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Final Thoughts: Vikings at Raiders in Week 14

EAGAN, Minn. — Head Coach Kevin O'Connell and the Minnesota Vikings are back in action following their bye week and are headed to Las Vegas to face the Raiders. O'Connell said the team had a productive week of practice aimed at maximizing their opportunities with five regular season games remaining.

Minnesota (6-6) will have its full complement of offensive weapons available to quarterback Joshua Dobbs on Sunday as star receiver Justin Jefferson is set to play for the first time since injuring his hamstring in Week 5.

"I don't see any restrictions regarding his ability to go out there and function and play. He feels great and had a great week of preparation," O'Connell said. "He's been a guy that, since I've been here, it's been pretty hard to keep him off the field."

After using the bye week to consider its quarterback options, Minnesota decided to stick with Dobbs, who won his first two games with the Vikings after being acquired at the trade deadline. Injecting Jefferson back into the lineup gives Dobbs a complete arsenal of weapons to deploy versus the Raiders.

Las Vegas (5-7) is also coming off a Week 13 bye. Both teams are vying for postseason contention and among a group of 16 teams that entered the Week with a record between 7-5 and 5-7.

Matchup to watch: Raiders running back Josh Jacobs versus the Vikings run defense

Antonio Pierce sparked a noticeable change within the Raiders when he became the team's interim head coach following the firing of Josh McDaniels in early November.

Las Vegas won its first two games under Pierce and played the Chiefs close before their Week 13 bye. Pierce, who played linebacker for nine NFL seasons, understandably reinvigorated the defense. But his style has also ramped up Pro Bowl running back Josh Jacobs.

Jacobs is a staple of the Raiders offense. The 25-year-old, three-down back leads the NFL in carries (220) and has rushed for 100-plus yards in two of his last three games despite not eclipsing the century mark once through the first nine weeks of the season.

Since Week 9 when Pierce took over, Jacobs has averaged 90.8 yards per game and 4.2 yards per carry, making significant leaps from the 51.0 per game and 3.1 per rush he averaged in Weeks 1-8.

The Vikings run defense, however, allows just 3.7 yards per carry (fifth-best mark) and 96 rushing yards per game (seventh fewest). The Vikings haven't allowed more than 66 rushing yards to an individual rusher since Week 2 despite facing star runners like Alvin Kamara, Bijan Robinson and Christian McCaffrey.

The Vikings front seven defend the run with a group-attacking mentality. Defensive tackle Harrison Phillips handles the middle A and B gaps along with Jonathan Bullard and Khyiris Tonga. Edge rushers Danielle Hunter, D.J. Wonnum and Pat Jones also play significant roles in controlling the line of scrimmage and occupying running lanes.

But Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores' scheme thrives at creating tackling opportunities for second-level defenders. Safeties Camryn Bynum and Josh Metellus are vital to the team's run defense. Bynum leads the team in tackles and snaps played. Rookie linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. has played every defensive snap since Week 11, filling in for an injured Jordan Hicks.

Minnesota's front seven will again be tested against Jacobs and the Raiders commitment to running the football.

Six Points: Memorable Week 14 Quotes

Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores on takeaways from the end of the Week 12 loss to Chicago:

"We've gotta play better in those situations. I've gotta do better of putting them in situations to make those plays to finish the game off. I think there were a lot of things that were done well throughout the course of the game, but it's those end-of-game plays that are most important. As a staff, we took another look at it … and I think over the last, these final five games, they're all gonna be tough. It'll probably come down to situations just like that, and we've gotta find a way to be better."

QB Joshua Dobbs on Justin Jefferson returning to the offense:

"Obviously J.J. being out there is an efficient and dynamic playmaker, so that changes, having him in the lineup, but for me, I've gotta still go through my same process and trust the plans and trust the game that when the opportunities are there for him to get the ball, he'll get it and go make a play. And when the opportunity is for the ball to go somewhere else, those guys who have been making plays throughout the time, and stepping up into those bigger roles, they'll make the play. It's great to have J.J. back, and we're getting up to speed as quickly as possible so that we can hit the ground running on Sunday. But for me, you've still gotta play good, clean, efficient football. You can't go forcing balls, because obviously teams are going to have to plan for Justin Jefferson out there, right? So, we've still gotta play football. And when the plays are there, I know he'll make the big plays for us."

Offensive Coordinator Wes Phillips on what Jefferson provides for a less-experienced QB:

"He's the best receiver in the game, in my opinion. You lose a guy of that caliber, he really has shown up throughout his career at all levels – short, intermediate, down the field. He's a hard guy to get up and press, he's a hard guy to play off [coverage]. There's just really not a lot he can't do out on the football field, and there were plans, I think, defensively – OK, they're starting to figure out … 'Maybe if we do this with Jordan Addison, we can try to take away some of his juice…' With other receivers, you're trying to find [weaker areas]. It's just harder to find with J.J. He beats people in press, he beats them when they're off; he wins short, he wins down the field. It's what makes him so unique and so special."

