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Opponent Breakdown: How to Defend Minnesota's Explosive Offense

Posted Nov 17, 2017

Aside from QB Case Keenum, the Vikings have plenty of weapons — like WRs Stefon Diggs and Adam Theielen.

The Vikings’ defense rightly receives plenty of headlines.

It’s one of the strongest units in the league under head coach Mike Zimmer, who has built a number of strong defenses over his decades of NFL experience.

But Minnesota’s offense has earned its share of praise this season, too. The Vikings are currently No. 10 in scoring (24.1 points per game) and No. 9 in yards per game (363.8). They’re also quite good on third down, converting 45.08 percent, which ranks No. 5. (The Rams are No. 1 at 47.62 percent.)

The Vikings have accomplished all this even though the offensive personnel is not what was envisioned when training camp began.

Minnesota acquired quarterback Sam Bradford from Philadelphia just before the start of the 2016 regular season for a first-round pick, and conditional fourth-round pick after Teddy Bridgewater suffered a serious knee injury during a preseason practice. The move paid off, as Bradford completed a league-leading 71.6 percent of his passes for 3,877 yards with 20 touchdowns and five interceptions last year.

Bradford entered the 2017 season as the starter, too, but with multiple ACL surgeries, Bradford’s knee wasn’t quite right. He’s since had the knee scoped and has been placed on injured reserve.

The Vikings drafted Dalvin Cook in the second round of the 2017 draft, and he looked the part of a strong running back through the first few weeks of the season. In Minnesota’s Week 3 victory over Tampa Bay, Cook amassed 169 yards from scrimmage and a pair of touchdowns. But a week later, Cook tore his ACL, prematurely ending his rookie season.

Even though both Bradford and Cook are now in injured reserve, the Vikings have ridding the famed “next man up” mentality to a 7-2 record and a two-game lead in the NFC North. 

In Bradford and Cook’s stead, Minnesota has turned to quarterback Case Keenum and running back Latavius Murray as starters, and has received quality results — particularly at quarterback.

Keenum has led the Vikings to a 5-2 record as a starter, which is one reason why Zimmer elected to stick with him at QB rather than switch to a healthy Bridgewater, who was activated for the first time in 2017 last week.

The Rams are plenty familiar with Keenum, as signal-caller started 14 games for the club from 2015-2016. Keenum is in the midst of a career season, completing 64.9 percent of his passes for 1,914 yards with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions.

“He’s played well,” Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer said. “I don’t know about exceeding or not exceeding, but he’s played well. For the most part, he’s taken care of the football, he’s made the right decisions. He’s come in and helped us win ball games.”

Even though there are many Rams defenders who know Keenum and his tendencies well — besides being a teammate, Keenum was Los Angeles’ scout-team QB for the last seven weeks in 2016 — they’re downplaying how much that matters for Sunday’s contest.

“You still have to line up and play,” Rams middle linebacker Alec Ogletree said. “He’s on a totally different scheme and a totally different offense and so for us it’s just about doing what we need to do to prepare, getting after the quarterback and winning our one-on-ones.”

“It’s going to be good to see him again, but we’re going to get after him,” defensive tackle Aaron Donald said. “He’s a tough guy, a good quarterback, and we’ll try to put some pressure on him.”

Players aren’t the only Rams familiar with the quarterback. When defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was the Texans’ interim head coach to end the 2013 season, Keenum was Houston’s starting quarterback.

“He’s a University of Houston [guy]. Obviously, I’m a University of Houston guy,” Phillips said. “He’s really playing great.”

At running back, Latavius Murray has started the last five games since Cook went down. Murray signed with the Vikings as a free agent in March after spending the first four years of his career with the Raiders. Murray has 317 yards rushing and two touchdowns so far in 2017. He’s often spelled by Jerk McKinnon, who has 319 yards rushing and three touchdowns to go with 30 receptions for 218 yards and a touchdown.

“It’s a balanced attack. They’re both good,” cornerback Trumaine Johnson said. “One of them is big and fast, one of them is small and fast so we are going to have a tough matchup. But if we go in there with the right game plan we should be alright.”

But the Vikings have a trio of receivers — two wideouts and a tight end — who are particularly dangerous. Wide receiver Adam Thielen is No. 3 with 793 yards receiving this season and has a pair of receiving touchdowns. He was originally an undrafted free agent out of Minnesota St., signing with the Vikings in 2013. He was on the practice squad that year and spent the next two seasons in a reserve role. But he broke out last season with 69 receptions for 967 yards and five touchdowns.

Then the Vikings have 2015 fifth-round pick Stefon Diggs, who has 31 receptions for 500 yards and five touchdowns this year. Plus seventh-year tight end Kyle Rudolph, who is second on the team with 37 receptions and 308 yards receiving.

“Every week you see different receivers, but normally you don’t see two real good ones and we’ve faced that the last two weeks,” Phillips said. “Thielen and Diggs are both outstanding receivers. I believe Diggs was leading the league before he got hurt, and now Thielen’s right up there, so that tells you what they can do. They’re a handful, but the tight end gives you problems too. They got a good tight end, too. It’s hard to double cover everybody. We’re going to have to win some one-on-ones or play good zone coverage in certain downs.”

So what will the Rams have to do to stop Minnesota? The Rams currently lead the league with 19 takeaways, and those will always be important. But it’s always about being fundamentally sound.

“It’s always exciting going into each week playing the game,” Johnson said. “I mean, they are 7-2 and we’re 7-2 — leading in both divisions. I can’t wait. It’s going to be a dogfight and I can’t wait.”