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Vikings at Texans Preview: Cleanup On Aisle 4

The Vikings and Texans have been a mess during their 0-3 starts. Which team will mop up the competition for their first victory?

NFL: Houston Texans at Pittsburgh Steelers
Deshaun Watson hasn’t had much help from his teammates through the first three weeks. How much will he need to beat the 0-3 Vikings?
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

When the 2020 schedule was first released, the Week 4 game between the Vikings and Texans looked like it would be an intriguing measuring stick for both teams. Each team had finished the 2019 season at 10-6, earned a postseason berth, and won a thrilling Wild Card game in overtime. Then both teams were summarily pummeled by their conference’s Super Bowl representative in the Divisional Round.

The similarities between the Vikings and Texans didn’t stop after their playoff losses. In the offseason, both teams shipped away a star receiver for draft picks. The haul that Minnesota got in return for Stefon Diggs was better than what Houston received for DeAndre Hopkins, but the outcomes have been similar thus far. Diggs and Hopkins appear to be enjoying their new homes on up-and-coming teams with young quarterbacks that are making the rest of the league take notice.

Meanwhile, the teams that the receivers left behind are both floundering at 0-3. Sunday’s game is still an intriguing measuring stick, but in a much more macabre manner than previously anticipated. The Vikings and Texans sit alone in last place in their respective divisions, each trailing undefeated rivals. There were bound to be some bumps in the road for each incumbent playoff participant, but things weren’t supposed to be this bad right out of the gate.

As bad as the 2020 season has started for Minnesota and Houston, all parties should probably just be thankful that the game is currently scheduled to be played as planned. The Tennessee Titans, the Vikings’ Week 3 opponent, had the NFL’s first COVID-19 outbreak with several positive tests in the days following their game in Minneapolis. As a result, their game against the Steelers this Sunday has been postponed. As of this posting, nobody on the Vikings team or staff has tested positive. The team took a lot of new precautions at practice on Thursday after canceling their session on Wednesday. Lots of things could change between now and Sunday. But if the Vikings can actually make it to game day with no new cases, it will easily be the biggest COVID-related story of the week.

[Puts finger to earpiece] ...Oh. Right. Moving on.

Anyway, the Vikings offense showed up pretty well last week against the Titans. They scored 30 points. Previously under Mike Zimmer, they were 22-3 when scoring 30 points. In 2020, they’re 0-2 in such games.

They had over 450 yards of total offense against Tennessee. Previously under Zimmer, they were 6-0-1 when gaining over 450 yards. In 2020, they’re 0-1.

They had also over 200 yards rushing. Previously under Zimmer, they were 6-0 when rushing for over 200 yards. In 2020, they’re 0-1.

Guys—I’m starting to think that the defense might not be very good this year.

The Vikings currently rank in the bottom five in the league in a wide variety of defensive statistical categories, including but not limited to:

  • Yards allowed
  • Points allowed
  • Time of possession
  • Plays, yards, and points allowed per drive
  • Net yards per attempt allowed
  • Total pressures
  • Quarterback hits

And that’s just what I found with some light perusing. We all anticipated some growing pains on that side of the ball, but we didn’t think the first three weeks would just be one big Will Smith “pain.” meme.

Even with all those defensive woes, the Vikings had a golden opportunity to steal the win with just under two minutes left last week. That very same offense that had racked up nearly 500 yards to that point proceeded to perform a comedy of errors and turn the ball over on a desperation 4th & 24 heave. Chad Graff of The Athletic had a great recap of that fateful final drive—if you can even call it a drive—and the resulting blame game that’s surfacing between Mike Zimmer and Kirk Cousins. If this rough start continues, there could be some sizable rifts in the Vikings locker room in the near future.

But is there even any hope for the defense to help bridge the growing chasm? As bad as things have been, it isn’t all doom and gloom. As Arif Hasan pointed out, they’re actually fourth best in the NFL on third down and sixth best in red zone touchdown percentage. However, they’re still tied for the worst in points per drive, allowing exactly a field goal on average each time their opponents get the ball. Getting the opponent to third down has been the hard part; Minnesota’s numbers go right back toward the bottom on first and second down.

If they do manage to get to third down more often on Sunday, Luke Braun illustrated how the Vikings might defend Deshaun Watson and the Texans on that crucial down. Houston runs a ton of shotgun with Watson and he’s always a threat to run. It will be interesting to see how Zimmer plans for the unique challenge and who he taps to “spy” Watson to prevent him from breaking the pocket.

