New York Giants head coach Pat Shurmur is quite familiar with the challenge his rookie quarterback Daniel Jones faces on Sunday.
Having spent two years with the Vikings organization, one and a half of those years as the offensive coordinator who had the burden of facing Minnesota’s top-five defense in practice, Shurmur has seen the way the Vikings pass rushers can overwhelm an inexperienced passer.
His advice for Jones, the sixth overall pick in April’s draft: “When he drops back to pass,” said Shurmur, “he’s going to face a pass rush you don’t always face. I mean, these guys are outstanding.”
Jones is the ninth rookie starter the Vikings will face under head coach Mike Zimmer. In the previous eight games, they hold a 5-3 record, good for a .625 winning percentage that is in line with Zimmer’s .589 career mark. A closer look, however, shows that those three losses were hardly due to the opposing quarterback’s excellence, considering the Vikings averaged just 7 ppg offensively in those games.
The Vikings have held rookie quarterbacks to the following average stat line: 16 of 30, 53%, 176 yards. Over eight games, those quarterbacks have thrown five touchdowns against seven interceptions, a 0.7-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Compare that to Minnesota’s overall average in 84 games under Zimmer, where opposing quarterbacks have gone 21 of 34 for 229 yards and a 1.5-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio (106 vs 69).
Only two rookies — Josh Rosen and Sam Darnold in 2018 — have exceeded 200 yards passing against the Vikings, and those efforts came in lopsided Vikings wins. Minnesota also beat Deshone Kizer of the Browns and Chicago’s Mitch Trubisky (twice) in 2017.
The best rookie passing performance against the Vikings came in Week 3 of last season when Buffalo’s Josh Allen played a mistake free game, completing a modest 15 of 22 passes for 196 yards, one passing touchdown and two rushing touchdowns. The other two rookies to beat the Vikings, Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott, threw for just 138 and 139 yards, respectively, with two combined touchdowns and two interceptions.
But just because Minnesota has a solid track record, Zimmer is demanding that his team respect this week’s opponent.
“The first thing I always remember is a rookie quarterback has won a lot of games,” Zimmer said. “Typically, all these guys have won. We treat him with the utmost of respect and I feel like this guy is no different. We have to treat him with the utmost of respect and treat him like he’s an All-Pro guy.”
Veteran safety Harrison Smith, who’s faced myriad rookie quarterbacks in his eight seasons, voiced the same caution going against a first-year passer.
“If you think, ‘Oh, we’ve got a rookie this week. It’s going to be great,’ that’s when it bites you,” he said. “You can’t take anybody lightly. I’ve played rookie quarterbacks and we’ve done awesome, and I’ve also played rookie quarterbacks and they’ve shown up and caused some problems for us.”
Those that have caused problems have usually done so with an element of mobility to their game. Allen, as mentioned, scored twice with his legs last year at U.S. Bank Stadium and hurdled linebacker Anthony Barr for a first down at one point. Prescott in 2017 had four scrambles of seven yards or more, including one on 3rd and 13 that converted a first down.
Jones had 23 college games with 10 or more rushing attempts and scrambled for almost 40 yards per game at Duke. In his first two NFL starts, Jones raced for three first downs, as well as two touchdown scrambles against Tampa Bay in his debut, one of which gave the Giants a late lead. New York is 2-0 in his starts.
“He’s obviously not looking to run the ball all the time, but he has that escape ability,” said Smith. “It seems like he has really good pocket presence to buy a little time or make a play with his legs. It’s obviously not like called runs and stuff, he’s looking to throw the ball, but if he can buy time he’s going to do it.”
That mobility is going to require a disciplined rush plan for the Vikings’ defensive line. Minnesota has 18 sacks in their eight games against rookie passers. The only one they didn’t sack once was Wentz in a 2016 loss.
“I think every quarterback gets rattled a little bit once you get around his feet,” said defensive end Everson Griffen. “You start hitting him and you start applying that pressure, so that’s our goal: to make sure on first downs, second downs, we’re stopping the run and getting him to passing situations and get to him, affect him and sack him.”
Jones has yet to lose as the Giants quarterback. Meanwhile, the Vikings are coming off a demoralizing 16-6 loss at Chicago and have dealt with a week of locker room drama involving one of their star receivers.
Yet if they perform against Jones as they have against young quarterbacks in the past, they should be in position to bounce back.
Slot corner Mackensie Alexander, who is dealing with a groin injury in addition to his existing elbow injury, has been ruled out of Sunday’s game, which should expand Mike Hughes’ role in the nickel defense.
The team also ruled out backup linebacker Kentrell Brothers (wrist/hamstring).