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Vikings vs. Redskins Week 8 Preview: A Dish Best Served Hot

Kirk Cousins is facing his former team for the first time, and they’re in rough shape. Can he and the Vikings dispel their primetime reputations and stay on a roll?

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NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Detroit Lions
Cousins faces his former team for the first time on Thursday.
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Thursday night’s game between the 5-2 Minnesota Vikings and the 1-6 Washington Redskins doesn’t exactly have “marquee matchup” written all over it.

The Vikings are currently 16-point home favorites. Minnesota has averaged 480 yards of offense and 36 points per game during their current three-game win streak. They have scored 28 or more points in each of their five wins this season. Meanwhile, Washington has averaged 233 yards of offense and 8 points per game over the past three weeks, even though one of those games was their lone victory of the season. They haven’t scored 28 points in a game yet this season. On paper, this looks like an extremely lopsided contest.

Until you throw in the narratives, that is! This game makes up for its lack of perceived substance with a bevy of clichéd storylines. For instance, do you like “revenge games”? Then you’re in luck! Did you know that Kirk Cousins is facing the team that drafted him in the fourth round back in 2012? The Redskins even drafted another quarterback three rounds before him that year, but Cousins ended up playing a lot more games for them—strange but true! Washington also gave Cousins a bunch of money in the form of franchise tags, but they chose not to keep him long term. He could still be slightly bitter about that! [Spoiler alert: he isn’t.] Cousins even created a corny catch phrase after a big comeback in Washington four years ago. We still use “like that” in headlines pertaining to Cousins to this day!

But wait, there’s more! Cousins is just the tip of the “revenge game” spear. The opposing quarterback will also be playing the first game against his old team. Case Keenum will be playing at U.S. Bank Stadium for the first time since the 2017 divisional playoffs. That game was pretty memorable! But Stefon Diggs, who caught the Minneapolis Miracle from Keenum, might not even have a “moment” with him after the game—controversial! [Spoiler alert: not really.]

The icing on the “revenge game” cake Thursday night is Adrian Peterson. Over 86% of AP’s 13,625 career rushing yards came in a Vikings uniform. He already came back a couple years ago with New Orleans, but he returns as feature back for the first time this week. (AP says he should be good to go on Thursday despite an ankle injury. If he isn’t and Chris Thompson remains sidelined for another week, get ready to see a lot of Wendell Smallwood.) While you could manufacture some controversy with Cousins and Keenum and their old teams, AP left Minnesota on completely amicable terms. Noooope, nothing contentious clouding the end of his tenure with the Vikings. Not one thing.

Maybe flimsily manufactured stories about players giving awkward hugs to former teammates isn’t your thing. There are still other narratives, like Cousins being bad in primetime! Did you know that he has a combined 1-12 record on Thursday and Monday games? [Oh, you did because it’s brought up every single time he’s about to play in a primetime game? Makes sense.] Cousins has looked amazing over the past three games, but those were all noon Sunday kickoffs. He always wilts under the national spotlight! Plus he’s playing for the Vikings, a team that has gone 11-22 in primetime over the past ten seasons. Mike Zimmer has a .603 career winning percentage as a head coach, yet he’s only 8-9 in night games.

If you aren’t convinced that Cousins and the Vikings are doomed yet, allow me to bring up the last time they were such big favorites at home: last year against the Bills.

Now that we have covered the frivolous theories of how this game could go sideways for the Vikings, let’s talk ourselves off the ledge by breaking down the actual football that both teams are playing. Unsurprisingly, Minnesota and Washington are on opposite ends of the spectrum in both raw statistics and analytic measures. The Vikings are third in the NFL in point differential; the Redskins are 30th. The Vikings are in the top eight in yards per drive, points per drive, and scoring drive percentage; the Redskins are 30th in each category. The Vikings are third in yards per play and net yards per attempt; the Redskins are 29th in both. The Vikings have the second highest overall PFF grade and the sixth highest overall DVOA; once again, the Redskins rank 29th in both. Vegas made the spread that high for a reason.

The gulf between the two teams is most pronounced on offense. Washington has lacked any semblance of consistency on that side of the ball. Three different quarterbacks have taken snaps this year. Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams has held out the entire season and is one of the top names on every trade rumor list as next week’s deadline approaches. You think Dalvin Cook had a rough time with injuries over the first two years of his NFL career? Washington’s Derrius Guice has touched the ball 13 times through his first two seasons. Jeremy Sprinkle will likely be their main tight end on Thursday because Jordan Reed hasn’t played all season and Vernon Davis has been out since Week 4. Keenum and the Washington offense has looked completely out of sorts fairly often, even against the league’s worst competition.

Simply put, the Redskins offense has been abysmal for most of the season. Washington has had maybe five decent quarters of offensive football all year:

  • The first half of the opening game against the Eagles, which is becoming less impressive by the week since everybody is throwing for a million yards on them.
  • The third quarter of their Monday night game against the Bears, where Keenum temporarily stopped giving the ball away and tried to dig out of a 28-0 hole he had helped put them in.
  • The second and third quarters of their win against the Dolphins. Which, you know, was against the freaking Dolphins.

