Vikings Insider, The GM’s View
The Vikings seek their fifth straight win as they come off their bye and host the Cardinals on Sunday. It’s a rematch of last season’s Week 2 heartbreaking defeat for the Purple in Phoenix that came down to Greg Joseph’s missed 37-yard field goal attempt as time expired.
Arizona was an 11-6 wildcard team last season (before the Rams whipped them in the first round of the playoffs). They come to town off a mini-bye after their 42-34 Thursday night win last week over New Orleans. But the Cardinals are banged up with 14 players on their injury report, including three starting offensive linemen who missed Wednesday and Thursday practices and their leading tackler (safety Jalen Thompson), who is among many who were limited this week. The well-rested Vikings have only rookie receiver Jalen Nailor on the injury report, and he was a full participant in practice.
Both offenses are loaded with playmakers, and both defenses are giving up a lot of yards but forcing turnovers. It should translate to an exciting and likely another one-score game for the Vikings, who are 4-0 in such games this season compared to their losing ways last year. And that close loss in Arizona was perhaps the most frustrating of 2021.
With the Packers at Buffalo and the Bears at Dallas — facing two of the top teams in the league on the road — it looks like a great opportunity for the Vikings to open up a huge 3 ½ game lead in the NFC North if they can win this home matchup with the Cardinals. But as Coach Kevin O’Connell said this week, “We see the parity in the league, and nothing’s going to be easy. We’re back, ready to roll and excited to be back in front of our fans and play a really good football team coming off a big win.”
Keys to the Vikings Beating Cardinals
1. Run the ball to control the clock, setting up a big day in the passing game against a suspect pass defense, and keep the talented Cardinals offense off the field. Dalvin Cook is seeking his first 100-yard rushing day of the season, and he had success against the Cards last season with 131 rushing yards on 22 carries.
2. Get the ball to Justin Jefferson early and often, but Cousins also needs to spread it around a bit more: the Cardinals pass defense is 25th ranked and just gave up 409 yards and 4 TDs to Andy Dalton and Taysom Hill of the Saints, so there should be lots of opportunities for big plays through the air from Kirk Cousins to Jefferson, Adam Thielen and K.J. Osborn. Jefferson needs to be targeted early after only having one ball thrown to him on the first three series (all three-and-outs) in Miami.
Osborn has been fairly quiet this season with only 19 catches (he did have the game-winner against Detroit), and he had five receptions for 91 yards and 1 TD last year in Arizona, so this could be a big game for him. But Cousins must beware of a defense that has forced seven turnovers in the last four games, including two pick-sixes last week.
3. Continue the formula of winning the turnover battle and few penalties: This combo has significantly contributed to the 5-1 start with the Vikings in the top 10 in the league in fewest giveaways and turnovers forced while their +4 ratio ranks fifth (and the Cardinals are third at plus 5). The 25 penalties against the Vikings rank as the second-fewest in the league.
“Taking care of the football is such an important part of winning,” Cousins said. “And our defense taking it away has been a big part of winning this season. Being plus 4 is a positive thing, and we have to continue growing that.”
4. Keep that pass rush going that we saw in Miami (6 sacks) and tackle Kyler Murray in the pocket and when he scrambles: Danielle Hunter sacked Murray three times in the game last season, and he’ll need to put the heat on the elusive Murray along with Za’Darius Smith (now recovered after a knee issue had limited him in practice but not so much in the games for a few weeks). It will help to have D.J. Wonnum back from illness, and Patrick Jones is coming off a two-sack game. If the Cardinals offensive line is as banged up as they appear on the injury report, it could be a repeat of the Miami performance in terms of sacks if they can corral Murray.
The Cards QB has 263 rushing yards and 2 TDs this season, and we’ve seen Jalen Hurts (57 yards, 2 TDs) and Justin Fields (47 yards) shake loose on QB scrambles against the Vikings D this season. Murray is faster than either of them.
5. Tighten up the coverage to improve the 28th-ranked pass defense: Despite losing statistically leading receiver Hollywood Brown (43 receptions, 485 yards, 3 TDs) for the next several weeks with a fractured foot, the Cardinals are still loaded at receiver with DeAndre Hopkins having returned last week (with 10 catches for 103 yards), Rondale Moore who caught 7 passes for 114 yards and a TD last year against the Vikings, trade acquisition Robbie Anderson, and vet A.J. Green along with a still productive tight end in Zach Ertz. Murray’s ability to buy time makes it tougher to cover downfield. Ex-Cardinal Patrick Peterson has talked of the need for the Vikings to tighten their coverage in the intermediate zones where teams have hurt them and perhaps use more press coverage.
6. Another ex-Cardinal having a good season with the Vikings defense is Jordan Hicks (55 tackles, 2 sacks). He and Peterson will get their teammates ready for this game, and Hicks, along with Eric Kendricks, will be a key to containing the scrambling of Murray, who ran for 31 yards and a TD in last year’s win over the Vikings.
7. Joseph’s revenge game: It wasn’t all bad for the Vikings kicker against the Cards last year as he was successful on two 52-yarders but that short miss at the end was one of the plays that haunted the Vikings all season. This would be a good week for Joseph to have a perfect game and perhaps make that game-winner this time. He definitely needs to convert all his extra points after missing two in the past three games. A couple of big kick returns from Kene Nwangwu and Jalen Reagor also would help the cause, and Nwangwu is due to bust a big one after having two kickoff return TDs last season.
Cook said it well on the team’s mood: “Our mindset is we’re 5-1 but let’s see if we can play better football than we did before.”
Jeff’s Prediction: The Vikings are favored by 3 ½, and that’s about how I see this game turning out with lots of offensive fireworks from both teams, but ultimately the Vikings pass rushers beating an injured offensive line and getting to Murray with the aid of a loud U.S. Bank Stadium crowd. The Vikings will again win the turnover battle and emerge with another close victory to improve their great start to 6-1 and increase their division lead.
Around the NFL Observations
1. When can we recall the Packers as 10 ½ point underdogs, which is the case as they head to Buffalo? I think the Pack will play better this week, but the Bills are still the much better team and will win. The same holds true for the Bears heading to Dallas after their impressive win in New England. Justin Fields is improving, but Micah Parsons and the strong Dallas defense will handle him.
2. Two interesting games involving the surprising New York teams: The Jets host a Patriots team licking their wounds at the hands of the Bears. Bill Belichick and the Pats have beaten the Jets 12 consecutive times. The Jets will miss their excellent rookie back Breece Hall, who tore his ACL, and one of their top O-linemen (Alijah Vera Tucker—torn triceps). That puts too much pressure on second-year QB Zach Wilson, who Belichick will find a way to confuse into turnovers. I like the Patriots (and so do the oddsmakers by 2 ½).
The 6-1 Giants are due to get beat and have a tough road test against an overachieving Seahawks team that is the surprise NFC West leader. QB Geno Smith is having an amazing season for a player who was supposed to be washed up (he’s far outperforming Russell Wilson thus far). Seattle wins a close one.
3. 49ers at Rams is a battle of early season disappointing teams. The 49ers have beaten the Rams seven straight times in the regular season, including a 24-9 win earlier this month, but the Rams won the biggest matchup in last year’s NFC title game. I think Aaron Donald will get after Jimmy Garoppolo, and the Rams will find a way to beat a banged-up 49er team.
Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl