We’re three days out from the Minnesota Vikings kicking off the second half of the season with a crucial road game against the Kansas City Chiefs, and there’s one big question on the mind of every Vikings fan:
How will Josh Doctson be incorporated into the offense now that he’s back from Injured Reserve?
OK, OK. I suppose there’s another question that might be slightly more important heading into Sunday’s matchup at Arrowhead: the availability of Patrick Mahomes. The reigning NFL MVP dislocated his right knee cap two weeks ago in a win over the Denver Broncos. As scary as the injury initially appeared, Mahomes practiced on a limited basis Wednesday and hasn’t been ruled out for Sunday’s game yet. Most betting sites don’t have the Vikings and Chiefs on their boards due to the uncertainty surrounding Kansas City’s quarterback situation. Head Coach Andy Reid claimed that they were taking Mahomes “day to day” in his midweek press conference. Mahomes wasn’t exactly going full speed while he was on the practice field.
A lot could change in the next 72 hours, but as of this posting I don’t see Mahomes playing on Sunday. Despite the Chiefs losing three in a row at home and dropping to 5-3 last week against the Packers, they’re still in good shape for the playoffs. Kansas City is the only team above .500 in their division and they are currently enjoying a 1.5 game lead in the AFC West. Ron Kopp Jr. of Arrowhead Pride explained why playoff seeding shouldn’t be all that important to the Chiefs. The Patriots look like they’re going to run away and hide with the top seed in the AFC anyway; why risk a more serious injury to Mahomes if he probably won’t be at full strength this week? Feigning the chances of Mahomes playing for as long as possible is a sound strategy by the Chiefs; it forces the Vikings to devote at least a portion of their preparation to him. If Mahomes defies modern medicine and plays at his usual level just 17 days after a very important part of his knee was in a very wrong spot, much of this preview will be rendered irrelevant. I’m willing to take that chance.
Assuming Matt Moore starts his second straight game doesn’t mean one can assume the Chiefs offense will be significantly worse. Reid is a mad genius when it comes to scheming players open. Despite spotting Green Bay an early 14-0 lead, Moore and the shorthanded Chiefs gave the Packers all they could handle last Sunday night. Aaron Rodgers had to pull a couple amazing throws out of the deepest recesses of his bowels to secure the victory.
Kansas City’s first touchdown in that game was a masterpiece of play design from Reid. The Chiefs faked a jet sweep/shovel pass action twice to Demarcus Robinson and Tyreek Hill. Moore rolled right and found Travis Kelce sneaking behind the defense for one of the easier touchdowns he’ll ever score. You know you called a great play when one of the best tight ends in football is left with a hectare of open space to score.
Even if the Vikings manage to avoid getting caught that badly in coverage, they still have their work cut out for them once the Chiefs skill position players get the ball in their hands. Kansas City currently leads the NFL in yards after catch by a wide margin. They are absolutely loaded with speed at wideout; Sammy Watkins ran a 4.43 40-yard dash at the combine and he’s kind of slow compared to Hill and Mecole Hardman. Tackling will be paramount for the Vikings defense due to the amount of damage the Chiefs receivers can cause after getting the ball.
It appeared that Green Bay’s strategy was to make sure that Kansas City’s burners didn’t get behind the secondary, as they played fairly soft coverage at the line of scrimmage for most of the game. But like using a fire attack against a water type Pokémon, it wasn’t very effective! It just gave Chiefs receivers a running start on several occasions.
Let’s say the Vikings try to employ more bump and run coverage to try and slow down the receivers and throw Moore’s timing off. As Ethan Douglas broke down in meticulous fashion, Moore unsurprisingly had a much shorter average depth of target than Mahomes had through the first seven games. Mahomes is fifth in the league in average intended air yards, so that number was bound to go down with his backup. Taking away Moore’s short and intermediate passes is great in theory, but much more difficult in practice. Eric Kendricks has been playing at an All-Pro level this season, but he won’t be able to handle Kelce’s physicality by himself. If the Minnesota cornerbacks whiff in press coverage, it’s a big play waiting to happen. Even the straight line speed of Trae Waynes might not be enough to catch the likes of Hill and Hardman.
One player that has been associated with whiffs far too often this season is Xavier Rhodes. The #RhodesClosed hashtag has quickly gone from a badge of pride to a symbol of sarcasm on Vikings Twitter. Rhodes is allowing a 124.3 passer rating when targeted and has been flagged for seven penalties through the first half of the season. While Rhodes has historically been underrated by Pro Football Focus, his 47.4 overall grade and 47.5 coverage grade are significantly below his usual scores. Rhodes himself admitted that he’s “hurting the team” after the Washington game.
