The lack of health on both sides makes this game not quite the marquis event fans hoped for. That said, there is still plenty of star power amidst this duel of NFC elites.
Here are some of the key matchups to watch as the Vikings visit the Rams.
Mike Zimmer and John DeFilippo vs. Sean McVay and Wade Phillips
Both teams have their play callers arranged similarly: a young, hotshot offensive guru and a grizzled, veteran defensive schemer. In their short marriage, McVay and Phillips have proven to be a match made in heaven. McVay’s offense earned him Coach of the Year last season, and leaving the defense to Phillips has paid off in developing a well-above-average unit. The Vikings have had some success with Zimmer and DeFilippo, but they are coming off a game where they were both badly out-schemed by Sean McDermott and the Buffalo staff.
In their matchup last season, Zimmer matched McVay play for play and ultimately held his high-powered offense to seven points. But in two consecutive games this year, Minnesota’s opponents jumped out on the Viking defense, building multiple score leads by the break. Zimmer makes halftime adjustments with the best of them, but last week, down 27-0, it was too late. As for DeFilippo, he has struggled to establish a credible running game, outright abandoning it two weeks in a row. Against a powerhouse Rams team, neither coach can afford lapses in gameplan.
Vikings O Line vs. Rams D Line
The Rams defensive line is the best pass rushing interior in football. Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh have been wreaking havoc on quarterbacks, albeit without finishing the job as they have only one sack between them. As we saw last week with Buffalo, pressure without sacks can be enough to shake a quarterback for extended periods. And the Rams do that exceptionally well.
Minnesota’s offensive line is shaky at best right now, and may be without one of their starters in Riley Reiff. Reiff was awful Sunday, allowing 12 pressures according to Pro Football Focus, but he is still theoretically the Vikings’ most steady presence on the line. If he does not play, rookie Brian O’Neill could get his first start with Rashod Hill moving over to left tackle. Another option would be starting Brett Jones or Danny Isidora at guard and bumping Mike Remmers out to left tackle, a position he played in Carolina. One thing the Vikings will have going for them is the return of Pat Elflein to the starting lineup. Though he struggled a little in his season debut, a full week of first team reps and one game under his belt should provide some stability.
Everson Griffen will not play, as the Vikings have stated he will be out as he undergoes a mental health evaluation. That means Hunter will have the task of one of the best left tackles in the game in Whitworth. The Rams have been arguably the strongest pass blocking line in the league thus far, surrendering only four sacks and 10 quarterback hits through three games. While he has been largely spotless, Rams quarterback Jared Goff can struggle at sensing backside pressure. That is where Whitworth comes in. His steadiness has allowed Goff to make play after play, virtually unabated.
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The Hunter of this year closely resembles the Griffen of last year, as Hunter has recorded a sack in each of the first three games. He has also added 14 tackles, showing his improvement as a run stopper. The Vikings’ pressure as a whole will be key in slowing the Rams’ offense but Hunter especially has to get Goff peeking over his shoulder.
Vikings Running Backs/Tight Ends vs. Rams Linebackers/Safeties
Now for a few areas the Vikings should try to exploit. The Rams are injured up the middle defensively, but even when healthy, they struggle a bit at the second level. They are currently 27th in the league in yards per rush allowed at 5.0. The Vikings are fourth-to-last in yards per rush and second-to-last in attempts per game. Much of that has to do with the lack of push upfront from the line, and that could still be an issue on Thursday. However, when Dalvin Cook has found room, he has been able to make linebackers and defensive backs miss. He and Latavius Murray (or Murray and Mike Boone, in the event Cook does not play) will have to take advantage of those windows and make plays on the weakest part of the Ram defense.
The same goes in the passing game. Murray dropped a pass last week when defended by linebackers and it resulted in an interception. He will have to shore that up, as Kirk Cousins has gotten a lot out of throwing to Cook. If Cook is out, Murray has to fill that role. Kyle Rudolph should also see more targets between the 20s like he did against Green Bay in week two.
Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen vs. ??
It looks like the Rams will be without both Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, so the Vikings have to hammer this matchup. Thielen and Diggs have found room against far more imposing secondaries. This has to be the area the Vikings exploit and they have to do it early and often. It is one of the few things Minnesota has pointing its way as they travel to Los Angeles on an extra short week.
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