One of the reasons why Houston runs so much shotgun is that it’s easier to get the ball out on quick routes. One of the reasons that a team wants to run quick routes is because their pass blocking isn’t very good. If the Vikings could choose an opponent against which they could revitalize their disappointing pass rush, the Texans would likely be toward the top of that list. If you like right guards that wear #73 and struggle mightily in pass protection, you’re going to love Sunday’s game. Zach Fulton isn’t quite Dru Samia bad for Houston, but he isn’t that far off.

Fellow guard Max Scharping hasn’t fared much better than Fulton either. The Steelers had a lot of success disguising where they were bringing pressure from last week. Zimmer is no stranger to mixing up the pre-snap looks to create quick pressure, which could help his struggling corners against a formidable group of Texans pass catchers. Brandin Cooks and Will Fuller both have the speed to beat you deep from the outside. The Vikings have plenty of previous experience with Randall Cobb annoying them from the slot thanks to his time with Green Bay. David Johnson isn’t the player that won your fantasy league title in 2016, but he can still make people miss catching passes out of the backfield. If the Vikings defense can’t conjure up much pressure on Watson, they’ll likely remain in their current statistical doldrums. There’s a reason why PFF Fantasy dubbed Week 4 “Will Fuller Week.”

We’ll see if Will Fuller Week actually happens, especially since he popped up on the Thursday injury report. However, there is no doubt that Week 3 was Justin Jefferson Week. I wrote about how it could be a breakout game for Jefferson because of how he matched up with the Titans in the slot. Turns out I was right about the performance, but I was really selling him short on where he would do it from. Jefferson’s Next Gen route chart from Week 3 shows how he was able to attack Tennessee from all over the field.

The film was even prettier than the multicolored lines. Nick Olson of Zone Coverage posted a thread of how Jefferson showed off his speed, route running, and knack for picking up yards after the catch that made him such a threat at LSU.

The fact that Jefferson did all of this by taking 45 of his 51 snaps out wide in his third career game while being thought of as mostly a slot receiver in the NFL makes the feat even more impressive. If the Vikings can keep feeding Jefferson against the Texans corners, perhaps they’ll finally be able to outpace what the defense allows.

The Houston defense has been allowing more than their fair share as well. Remember that thing earlier about the Vikings being tied for last in points allowed per drive? They’re tied for last with the Texans. Surprisingly, those Texans corners that hope to stop Jefferson and Adam Thielen haven’t been getting much help from their pass rush yet. That’s an odd consideration when J.J. Watt has actually been out there all three games, but the Texans are currently 30th in PFF pass rush grade and have only six more total pressures than the struggling Vikings rush. Watt has a couple sacks but hasn’t shown the all-world form that has earned so many accolades in previous healthy seasons. Whitney Mercilus was, well, merciless when the Vikings last faced the Texans in 2016. He was nearly invisible the first two games this year and still fairly quiet outside of a couple plays against Pittsburgh last week. It’s possible that the Texans might not cause that much trouble against the Vikings’ biggest offensive weakness: pass blocking in the middle.

Unless Houston moves Watt inside after playing only a handful of snaps there so far this year, of course. Then they’re probably in trouble.

When trouble inevitably arises for each quarterback on Sunday, there is little doubt about which one is more equipped to handle plays breaking down. Kirk Cousins has shown an improved ability to scramble this season, but he still tends to short circuit with pressure up the middle. Meanwhile, Watson seems to average about 1.5 “how the hell did he just do that?!” plays per game. His propensity to hold onto the ball can backfire at times; PFF has credited 10 of the team’s 48 pressures allowed this season to Watson. But what he can do when the play doesn’t develop as planned is part of what makes him special. It will be fascinating to see the juxtaposition of how each quarterback improvises on Sunday. It could prove to be the difference between two struggling teams that are otherwise fairly even on paper.

When two struggling teams are fairly even on paper, the game can often be decided by which team makes the fewest mistakes. This is where the moveable object meets the stoppable force. The Vikings have seven turnovers; only the Eagles have more through three games. However, Houston is the only team in the NFL without a takeaway. One end of the ineptitude has to give.

If sparingly-played history is any indication, Minnesota will be the team with fewer errors on Sunday. The Vikings have never lost to the Texans, winning all four of their previous meetings. Unfortunately, I think that unblemished record comes to a stop in Houston. While the Texans share a lot of faults with the Vikings, they could actually turn out to be a half-decent team. Their 0-3 record may mostly be a product of facing one of the most daunting three-game stretches to open a season in recent memory. One could easily argue that Kansas City, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh are the top three teams in the AFC right now. And sure, the Packers, Colts, and Titans only have one loss between them, but it still isn’t the gauntlet that Houston has faced.

