Coming off their bye week, the Minnesota Vikings (6-2) will go on the road to Washington (4-4).
The Vikings enter with four straight wins, the league’s 13th best scoring offense and third best defense in points allowed. Washington could preset a tough challenge. They have a number of injuries, but are coming off a win on the road against Seattle and are back in the playoff hunt. How do the two teams match up? Let’s have a look…
It’s getting harder and harder for Washington to deny that Kirk Cousins is a franchise quarterback. Over the past three years, he averages 280 yards per game and has 67 touchdowns, 27 interceptions and a quarterback rating of 99.8 – which is a shade above Aaron Rodgers (99.3) since 2015. In Adjusted Yards Per Attempt, Cousins is only behind Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Dak Prescott and Russell Wilson over that time span. He’s certainly had some advantages – a strong offensive line, lots of weapons and an innovative head coach – but Cousins has flourished statistically. With a career-high 102.0 rating this year, he’s helped keep Washington in the race despite a rash of injuries. Whether you rank him top 10 or top 15 or wherever, the Cousins-operated offense has the chance to explode each week. Last year against the Vikings, Cousins threw for 262 yards and two touchdowns.
For the Vikings, Case Keenum has done the job he was hired to do. They have won five of seven games he’s played – some coming under difficult circumstances a la Week 5 against Chicago. But Keenum has not given the Vikings exceptional quarterback play by any means. Over the last five games, he’s averaging 6.6 yards per attempt and has thrown four touchdowns, three interceptions and has an 83.2 rating. The Vikings’ running game and scheme has helped him succeed just enough to win games, but Keenum hasn’t been in many situations where he’s had to compete in a shootout or come from behind to win. As it goes every week, the Vikings’ running game and defense will have to support Keenum in order to win.
Chris Thompson is one of the league’s best pass-catching running backs. He’s grabbed 35 passes this season while averaging 12.3 yards per reception. In the run game, he can be dangerous as well, picking up 4.9 yards per carry on 51 rushes. Outside of Thompson, Washington’s run game has been ineffective. Robert Kelley is only gaining 3.2 yards per carry and rookie Samaje Perine has just 3.1 per rush. Health issues on the offensive line have likely played a significant role in the ground struggles.
Jerick McKinnon has bounced back from a rough 2016 to become one of the leauge’s better dual-threat backs. He has picked up 4.2 yards per rush and caught 28 passes out of the backfield. Since Dalvin Cook went down for the year, McKinnon has averaged 65 yards rushing and 41 yards receiving per game. Latavius Murray has been the Vikings’ power-run option, which paid particular dividends against Baltimore. While his numbers aren’t flashy, Murray has looked more explosive as the year has gone on, possibly due to the health of his ankle.
Advantage: Slight edge to Vikings
The strength of Washington’s weapons entirely depends on health. Receiver Jamison Crowder and tight end Jordan Reed are both listed on the team’s injury report as questionable. When both are healthy, Cousins has a group of dangerous set of players in which to distribute the ball. Last year against the Vikings, he found seven different targets. Terrelle Pryor and Josh Doctson were expected to be bigger contributors than they have been, though Doctson made a key catch in the win over Seattle. Pryor has only 20 receptions following a 77-catch season last year.
The Vikings will have Stefon Diggs back to full strength after he was slowed in the first half of the season by a groin injury. That could be a big factor for Case Keenum against a defense with a strong secondary. Last season Diggs grabbed 13 passes against Washington and he’s been even more effective when in the lineup this year, averaging 15.6 yards per catch. Adam Thielen has continued to be unguardable, ranking eighth in the NFL in yards. His ability to go deep will be helped along by Diggs’ presence. If Michael Floyd comes back at 100 percent from a hamstring injury, we may see more of him this week. Kyle Rudolph has also become one of Keenum’s most reliable options and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has used him in a number of different ways like screens, posts and in the red zone.
