The New York Jets have been one of the NFL’s biggest surprises this season. At 7-4, they have more wins this season than they had in the previous two seasons combined (6-27). As impressive as this is, they are still third in the AFC East behind the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins. Still, the Minnesota Vikings have their work cut out for them as they reach the home stretch of the regular season.
Here are three things fans should look out for as the Vikings try to complete their sweep of the AFC East.
The Vikings are in the middle of a murderer’s row of elite pass-rush units. The Dallas Cowboys are first in pressure rate, the New England Patriots are second, and now the Jets rank fifth in pressure percentage at 24.7%. It seems unlikely that Christian Darrisaw will return from his concussion, so Blake Brandel will again be in the starting lineup.
In this game, though, the pressure will likely come from the interior of the line. Quinnen Williams leads the Jets, and he has become one of the best interior defensive linemen in the league. He has the fourth-highest PFF grade among such players and leads New York with eight sacks. Williams’ presence allows players all over the defense to get to the QB, as the Jets have eight players with two or more sacks. For comparison, the Vikings only have five such players.
The interior of Minnesota’s offensive line has been well below average at protecting the quarterback. Among guards who have played at least half their team’s offensive snaps, Ezra Cleveland and Ed Ingram rank 52nd and 57th in pass blocking, according to PFF. The Vikings will have to have their protection calls well rehearsed this week if they want to play more like they did against the Patriots than they did against the Cowboys.
Undoubtedly, the No. 1 matchup to look for in this game will be between Justin Jefferson and Gardner. They have arguably been the best players at their respective positions this season. Jefferson sits behind Tyreek Hill by a single yard for the league lead in receiving yards, and Sauce boasts the best PFF grade (86.7) of any cornerback and hasn’t allowed a touchdown catch since Week 2. Gardner is the best cover guy on a defense that ranks fifth in yards allowed per game (308.8) and fourth in points allowed per game (17.7).
However, those who watch this game purely to watch this matchup might be disappointed. The Jets have not used Gardner to follow receivers this year, and the Vikings like to move Jefferson all over the formation. Jefferson has played 23.5% of his snaps out of the slot and has even lined up in the backfield for a snap or two in most games. Meanwhile, Gardner has only lined up in the slot seven times on the season. The Vikings would much rather have anyone else covering Jefferson, so it makes sense that they would avoid that situation on most snaps.
Still, Jefferson thrives on the outside, and there should be at least a few battles between the two young stars. If one struggles against the other, it could change a lot about how the two teams approach the situation.
The biggest headline coming out of New York’s win over the Chicago Bears last week was Mike White, who threw for 315 yards, three scores, and no interceptions. White is no stranger to putting up big numbers in a game, as he put up 405 yards and three touchdowns while completing 82.2% of his passes in his first NFL start against the Cincinnati Bengals last season.
There is another side to the Mike White coin, though. In the two other games he started in 2021, he put up only 173 yards per game and threw one touchdown to four interceptions. With a long week to prepare for White, the Vikings may be able to bring out the turnover-prone version of the Western Kentucky alumnus.
This is easier said than done. The Vikings’ pass defense has struggled mightily in recent weeks, allowing 329.3 yards per game through the air over the last three games. They’ve given up an average of 276.1 yards to opposing quarterbacks on the season, last in the NFL. There is some hope for the squad, though. Cornerback Akayleb Evans has been practicing in full after being held out with a concussion for the last two weeks.
Defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson is also expected to play after injuring his calf in Week 8. With the return of these two players, the defense improves its coverage and pass-rushing abilities, which should make it harder for White and the Jets to sustain their success.