After a crazy Week 2 game in Lambeau that featured bad turnovers, missed kicks, and a disappointing ending, the Vikings will look to get back to their winning ways at home in Week 3. Luckily, they’re back at home and facing an AFC opponent that most pundits have finishing at or near the bottom of their division. The Vikings are heavy fav...
...wait a second.
This feels really familiar.
It’s the Bills game all over again, isn’t it?
It’s easy to draw comparisons between the Week 3 matchups in 2018 and 2019. Like last year, the Vikings are returning from Wisconsin knowing they blew a chance to come away with a win. (If they did win instead of tie in 2018, there’s a good chance Oakland kicker Daniel Carlson is still wearing purple.) Like last year, they’re hosting an AFC team that visits only once every eight seasons. Like last year, they’re favorites by more than a touchdown. (The Vikings are currently 8.5-point favorites, which is only half of the 17-point spread against Buffalo.)
Last year, I predicted a 31-10 Vikings victory in my preview article. I even made them my survivor pool pick. The only thing I got right: the margin of victory. The Bills pummeled a bewildered Vikings team right out of the gate and cruised to a shocking 27-6 win.
After that humbling beat down, Vikings fans have had their guard up about Sunday’s game ever since the schedule was released back in April. This matchup may as well be rubber-stamped with two simple words:
So how can the Vikings avoid a similar fate at the hands of the Oakland Raiders on Sunday? Well, for starters, it sure would be nice if Kirk Cousins played a hell of a lot better.
As we already touched on in the recap Monday, Cousins had a performance that would have made Christian Ponder cringe. He completed only 43.8% of his passes and turned the ball over three times, including that godawful pick on first & goal late in the game. Cousins looked more uncomfortable and awkward than watching a movie with your parents when a sex scene comes on. Even Cousins’ most ardent supporters couldn’t justify his shambolic showing on Sunday.
Yes, the pass protection by the offensive line wasn’t particularly good, especially from the interior. Garrett Bradbury and Dakota Dozier allowed half of Green Bay’s 22 pressures by themselves according to Pro Football Focus. This article from SKOR North’s Matthew Coller showed examples of how the pass protection thwarted a lot of what the Vikings tried to do in the passing game.
Stefon Diggs was certainly thwarted in the box score, as he was held to only one catch that counted. But it certainly wasn’t due to a lack of getting open. I promise I won’t get into too much film review of Cousins’ performance here—this article does post around lunch time, after all—but this thread from Arif Hasan was too poignant to ignore. Arif cites several instances where Diggs could have made big plays but didn’t get the ball because of Cousins not seeing him, the offensive line collapsing, or a combination of both. The offense racked up 421 total yards against the Packers, but the clips illustrate how it probably should have been so much more.
At the very least, Cousins seems to be well aware of his shortcomings against Green Bay. He owned up to his awful game at Lambeau in his press conference on Wednesday.
Mike Zimmer gave Cousins the dreaded vote of “utmost confidence” on Wednesday as well. That’s nice and all, but it’s all lip service without massive improvements on the field. If the Vikings are going to achieve anything of substance this year, Cousins needs to be as good at correcting his mistakes as he is about admitting them.
Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak might have to admit that opposing defenses are already catching on to the designed bootlegs that everyone was so excited about in Training Camp. By my count, the Vikings had at least five plays where Cousins attempted to go outside of the pocket by design. Each time, the Packers had an edge defender waiting out wide. The book on defending the Vikings offense seems to be to keep Cousins in the pocket and let your interior pass rush get home against Minnesota’s shoddy pass blocking. That game plan worked all too well for Green Bay last week.
Fortunately, there’s a pretty reliable way to combat a team lining up wide at the line of scrimmage: running through the space they’re leaving open. The Vikings did a good job of that with Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison, and run blocking that was much more efficient than their pass protection.
Running the ball against Oakland might be a little tougher than most would assume. This may come as a bit of a surprise, but the Raiders have actually done well defending the run through the first two games. After allowing the third most rushing yards in the league at a 4.7 yard per attempt clip last season, they held the Broncos and Chiefs to an average of 2.8 yards per carry. Denver and Kansas City were #5 and #4 respectively in rushing DVOA last season. Tahir Whitehead and Vontaze Burfict have done a nice job supporting a defensive line that has been devoid of star power since Khalil Mack left.