Advantage: Push (if Washington is healthy)
Washington has gone through many of the same things the Vikings did with injuries last year. Their left and right tackles have been injured along with solid backup tackle Ty Nsekhe, which has forced them to turn to TJ Clemmings. Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams, starting right tackle Morgan Moses and star guard Brandon Scherff are all listed as questionable for the game. At 100 percent, they are one of the league’s elite offensive lines. With Clemmings in the lineup, Cousins was sacked six times. If Washington doesn’t have its starters available, it could be a bloodbath up front, even if Everson Griffen is slowed by a foot injury.
The Vikings will be without Mike Remmers due to a concussion. While they are more confident in Rashod Hill than past backups, losing Remmers is a significant blow. He is currently ranked 12th in the NFL among tackles by Pro Football Focus and has been especially effective in the run game. Hill may be a solid pass blocker, but he will have to match up against top-notch pass rusher Ryan Kerrigan. At left guard, Nick Easton will be back from a calf injury, which will add to the O-line’s mobility.
Advantage: Slight edge to Washington (if healthy)
Washington has been shredded in the run game, allowing the ninth highest yards per carry against in the NFL. They have also given up over 100 yards on the ground in four of the last five game. Without interior defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis and top pick Jonathan Allen, they have asked Ziggy Hood to take on a heavy load and he’s struggled, ranking 117th among interior D-lineman by PFF rankings. On the edge, Ryan Kerrigan has the fourth most sacks in the NFL over the past four years. He’s continued to be a force in the pass rush this year with 6.0 sacks.
The Vikings’ defensive line has made a good case for being the best in the NFL. Everson Griffen has a sack in every game, Linval Joseph has been the centerpiece to the league’s third best run-stuffing defense and Danielle Hunter has continued to pressure opposing QBs, though his sacks haven’t yet come in bunches. The Vikings’ depth on the D-line is another major advantage as they can mix in Tom Johnson, Shamar Stephen and Brian Robison. This week we might see more Robison if Griffen is slowed by a foot injury.
Sticking with the theme, Washington’s best linebacker Zach Brown is questionable for Sunday’s game. He ranks as PFF’s 15th best linebacker, using his exceptional speed to close on running backs out of the backfield and cover tight ends. Veteran Mason Foster was placed on IR in late October, so Washington may have to turn to former fifth-round pick Martellus Spaight for more work and veteran Will Compton for more work. Combined with a dinged-up interior defensive line, Washington’s linebackers could be in for a ton of work in the running game.
Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks have been at the top of their game this season. Football Outsiders ranks the Vikings 10th in yards allowed in the passing game to opposing running backs. They have combined to slow down some of the games best a la Le’Veon Bell, Theo Riddick and Duke Johnson. Barr has made plays in every phase, routinely shutting down run plays and rushing the passer effectively, even if he doesn’t have many sacks yet. The Vikings’ linebackers will be key against Washington with Cousins likely to use his running backs and tight ends consistently.
The defensive backfield is the one area where Washington has been mostly healthy and very good. Against the pass this season, they rank 14th in passer rating allowed and 13th in opposing teams’ completion percentage. Josh Norman and Kendall Fuller both rank in the top 20 by PFF metrics. Norman is an exceptional competitor with a knack for getting under the skin of wide receivers, while Fuller has taken a step forward in his second season, leading the team with three interceptions. Washington has depth at the position with corner Quinton Dunbar playing well when he mixes in. Safety DJ Swearinger hasn’t fit quite the same as he did in Arizona last season, but he’s still been a strong run defender and come up with a hand full of passes defended.
For the Vikings, Trae Waynes will be tested this week – but this time by a quality quarterback. He’s been one of the most targeted corners in the NFL and has strong numbers since Week 2, but it probability isn’t a coincidence that his improved play coincides with facing Mitch Trubisky, Brett Hundley, Joe Flacco and DeShone Kizer. Will he continue to play well or be the weak spot in the secondary. Xavier Rhodes is having another terrific year. The Vikings may elect to keep him on one side rather than shadowing any of Washington’s receivers. Harrison Smith is ranked No. 1 in the NFL by PFF among safeties. His partner Andrew Sendejo will be back this week after sitting out with a suspension against the Browns.
Advantage: Slight edge to Vikings