There’s an outside chance that Washington’s offense isn’t quite as bad as they look on tape. We probably won’t see a repeat of three of their awful performances for various reasons. In their loss to the Giants, Jay Gruden threw the completely ill-prepared Dwayne Haskins Jr. into the deep end halfway through the second quarter. He never stood a chance. Colt McCoy was their quarterback on the road in New England; he stood even less of a chance. Last week against the 49ers, FedEx Field was literally a slip-n-slide. Nobody was moving the ball in that weather, especially against one of the league’s best defenses.

Despite all the injuries, turnovers, and turmoil, the Washington offense does have one bright spot in rookie wide receiver Terry McLaurin. The third round pick out of Ohio State leads the team with 419 yards and five touchdowns. He has tons of speed and can go up and get contested catches. McLaurin could pose a problem to a Vikings secondary that hasn’t performed especially well over the past couple games.

Washington’s pass blocking has been pretty mediocre, but the Vikings know firsthand how Keenum can extend plays and find receivers for big gains. Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter will likely add to their impressive pressure totals against Donald Penn and Morgan Moses, but they’ll need to make sure to finish off those plays when they get to Keenum.

Interim head coach Bill Callahan has made a significant effort to establish the run since taking over. While weather and game script have admittedly played a part, Washington has run on 60% of their snaps in his two games at the helm. AP has shown a few remnants of what made him so great in Minnesota since taking over as the bell cow back, gaining 199 yards at a 4.6 yard per carry clip over the past two weeks.

I hope you’re sitting down for this, but Peterson has been a non-factor in the passing game. He has only five catches for 22 yards and still struggles with pass blocking. Nearly two-thirds of his 155 snaps have been run plays. The best thing you can be in today’s NFL is unpredictable, and the Redskins are pretty predictable when AP is on the field.

Washington’s predictability doesn’t end with Peterson either. While Callahan has mixed up the formations and tendencies a bit since taking over for Gruden, the Redskins are still passing about 70% of the time they have three or more receivers and running about 70% of the time when they have an extra tight end or running back according to Sharp Football.

Mixing up the play calling is every bit as important as mixing up your tendencies. In my recap of the biggest plays from Lions game, I illustrated how the Vikings scored two touchdowns on what was basically the same play design with different players. Nick Olson pointed out how the inverse can be just as effective: running completely different plays out of the same look and game situation.

Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak have been giving a Ph.D course in play calling and design over the past few weeks. By contrast, this is what the Redskins did on a key 4th & 1 play last week:

A run up the gut with zero pre-snap motion and a predictable result. Putting your players in a position to succeed is paramount, and there simply hasn’t been enough of that from Washington this season. Even with the recent defensive hiccups by the Vikings, it’s hard to envision the Redskins consistently moving the ball on Thursday night.

The Vikings have been moving the ball seemingly at will during their win streak. In this quick breakdown, Brian Baldinger shows how the success of Minnesota’s offense stems from the the outside zone run:

It’s no surprise that an increased amount of play action has coincided with the offensive outburst. The Vikings have used play action on a whopping 46% of dropbacks over the past three weeks. Cousins is now behind only Jacoby Brissett in play action frequency and he has an NFL-best 140.8 quarterback rating when throwing from it. Again, keeping the opponent guessing is key, and that’s exactly what the Vikings offense has been doing for the better part of a month.

Things aren’t quite as bleak for Washington on the defensive side of the ball. Most of their metrics are a bit more removed from the bottom of the league. Their front seven is solid, albeit a bit undistinguished. First round pick Montez Sweat has had some splash plays along with some rookie growing pains. Ryan Kerrigan isn’t what he used to be but he can still get to the quarterback. The Vikings will have to continue to execute at a high level to avoid potential game-changing mistakes.

The Washington secondary has some bright spots as well. Landon Collins is a strong veteran presence at safety. Quinton Dunbar is having a career year and is actually Pro Football Focus’ highest graded cornerback in the NFL. He has three interceptions and ten defensive stops on the season, which has helped contribute to a paltry 34.3 quarterback rating when targeted. Adam Thielen is at risk to miss the game with a hamstring injury; if he can’t go, it will be more straightforward for Dunbar and Washington to try and slow down Diggs. Thankfully, we finally saw the emergence of Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith Jr. in the passing game last week after Thielen went down. Olabisi Johnson has been producing every time he’s called upon since Training Camp in August; Sam Ekstrom and Luke Inman of Zone Coverage detailed how he stepped up against the Lions in Week 7. It looks like Josh Norman could miss the game Thursday. Even if he plays, this hasn’t exactly been a banner season for him. The idea of being down one of the two stars at wideout is a little less frightening after what we saw in Detroit.

