Can Favre, ice cold Vikings rebound against a slumping Cardinals defense?
Despite the overwhelming drama and never ending supply of storylines surrounding the Vikings in 2010, the games still have to be played. With the Vikings currently sitting at 2-5, every game from here on out will have a “must win” feel to it, and Sunday’s game against the 3-4 Cardinals is no different.
Here is a look at how I break down Sunday’s match up.
THE PASSING GAME
In the wake of Randy Moss’ departure from Minnesota, the spotlight has taken a momentary break from shining on Brett Favre, which may be a good thing for the quarterback who is enveloped with injury concerns and off-the-field turmoil.
However, with Moss no longer available and Percy Harvin very possibly sidelined with an ankle injury, Favre may be forced to make do with the receivers that remain. That group includes Bernard Berrian, Greg Camarillo, Greg Lewis, and Hank Baskett.
As a check down option, rookie running back Toby Gerhart seemed like he may have come into his own last Sunday, when he saw extensive third down play on his way to 5 catches for 67 yards. Adrian Peterson, who has 22 catches for 194 yards on the year, may also see even more targets than usual.
One big question that remains is if tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, who has not been real productive since injuring his hamstring in week three, can regain his usual form and help make up for the absences in the receiving group.
If Favre wants to improve upon his 69.8 quarterback rating, the Cardinals run-of-the-mill defense might just be the opportunity he needs. The rank 21st against the pass, allow more points scored than all teams in the NFL but one, and have a very pedestrian pass rush (15 sacks on the year).
The Cardinals are a decent team when it comes to forcing turnovers, as they have 9 forced fumbles and 7 interceptions this year, so Favre will need to focus on taking care of the football to avoid disaster.
Obviously, how the game goes will dictate how often Favre is asked to throw the ball, but I would expect to see him throw 25 or fewer passes on Sunday, a majority of which will be high percentage and “safe” throws. Don’t be surprised if the offense relies on yards after the catch instead of airing it out.
Player To Watch: Mark Clayton, Louis Murphy, Antonio Gates, and Mike Williams (Bucs) have all been able to top 100 yards when facing the Cardinals. With Randy Moss in Tennessee, Bernard Berrian will likely assume his position as the top receiver until Sidney Rice gets activated and, with Percy Harvin also a possible scratch, he might be able to finally regain some of his status after an awful beginning to the year.
THE RUNNING GAME
This has to be the Vikings bread and butter on offense this Sunday. The Cardinals rank a dismal 29th against the run and have allowed 100 yard games to Jason Snelling, Darren McFadden, Mike Tolbert, and LeGarrette Blount this season.
The Vikings should be able to rack up the rushing yards since they have the league’s leading rusher in Adrian Peterson on the field.
The Cardinals have struggled with all running backs, but particularly with big powerful backs like Peterson and rookie Toby Gerhart. If the offensive line can get these two into the second level on a consistent basis then it is possible that we see them both have career days.
Even if Harvin plays on Sunday don’t be surprised if his ankle injury prevents the coaching staff from putting him in the backfield. After he hurt his ankle on his first catch against the Patriots, the Vikings didn’t hand the ball off to Harvin once, which is probably for the better.
Player To Watch: While it should be obvious to you that I think both Peterson and Gerhart could have a big day on Sunday, there is one player who received plenty of offseason criticism this year that has really stepped up and played well. Watch for Anthony Herrera to have Peterson running behind his blocks more and more if he continues to play with the drive and burst that we have seen over the last few weeks.
THE PASS DEFENSE
The Vikings pass defense is ranked 14th this year, which isn’t too bad, but they were ranked much higher a few weeks ago and many factors have contributed to the slip in production.
The Vikings have yet to record a sack in the last three games which adds pressure to a secondary that has, at times, looked awful. The fact that Antoine Winfield is team’s only truly healthy player this week only adds to those concerns.
This might just be the week that the Vikings pass defense gets their mojo back, however. The Cardinals offense is ranked 30th in the passing game and a big reason for that is their inability to protect their various quarterbacks. They are tied for third worst in the NFL when it comes to sacks allowed, as they have given up 22.
The Cardinals have already declared Derek Anderson as their starter for Sunday who has been sacked 10 times this season on his way to a quarterback rating of 62.8 (ranked one spot below Favre). The pressure has resulted in him throwing only four touchdowns and throwing away seven picks this season.
