It’s Nov. 8, 2020. The Minnesota Vikings hold a 2-5 record and are bringing up the rear in the NFC North. They are hosting the 3-4 Detroit Lions, led by quarterback Matthew Stafford. The Lions have an opportunity to get back to .500 and prove to the world that they are a competitive team with legitimate playoff aspirations. Meanwhile, the Vikings were just hoping to stay afloat for another week.
The game’s result wasn’t a reflection of each team’s records. The Vikings cruised to a 34-20 victory thanks to a dominant performance by Dalvin Cook in which he rushed for over 200 yards and reached the end zone twice. Matthew Stafford did his best to carry the Lions to a win, but he didn’t have enough talent around him to pull it off.
That’s been the story of Stafford’s time with the Lions — a talented quarterback who had much of his prime wasted on a perennially dysfunctional franchise. During his 12 seasons in Detroit, the Lions failed to provide Stafford with a competent head coach, an effective running game, a defense capable of getting stops, and, most importantly, something to play for.
This week, Stafford makes his return to U.S. Bank Stadium. Only this time, he’s leading the Los Angeles Rams, who are currently 10-4 with Super Bowl aspirations. LA dumped Jared Goff and two first-round picks in exchange for the former Lions signal-caller hoping he’d be their franchise quarterback. It’s something the Rams have been looking for since the days of Kurt Warner. So far, Stafford’s presence has made all the difference for Los Angeles. The Rams rank third in the league in passing yards per game (287.3), topping Goff’s career year in 2018 when LA ranked fifth in the league in passing yards per game (281.7)
It’s not just Stafford the Vikings have to worry about. The Rams operate like a well-oiled machine from top to bottom.
At the helm is head coach Sean McVay, one of the most innovative young offensive minds in all of football. When Los Angeles faced Minnesota back in 2018, McVay’s offense racked up 38 points against Zimmer’s defense. A large part of McVay’s strategy was to target the Vikings’ linebacking corps. He did that by getting the slower Vikings linebackers isolated in coverage against wide receivers. By the end of the game, Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp all had over 100 yards receiving.
The Rams’ wide receiver room has seen some changes since 2018, but they still have some names to keep an eye on. Cooks is no longer with the team, but LA drafted Van Jefferson as his replacement. Jefferson isn’t on the same level as Cooks, but he’s still effective nonetheless. Robert Woods suffered a season-ending ACL injury, so the Rams brought in three-time Pro Bowler Odell Beckham Jr. in his stead. Kupp remains in Los Angeles and is having his most productive season yet. He currently leads the league in receptions, total yards, and receiving touchdowns.
Additionally, the Rams have a solid running game, thanks in part to Darrell Henderson Jr. and Sony Michel. However, the biggest reason why they’ve been so successful in the ground game is the guys up front. LA’s offensive line is currently the league’s highest-graded run-blocking unit, per PFF.
The Rams’ offense certainly has a good amount of weapons at their disposal, but the team’s calling card is defense. The usual suspects have been playing well, like Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, and Leonard Floyd. Yet the Rams are also getting production from some recent draft picks. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Jordan Fuller, and Greg Gaines have all been essential contributors to a defense that ranks fifth in points allowed and currently stands as PFFs highest-graded defense.
The Rams will make life difficult for Mike Zimmer and Co., but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things the Vikings can do to help maintain control of the game.
The Vikings will be playing at home, for starters, which means crowd noise will be a factor. If the team comes in and plays with a high level of intensity, the fans will inevitably get loud. Then the focus shifts to stopping the run game. The goal is to make the Rams’ offense as one-dimensional as possible. That would allow Minnesota to start playing more nickel and dime coverages and key in on the passing game. It’s unlikely that the Vikings will completely shut down the Rams’ offense, but if the defense can manage to get stops in the red zone and force field goals, it’ll help tremendously.
Once Stafford is on the sidelines, the Vikings’ offense should stretch out drives to keep the ball out of his hands. This doesn’t necessarily mean constantly handing the ball off to Dalvin Cook. But a little ball control would benefit the Vikings’ defense because they’ll be able to get some much-needed rest.
Beating the Rams, who have everything to play for in the final stretch of the regular season, may be a tough feat to accomplish. However, there are things the Vikings can do to maintain control and, at the very least, give themselves a fighting chance.