This week could prove to be a microcosm of the Vikings season on the whole: a limited amount of preparation resulting in an inexperienced team looking out of sorts for large stretches. I’m not sure the defense will solve enough of their problems to keep Watson in check. I foresee the Texans quarterback extending drives with his legs and finding his wideouts deep for a handful of back-breaking plays. I can see the Vikings offense making some plays of their own to keep it interesting, but I have a hard time believing that they can sop up enough of what has soiled their chances of winning through the first three games.

What a mess.

Prediction

Texans 30, Vikings 24


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

Broncos over JETS

Already 1-0 on the week! If you watched this game in its entirety last night, it was probably for one or more of these reasons:

  • You’re way too dependent on football and you need more hobbies.
  • You wanted to scout the teams that might be battling the Vikings for the top overall pick to see if Minnesota has a chance to out-suck them.
  • You have a gambling/fantasy football problem.

I certainly fit into the first category, I’m already curious about the second, and I was forced to start Frank Gore in one league because of injuries. So of course I watched nearly every last bit. It did not disappoint in the awfulness department! The Jets certainly seem to have the inside track on the first overall pick as long as Adam Gase and Gregg Williams are around. (Which probably won’t be much longer at this rate.)

Colts over BEARS

Chicago is 3-0 AND they got rid of Mitchell Trubisky. Matt Nagy just executed the perfect bloodless coup. I like the Bears’ chances to keep it going with Nick Foles now, but maybe that embarrassing Week 2 loss the Vikings had to Indianapolis was at least to a pretty good team. I mean, if Xavier Rhodes is actually looking good, you know that Colts defense has to be doing something right.

Jaguars over BENGALS

I really wanted to make a “Joe Burrow is really good even if the rest of his team is pretty awful” pick for Cincinnati, especially since Jacksonville might be showing their true colors after laying an egg against Miami last Thursday. But I like the Jags offense to get back on track with D.J. Chark probably returning to the lineup.

COWBOYS over Browns

I think Dallas could clinch the NFC East if they improve to 2-2 on Sunday, so that will probably be enough motivation to beat Cleveland.

Saints over LIONS

I soooooo want to jump on the “Drew Brees is cooked and the Saints are about to enter Salary Cap Hell without making another title run” bandwagon and pick Detroit here, but I’ll give it one more game. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised at a second straight upset by the Lions though.

Seahawks over DOLPHINS

I hope Russell Wilson throws so many touchdowns on Sunday that his arm is too sore to play in Week 5. Because if that doesn’t happen, Seattle might score all of the points against the Vikings.

Cardinals over PANTHERS

Maybe Carolina was depending a little too much on Christian McCaffrey and they’ll be a better offense overall with his injury? OK yeah you’re right, that sounds even dumber after typing it out.

BUCCANEERS over Chargers

I still don’t completely trust the Bucs yet, but the Chargers are continuing their annual march of key players to the IR. Losing Chris Harris could really hurt against the Tampa Bay wide receivers.

Ravens over FOOTBALL TEAM

Dwayne Haskins facing a pissed off Baltimore team looking to reestablish themselves after getting spanked by the Chiefs on Monday? Yeah, this one could get ugly. I was surprised to see that the Ravens were two-touchdown favorites on the road, but I still don’t think I could take Washington and the points.

RAMS over Giants

My Survivor Pool pick of the week. After going 3-0 against the Jets in the pool to start the season, I figured I’d switch over to the other awful team from MetLife Stadium.

Bills over RAIDERS

Josh Allen is a human Universal Studios ride. You’re screaming the whole time you’re on, you feel like you might puke a few times, but in the end you look around at everyone and say “WHOA! THAT WAS AWESOME! LET’S DO IT AGAIN!”

CHIEFS over Patriots

Like I’m going to make the idiotic mistake of picking against the defending champs two weeks in a row.

49ERS over Eagles

Yet another week of thinking “Man the Niners are beat up, but their opponent suuuuuucks and they’re almost as beat up.”

PACKERS over Falcons

If it’s any consolation for Falcons fans, I’m pretty sure that they won’t have a huge lead to blow this week.

Last week: 9-6-1
Season so far: 31-16-1