Continuing our series of offseason breakdowns following the 2021 schedule release, theRams.com examines the Rams' Week 16 road opponent, the Minnesota Vikings (U.S. Bank Stadium, Dec. 26, 10:00 a.m. PT, FOX).
Arriving at a 1-5 record by their Week 7 bye, the Vikings' initially did not have the brightest outlook. Despite those struggles, they won five of their next six games – the fifth a 27-24 overtime victory over the Jaguars – after their bye week to move into a playoff spot.
Minnesota's chances of the qualifying for the playoffs took a hit again, however, after a Week 14 loss to Tampa Bay and Week 15 loss to Chicago. It could still make the playoffs if it won its final two games of the regular season, but a Christmas Day loss to New Orleans in Week 16 eliminated it from the playoff picture.
The Vikings' struggles were effectively a tale of two phases. While they had a top-10 total offense (393.9 yards per game, fourth-most in the NFL) and ranked 11th in scoring (26.9 points per game), they also had a bottom-five total defense (393.3 total yards allowed per game, sixth-most) and allowed the fourth-most points points per game (29.7).
Some of those defensive struggles could be attributed to injuries to key starters. Defensive end Danielle Hunter spending the entire year on IR with an undisclosed injury, linebacker Anthony Barr sustaining a season-ending torn pec in Week 3, then linebacker Eric Kendricks sustained a calf injury during warmups prior to their Week 13 game against the Jaguars that caused him to miss the five five games of the regular season.
The biggest was offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak retiring, though the Vikings didn't have to look far for his replacement in promoting his son, quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak, to be his successor.
To replace Klint, the Vikings elevated wide receivers coach Andrew Janocko. To replace Janocko, they hired Jaguars wide receivers coach Keenan McCardell to the same position.
In free agency, Minnesota released veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph, kicker Dan Bailey and offensive tackle Riley Reiff. Its most notable additions were former Giants defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson (two-year deal) and former Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson (one-year deal). They also traded a sixth-round pick in this year's draft to the Cardinals for offensive lineman Mason Cole.
In the draft, the Vikings traded back, dealing the 14th and 143rd picks to the Jets for picks 23, 66 and 86. The 23rd pick was used on offensive line help in Virginia Tech offensive tackle Christian Darrisaw. Overall, six of their 11 selections were used on offensive players.
Mike Zimmer enters his eighth season as head coach of the Vikings, compiling 64-47-1 regular season record through his first seven years with the franchise. Minnesota has qualified for the playoffs three times (2015, 2017, 2019) during Zimmer's tenure so far, highlighted by reaching the NFC Championship in 2017.
What to watch for
Rams run defense vs. Vikings running back Dalvin Cook
Following the Colts' Jonathan Taylor, the Giants' Saquon Barkley and the Titans' Derrick Henry, Cook represents the final challenge for the Rams' run defense when it comes to opposing running backs on their 2021 schedule.
Cook is coming off a career season in which he set new single-season highs for carries (312), rushing yards (1,557) and rushing touchdowns (16). He was also effective in the passing game, ranking third on the team in receptions (44) and targets (54), and fourth in receiving yards (361), making him a key part of Minnesota's productive offense.
After Week 16, Los Angeles' run defense should have a firm idea of where it stands after facing four running backs – Cook being the fourth – who have rushed for over 1,000 yards at least once in their careers.