The Raiders pass rush and coverage has also improved since last season, but that’s mostly because they had nowhere to go but up. In 2018, Oakland was dead last in DVOA against the pass. They allowed the most passing touchdowns and the highest net yards per attempt. A non-existent pass rush was a root cause of those big numbers. Like, almost literally non-existent. Danielle Hunter had 1.5 more sacks than the entire Raiders team last season. Defensive end Benson Mayowa already has 3.5 sacks through two games in 2019. If he gets one more, that will give him more sacks than any Oakland player had all of last year. Mayowa has two forced fumbles as well. The Raiders forced a grand total of three fumbles all of last season.
Told you there was nowhere to go but up.
There is still plenty of room for improvement with the Raiders pass defense though. Patrick Mahomes picked them apart last week to the tune of 443 yards and four touchdowns, most of which came in a 28-point second quarter onslaught. But Mahomes is a passing wizard that can bend passing angles and space to his will with an arm that fires like a military-grade weapon. It wouldn’t be fair to show clips of Mahomes dissecting Oakland and expect a mere mortal like Cousins to replicate those heroic feats. Instead, we’ll show you a play where Joe Flacco had some success in Week 1; that’s much more Cousins’ speed. Denver couldn’t get anything going on the ground on their Monday night opener, but they had a bunch of chunk plays through the air over the middle.
Losing first round safety Johnathan Abram just 48 snaps into his rookie season will hurt a secondary that was already pretty shaky. Gareon Conley and Daryl Worley should have a hard time staying with Diggs and Adam Thielen. Lamarcus Joyner was great with the Rams a couple years ago but he has already been lit up for 14 catches on 15 targets for 119 yards this season. If Cousins were given a choice of defenses to have a bounce-back game against, I’m guessing Oakland would be rather high on that list.
The Raiders offense had its share of headlines for all the wrong reasons leading up to the season. Antonio Brown’s various maladies and antics made for interesting storylines on Hard Knocks, but that was nothing compared to the fiasco that took place right after the show wrapped. Although Brown jettisoned the Black Hole of Oakland for the Dark Side of New England, the cupboard isn’t exactly bare when it comes to weapons on the Raiders offense.
Derek Carr had a great start to the season against Denver, going 22 for 26 with 259 yards and a touchdown in a wire-to-wire Oakland victory. He also had a great start against Kansas City last week, leading the Raiders to ten points on the first two drives of the game. But then it got a little dicey. As the Chiefs stormed ahead in the second quarter, Carr and the Oakland offense couldn’t muster an answer. He was picked off twice and the Raiders were held scoreless the remainder of the game.
Carr’s noticeable decline after his team fell behind shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Throughout his five-plus years in the NFL, Carr has been a quarterback that looks a lot better when he’s playing with the lead. That notion isn’t just anecdotal either. Just look at his career splits when his team is ahead compared to when he’s tied or trailing:
Derek Carr career splits
So as long as the Vikings defense doesn’t spot the opponents a quick 21 points like they did last Sunday, they should be in good shape. In order to do so, the Minnesota defense will need to account for tight end Darren Waller and wide receiver Tyrell Williams. Waller leads the team in targets and has been a reliable safety valve for Carr. Of Waller’s 133 yards receiving through the first two games, 88 have come after the catch. Williams is effective both in the slot and outside. The former Charger has the size and ability to go up and get contested catches.
While Abram has already been sidelined, the player the Raiders took three picks before him has had a great start to his NFL career. Josh Jacobs has 184 yards rushing through the first two games and has the highest elusive rating (a PFF metric that grades broken tackles and yards after contact per touch) of any back with 20 or more carries. The strategy of drafting a running back in the first round can definitely be questioned, but Jacobs’ talent looks unassailable.
Jacobs has been running behind a serviceable Raiders offensive line, but that could change a bit this week. Right tackle Trent Brown missed practice on Wednesday after leaving the game against the Chiefs with a knee injury. If he can’t go, Brandon Parker would be a much more favorable matchup for Danielle Hunter. It sounds like guard Gabe Jackson won’t be back this week either. However, Oakland will get one guard back on Sunday in the form of Richie Incognito returning from suspension. Incognito comes with more baggage than a Thirty-One party, but he’s still a good offensive lineman when he’s actually behaving himself off the field.
It would be really nice to get Mike Hughes back for this game. He was a full participant in practice on Wednesday, which seems like a positive sign for his return. Hunter Renfrow hasn’t had huge production out of the slot in his first two career games—a modest 6 catches for 43 yards—but the Vikings have had some trouble against slot receivers so far. Jayron Kearse has performed admirably since Mackensie Alexander went down in Week 1, but this secondary needs all the bodies it can get. Of the four touchdown passes the Vikings have allowed, two of them came against Mark Fields (who is now on the Practice Squad) and Nate Meadors (who was elevated from the Practice Squad last week). Those scores came on a total of nine defensive snaps between the two corners; when they were in, opponents knew who to target.