The Vikings have yet to produce big numbers in terms of sacks and turnovers this year, but the Cardinals are a team that will present the Vikings with opportunities to do just that, and now it is time to step up and follow through instead of allowing “almost” to be good enough.
I truly expect the Vikings to be able to get back to playing the game on their terms meaning that they will be able to apply pressure with a four man rush which will allow them to better scheme against the talented receivers of the Cardinals such as Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston.
Player To Watch: Outside of Antoine Winfield, Asher Allen is the healthiest cornerback on the roster and is expected to start opposite on Winfield. Allen has had a terrible go of it over the last few weeks and his coverage and tackling performances have been hard to watch at times. He appears to be the biggest liability in terms of matchups in this game as he will be tasked with lining up across from Fitzgerald or Breaston on most snaps. This could be a defining moment for Allen, in terms of his long term prospects, as he can either add to the belief that he is not of starter quality or he can step up and put some film out there that shows he has what it takes. Keep an eye on the youngster and hope that he can pull through and improve his game.
THE RUN DEFENSE
It pains me to have to consider the Vikings run defense as anything less than stellar, but they have been mediocre this season as represented by their 13th ranked position. While a lack of recent dominance by the defensive unit as a whole, coupled with an offense that has been prone to turning over the ball of late, might add to the yards piled up by opposing rushers, there is no doubt that they have been surprisingly leaky up the middle this season.
A lot of that might also have to do with the fact that very few teams have been in a play-from-behind position when facing the Vikings this year, and thus were more willing to be patient with their run game. If the other three aspects of the game go as I suggest they’ll go in the above sections of this post, then the Cardinals may be forced to abandon the run and play from behind.
They may be one of those teams that abandon the run quickly regardless of how the game is going. Despite some talented runners in Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower, the Cardinals rank 25th in rushing so far this season. Their offensive line is quite miserable.
None of their runners have reached 300 yards rushing on the season yet, and the team only has five rushing touchdowns on the year. As is the theme of this preview, the run defense of the Vikings has a chance to regain some confidence against the Cardinals by being completely dominant.
Player To Watch: Is it just me or has linebacker Chad Greenway been a blast to watch this season? He has been flying around the field making plays with an intensity we had yet to see out of him. He currently is fourth in the NFL with 74 tackles and looks like he’s bound and determined to get a hefty contract extension at the end of this year via solid play. Greenway’s excellent playmaking abilities should be even more on display against a weak Cardinals running offense this Sunday. Enjoy the Show!
While the Cardinals have yet to find themselves an established punt returner, LaRod Stephens-Howling has really broken through as a kick returner. He averages 26.9 yards per return and has taken one to the house already this year. Since I expect the Vikings to punt very few times and kick off many times (i.e. the offense scores a lot) Stephens-Howling is enemy number one on special teams.
The Vikings coverage unit has been pretty solid on all accounts this year and I don’t expect that to change on a consistent basis, but the Cardinals, at the very least, present a threat on special teams via Stephens-Howling.
When it comes to kicking and punting, the two teams are fairly equal. Both are proficient.
Player To Watch: The biggest storyline on special teams this week will only come about if the Vikings truly decide that Percy Harvin cannot return kicks because of his ankle injury. If that is the case, then rookie running back Toby Gerhart is expected to take over those duties. Gerhart has some college and preseason experience in kickoff returns, but I have a hard time imagining him having the same impact in the return game as Harvin. None the less, it will be interesting to see how he does if given the chance.
A loss at home to the Cardinals would all but end the Vikings season, especially in the eyes of the fan base. But what would a win do?
The Vikings are expected to win this game so a win would do very little to increase the forecast on the their playoff chances, especially if it is another win riddled with mistakes and lucky breaks.
However, if the Vikings can return to the Metrodome and put up a knock out performance in front of the home crowd then a sense of confidence will reemerge amongst fans, and hopefully the players. Not only a win, but a devastating blowout, needs to be the goal of this team.
Look for the Vikings to play dominating on defense and efficiently on offense against a Cardinals team that just doesn’t have the talent to compete with a Vikings team firing on all cylinders.
This is the week that faith is restored.