was Cousins’ Offensive Coordinator in Washington and is acutely aware of his former quarterback’s strengths and weaknesses. I would expect Wade Phillips to dial up pressure early and often to get Cousins off his spot and force more mistakes. Pat Elflein is slated to return to the starting lineup, but Reiff is at risk of missing the game with a foot injury. A five-man unit that hasn’t played together at all going against the Rams’ front is a frightening proposition. If the Vikings fall behind early and become one-dimensional again, it could get ugly in a hurry.

And do the Rams ever have the ability to make opponents fall behind in a hurry. Their offense is putting up “Greatest Show On Turf” levels of production. They have scored on over half their drives this year while punting only five times. Todd Gurley II already has 376 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns. (Having him on both of my fantasy teams has been enjoyable.) Jared Goff also has the luxury of three reliable targets in the passing game—Robert Woods, Brandin Cooks, and Cooper Kupp. Gurley and the trio of receivers have combined for 81.2% of the team’s total touches, 86.2% of their yards from scrimmage, 88.1% of the targets, and 90.1% of the receptions. That distribution shouldn’t be too surprising since Los Angeles has operated almost exclusively (98% of their snaps) out of “11” personnel this season—1 running back, 1 tight end, and 3 wide receivers.

While the Rams may lack variety in their personnel groupings, they still show a lot of different looks with their formations and motion. McVay has skyrocketed to coaching stardom by consistently putting Goff in great positions to succeed. Los Angeles uses a lot of tight and bunch formations to get receivers open for easy completions. That said, it isn’t all scheme. Goff has made some impressive throws into tight windows in his third NFL season. His improvement even from when the Vikings saw him Week 11 of last season is noticeable.

On top of improved quarterback play and excellent skill position players, the Rams offensive line has been equally impressive this season. Andrew Whitworth and Rob Havenstein are tackles that Vikings fans would kill to have in purple, and our old friend John Sullivan is still chugging along as a reliable center in his 11th year in the league. After watching tape on the Rams, the player that may have stood out the most on their line is right guard Austin Blythe. The third year player out of Iowa has been a revelation this season. He is a big reason why Gurley is averaging 5.8 yards per attempt running up the middle right and a whopping 8.6 yards per attempt off right tackle per Pro Football Focus. His pass blocking has been even more impressive. Sheldon Richardson and Stephen Weatherly will need to be at the top of their games if they hope to get to Goff on Thursday.

The Los Angeles offense hasn’t exactly come out of nowhere this year either. Goff and the Rams were the league’s best offense coming into last year’s meeting against the Vikings, yet they were held scoreless after a touchdown on the opening drive. The question is whether Minnesota’s defense can be as dominant as they were a year ago. Their performance so far in 2018 has left some serious doubts. Blown coverages, miscommunications, and uncharacteristic mistakes have prevented the Vikings defense from consistently performing at a level that one would expect from such a talented group.

Outside of the mistakes that led to huge chunk gains and the scoring drives due to short fields, the defense actually wasn’t all that bad against the Bills. (Which is a lot like asking Mrs. Lincoln how the play was, but I digress.) They held Buffalo scoreless in the second half and gave the offense a handful of opportunities to at least make the game interesting (that obviously never panned out). But to slow down an offense as dynamic as the Rams, “not all that bad” isn’t going to cut it. The Vikings defense will need to play their best 60 minutes of the season to pull off the upset. That means fewer penalties and mental mistakes with more splash plays that help flip the field for the offense.

The Vikings could surprisingly have an advantage in the kicking game on Thursday. Greg Zuerlein will miss the game and Sam Ficken missed his only field goal attempt last week. Meanwhile, we’re pretty sure Dan Bailey is still good—we just haven’t seen him do anything other than a touchback and a perfectly executed (yet failed) onside kick. As for the rest of the special teams? Not so much. The Vikings have been an abject disaster in that phase this season, riddled with penalties and poor execution throughout. Mike Priefer needs to get his charges playing much better in a hurry or risk questions about his job security going forward.

