The Minnesota Vikings will face their biggest test this season when they host the Cleveland Browns this Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium. Minnesota’s success will be determined by their run defense. This is a football cliché that frequently doesn’t hold up in the modern NFL game. But since the Browns hired former Vikings’ offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski before the 2020 season, not many teams have leaned on the ground game more than Cleveland has.
In the first three weeks of the season, the Browns have the league’s second-ranked rushing attack. So it’s not a massive surprise that the Browns are the only team to eclipse over 100 rushing attempts this year. They do this with a strong 1-2 running back duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
Cleveland is also ripping off healthy amounts of yardage each run. Their 5.1 yards-per-attempt is tied for third in the NFL, including 18 runs of 10-plus yards. And they are punching the ball into the end zone with eight rushing touchdowns, three more than any other team. This all builds upon their third-ranked rushing attack last year, which averaged 4.8 yards per attempt.
Meanwhile, the Vikings are looking to build on their strong second-half defensive performance against the Seattle Seahawks. For the first 10 quarters of the season, Minnesota’s new-look defense, headlined by defensive tackles Dalvin Tomlinson and Michael Pierce, wasn’t imposing. Through three weeks, the Vikings’ overall run defense is up from last year, when they ranked 20th in the league, but they’re allowing 4.8 YPA after yielding 4.6 YPA last season.
It’s becoming a concern that the team spent too much money on a defense that hasn’t produced big results so far. However, this is the week where things will come together. The Cincinnati Bengals had Minnesota’s number in Week 1, rushing for 149 yards. But the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle both have lethal weapons on offense and like to get vertical downfield. With mobile quarterbacks at the helm, the Vikings’ designed a game plan that called for a different approach from the Minnesota defensive line.
Cleveland’s offense is similar to Minnesota’s because of the Stefanski connection. This should result in more snaps under center, thus asking more of the Vikings’ defensive line. The Browns are at their best when they use runs that go off the left end. Last year they averaged 6.2 YPA running off the left tackle. This year, that number is 7.5. It sounds simple enough to stop until you realize that Cleveland is good at running almost everywhere else.
This is where Pierce and Tomlinson can dictate the game. If they can take away runs to the inside and eat up blockers, linebackers Eric Kendricks, Nick Vigil, and Anthony Barr, if healthy, can stifle the run game. Pierce is already the top-graded Minnesota defender by Pro Football Focus. Tomlinson is fifth. Their impact has been felt, but this matchup requires them to alter Cleveland’s plans.
If they can take away the run and put the game in Baker Mayfield‘s hands, the Vikings have a shot at the upset. Cleveland only ran for 45 yards on 18 carries in their Week 16 loss to the New York Jets last year. The entire left side of the running game was neutralized; the Browns only ran that direction five times for five yards. With the run game neutralized, Mayfield was 28/53 passing for 285 yards and no touchdowns or interceptions. The Jets were able to sack him four times, and the Browns ultimately fell 23-16 to one of the worst teams in football.
Baker struggled in a Week 8 loss last year to the Las Vegas Raiders in similar circumstances. The Browns never got the ground game going, running five times on the left end for 39 yards, and they struggled everywhere else. They finished with 18 designed run plays for 76 yards. Baker added 25 yards scrambling, but with the run game not working, he only completed 12/25 passes. He didn’t throw any touchdowns or interceptions and only accumulated 122 yards through the air in a 16-6 loss.
It won’t be easy for the Vikings on Sunday. The Browns are their most formidable opponent this season. Mayfield is in a system he is well-suited for, but if Minnesota can take away the run game, they can force Mayfield into a position he isn’t comfortable in. If they do that, the Vikings can right the ship with a 2-2 record going into Week 5 against the Lions.