Defense must lead Vikings Sunday vs. Rams

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings return to the road this weekend against another desperate team in the St. Louis Rams.

St. Louis (6-6-1) hosts its final home game of the season and traveling has not suited Minnesota (7-6) very well this season. The Vikings have won one road game this season. The Rams are 4-3 at home. But maybe playing in the Edward Jones Dome will help Minnesota, whose one road win this season came at Detroit’s indoor Ford Field.

Here are five interesting points to consider as the Vikings try to earn their second road win of the season and stay in the playoff race at St. Louis:

1. Impacting the playoffs, positively or negatively.

Both teams enter Sunday knowing they likely need to win their remaining games to have any hopes of sneaking into the playoffs this year. That Minnesota and the Rams are at this juncture is a testament to the narrow line between success and failure in the NFL and the remarkable turnarounds for both teams. They owned two of the league’s three worst records just last season.

Sunday’s game will be pivotal, and possibly knock one team out of the postseason hunt. A Vikings’ win would essentially end St. Louis’ chances. Minnesota might still have a chance even with a loss, but much would have to go right to still have a chance. Depending on what happens in other games (Green Bay at Chicago, Washington at Cleveland and Pittsburgh at Dallas), the Vikings might even hold one of those precious playoff spots after this weekend with a win.

2. The chase for 2,000, or 2,105.

Adrian Peterson’s run to 2,000 yards rushing, or Eric Dickerson’s single-season record of 2,105 rushing yards has become another focus, along with the playoffs, as Peterson keeps racking up impressive efforts — seven straight games over 100 yards. With last week’s 154-yard game, Peterson kept up his recent pace and now leads the league with 1,600 yards. The Rams, whom Dickerson played for 1984 when he set the record, are the league’s 13th-ranked run defense, but that matters little to Peterson these days.

Peterson needs to average 168.3 yards in the final three games to reach Dickerson’s record. He needs 133.3 per game to earn the first 2,000-yard season of his career. During his seven-game streak, he has 1,101 yards rushing, an average of 157.3 per game. But since his 182-yard outburst against Seattle, Peterson has averaged 165 yards over the past five games. Gaining 505 yards in three games would seem nearly impossible, but Peterson has shown there is no reason to doubt him.

3. Making the bookends stand still.

When Minnesota needs to pass the ball, quarterback Christian Ponder will need to have time to find receivers. Ponder has been too prone to releasing from the pocket early and scrambling left or right instead of stepping into his throws, causing major problems with his footwork. The task of staying in the pocket, and keeping Ponder upright, will be tough against St. Louis, which is tied for second in the NFL with 39 sacks this season.

The Rams’ bookends on the defensive line, right end Robert Quinn and left end Chris Long, are the big reasons for the pass rush. Quinn, a first-round draft pick last year, is tied for 10th in the league with 9.5 sacks. Long, well known for being Hall of Famer Howie Long’s son, is making a name for himself, with 7.5 sacks this year after having 13 last year. Those two will be matched up with Minnesota bookend offensive tackles Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt. Kalil, who’s been strong in pass blocking in his first year, will get the speedy Quinn on Ponder’s blind side. Loadholt will be matched up with Long, who has a variety of moves and can offer strength and speed. Even rookie defensive tackle Michael Brockers, a first-round pick, has come on and has four sacks.

The Vikings haven’t faced a premier pass-rushing combination like Quinn and Long, perhaps since Week 3 against San Francisco’s Justin Smith and Aldon Smith. Of course, Week 3 might have been Minnesota’s most impressive overall effort and Ponder wasn’t sacked in the game.

4. Turnovers versus takeaways?

The key for Minnesota in its home success and road failures has come down to turnover-differential. The Vikings need takeaways Sunday and must limit their turnovers. Minnesota owns a plus-1 margin in turnover differential at home this year, including a minus-3 in the lone home loss to Tampa Bay. On the road, the Vikings are a minus-6. In its one road win, Minnesota didn’t commit a turnover and was plus-1 in turnover differential. As a result, the Vikings are outscoring opponents 24.7-18.7 at home this season. Those numbers flip on the road, with Minnesota facing a 25.8-18.3 deficit in average scoring.

The Rams are a minus-1 this season. They are tied for 12th with 13 interceptions and have returned three for touchdowns, two by talented rookie Janoris Jenkins. Veteran Cortland Finnegan gives St. Louis a pair of effective cornerbacks to go with the vicious pass rush. Jenkins and Finnegan both have three interceptions. Meanwhile, only seven teams have turned the ball over fewer times than St. Louis.

5. The Blair Walsh Project versus Legatron?

Rookie kickers have been impressive this season, with Minnesota’s Blair Walsh being one of the most consistent kickers in the league and St. Louis’ Greg Zuerlein becoming a weekly phenomenon with his leg strength. Zuerlein was the second kicker drafted this year — behind only Houston’s Randy Bullock, who has missed the season with an injury — and Walsh was next off the board to the Vikings in the sixth round, four spots later.

Walsh is no slouch when it comes to leg strength. He’s fifth in the league in touchbacks this season, already setting a team-record for touchbacks in a season with 41. He’s set the Minnesota record for most field goals by a rookie kicker with 24, which is tied for eighth in the league and he’s 24 of 27 on field-goal attempts this season, with five field goals of 50 yards or more.

Zuerlein has seven field goals of more than 50 yards this season, and is just one shy of the NFL record for a single season. He connected on a 60-yarder this season, the record for a rookie, and already owns three of the four longest field goals in Rams history. Zuerlein is 21 of 27 on field goal attempts this season. He has 28 touchbacks.

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