EAGAN, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings layover between trips last week to the East Coast and this week to the West Coast is all about trying to shake off the hangover of losing the past two games by a combined seven points.
After rallying to get to 3-3 at the bye, Minnesota is now 3-5 with nine games remaining. The Vikings will play their third of four consecutive games against a division leader when they visit the Chargers (5-3) in Los Angeles.
Vikings uniform combination: White jerseys and purple pants
Matchup to watch: Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks versus Chargers running back Austin Ekeler
Kendricks enters Week 10 ranked fifth in the NFL in 2021 with 83 tackles after recording a career-high 17 at Baltimore Sunday. He also is one of the best coverage linebackers in the league, which could come in handy often against the dual threat posed by Ekeler.
Undrafted out of Western State (Colorado) in 2017, Ekeler is the only player in the NFL with five rushing touchdowns and three receiving scores this season. He has 80-plus scrimmage yards in six of his past seven games and has averaged 125.8 in four home games this season. Six (four rushing, two receiving) of Ekeler's eight touchdowns have occurred in home games.
The Vikings allowed a receiving touchdown to RB Devonta Freeman and FB Patrick Ricard, as well as a rushing score to RB Le'Veon Bell, at Baltimore. The trio combined for 166 yards from scrimmage.
Look back at photos over the course of time featuring games between the Vikings and the Chargers.
Here are five Vikings-Chargers storylines to follow in Week 10.
1. Beyond recovery Monday
Going to overtime for the third time in eight games is almost as hard to fathom as it is draining.
An extra element of exhaustion for the Vikings defense is the fact the unit was on the field for more than 46 minutes Sunday.
"Recovery Monday" is always important for players to be able to get their bodies going for the next contest. This week, the recovery efforts will extend to Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and maybe even Friday.
The Ravens ran 89 offensive plays, which doesn't include a few snaps erased by penalties.
Four defenders — Kendricks, Anthony Barr, Xavier Woods and Camryn Bynum — were on the field for all 98 snaps. Bynum, a rookie who made his first career start and nabbed his first interception, admitted he was feeling the effects of so much time on the field.
Kendricks and Woods have played all 574 of Minnesota's defensive snaps this season, and Barr has played all 313 in his four games.
"I don't know that I've ever seen a game that's had 98 plays on one side of the ball or the other. So yeah, that's a really good question [about helping players recover]," Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said Monday. "I know Barr and Kendricks and a lot of – Xavier – played almost every single play.
"[Everson Griffen] had a lot of plays. So some of these older guys on defense, I'm gonna have to get them back," Zimmer added. "I made sure they got into the recovery room today and got their bodies going. We'll have to try to be smart in practice this week. We're getting the things that we need to get done, but we've gotta get ready to go. It is what it is. We've gotta go out and play."
Minnesota's offense could lend a hand on game day by sustaining more drives than it did in Baltimore where six of 11 possessions did not yield a first down.
2. Establish identity and capitalize on opportunity
Speaking of offense, the Vikings were rewarded a couple of times — a 66-yard rush and a 24-yarder — for getting the ball to Dalvin Cook. But the running back netted 20 rushing yards on his other 15 carries, a total impacted by a loss of 8 on Minnesota's first play after Baltimore tied the game at 24.
Patrick Queen knifed through the line of scrimmage to record the tackle for loss.
With former Viking nose tackle Linval Joseph anchoring the middle of the Chargers defense, it might serve the Vikings well to get the ball to Cook on the perimeter against a defense that ranks last in the NFL against the run (161.6 yards allowed per game and 5.03 allowed per rush).
They also want to get the ball to Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen more than last week. Jefferson (three catches for 69 yards) did most of his damage on a 50-yard touchdown that capped Minnesota's first possession, but he finished with just five targets. Thielen finished with two catches for six yards, which included a 1-yard touchdown to tie the game at 31 with 1:03 remaining. Thielen was targeted seven times, although the final time was essentially a desperation heave on a deep route when Baltimore blitzed more than Minnesota could block on third-and-8.
The Vikings have scored a touchdown or field goal on their opening drive of the past seven games, but Minnesota has struggled mightily with sudden changes of possession.
In the past two games, the Vikings have recorded an interception and fumble recovery against the Cowboys and two interceptions against the Ravens. Going plus-2 in turnover margin in a game is usually a strong step toward winning the game, but the Vikings have netted just one yard (including penalty yardage on either team) and three points after the four takeaways.
The Vikings are still trying to establish their offensive identity and must be better when presented with opportunities.
View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of Jan. 5, 2022.
3. Another week, another promising young QB
Fresh off facing 2019 NFL MVP Lamar Jackson, the Vikings will have to slow down Chargers QB Justin Herbert, who edged out Jefferson for 2020 NFL Rookie of the Year Honors.
In just 23 starts, Herbert already has 12 games with 300 or more passing yards, which is the most ever by a quarterback in his first two seasons.
He has size, arm strength and enough mobility to navigate the pocket, run bootlegs and throw on the move. At one point Sunday in Philadelphia, Herbert completed 11 consecutive passes on the way to a career-best 84.2 completion percentage and a 27-24 win over the Eagles.
4. Spring fever in the fall?
Kene Nwangwu's 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown landed the Vikings rookie with NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors.
It was the first Vikings kickoff return for a score since 2016 and a positive reinforcement for a mix of young and older players on special teams to reap results from preparation and execution.
The Chargers rank 18th in kickoff yardage allowed (22.2) and have allowed a long of 47 this season. Their punt coverage is allowing 11.6 yards, which ranks 30th. The longest punt return by an opponent is 27 yards.
Springing Nwangwu for the big one has led to Minnesota leading the NFL in kickoff return average (28.2), but the Vikings have room to boost their punt return average of 4.5, which ranks 31st in the NFL.
5. Are the positive tests over?
The Vikings have dealt with numerous positive tests of COVID-19 in the past week. Center Garrett Bradbury was the first to land on the Reserve/COVID-19 list last week despite being fully vaccinated, which could reduce the amount of time the starter will miss.
Safety Harrison Smith tested positive Sunday morning, missed the game, traveled home separately from the team and is likely unavailable Sunday. Linebacker Ryan Connelly landed on the list Monday.
Guard Dakota Dozier and T Timon Parris are on the Practice Squad Reserve/COVID-19 list.
It's enough to make one wonder if the spread has been stopped or if more positive tests could be on the way and a reminder to everyone that the pandemic remains ongoing.