It’s weird to refer to any September NFL game as a “must-win.” It’s borderline silly. It’s something sports talk-show hosts and pregame talking heads spout to build drama. Having said that, if the Vikings are entertaining any aspirations whatsoever about making the playoffs… sorry, can’t even go there. Let’s just say this: The Vikings need a win to at least save some face following two embarrassing defeats to open the season.
Call it a “must-win” if you have to. Those who haven’t already flung themselves from the burning hull of this sinking ship are surely sensing the urgency.
Indeed, there’s been considerable wailing and gnashing of teeth in Vikings country the past few weeks. Fans have called for (in no particular order) the team to Tank for Trevor, fire head coach Mike Zimmer, bench Kirk Cousins, trade anyone with some semblance of value, and, short of all that, just go ahead and forfeit the rest of the games.
Other than that, things have been fairly tranquil.
So, what should fans be looking for this Sunday as their Purple-Helmeted Warriors attempt to halt their seemingly inexorable march toward doom against a 2-0 Titans team that reached the AFC Championship Game last season?
Glad you asked.
THE BIG MATCHUPS
In some respects, the Tennessee Titans and Minnesota Vikings are designed to mirror one another on offense. [Insert Spiderman pointing at Spiderman meme here.] The primary similarity is the aim of both units to force-feed their stud running back, enabling him to wear down opposing defenses to a nub by the fourth quarter. Through two games, the Titans have executed their blueprint fairly well. The Vikings… not so much. They haven’t been allowed to get Dalvin Cook rolling before falling behind so far on the scoreboard that running the rock was rendered an afterthought.
Whereas Cousins has failed to consistently lift the Vikings’ offense, Ryan Tannehill has been superb at providing balance to the Titans’ offense – and then some – since taking the reins from Marcus Mariota last season. While Derrick Henry was busy leading the NFL in rushing last season, Tannehill was leading the league in passer rating (117.5) and yards per attempt (9.6). He’s picked up where he left off last season, tossing six touchdown passes and no interceptions through the first two contests. Keep in mind, the Titans were without his top wide receiver A.J. Brown in Week 2 against the Jaguars due to a knee injury that might also sideline him this week.
Armed with Adam Humphries and Corey Davis as his two primary wide receiver options, Tannehill hasn’t missed a beat. And if the Vikings’ pass rush comes up flaccid for a third straight week, Tannehill will have time to pick them apart.
Ratcheting up the level of difficulty, the Vikes will be without Anthony Barr, who will miss the rest of the season with a torn pectoral. Moreover, their much-maligned secondary could be without Mike Hughes, who has a neck injury, and/or Cameron Dantzler, who’s nursing a rib injury. The absence of Hughes and Dantzler would leave (*checks notes*) the likes of Holton Hill, Jeff Gladney and Mark Fields to guard Tannehill’s targets.
In short, coach Zimmer absolutely needs to figure out a way to extract a pass-rush from this defense (blitzes?) while simultaneously covering up for his short-handed and inexperienced secondary and (oh by the way) containing the NFL’s defending rushing champ.
TITANS PLAYER TO WATCH
Look, you know Henry will be the big story. Wrapping up the Titans’ bulldozing back is paramount. And on the other side of the ball, the narrative will likely be centered on the ability of the Vikings’ offensive line to slow new Titans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney — because he’s a name people are familiar with, not so much because of his performance thus far for the Titans. Maybe this is the week he gets going.
Beyond the Henry and Clowney marquee, however, the Vikings need to concern themselves with limiting up-and-coming tight end Jonnu Smith, who has already reeled in three touchdowns inside the red zone and ranks second on the team in receiving yards. Smith is emerging as a matchup nightmare for even good defenses. He’s really athletic. He’s very good after the catch. And he’s obviously a problem inside the 20.
What should make the prospect of contending with Smith even more troubling for the Vikings is that they just got done allowing Mo Alie-Cox to gash them for five receptions and 111 yards last week in the loss to the Colts.
Yes, the Mo Alie-Cox.
His previous single-game highs were two catches and 34 yards.
Sure, the Mo Allie-Cox game might turn out to be an aberration rather than the beginning of a trend. It could be that the Vikings were so busy focusing their efforts on stopping other aspects of Indy’s offense that they overlooked Mo. Given his career stats prior to last week, that would be understandable. Overall, Zimmer’s defense has actually been pretty good against tight ends. Since the start of last season, they’ve allowed only one touchdown to the position – fewest in the NFL. If you can guess who it is without looking it up, you must really take your purple Kool-Aid straight from the fire hose. That lone tight end touchdown went to none other than Troy Fumagalli of the Broncos – his only career touchdown by the way.
So maybe, just maybe, the Jonnu Smith vs. Vikings defense matchup will be a real hard-fought battle, and he’ll be held scoreless for the first time this season. If you’ve watched all 120 minutes of Vikings football so far this season and aren’t buying that line of reasoning, however, no one would blame you.
You’ve heard all about the Vikings’ problems with third-down efficiency, both on offense and defense this season and its effects on time of possession. It’s been discussed in this space repeatedly. These remain front-burner issues until Zimmer’s crew gets things turned around.
As a result of these shortcomings, the Vikings have been outscored 34-3 in the second quarter of their two games this season. Zimmer himself pointed to this differential as a significant issue earlier this week when he met with the media. You can’t be expected to stick to your game plan when you get yourself behind by so much so early in games.
If the Vikings can’t be in the lead, they have to keep it close early or, as we’ve seen, the wheels start coming off.
But here’s another key metric Vikings fans should start paying attention to: turnovers. The four interceptions thrown by Cousins aren’t good, but in some ways, the one interception and zero fumble recoveries generated by the Vikings’ defense is just as bad.
If the Vikings aren’t going to force three-and-outs with regularity, the next best thing might be to occasionally pick off a pass or pick up a loose ball. Get your defense off the field. Give your offense a short field with which to work. Or maybe even do something wacky like return a pick-six. We haven’t seen any hint of that sort of potential from this season’s defense.
In 2019, the Vikings finished fifth in the NFL with a plus-11 giveaway-takeaway margin. We’re all old enough to remember last season when Anthony Harris tied for the NFL lead with six interceptions. Has he been even close to picking off a pass this season? Through two games, the Vikings are tied for next-to-last in the NFL with a minus-3 turnover margin. Meanwhile, the Titans are tied for second with a plus-3 margin.
Nothing has the potential to wake this Vikings team up from its early-season slumber like a few well-timed takeaways.