With the out-of-nowhere stories away from the field and the surprising disappointment on it, the 2018 season is starting to stir some bad recollections of 2010. That team was also coming off a crushing loss in the NFC Championship Game with a supposed savior quarterback and a stacked roster poised to make another run at a title. I don’t think the Vikings leadership will let this season go off the rails like Brad Childress & company did eight years ago, and I’m pretty sure the roof at U.S. Bank Stadium is in good shape, but the parallels are starting to form. The Vikings need to right the proverbial longship soon before their goals start slipping away from them.

As much as I want to envision the Vikings rallying around their troubled teammate and pulling off an emotional upset to rebound from last week’s disaster, it’s going to be extremely tough to accomplish. The Rams are currently the biggest favorite to win the Super Bowl by a fairly large margin, with good reason. They are also #1 in DVOA by a fairly large margin. They have looked like an absolute juggernaut through three weeks and show no signs of slowing down.

I think Minnesota can at least slow L.A. down, especially if a couple of the key matchups we discussed go their way. The Rams probably aren’t quite as great as the numbers would indicate since their first two games were against the lowly Raiders and Cardinals. But the Rams probably have too much firepower in the end. At this point, the Vikings need to make sure they’re getting better every week so they can get back to a level where they can realize their potential. There’s a long tough road ahead, and it starts by showing improvement this week.

You could probably say the same for Everson Griffen. Get well, Griff. We’ll be rooting for you even harder than we’ll be rooting for a W on Thursday night.

Prediction

Rams 24, Vikings 17


And now for the rest of my Week 4 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

FALCONS over Bengals

These two teams might want to agree to a tie before kickoff and skip the game altogether so no more of their key players get hurt.

PACKERS over Bills

As Green Bay and Minnesota were simultaneously suffering upsets last week, fans of each team could claim “well at least the [Vikings/Packers] are losing too.” Sadly, I don’t think we’ll get that this week. Instead we’ll be probably saying, “where the hell was THAT Josh Allen last Sunday?”

BEARS over Buccaneers

Chicago is leading the division and I’m still not convinced that they have a quarterback. THANKS A LOT JON GRUDEN.

Lions over COWBOYS

Matt Patricia might have started to learn how to coach. Dallas still hasn’t learned that you need wide receivers to consistently win games in today’s NFL. I’ll take Detroit.

Eagles over TITANS

Tennessee’s defense might actually be legit this season. But Philly’s roster as a whole is still more legit.

COLTS over Texans

Indy was a dumpster fire and they still swept Houston last year. In fact, the Colts are 25-7 all-time against their division rival. So I’ll keep picking them until the Texans can protect DeShaun Watson for longer than a nanosecond.

PATRIOTS over Dolphins

There have already been a few “we always say the Patriots are done, but are they REALLY done this time?” articles trickling out this week. If they lose at home and fall effectively 3.5 games behind the Dolphins before October, I’ll start giving that notion some credence. But we have seen this before from the notoriously slow-starting Pats.

JAGUARS over Jets

My Survivor Pool pick of the week, which is already twice dead at 1-2 on the season. Sorry, Jacksonville. Looks like Sam Darnold is leaving town with a W now that I jinxed you.

Browns over RAIDERS

It has been over 1,400 days since the Browns won back-to-back games. But it has been almost 3,600 days since Jon Gruden won a single game. In Baker Mayfield we trust!

Seahawks over CARDINALS

Sorry, Arizona. We didn’t mean to expose you as the undisputed worst team in the NFL last week. Although you kind of brought it on yourself by allowing Mitchell Trubisky to stage a slow and plodding 14-point comeback.

Saints over GIANTS

I actually enjoy watching Michael Thomas play. But does he really have to catch 15 passes on 17 targets every game while we’re pretending to be happy about Laquon Treadwell finally getting to four in a game last week? That’s kinda rude in my opinion.

CHARGERS over 49ers

Like the 2017 Vikings, the Niners have lost their QB1 and RB1 before the quarter mark of the season. Unlike the 2017 Vikings, they don’t have an incredible defense to fall back on, and I doubt that C.J. Beathard can be the next Case Keenum.

STEELERS over Ravens

It looks like Pittsburgh might be OK after all. Sigh. I was kind of enjoying all the drama.

Chiefs over BRONCOS

I want to see someone hold Kansas City to under 38 points before I pick against them. Of course, with KC’s defense, you don’t necessarily have to do so to beat them, but still.

Last week: 8-8
Season so far: 27-19-2