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Vikings vs. Broncos Week 11 Preview: No Style Points

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Sunday’s game against Denver might be tough to watch at times, but all the Vikings need to do is get a win before the bye and a tough final stretch.

Cleveland Browns v Denver Broncos
Fact: Brandon Allen has won NFL every game he has ever started. The Vikings will look to change that on Sunday.
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Imagine winning the Powerball but bitching about how you only get barely half the jackpot after taxes.

Or receiving a certified pre-owned Lexus from your parents for for your 16th birthday, but getting upset because the car had 20,000 miles on it instead of being brand new.

Or bringing home the puppy your kids have been asking about for years, only to have them recoil in disgust because the dog’s fur wasn’t the shade of brown they wanted.

Or finally getting that big bonus at work but getting hung up on the fact that Karen in accounting still gets to park three spaces closer than you.

Seems petty to pore over the trivial details of an otherwise momentous occasion, right?

Well, that’s exactly what happened for a surprisingly large portion of Vikings fans after Sunday’s thrilling 28-24 victory over the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday night. Sure, Kirk Cousins and the Vikings won a road game against a winning team in prime time, an event so rare that it makes blue moons feel like a weekly occurrence. But the secondary didn’t look very good! If Mike Zimmer is supposed to be this defensive genius, why are they giving up all these yards and points? The offense had a chance to put the game away late but they couldn’t! So what if Dallas had the #1 offense in the league and the Vikings shut down Ezekiel Elliott? Some of the things they did weren’t reflective of what most Super Bowl teams do! Why should we get that excited about one lousy win over the underachieving Cowboys?

It sounds wild, but I had dozens upon dozens of Twitter replies and mentions Sunday night that were various permutations of “sure, the Vikings won and that’s nice, BUT...” I understand that there are still plenty of issues this team needs to address if they’re going to make a deep playoff run. As Vikings fans we’re perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop, because it always drops eventually. But man, NFL wins are hard to come by. If you can’t stop and enjoy the pleasant moments during the season, how are you able to endure the inevitable heartbreak?

With the 3-6 Denver Broncos coming to town this weekend, many fans want to see a “statement win” at U.S. Bank Stadium. If the Vikings are going to be true contenders, they need to dominate games like this to make the rest of the league take notice.

If you’re of that mindset, I’m afraid I have some bad news: I don’t see the Vikings coasting to a blowout victory on Sunday.

Denver’s defense has simply been playing too well for them to get steamrolled, even on the road against an offense as efficient as Minnesota’s can be. Despite a slow start, the Broncos defense is now fourth in yards allowed, ranked fifth by Pro Football Focus, and sixth in defensive DVOA. Vic Fangio earned his first head coaching gig much like Zimmer did: by putting together great defenses for several seasons before finally getting his shot in as the man in charge.

Fangio’s tenure in Denver got off to a rough start. His team stumbled to an 0-4 September while his defense was shockingly devoid of impact plays. The Broncos D had zero sacks, zero turnovers, and negative defensive expected points added through each of the first four games. But since then, the Broncos have been everything you’d expect from a team led by Fangio. The statistical turnaround has been remarkable:

Broncos defensive turnaround

Weeks Yards allowed/game Points allowed/game Sacks/game Expected points added/game Turnovers forced/game Defensive DVOA
Weeks Yards allowed/game Points allowed/game Sacks/game Expected points added/game Turnovers forced/game Defensive DVOA
1-4 349.3 23.3 0 -8.8 0 27th
5-9 278 14.8 3.8 6.7 1.4 6th

Denver’s defensive resurgence came without the services of Bradley Chubb, who was put on Injured Reserve after Week 4. But the cupboard is far from bare when it comes to pass rushers for the Broncos. Everyone knows about Von Miller, who is playing at his usual elite level after a sluggish start of his own. Miller had two total pressures through the first two games according to PFF; he’s now tied for fifth in the NFL with 48. Derek Wolfe, Malik Reed, and Shelby Harris can all cause trouble of their own, especially in the middle. Wolfe was particularly troublesome against the Browns in Week 9, destroying Cleveland’s backup right guard on a regular basis.

All three of the Vikings’ losses have featured Cousins getting pressured early and often between the tackles. Josh Kline’s future is in jeopardy after suffering his second concussion of the season. That means Dakota Dozier, Garrett Bradbury, and Pat Elflein will likely be tasked with keeping Cousins clean in the middle. All three currently have a PFF pass blocking grade under 50.

The most logical way to counteract a formidable pass rush is by getting the ball out quickly, but the back end of Denver’s defense is rather daunting too. Stefon Diggs will probably see a lot of Chris Harris Jr., who is still one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL. Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson are right up there with Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris as a safety duo. With Adam Thielen likely resting his hamstring injury through next week’s bye, the Broncos can devote more resources to stopping Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith Jr. over the middle. Josh Doctson hasn’t been activated to the 53-man roster as of this posting, although an open spot remains after Thursday morning’s roster moves. Sunday seems like as good of a time as any to bring him into the offensive fold. Doctson has been practicing with the team for a couple weeks, has familiarity with Cousins from their time in Washington, and said he was “ready to go” last week. Why not activate him for Sunday’s game?

