Coming off a home loss to a division opponent, the Vikings will hit the road this week and travel to Buffalo for a bout with the Bills, a team also coming off a home loss to a division opponent.
Let's take a look at five storylines to watch this week as the Vikings and Bills prepare to battle.
1. Another Stifling Defense Awaits Vikings OffenseThe Vikings faced arguably the best defense in the NFL last week, and this week it doesn't get any easier because Buffalo boasts a tough group, as well. The Bills enter Week 7 tied for second in sacks with 19 and they are the NFL's stingiest run defense, ranking No. 1 in rushing yards allowed per game (67.5) and per carry (2.8) while also being just one of two teams (Kansas City) to have not allowed a rushing touchdown.
Buffalo is particularly stout up front, where they feature a 4-3 front anchored by Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams at tackle and featuring Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams at end. Dareus, Hughes and Mario Williams are all former first-round picks and Kyle Williams is a nine-year veteran with three Pro Bowls and two All-Pro selections to his credit.
2. Vikings Exploring All Options to Improve Pass ProtectionA big talking point coming out of last week's loss to the Detroit Lions was the eight sacks allowed by the Vikings offense. The Vikings 212-yard, three-point offensive output represented a step back for rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater after he throttled the Atlanta Falcons in his first start. Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer, while acknowledging there is a natural up and down when it comes to rookie quarterbacks, also explained the Vikings need to play better around Bridgewater.
"We knew that there would be some ups and downs with a young quarterback, there always is regardless," Zimmer said on Monday. "But if we have a cleaner pocket it would sure help, if we had guys open it would help. If we ran the ball better, it would help."
All indications from Zimmer are that the Vikings will work hard this week to improve their offensive output and will consider everything from lineup changes to personnel groupings.
"We're evaluating all of that and I'm not opposed to it," Zimmer said when asked specifically about lineup changes.
3. Bridgewater, Vikings Must Get Comfortable on the RoadThe Vikings have played three games at home and three on the road so far this season, but over the next month they will spend plenty of time away from the confines of their home stadium. On Sunday in Buffalo, Bridgewater will make his first career road start and the Vikings will begin a string of four games where three of them will be on the road, including the next two (at Buffalo, at Tampa Bay). Following those two road tests, the Vikings return home for a contest against the Washington Redskins, then take their bye week, and then come out of the bye with a road game in Chicago on November 16. The mission: Collect some wins, go into the bye and get healthy, and come out of the bye regrouped and ready to attack the second part of the 2014 schedule.
4. Orton Leads Different Bills Offense than ManuelBuffalo is a fairly unfamiliar opponent for the Vikings, with the two franchises meeting just once every four years. But the Bills starting quarterback is one with whom many Vikings fans will be familiar. Second-year passer EJ Manuel is no longer the Bills starter because he was replaced by Kyle Orton, a one-time member of the Chicago Bears who has five career starts against the Vikings – all with Chicago. The last time Orton started against the Vikings was back in 2008. Since then, Orton has suited up for four teams including the Bills - Denver (2009-11), Kansas City (2011) and Dallas (2012-13).
With Orton under center, the Bills will likely feature fewer of the read-option plays they ran with Manuel taking snaps. But that doesn't necessarily make the Bills any easier to defend. Against the same Lions defense that shut down the Vikings, Orton was 30 of 43 for 206 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Also, Orton has a 4th-quarter passer rating of 113.6, an impressive number and an interesting stat given the fact that the Vikings boast the No. 2 4th-quarter scoring defense, having allowed just 20 points in the final quarter through six games.
5. Game within the Game: Vikings Look to Win Field Position, Turnover BattlesThe Vikings have struggled of late in the field position department and it's only made life tougher on the offense. While the Vikings are fifth in the NFL in drive start after a kickoff, they rank 27th in overall drive starts with an average of the 24.3 yard line and they have started 24 drives inside their own 20, which is second-most in the NFL. Also, the Vikings have started just three drives in opponents' territory, which is tied for 27th in the NFL.
On top of poor field position, or perhaps related to poor field position in a roundabout way, the Vikings are also struggling in the turnover battle. Through six games, the Vikings are -5 in turnover margin, a trend that includes back-to-back games where they were -3. Buffalo, on the other hand, is 3 in turnover margin. Not coincidentally, the Bills are also markedly better in some of the aforementioned field position categories, where they have nine drive starts in opponents' territory and have the second-most drive starts inside the opponent's 20 with three.