As Mark Craig of the Star Tribune pointed out on Tuesday, Cousins has a chance to go over .500 as a starter for the first time since he started his career 1-0. Yes, he has been traditionally bad in nationally televised games. Yes, the Redskins have a handful of decent weapons and nothing to lose outside of a couple slots in the 2020 draft. Yes, this game is such a trap game that it can’t be a trap game because everyone is so painfully aware that it’s a trap game. But the Vikings are at home, they’re more talented, and they look to be much healthier. Good teams take care of business in situations like this. They have found their identity over the past three weeks, and it certainly appears to be the identity of a good team.

Although it’s hard to resist, we shouldn’t be quick to judge modern NFL teams through the first month of the season. This is especially true for teams with new coaches and systems. With increased limitations on preseason practice time, teams often take a while to get up to speed. Stefanski and Kubiak appear to have worked out the kinks that hindered them early on. Should we expect the Vikings to put up 30 points and 450 yards week in and week out? Of course not. Cousins has had hot streaks like this come to a crashing halt before. His highs are something to behold, but his lows can be equally mystifying. That said, I think the offense we have seen in October should be much closer to what the Vikings will be going forward.

I believe that the Vikings will look good and play good in their “Primetime Purple” uniforms to hit the halfway point of the 2019 season at 6-2. In fact, I’m so convinced that I’m putting my 7-0 survivor pool pick on the line with them this week. If we’re going to take care of a few tired narratives this week, I’m going to throw in my infamous jinxing powers as well.

(I can already hear some of you screaming “NOOOOO!” at your screens. Deal with it.)


Vikings 31, Redskins 13

And now for the rest of my Week 8 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

Seahawks over FALCONS

It appears that the Falcons have started packing it in to relieve some cap space for the coach that replaces Dan Quinn. They traded away Mohamed Sanu to New England for a second round pick, even though they already helped the Patriots win one Super Bowl.

Eagles over BILLS

Philadelphia might be past the point of no return with their awful secondary. But Buffalo looked pretty suspect eking out a win over Miami last week and Philly’s season might be on the line here, so I’m taking the upset.

BEARS over Chargers

Chicago might be past the point of no return with Mitchell Trubisky, but the Chargers simply cannot be stopped when it comes to giving away games. Their weekly collapses have literally become predictable.

Rams over Bengals (in London)

Cincinnati visits Miami in Week 16. It looks like Tua Tagovailoa might learn where he’s living in 2020 that day.

COLTS over Broncos

Which former playing legend is worse at running a team and evaluating talent at his former position post-retirement: John Elway or Michael Jordan?

LIONS over Giants

At least Giants fans are used to first round quarterbacks that constantly give the ball to the other team. It seems like the Lions could be in Seller Mode with the Quandre Diggs trade that wasn’t received very well by certain members of the team, but I still think they have the better squad in this one.

TITANS over Buccaneers

I don’t trust either team, but Ryan Tannehill looked pretty competent last week so I’ll pick them and then go right back to not caring about this game at all.

SAINTS over Cardinals

The “should the Saints stick with Teddy Bridgewater when Drew Brees is healthy?” takes have officially arrived! I mean, they’re pretty ridiculous, but it’s still great to see our old pal 5-0 as a starter. (Even if it is for one of our least favorite teams.)

JAGUARS over Jets

Sam Darnold admitted to “seeing ghosts” after New York’s embarrassing loss to New England on Monday night. It was a harmless comment, and actually kind of insightful, but Adam Gase decided to blow it up into a huge story. Now there will be hundreds of Jaguars fans dressed up as ghosts in Jacksonville this weekend. Great job, coach!

49ERS over Panthers

Cam Newton is out and this still might be the best matchup of the week. Did not see that one coming.

PATRIOTS over Browns

This was supposed to be New England’s first major test since the Buffalo game. I guess it could be, but do you trust Freddie Kitchens to keep up with Bill Belichick? I certainly don’t.

TEXANS over Raiders

I really wanted to go with the upset here; Oakland quietly moved the ball at will in Green Bay last week. But Derek Carr always seems to do his best Chargers impression at the worst possible time, so I’ll stick with Houston.

Packers over CHIEFS

I hope the Packers fans in attendance don’t leave too much of a stench at Arrowhead for those of us traveling to Kansas City next weekend. KC’s defense finally decided to show up last week. Unfortunately, Patrick Mahomes is out and MVP-level Aaron Rodgers also decided to show up last week. Looks like the Vikings will remain a game back in the division standings.

STEELERS over Dolphins

It’s time for this week’s edition of “How Bad are the Dolphins?”

Mason Rudolph has looked pretty bad and lots of Steelers fans think that third-string rookie Devlin Hodges should be the starter going forward. The 2-4 Steelers are still favored by two touchdowns on Monday.

That’s how bad the Dolphins are!

Last week: 10-4
Season so far: 66-39-1