The Minnesota Vikings head into FedEx Field to face the Washington Commanders on the back of five straight wins. However, Washington is on a winning streak of its own, having won the last three.
Initially, the Commanders looked to be getting cut adrift at the bottom of the NFC East division. Indeed, they are still bottom of the table now and two wins back with a 4-4 record. But they’re within striking distance of a wildcard berth.
To stop that from happening, here are the Commanders key players the Vikings must account for on Sunday.
The Vikings give up big numbers in the passing game and tend to give up big plays. The man in Washington to take advantage of that is star wide receiver Terry McLaurin. Quarterback Taylor Heinicke will look to when they need a big moment, like the 33-yard contested catch at the Colts 1-yard line, which led to Washington taking the lead in Indianapolis last weekend with 22 seconds left in the game. Those are the type of plays McLaurin is capable of and that the Vikings secondary will have to combat.
McLaurin came into this season on the back of back-to-back 1000 receiving-yard seasons after just missing out on that milestone in his rookie year, when he got 919 yards. He is well on his way again this year, with 553 yards from the opening eight games.
Antonio Gibson / Brian Robinson
The Vikings run defense has improved dramatically this year. What was once a significant weakness has become one of the strengths of this defense.
On average, the Vikings are giving up a meager 76.3 rushing yards per game over the last three games. However, they will miss a considerable part of that run defense this Sunday. Defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson has been ruled out of the game with a calf injury.
Washington has a good running back duo in the form of Antonio Gibson and Brian Robinson, who they hope can take advantage of Tomlinson’s absence. Robinson was a third-round pick in this year’s draft and has started to get more involved over the last four games after he was the victim of an attempted robbery in the summer and shot multiple times. It’s a great story that Robinson is already on a football field. He is the more physical runner of the two, while Gibson is a dual-threat running back who the Commanders have been able to get more success out of the passing game this season.
Controlling the ball on the ground and finding easy completions to Gibson will be vital to Washington’s game plan. Heinicke has proved he can make plays in big moments, but Washington doesn’t want to get involved in a shootout. That would be asking too much of their quarterback.
Charles Leno Jr.
The best player on the Commanders offensive line is left tackle Charles Leno Jr. He is no stranger to the Vikings, having spent the first seven years of his career in Chicago. The veteran is enjoying another good season, and Pro Football Focus rates him as the 9th-best tackle in the league this season. He has an overall grade of 79.8 and is one of the best pass-blocking tackles, with a grade of 86.2.
In theory, playing on the left side puts him in direct competition with Za’Darius Smith. The Vikings outside linebacker is the reigning NFC defensive player of the month, executing a phenomenal October.
However, the Vikings have had a lot of success moving Smith around and having him attack from different angles. Expect the Vikings to try and get Smith matched up against the Commanders weaker interior linemen. How Washington counteracts will significantly influence how the game plays out.
Montez Sweat is enjoying the best season of his career in Year 4. PFF ranks him 7th among edge defenders with a grade of 88.6, the highest grade on the Washington team. His run defense grade of 87.6 ranks second across the league, while his pass rush grade of 77.8 is excellent. He presents a difficult task for the Vikings left tackle Christian Darrisaw, who has been enjoying a fantastic season.
The success of the Vikings offensive line hinges on Darrisaw winning his matchups one on one, so the other less dominant players can receive help with their blocks. If Sweat can get the better of Darrisaw, that will cause the Vikings a major headache. However, that will not be easy, as Darrisaw is quickly proving himself to be one of the best tackles in the league in just his second season.
In my opinion, this will be the most exciting matchup of the game. The Commanders have Jonathan Allen on the inside, who the Vikings would surely like to double-team.
If the Vikings can score as freely as they have in their last five games, I don’t believe the Commanders can match them on offense. Their defense has to slow the Vikings down to stay in this game. I would go as far as saying the winner of the direct battle between Sweat and Darrisaw wins the game for their team.