Through two weeks, the Raiders certainly don’t appear to be the laughingstock that many had imagined before the season. There are players on both sides of the ball that can capitalize on some of the mistakes we saw from the Vikings last week at Lambeau. But I think the players and coaching staff will make the necessary adjustments to put a better product on the field for the home fans on Sunday. The offensive line has what should be one of their more favorable matchups of the season, which should allow Cousins to bounce back from his worst game as a Viking. The Vikings defense will have some tough assignments, but as long as they don’t get schemed out of the stadium for the first quarter-plus again, they should be able to hold their own. One other huge difference from last year: Everson Griffen seems like his old self again, both on and off the field. His frightening episode the day before the Buffalo game a year ago had to factor into why the Vikings looked so listless and disorganized. This time around, Griff is tied with Hunter and Za’Darius Smith for the league lead in pressures with 15.
If things go wrong and the Vikings are trapped in another mediocre season after another embarrassing Week 3 loss to an inferior AFC opponent? I’ll be first in line for virtual torches and pitchforks. This is a game they can’t afford to lose.
Please, Vikings. Don’t fall in the trap this time.
Vikings 27, Raiders 17
And now for the rest of my Week 3 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
JAGUARS over Titans
I know it isn’t possible, but I feel like the Jaguars and Titans play on Thursday night four times a year.
COLTS over Falcons
Reports of Indy’s demise after the Andrew Luck retirement might have been a bit overstated. Remember, this was supposed to be the roster around Luck that made the Colts a contender, and Jacoby Brissett isn’t half bad.
BILLS over Bengals
A 2-0 team at home against an 0-2 team on the road. Seems simple enough. However, Buffalo just spent two weeks beating up on the dumpster fires that occupy MetLife Stadium while Cincinnati faced two teams that might be pretty darn good this season. I’m still picking the Bills, but it might be closer than we think.
COWBOYS over Dolphins
So yeah, I think we might go with the whole “pick the team playing against Miami” strategy for the survivor pool until the Dolphins show a pulse. It certainly worked to go 2-0 last week, so I’ll do it again here.
PACKERS over Broncos
I’d love to see an upset here for a variety of reasons, but I’m pretty sure we’re going to see Joe Flacc0 and 3.
EAGLES over Lions
Detroit may have caught a break here with so many Eagles players beat up. But I can’t fathom a world where Matt Patricia and Andy Reid are facing off next week with undefeated teams. Speaking of Andy Reid...
CHIEFS over Ravens
For the second straight week, we get a quarterback love fest that features Lamar Jackson! I kind of like how Baltimore matches up with KC, but I can’t pick against Mahomes at Arrowhead. (Yes, this is probably foreshadowing for Week 9.)
PATRIOTS over Jets
Ohio State’s non-conference schedule is more difficult than New England’s AFC East schedule these past two weeks.
BUCCANEERS over Giants
I’m a little sad that the Daniel Jones era is already here. I was hoping that the Vikings could beat up on Eli Manning one last time when they visit New York in Week 5.
CARDINALS over Panthers
SEAHAWKS over Saints
I’m as excited as anyone for Teddy Bridgewater to finally be getting an opportunity to start with a good supporting cast. But until I see the Teddy I saw during 2016 Training Camp again, I’m not going to pick him to win tough road games like this.
49ERS over Steelers
I’m a little more convinced of San Francisco’s validity after their Week 2 drubbing of the Bengals. But man, what a kind slate for them to start now that Ben Roethlisberger is out for the year.
Texans over CHARGERS
Are the Chargers already past their annual point of no return with injuries to star players? That loss in Detroit last week was U-G-L-Y.
Rams over BROWNS
Pretty cool that this is a prime time game when these teams were coached to a combined 5-27 record by Jeff Fisher, John Fassel, and Hue Jackson just three seasons ago. Cleveland’s offense doesn’t look all the way there yet. LA’s looks just fine now that they have Cooper Kupp back and three viable options to run the ball.
Bears over REDSKINS
Chicago’s kicker was just named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week. At least we can still make fun of Mitchell Trubisky! (Until next Sunday, at least.)
Last week: 9-7
Season so far: 20-11-1