T Christian Darrisaw on Dobbs being named the Week 14 starter:

"Tremendous confidence. We know the things he can do with his feet, with the ball in his hands. We've got faith in that guy. We know he's going to make plays."

Head Coach Kevin O'Connell on the team's focus:

"Our whole mentality coming out of this bye is about 60 minutes on Sunday, so I've really taken that same mindset with our game plan, with our defensive thought process coming out of the bye, special teams and the kicking game for sure as well. What can we do with the extra time – the Raiders also have that time as well, it's not like we have more time than our opponent – so we're looking at it like, what can we do to maximize our preparation and worry about the 60 minutes that are out in front of us at 1 o'clock on Sunday in Vegas."

Special Teams Coordinator Matt Daniels on philosophy regarding kick returns this season:

"The mindset has really always been, 'Return it no matter what,' quite frankly. But then you had Kene [Nwangwu] who was on [Injured Reserve] at the beginning of the year, wasn't too sure, a new returner back there with Ty Chandler. So obviously you want to build up confidence in that player before you start bringing it out 8-to-9 yards deep, like we normally would with Kene. So once Ty got comfortable back there, feeling good, and started having some explosive returns … then we kind of felt good about, 'OK … let's start bringing those things out.' "

Milestones Approaching

Jefferson needs 117 yards to break Michael Thomas' record for most receiving yards in an NFL player's first four seasons. He is currently tied with Hall of Famer and Vikings Ring of Honor member Randy Moss for second with 5,396.

Danielle Hunter enters Week 14 with 84.5 career sacks, which is just one behind Vikings Ring of Honor member Jared Allen, who ranks sixth in franchise history (includes totals before 1982 when sacks became an official NFL stat). Hunter has 13.5 through 12 games, which is one shy of his highest single-season tally (14.5 in 2018 and 2019).

Hockenson enters Week 14 leading tight ends with 80 receptions and needs four to break the single-season record among Vikings tight ends (Kyle Rudolph had 83 in 2016).

Harrison Smith will be playing in his 172nd career game, the most ever by a Vikings defensive back. Smith passed Paul Krause's franchise record for starts by a defensive back (150) in 2022.

"Fan-ally" Friday

Am I the only person who thinks the Vikings, who were ahead at the time, played the last offensive series and the last defensive series against the Bears "not to lose" and subsequently did? Players or coaches?

— Tim Sigmon in Knoxville, Tennessee

I can tell you with absolute certainty you are not the only person emailing me this week with those thoughts.

It's quite possible after having four passes wind up in the hands of an opponent that many would be more reluctant to throw the football in the situation the offense found itself in with the ball at the Chicago 43, a 10-9 lead and 3:28 remaining. Calling a pass in that situation also runs the risk of an incompletion, and O'Connell said he prioritized making the Bears use their final two timeouts.

If there could be a mulligan, then maybe the Vikings pass on first or second down instead of netting 1 yard on two runs. Or, maybe they call a run play on third-and-9 to try to get yardage for a field goal. A gain of 5 on the third-and-9, for instance, would have allowed O'Connell to consider a 55-yard field goal.

We also have included Flores' thoughts on the final drive above. I think he'd use his mulligan to blitz more during that final possession, given that so many Bears passes were near the line of scrimmage when Justin Fields was pressured.

I listened to a Vikings expert, and he commented that Dobbs would be challenged by the bracketing of J.J.

I heard another one say that having Dobbs would make it very challenging for teams to bracket him.

I also heard that Dobbs has a hard time with zones due to his lack of time with the team.

Could you comment on impact of adding J.J. to offense?

— Craig R. in Boston, Massachusetts (U of M, 1982)

A season with multiple points of intrigue and curiosity will write another chapter Sunday. I think Jefferson's return based on proven production alone will affect defenses' approaches. Ellis wrote a little bit about that in the "what we'll be watching" section of this week's How to Watch.

Teams are going to probably commit more resources to wherever Jefferson goes, which could create more favorable matchups for other players. Kirk Cousins has previously talked about the X (usually Jefferson) and Y (usually Hockenson) positions in this system.

The mobility that Dobbs could present going forward will also be intriguing. It wouldn't be hard to project more rushes for Dobbs — and more use of his mobility — than against the Bears because of how infrequently that occurred.

The bonus time for coaches and Dobbs to work through things over the bye week should help.

Jefferson's ability to win convincingly helps any quarterback. As does his ability to impact matchups across the lineup.