There’s no doubt that things look bleak for a star player that was an All-Pro just two seasons ago. But don’t start throwing dirt on his career just yet. This thread from Luke Braun of Locked On Vikings shows how Rhodes is having an incredibly frustrating season in many respects, but he isn’t getting beat nearly as badly as the masses would have you believe. (I’m including myself among the masses here; I have been extremely critical of Rhodes during several games only to discover that the final results weren’t as bad as I imagined.) The return of Holton Hill from suspension is certainly welcome, but it will probably take some time for him to get reintroduced in the defense. Rhodes’ days of being a shutdown corner are likely behind him, but I think he can rebound a bit over the second half of the season.
If the Vikings can manage to prevent getting carved up by the Chiefs passing attack, their run game isn’t nearly as daunting. Kansas City has three capable backs: LeSean McCoy, Damien Williams, and Darrel Williams should all see action on Sunday. But they have lacked the explosion that the passing game has enjoyed. The Chiefs currently rank 21st in yards per carry, 21st in rushing DVOA, 24th in explosive running play percentage, and 29th in PFF running grade as a team. The Vikings have generally done well stopping the run this season; if they can prevent chunk plays through the air, they should be in good shape. Pressuring Moore will help ease the pressure on the secondary. Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz might be Danielle Hunter’s toughest test of the entire season, but the rest of the Chiefs offensive line has been rather pedestrian. Everson Griffen and the interior of the defensive line could make some noise on Sunday, especially if left tackle Eric Fisher remains sidelined. Fisher hasn’t played since Week 2 and didn’t participate in practice on Wednesday; Cameron Erving has struggled in his stead.
The Vikings pass rush is a well-known strength, but the Chiefs have improved quite a bit in that area as of late. The Chiefs have racked up 14 sacks over the past two games. For the season, Kansas City now has more sacks (25) and a higher adjusted sack rate (8.7%) than Minnesota (23 and 8.3% respectively). They’re blitzing a lot to create some that pressure though. Over the past three weeks, the Chiefs have blitzed on 34.6% of opponent dropbacks. Mike Zimmer is anticipating more blitzing from Steve Spagnuolo’s defense this week. The Vikings struggled a bit with the Redskins blitz last week, especially in the red zone. They’ll need to adjust and get the ball out quickly to prevent drive-ending sacks when the Chiefs bring extra rushers. Matthew Coller of SKOR North wrote about how Cousins has generally performed well when opponents blitz.
Another great way to counteract the Chiefs blitzing: running the ball, running some more, and then running even more for good measure. One of the Vikings’ greatest strengths—pounding the rock with Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison—happens to be one of the Chiefs’ greatest weaknesses. Kansas City really struggles stopping the run. They’re 30th in rushing yards allowed and yards per carry allowed. They’re dead last in PFF run defense grade and 30th in rush defense DVOA. After watching film of the Chiefs run defense, I noticed that they appear to be especially susceptible to runs out of shotgun. Both the Texans and Packers had a lot of success with it. It’s not something that the Vikings have typically employed this season, but it could be a wrinkle that Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak may look to add this week.
The Vikings shouldn’t have much trouble running from under center either. Only two teams have allowed more runs of ten or more yards than the Chiefs. Guess which team has the most runs of ten or more yards? You got it—the team visiting Arrowhead on Sunday.
The dynamic ground game is just a piece of the offensive renaissance the Vikings have enjoyed lately; they have found a lot more balance over the course of their four game winning streak. Stefanski’s play calling has been rightfully lauded. While the plays he has been dialing up have been important, a big reason for the offensive turnaround has been a change in tendencies.
Dan Pizzuta of Sharp Football Analysis had an eye-opening statistical breakdown of Minnesota’s run/pass tendencies from different personnel groupings between the first four games and the most recent four games this season. The Vikings used 11 personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end, 3 wide receivers) on only 20% of their snaps in October. For the season, they have now used the grouping on 10% fewer snaps than the next lowest team. But the largest adjustment to the game plan is what the Vikings are doing out of each personnel package. They’re passing about 15% more out of sets that include multiple running backs and tight ends while running about 15% more out of formations with three receivers. As a result, Cook is facing eight-man boxes almost 15% less often than the first four games. The Vikings use a lot of pre-snap motion when running out of 11 personnel to try and catch the defense leaning a certain direction. Cook is already averaging 3.35 yards after contact per attempt and is tied for third most avoided tackles in the NFL according to PFF. Giving him extra space against a defense that’s scrambling to adjust is downright deadly.
One of the my main tenets of football philosophy revolves around predictability. In today’s NFL, you’re dead in the water if you can’t consistently keep your opponent guessing. The Vikings have been much better at being unpredictable over the past month, and it’s paying dividends in the standings.
