On Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings open up the season by flying to St. Louis to take on the Rams. It should be a great, physical game, with head coaches Mike Zimmer and Jeff Fisher stressing a physical brand of football.
Matt Cassel will be starting the game for the Vikings, leaving Teddy Bridgewater to watch from the sidelines. With the first game of the season, there should be plenty of kinks the Vikings will have to work out on both side of the football. However, if the Vikings can take care of these keys to the game, they should have no trouble beating the Rams on the road.
Contain the Rams’ defensive line
It’s no surprise why the most dominant part of the Rams’ defense is their defensive line. The Rams’ have four defensive linemen who were former first round picks (Chris Long, Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers, and Aaron Donald.) Quinn solidified himself as one of the best young defensive lineman in the NFL last season after recording 19 sacks.
Quinn is obviously a pass rushing specialist, and he will surely give Matt Kalil a hard time throughout the game. On the other side, Chris Long is a good pass rusher in his own right as well, collecting 20 sacks over the last 2 seasons from the left defensive end spot, but Long is even better against the run with his excellent motor for getting to the football.
On the interior of the defensive line, Michael Brockers has somewhat of a breakout year last year at the 3-technique defensive tackle spot, recording 5.5 sacks in 2013. Aaron Donald is not starting, but it looks as though he will be subbing in for Kendall Langford in the Rams’ nickle defense.
In total, the Rams’ defensive line could be one of the best in the NFL, and if the Vikings want to walk out of St. Louis with the victory, they cannot let the Rams’ defensive line dominate the line of scrimmage. In regards to Robert Quinn, Norv Turner will have to game plan heavily for the gifted pass rusher to help Khalil with pass protection by either keeping a tightend on the left side, or keeping a running back in the backfield to block. If Kalil cannot handle Quinn in pass protection, it will be a long day for the Vikings, as Quinn led the NFL with 91 total pressures in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus.
However, other than the Kalil-Quinn match up, I don’t think the Vikings should have any problems with the rest of the Rams’ defensive line. Phil Loadholt is one of the best run blocking tackles in the NFL, so the 6-foot-8 340+ pound behemoth should have no issue handling Chris Long. Also, because the Vikings have an intelligent center in John Sullivan, there won’t be many concerns about pass protection calls.
As long as the Vikings’ offensive line can minimize the pressure on quarterback Matt Cassel, and not allow the ferocious Rams’ defensive line to live in the backfield on running plays, the Vikings can attack the weaker areas of the defense.
Be effective running the ball on first down
Turning around and handing the football off to the best running back in the NFL, Adrian Peterson, is never a bad idea. However, it is a bad idea when you gain minimal yardage (0-2 yards) on first down. In order to keep their third down situations manageable, and to keep the Rams’ defensive line from being able to pin their ears back and rush the quarterback, the Vikings need to be efficient on first down.
If the Vikings can put themselves in 3rd down with less than 4 yards to go, it will help them in more ways than one. First, it keeps the option of running the ball on third down available. Because running the football is still an option, it will help keep the Rams’ pass rush at bay; if the Vikings are in 3rd and 8 instead, the Rams’ defensive line will be surely going after the quarterback before worrying about the run.
Second, it puts Norv Turner in a better position for play calling; not only can he run the football, but he can also run a variety of short passing plays, especially short play action plays.
The more productive the Vikings are on first down, the easier their third down conversations will be. The more third downs the Vikings convert, the longer the Rams’ defense will be on the field, which means more energy expended by the Rams’ defensive line. The more snaps the Rams’ defensive line has to play, the less effective they will be in pass rushing situations.
Be physical on defense
With Sam Bradford out for the season with a torn ACL, backup Shaun Hill will be taking over the starting quarterback position for the Rams. With that being said, the only real play makers St. Louis possesses are sophomore receiver Tavon Austin, and sophomore running back Zach Stacy.
With these two players, the Vikings will have to tackle well in space, especially on the agile slot receiver Austin. The Vikings must also control the line of scrimmage with their defensive line. Guys like Sharrif Floyd and Everson Griffen will have to fight off run blockers and not allow Stacy to get a full head of steam before getting to the second level of the defense.
Once Stacy get’s going, he’s difficult to bring down. He may not have top end break-away speed, but Stacy has some wiggle in his step, and can back his power up with a few moves to shake would be defenders.
The Vikings’ defense has to be physical at the line of scrimmage, and this also includes their defensive backs– guys like Captain Munnerlyn will have to get up in the face of Rams’ receivers and disrupt the timing between receiver and quarterback Shaun Hill.
Test Shaun Hill, force him to make mistakes
Shaun Hill, a 13 year veteran who was originally an undrafted free agent signing by the Vikings, has not started a game since week 17 of the 2010 season; ironically, it came against the Vikings. Although he’s been in the league for 13 seasons, Hill has only played in 34 career games.
Head coach Mike Zimmer will do his best to confuse Hill, sending blitzes from all over the field. It may not be about how many rushers the Vikings bring, but about how they bring them.
Just like in the preseason, Zimmer will not be afraid to send defensive backs in his sophisticated blitzing schemes. The Vikings cannot let Hill get comfortable; they have to force him to make mistakes, something Hill does not do very often (he’s only thrown 23 interceptions as compared to 41 touchdown in his career.)
As long as the Vikings keep the Rams offense one dimensional, and force Stacy to beat them single-handedly, they will can easily win the football game.
Win the turnover battle
Teams that win the turnover battle are more likely to win the football game, this is nothing new. But it’s especially important for the Minnesota Vikings, who ranked at the bottom of the NFL last season in turnover margin.
This preseason, the Vikings’ defense created plenty of turnovers, and the offense only had one giveaway. The Vikings’ timely interceptions in the Red Zone propelled them to victory in the preseason, and it will have to continue going into the regular season.
With a defense that relies on great defensive line play and physical play in the defensive backfield, the Rams will do their best to pressure the Vikings’ offense into turnovers. Matt Cassel and the rest of the Vikings’ offense will have to take care of the football; if the offense can go the entire game without losing a fumble or throwing an interception, they will score enough points to keep up with the Rams.
Vikings’ football is finally back. Getting momentum started in game 1 is always crucial, especially considering the difficult start the Vikings have to the 2013 season. Despite going 5-10-1 last season, the Vikings could shock the NFL, and it starts with week 1 when they take on the Rams. Mike Zimmer and company will look to play good, sound football when they head into St. Louis, and will hopefully come out of the game victorious.
Since it’s becoming customary to predict NFL football scores, I think the Vikings will cruise past the Rams, 35-10.