View exclusive images shot by the team photographer from the 7th game of 2014 as the Vikings took on the Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
It was the same old song for the Vikings in Buffalo last Sunday. The defense played well in only allowing 17 points but the Vikings still were unable to find a way to win, similar to last week's loss at home to Detroit. Also, the Bills drove 80 yards in 15 plays to notch the game-winning score in the final seconds, something that happened far too frequently a year ago.
What else can we take away from Sunday's loss and what's in store for this weekend's game against the Buccaneers as the Vikings try to change their tune? Here are three lessons and three questions as the NFL calendar nears Week 8.
1. The running game is starting to clickThe Vikings offense has endured a lot of personnel change so far this season, losing starting RG Brandon Fusco and TE Kyle Rudolph to injury, missing RB Adrian Peterson from the lineup, and no longer having the services of field-stretching WR Jerome Simpson. With that much change right in front of and during the season, it's no surprise that it's taken time for Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner and his staff to recalibrate. There is still much upon which to improve, but the fruits of their labor are starting to show with the running game. Buffalo entered last week's game with the best run defense in the NFL, but the Vikings paid no mind to that while rushing for 158 yards on 19 carries while playing most of the game with a backup center (Joe Berger) and a backup to the backup at right guard (Mike Harris). The Vikings became the first team to rush for over 100 yards on the Bills in 2014 and RB Jerick McKinnon's 29-yard dash is the longest surrendered by the Bills this season.
2. Vikings offense must score more points off turnoversThe Vikings defense has been stout for much of the season, but they took their performance to the next level in Buffalo by creating four turnovers. Unfortunately, the Vikings offense wasn't able to capitalize enough on those extra chances. The Vikings scored just six points (two field goals) off those four turnovers. The two possessions that hurt the most were actually the only two possessions that yielded points. While the Vikings did salvage points on the two drives, they started those drives on the plus-27 and minus-41. With short fields like that, the offense must find a way to drive the ball and score touchdowns.
3. Anthony Barr is really, really good
Week-after-week, rookie LB Anthony Barr proves why the Vikings were wise to select him with the No. 9 overall pick in last May's draft. Barr fills up the stat sheet on a weekly basis, and against Buffalo added another 10 tackles to his season-long and team-high total. Barr also recovered two fumbles, registered two quarterback hurries and broke up a pass. He's athletic and explosive, instinctual and smart, and strong and tough. Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer is known for taking players discounted by others and making them productive in his scheme, so just think what he'll be able to do with an elite talent who seems custom-made for a diverse defense like Zimmer's.
1. What's the status of RG Vladimir Ducasse and C John Sullivan?The Vikings lost two offensive linemen on the same play in the 1st quarter against Buffalo. C John Sullivan left the game with a concussion and RG Vladimir Ducasse left with a leg injury, and both of their statuses for Sunday's game could remain in question this week. If Sullivan doesn't play Sunday, Joe Berger is the likely replacement. If Sullivan doesn't play AND Ducasse doesn't play, the Vikings could look to Mike Harris, who replaced Ducasse on Sunday, or they could spend the week training Austin Wentworth or David Yankey at the position. If Sullivan does play and Ducasse doesn't play, then it could be Berger who steps in at RG.
2. Will the Vikings passing game get on track this week?Last week it was the running game that got on track. Will it be the passing game this week in Tampa Bay? It would make sense that one would to the other. If the Vikings ground game is productive against the Buccaneers defense, it would stand to reason that Tampa Bay would respond by loading the box and thus giving the Vikings an opportunity to attack coverage down the field. Helping matters for the Vikings is the fact that Tampa Bay ranks last in the NFL in passer rating allowed (111.9) and they have collected just nine sacks.
3. Is Blair Walsh one of the NFL's best kickers?Walsh is off to a hot start in 2014, having connected on 14 of 16 field goals, including three of three from 50+. Last week in breezy Buffalo, Walsh smashed a 55-yarder through the uprights, giving him his 15th career field goal of 50+ yards (in 18 attempts). The Vikings have had seven made field goals of 55 yards or longer, and Walsh has accounted for five of them. On top of that, Walsh has been an ace on kickoffs, blasting touchbacks on 26 of 32 (81.3%) attempts. His 81.3% touchback rate is second-best in the NFL and the 26 touchbacks are tied for fifth-most.
Given Walsh's accuracy and leg strength on field goals and then his ability to consistently register touchbacks on kickoffs, it's fair to wonder if Walsh is the best kicker in the NFL.