Denver’s defensive line and secondary has a few big names, but most Vikings fans might be unfamiliar with one of the best Broncos defenders: inside linebacker A.J. Johnson. Johnson is an excellent tackler and run defender that always seems to find a path to the ball carrier.

He’s also very good in coverage and is rarely found out of position against the pass. Johnson is basically Denver’s version of Eric Kendricks, which is about the highest praise one can give an opposing linebacker this season. In fact, Johnson is currently the highest graded linebacker in the NFL by PFF. Keep your eye on #45 in orange and navy Sunday; chances are he’ll be making a few plays.

Luckily, the Vikings have a pretty potent antidote for what could be a mismatch in the passing game: Dalvin Cook. The NFL leader in both rushing and all-purpose yards has been an invaluable weapon in the Vikings offense all year. Cook’s outstanding raw numbers are backed up by being ranked in the top five of nearly every analytical category. Yards after contact, broken tackles, Yards Above Replacement, explosive runs of ten yards or more, runs for first downs, you name it—you don’t have to go very far down any of those leaderboards to find Cook’s name.

As good as Cook has been on his own, he’s getting some great help from the play design and personnel packages concocted by Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak. NFL Matchup showed how Cook has been doing the majority of his damage on the ground with an extra back on the field:

C.J. Ham has been clearing a path for Cook all year, including some nasty blocks against the Cowboys in Week 10. Ham is earning his 24.3 snaps per game this season.

As well as the Vikings offense has performed, they will need to be wary of sticking with the same old, same old on Sunday. Even though these teams play only once per Presidential term, there will be some unique familiarity for Denver on that side of the ball. Fangio certainly knows how to flummox the Minnesota offense, as he shut them down several times while he was in Chicago. Kubiak’s influence has helped transform the Vikings offense in 2019, but there are several veteran defenders that practiced against his system every day back when he was the Broncos Head Coach. The Vikings will have to introduce a few new wrinkles to familiar plays in order to prevent Denver’s defense from knowing what’s coming.

If you thought the Broncos defense might be tough to crack, Denver’s offense boasts a quarterback that has won every single game he has ever played in! This surefire superstar has never thrown an interception, averages 11.65 adjusted yards per attempt, and has a career quarterback rating of 125.6. Of course, Brandon Allen has only played one game and threw only 20 passes in his NFL debut, so we probably shouldn’t send him to Canton just yet. Second round rookie Drew Lock is back practicing, but it’s highly unlikely that he’s going to play, which means Allen will get his second career start.

Unsurprisingly, Denver kept things pretty simple overall for Allen in a debut that saw only 50 offensive snaps for the Broncos. They still mixed in a few deep shots down field against Cleveland, mostly to Courtland Sutton. Since Denver traded away Emmanuel Sanders, Sutton has been the clear-cut top target, leading the team in every receiving category by a wide margin. Sutton will definitely be a problem for the reeling Vikings secondary to cover, even if Trae Waynes returns this week.

Tight end Noah Fant was the 20th overall pick in this year’s draft. He had a fairly rocky start to his career, especially with drops. But he’s coming off his first 100-yard game and showed off the athleticism that made him such a coveted player coming out of Iowa.

Fant’s touchdown came off play action; Allen went 5 of 6 for 123 yards and that score using play action against the Browns. When he is actually handing the ball off instead of selling the fake, Allen has two good young options in his backfield. Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman have picked up right where they left off from successful 2018 rookie campaigns. Freeman has been the better runner this season, but both have been busy in the passing game, combining for 52 receptions.

Linval Joseph is all but certain to miss the game after his meniscus surgery and Shamar Stephen didn’t practice on Wednesday. The Vikings did very well stopping the run last week without Joseph, but his continued absence might actually be felt more in the passing game. The lack of push in the center of the pass rush allowed Dak Prescott to escape the pressure of Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter time and again on Sunday night. Allen showed off his mobility for a couple of nice scrambles against Cleveland, so finishing pressures off will be key for the Vikings front four.

Creating that pressure should be an easier task than it was against the talented Cowboys offensive line. The Broncos could be getting right tackle Ja’Wuan James back to replace backup Elijah Wilkinson, but that wouldn’t be a revolutionary change. The Broncos have given up 30 sacks and rank 29th in adjusted sack rate. Rookie left guard Dalton Risner was on a lot of Vikings fan wish lists before the draft. He has performed well, especially in pass blocking, but the rest of the line has been fairly mediocre. Garett Bolles isn’t going to enjoy facing Griffen all day. When the Browns got pressure on Allen in Week 9, he didn’t handle it especially well.

There isn’t much film to study on Allen, which means the Broncos could surprise the Vikings a time or two on Sunday. We’re all painfully aware that two of Minnesota’s three losses this season have come against backup quarterbacks. But it’s likely that the Vikings will catch Allen off guard more often. Zimmer has a rich history of making life miserable for inexperienced quarterbacks. There should be plenty of disguised coverage and pre-snap shifting from the Minnesota defense to keep Allen and the Broncos offense guessing.