The mini-bye after the Thursday night game is also paying dividends on the injury report. Adam Thielen was the only limited participant on Wednesday and it sounds like he’s on track to return this week. The Chiefs are getting a bit healthier, but they still have some key players sitting out.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t all good news for the Vikings during their extra days off. The big story from the long weekend was “Kearse Caught Carrying in Construction Cones while Hughes Spews from Booze.” Jayron Kearse had already seen his defensive snaps reduced to zero the past two games. It’s hard to imagine him seeing an uptick in action if he even remains on the team after an incident that Zimmer called “idiotic.” Mike Hughes wasn’t charged with anything, but we’ll see if his involvement affects his playing time. Hughes has been averaging 33.5 defensive snaps per game since his season debut in Week 3. Even if the the final fallout isn’t substantial, it was an unnecessary setback at the end of an otherwise stellar month for the team.
With a tough back half of the schedule, the Vikings can ill afford setbacks on the field if they want to stay in contention for an NFC North title or Wild Card spot. The Chiefs are only 1-3 at home this season but Kansas City is always a daunting place to play. I’m thrilled that I will be in attendance for this one; the reputation of the noise and atmosphere in Arrowhead Stadium put it high on my bucket list of football experiences. The Vikings have lost their last four visits to Arrowhead. In fact, their lone road win against the Chiefs was the first time they visited 45 years ago. When the 2019 schedule was first released, even the most optimistic Vikings fans were’t feeling great about this game. With Mahomes’ injury and the Vikings’ recent surge, the tune has definitely changed. A loss on Sunday would now be considered a letdown after a perfect month of football.
That said, Matt is “Moore” than capable of leading his team to a win if the Vikings aren’t on top of their game. Kansas City still has an incredible arsenal of offensive weapons and a coach that has been finding creative ways to get the ball to his playmakers for two decades. Regardless of who might be under center, it’s impossible for a defense to pitch a perfect game against a Reid offense. The Vikings are going to allow at least a few big plays; it’s going to come down to how well they limit the damage.
Ultimately, I think the Vikings will make enough big plays of their own. Many of their offensive strengths match up well with the Chiefs’ defensive shortcomings. Cook and Mattison seem poised for big days, which should allow Minnesota to control the clock and dictate the pace of the game. (Provided they take care of the ball when Kansas City sends extra pressure, of course.) We should be in for a closely contested battle Sunday afternoon; I’m ready to watch Vikings to add one Moore to their win column in person.
Vikings 27, Chiefs 24
And now for the rest of my Week 9 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
49ers over CARDINALS
Getting my undefeated survivor pool pick out of the way on Thursday for the second straight week. Picking the road team on a short week in a divisional game is always risky, but Nick Bosa and the rest of the San Francisco defense are downright scary. Plus, I’m very upset with the Cardinals running backs. I picked up Chase Edmonds on one of my fantasy teams in case David Johnson got hurt. Now it looks like neither of them will play and someone else already has Kenyan Drake. Sigh.
Jaguars over Texans (in London)
It’s the AFC South and a London game. Total crapshoot. I’ll go with the team that plays in London every year.
BILLS over Redskins
Despite their records, Buffalo is only four slots ahead of Washington in DVOA. The Bills got exposed a bit last week, but they should do just fine against a team that might be led by Dwayne Haskins Jr.
EAGLES over Bears
Matt Nagy after Chicago’s Week 7 loss when they ran the ball only seven times: “I’m not stupid.” Then he proceeded to tempt fate by not even trying to get closer than 41 yards for a game-winning kick in Week 8. Talk about your all-time foreshadowing!
PANTHERS over Titans
Really good matchups are hailed as “Super Bowl previews” and really bad matchups are derided as “Toilet Bowls.” Can we call this game the “Meh Bowl”?
Colts over STEELERS
Pittsburgh appears to be figuring some things out lately, and Indianapolis barely escaped at home against Oakland last week. But spotting Miami a 14-0 lead is unforgivable. Even though they scored the last 27 points on Monday, I can’t pick the Steelers after that.
Jets over DOLPHINS
If you die and this game is being shown on every TV in the afterlife, I think you can be pretty certain you ended up in The Bad Place.
Lions over RAIDERS
Is it just me, or is this game...kind of intriguing? I never thought I’d say that about a game that featured Matthew Stafford and Derek Carr.
SEAHAWKS over Buccaneers
Who will throw more touchdowns to Seahawks players: Russell Wilson or Jameis Winston?
Browns over BRONCOS
Denver’s defense has been playing really well for the past month. Cleveland’s offense has been a huge disappointment all season and Baker Mayfield had another dust-up with the press on Wednesday. Joe Flacco is out, but are we sure that Brandon Allen is a big downgrade? I want to take the home underdog so bad here, but I think the flames engulfing Cleveland’s once promising season will be contained, if only for a week.
Packers over CHARGERS
We technically have to call Los Angeles the home team here, but I bet the crowd is going to be about 80% Cheeseheads for this one.
Patriots over RAVENS
It only took half the season, but New England actually has a formidable opponent! I’m still sticking with them until proven otherwise though.
Cowboys over GIANTS
Let’s get that confidence level in Jason Garrett way up there before the Vikings bring it crashing back down next week.
Last week: 14-1
Season so far: 80-40-1