I have watched the Vikings play for over 40 years and have seen a lot of good and a lot of bad. From a long-time fan, this is what I see with Dobbs. I see Dobbs like a relationship with your spouse or a significant other. If you try to change them, the relationship won't work, and this what I have seen with Dobbs. Dobbs started out pretty strong for only being here a short time but seems he has been told not to run and stay in the pocket like Cousins. This isn't his style if you can tell. Let him run when he needs to. I am sure you can work with him, but you also have to take a new style of quarterback and work with them, especially if they have stuff to offer. The guy can make yardage when he needs to, but I agree he does need to get his timing down with his receivers. We do need our offensive line to protect a little more though.

— Jan from Rochester, Minnesota

All good points with the bonus analogy from Jan to start it off.

For as much as many believe Jefferson's return will do for the Vikings, I think the additional time to press pause and reflect on four weeks of working with Dobbs will help coaches try to amplify his strengths moving forward.

They've admitted his mobility is an element that is new to them. It definitely helped and was put on full display against the Falcons and Saints (and also showed up on both touchdowns at Denver).

Minnesota's offensive line was probably the group that could benefit the most from a bye because of how physical every snap is. The group has played better this season than it did against Chicago and can bounce back beginning this week.

Right guard Ed Ingram, who has played all 800 offensive snaps so far, has a questionable designation for the game because of a hip issue. He was added to the injury report on Thursday. If Ingram is unavailable, then the Vikings are likely to turn to Blake Brandel, who has previously played well in multiple spots as a backup.

*I am so sick and tired of the quarterback, in this case Dobbs, getting trashed for interceptions that are not his fault. When the receivers don't catch the ball but tip it into the air, it isn't his fault. And then you have the interceptions where the receivers allow the defenders pull the ball out of their grasp. Maybe if our wideouts would catch the ball, we wouldn't have such a large turnover number. *

We also need a play caller who calls a good game. We need 10 on third down, and he will call a play that is a pass behind the line for a loss, real smart play calling.

And if we had a secondary that could cover. I would rather see us face a fourth-and-inches versus a third-and-20 because we will give up a first down almost every time on third-and-long.

— Mike B. in Kentucky

Cousins has previously explained how every interception has its own story. The first was an underthrow that can be chalked up to Dobbs. He readily took the blame for that one. A couple of Dobbs' have been on deflections or being hit as he's thrown the ball and should not be chalked up to him. The fourth one against Chicago was a bad decision under intense pressure.

The screen on third-and-10 wasn't executed cleanly. I'm sure O'Connell thought it would do better than it did, but I also understand a critic of a pass at the line of scrimmage on third-and-10.

View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of Jan. 7, 2024.

With Cousins out and Dobbs at QB, it looks as if other teams have figured out Dobbs' every move. Well, this is your answer. Play QB by committee. Start one QB and sub another in at certain times to change up what other teams think they're going to defend. Go back and forth as often as needed to keep other teams on their heels. Like what saints do with [Taysom] Hill. Can't hurt.

— Gary A.

The Hill situation in New Orleans is unique. At times, it seems to benefit the Saints. At others, I've sensed a little disruption in rhythm. I was surprised last week after Derek Carr was injured and New Orleans seemed to be moving the ball on the ground that the Saints didn't keep Hill in a bit more than turning again to Jameis Winston.

I think the Vikings approach will be to continue emphasize protecting the football (and hope improvements are made across the entire team) and trying to synchronize the rhythm and timing of the offense, especially with Jefferson returning to the fold.

It seems the Vikings O-line issues are with the center & two guards more often than not getting "stood up" by the opposing D-line. This contributes to the weak run game and whichever QB needing to escape on a lot of the pass plays.

This may be more a question for the future offense, but can you explore a bit on how the top teams like the Eagles come up with four out of five linemen being Pro Bowl caliber and dominating the trenches? It seems to be the players more than weak development & coaching since the Vikes have done a very good job with our bookend tackles. It also seems like it's hard to find O-lineman that can excel in both run blocking and pass blocking, but somehow the Eagles and also the Cowboys have done well at this. Notice also how much easier it was to develop Jalen Hurts behind a great O-line, building his confidence more quickly, interested in your take, thank you!

— Rick Gigante

The success of the Eagles starts with five-time All-Pro center Jason Kelce, a sixth-round pick in 2011, and fans out across the group. Philadelphia and Dallas have hit on multiple picks, and the offensive line is a usually a strength of both teams.

O'Connell has said this week the team can be better around Dobbs than it was against Chicago.

The Vikings offensive line seemed to be making good progress together this season, but the Bears had a good night against the group in Week 12.

Center Garrett Bradbury has had consistent change on either side from season to season throughout his career. This was the first time he entered a season with the same guards on each side, but that has again changed with the addition of Dalton Risner, who took over for an injured Ezra Cleveland. Risner's ability to step in prompted the Vikings to trade Cleveland.

Another component of the Eagles and Cowboys offensive lines is that both teams have had years with the same quarterbacks and have been able to maximize the mobility that Hurts and Dak Prescott offer.