Most people expect the Vikings to win this game, as they should. The Vikings are currently favored by 10.5 points in most sports books. They’re playing at home against a 3-6 team with a quarterback making his second NFL start. The Broncos are in the cellar of the AFC West, but they’re literally just a few plays away from possibly leading that division right now. Denver had the lead in the final minute in half of their six losses only to succumb to late field goals by the Bears, Jaguars, and Colts.

Still, the Vikings have won all four home games this season by double digits. If they are to be taken seriously in the NFC North and/or Wild Card race, this is the type of game they have to win.

But how they win shouldn’t matter. This matchup is a lot more conducive to looking like the slog against Washington rather than the wire-to-wire blowouts over Atlanta and Oakland. And that’s just fine! There are no polls in professional football. You don’t get a higher ranking for “style points.” This game could get pretty dicey at times; this Denver defense is no joke and Fangio knows as well as anyone how to get to Cousins. But as long as the Vikings can secure the victory, the game should be celebrated. Ugly wins count just as much flawless wins. Heading into the bye with an 8-3 record and a chance to get healthier would be incredibly stylish.

Prediction

Vikings 24, Broncos 13


And now for the rest of my Week 11 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

BROWNS over Steelers

I really like how the Browns used Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt on the field at the same time a lot last week. I really hate how the Browns called red zone plays last week. Even though Pittsburgh’s defense has been incredible lately, I’ll go with Cleveland at home on a short week.

PANTHERS over Falcons

Where the hell was that Atlanta pass rush for the first half of the year? It’s nice to see that the Falcons haven’t mailed in the rest of the season, but Christian McCaffrey can carve up even the most surprisingly resurgent defenses.

Bills over DOLPHINS

Miami almost won this matchup in Buffalo four weeks ago, and the Bills offense has been pretty atrocious. But the Dolphins have to respect the process and start losing again, right? Has a coach ever been fired for winning too much? I’m fearful for Brian Flores’ job if Miami wins their third straight on Sunday.

Cowboys over LIONS

I was really impressed with how Dallas played last week, and we still aren’t sure about the status of Matthew Stafford. I think the Cowboys could win big in Detroit.

Jaguars over COLTS

Nick Foles is back! Jacoby Brissett is likely back too! This will probably be a close game, so I’m taking the team that doesn’t have a 46-year-old kicker with eleven missed kicks this season.

(Now watch Adam Vinatieri nail a game-winner from 50+ yards on Sunday.)

Saints over BUCCANEERS

New Orleans handled Tampa Bay pretty easily in their first meeting this season, but that was with Teddy Bridgewater. So if the Saints lose this game after their stunning loss last week, maybe it’s time for another forty-something future Hall of Famer to step aside.

Jets over REDSKINS

Boring. Unexciting. Dull. Unmoving. Unstimulating.

Those are the first five results when you search for “the opposite of exciting.” And that’s what this matchup is: the exact opposite of exciting.

Dwayne Haskins Jr. has been named the starter for the rest of the season in Washington. I hate picking a train wreck like the Jets on the road, but we saw how limited Washington’s offense was when Haskins came in a couple weeks ago.

RAVENS over Texans

I’m bummed that this game will be going on at the same time as the Vikings game. I want to watch as much of Lamar Jackson vs. Deshaun Watson as possible.

49ERS over Cardinals

This matchup was a lot closer than we thought only two weeks ago, which is why the 49ers being favored by almost two touchdowns seems a bit odd. I think Kyler Murray & company will keep it fairly close again, but the Niners will be plenty motivated to maintain their slim lead in the NFC West after Monday night’s heartbreaker.

RAIDERS over Bengals

My survivor pool pick of the week, now only eligible for “second chance” status after the Falcons knocked me out last week. Only one of Oakland’s final seven opponents this season currently has a winning record. I TELL YA WHAT MAN, I’M PRETTY DARN EXCITED FOR THE POSSIBILITY OF JON GRUDEN IN THE PLAYOFFS. YOU WANNA HEAR ME COUNT BACKWARDS BY 3’S FROM 100?

Patriots over EAGLES

Philadelphia needs this one a lot more than New England, but nobody in their right mind should ever bet against Bill Belichick coming off both a bye and a loss.

RAMS over Bears

Ten months ago, Jared Goff vs. Mitchell Trubisky was a very real NFC Divisional Round possibility. Today, neither offense seems like they can do much of anything and both teams are fighting for their playoff lives. Rams fans are regretting Goff’s mega-contract and Bears fans are regretting that Trubisky exists. Life comes at you fast.

Chiefs over Chargers (in Mexico City)

Tough break for the Chiefs to miss out on a home game in Los Angeles.

Last week: 3-10 (easily the worst week of picks I have had in the ten seasons of writing this article)
Season so far: 89-58-1