Two straight losses – each disappointing in their own way â have led the Minnesota Vikings to a key point of their season.
Minnesota heads to Buffalo this weekend at 2-4 and in last place in the NFC North. The difficult early-season schedule is over. The Vikings have to make their move now if they want to vie for the playoffs in coach Mike Zimmer’s first season.
Minnesota goes on the road the next two weeks against the Bills and Tampa Bay Buccaneers and face a home game against the Washington Redskins before the team’s Week 10 bye. Buffalo (3-3), Tampa Bay and Washington are a combined 5-13 this season.
Here are five things to watch as the Vikings try to turn their season around:
1. Five under fire
Last week’s offensive struggles and eight sacks surrendered put the pressure on the entire offense, beginning with the offensive line. Zimmer said there would "possibly" be changes along the line, but more than likely the onus is on Matt Kalil, Charlie Johnson, John Sullivan, Vladimir Ducasse and Phil Loadholt to improve their play.
The breakdowns on offense — in which Minnesota is 28th in the league in total offense — have been across the board. Rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater showed some growing pains last week. The running game has been inconsistent without Adrian Peterson and the receivers haven’t done their part.
But many of the other areas could get a boost with a bounce-back performance from the offensive line. Kalil and company need to protect Bridgewater better and open holes for running backs Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata.
2. Mario and company
The task won’t be easy for the offensive line. Buffalo features a defensive line on par with the Detroit unit that made things difficult last week. The big name, and still very productive player, is defensive end Mario Williams. But the two inside players, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, are Pro Bowl-caliber players. Defensive end Jerry Hughes has developed into a good complement on the other side.
Williams and Hughes have combined for 8.5 sacks this season as the Bills are tied for second in the NFL with 19 sacks. With Dareus and Williams in the middle, Buffalo has the league’s top run defense. The Bills have allowed opponents to run for 67.5 yards per game.
A week after dealing with Ndamukong Suh, Ziggy Ansah and the Lions, Minnesota’s offensive line faces just as big a challenge this week.
3. Bridgewater’s bounce-back
On the flip side, Buffalo has allowed 269.2 passing yards per game, the NFL’s 26th-ranked pass defense. If given time and able to avoid sacks, Bridgewater could have the chance to bounce back from last week’s disappointing game, his second NFL start. Bridgewater was not only sacked eight times, but also threw three interceptions and wasn’t as accurate as he could be.
The Bills’ pass defense has been all about the big play. The sacks rank second in the league and Buffalo has six interceptions, which is tied for 12th.
Cordarrelle Patterson said the receivers believe they have something to prove this week. An effective passing game will be a must this week for Bridgewater, Patterson, Greg Jennings and the rest of the passing game. The Bills’ starting cornerbacks, Leodis McKelvin and Stephon Gilmore, are former first-round draft picks who have struggled this season.
4. Pro Bowlers no more
The early-season schedule for the Vikings was highlighted by the quality quarterbacks they faced. Minnesota went from Tom Brady to Drew Brees to Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford. This week, it’s Kyle Orton, who replaced E.J. Manuel two weeks ago.
Despite the schedule, Minnesota’s defense ranks sixth in the NFL in passing yards allowed, giving up only 213.8 yards per game. Young cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Josh Robinson have progressed and veteran Captain Munnerlyn has been steady. Safety Harrison Smith is a difference-maker on the back end.
Two important factors for the pass defense are sacks and turnovers. The Vikings have 14 sacks this season and have been unable to get to the quarterback at key times. Minnesota has five interceptions, four coming in its two wins.
5. Sammy and the speedsters
Defending Buffalo’s offense is a matter of keeping the speed in check. The Bills used the fourth-overall pick in this year’s draft to select Sammy Watkins. Watkins has 26 catches for 311 yards and two touchdowns. Robert Woods is another quick, shifty receiver for Orton.
In the backfield, C.J. Spiller has been one of the league’s more dangerous running backs as a speed threat but he hasn’t gotten loose much this year. Spiller is averaging just 3.4 yards per carry in taking the majority of Buffalo’s rush attempts. Veteran Fred Jackson has actually been the Bills’ best offensive player. Jackson is averaging 4.4 yards per carry and leads the team with 30 catches.