The Vikings took one on the chin in last week's loss to Detroit, but there is little time to sulk because another tough test is quickly approaching. Looking to get back on the winning track, the Vikings will head to Buffalo this weekend for a battle with the Bills on Sunday.
What else can we take away from Sunday's loss and what's in store for this weekend's game against the Bills? Here are three lessons and three questions as the NFL calendar nears Week 7.
1. Defense Found Answers to 3rd Down WoesAfter allowing New Orleans to go nine of 13 (69%) and then Atlanta to go 10 of 15 (67%) on 3rd downs in consecutive weeks, you can be sure Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer and his defensive staff went to work on improving in that critical area of the game. They found some answers somewhere because Green Bay was just four of 11 (36%) and Detroit was an abysmal one of 13 (8%) on 3rd down. The silver lining in the Vikings 17-3 loss last week was the play of the Vikings defense, and one of the standout elements of the performance was on 3rd downs.
2. Cornerbacks Keep Performing WellPerhaps the most visible improvement in the Vikings defense from 2013 to 2014 is the play of the cornerbacks. The three who play the most – Captain Munnerlyn, Xavier Rhodes and Josh Robinson – have combined for 15 pass breakups (PBUs), and each of them had one last week against Detroit. Robinson, now entrenched at outside cornerback, looks comfortable and natural in the position and Rhodes continues to show progression; his recovery speed is an underrated facet of his game. Last week against Detroit, QB Matthew Stafford targeted wide receivers 20 times, completing just 10 passes on those targets for an average of 6.4 yards per completion.
3. Offense Still Looking to get Explosive on the GroundThe Vikings shook things up a bit by starting Jerick McKinnon at running back, a departure from the plan through the first five games where Matt Asiata took most of the reps. While McKinnon is a more explosive foot athlete than Asiata, he wasn't able to generate any more explosion because he averaged just 3.6 yards per carry and his long rush for the day was nine yards. The Vikings also tried Cordarrelle Patterson on the ground, motioning him into the backfield and then running a toss sweep with him, but it generated only two yards. It's imperative that the Vikings keep working to find a way to generate more production on the ground because it will help them move the chains and it will eventually lead to better pass protection because defenses will have to respect the ground attack rather than pinning their ears back on 3rd and longs all day.
1. How Will Vikings Fix Pass Protection?Speaking of pass protection, the Vikings must find a way to improve it. They surrendered eight sacks to the Lions and are facing a Bills team this weekend that ranks No. 2 in the NFL in sacks. Pass protection is an offensive element that is shared and is not only the responsibility of the offensive line. While the Vikings offensive line can play better, the Vikings must also improve other facets incorporated in preventing sacks – running backs and tight ends in blitz pickup, receivers getting open and the quarterback getting rid of the ball on time.
2. Will Chad Greenway Play this Week?Is this the week Chad Greenway returns from hand and rib injuries? The Vikings defense has performed well at times without its leader, but there's no question it's a better unit with No. 52 on the field. One reason is because they are more versatile with Greenway in the mix. For example, the Vikings have not used Barr as frequently as a defensive end in sub packages with Greenway out of the mix. That is something that could return once the team's leading tackler for each of the past six seasons returns to the lineup.
3. Has Jerick McKinnon Become the Starting Running Back?
Asiata started the first five games and McKinnon started last week. Both have their strengths, and in the end they are actually a pair of backs that complement each other well. It may not matter who actually starts the game. The more important matter is how Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner chooses to use each back on a weekly basis. It's a decision that could hinge on a particular opponent or which running back has the hot hand. Regardless, the bottom line is the Vikings need to be more explosive on the ground and it's hard not to think McKinnon is an important part of the solution.