It was another busy and short week around Winter Park as the Vikings had a quick turnaround for today's noon CT kickoff following their 24-10 win over the New York Giants last Monday night. Without kickoff fast approaching, here are a few final thoughts on today's game.
Pass rush needs to remain patient
The Vikings led the NFL in sacks after three weeks (15), but they were held without one against the Giants in Week 4. New York made a concerted effort to get the ball out of quarterback Eli Manning's hands early, even if that meant throwing passes at the feet of receivers to avoid pressure. Vikings pass rushers didn't get impatient, though, and they continued to rush with discipline and patience, which paid off as the game progressed. It will be important for the Vikings to remain patient and keep rushing as a team against Houston on Sunday. If Houston takes the same approach as New York, then their explosive pass catchers will be limited just as the Giants trio was last week. If Houston decides to risk facing pressure so they can throw the ball downfield, then the Vikings pass rush will have opportunities to add to their season-long total.
Texans-sized dilemma: Use play action or not?
What could help reward the Vikings pass rushers if they do indeed stay patient is the increase in play action passing Houston's offense showed last week in the first game since head coach Bill O'Brien took over play calling duties. Houston used play action on 37% of dropbacks last week, whereas their previous three weeks the play action frequency was 19%, 23% and 9%. Play action often leads to the quarterback holding the ball longer, which gives pass rushers an extra beat or two to defeat blockers and pressure the quarterback. About half (eight of 17) of the Texans passing plays of 16+ yards come snaps involving play action, but Houston has also allowed a total of five interceptions/sacks in 33 play action drop backs this season. The Vikings have registered five of their 21 combined interceptions and sacks on play action snaps.
More opportunities coming for Patterson today
There's a good chance Cordarrelle Patterson will have an impact on the game today. He's had an impact on the game in each of the past two weeks largely due to his work as a gunner on special teams, but don't be surprised if today he impacts the game in his more traditional special teams role – kickoff returner. Houston kicker Nick Novak has 19 kickoffs this year, and 17 of them have been returned; he has only one touchback and one of his kicks went out of bounds. That's good news for Patterson, a dangerous returner who has seen many teams avoid him on kickoffs the past two years. Another reason Patterson could see opportunities today is that receiver Stefon Diggs is listed as doubtful for the game with a groin injury. Adam Thielen is likely to the bulk of the increase in reps if Diggs doesn't play and Jarius Wright could also see an increased role, but Patterson would also figure to factor in a bit more on offense if Diggs can't play.
Bradford's biggest test?
Sam Bradford's first Vikings start was on Sunday night football against the Green Bay Packers. The next week he started against defending NFC champion Carolina on the road. And then his third start was on *Monday Night Football *against the Giants. But could today, a game against the Texans, be his biggest test? Yes, it could be. Houston boasts the NFL's top-ranked passing defense, as they allow only 162.5 yards per game through the air and they've allowed only one passing touchdown on the year, too. The challenge gets even tougher if Diggs can't play because he has been targeted on 26% of Bradford's 95 passing attempts on the season. The good news is Bradford seems to have strong command of the offense, as is illustrated by his 105.5 passer rating in three games. And while Diggs' potential absence is certainly not good news, Bradford did display the ability to spread the ball around last week with nine different receivers responsible for his 26 completions.
Another talented trio; this time on defense
Last week it was the Vikings defense that had to deal with a talented trio on the opposition's offense – Giants receivers Odell Beckham, Jr., Victor Cruz and Sterling Shepard. This week it's the Vikings offense that must contend with a talented trio on the opposition's defense – defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus and nose tackle Vince Wilfork. When Houston aligns Clowney and Mercilus on the same side of Wilfork in their 3-4 front, look out. Wilfork commands a double on many snaps, so when Clowney and Mercilus are on the same side it makes it difficult for the offense to block them up.
Matchup to watch: Everson Griffen vs. Duane Brown
Today will be the last game Everson Griffen plays before his team's bye week, but the player who is likely to start across the line of scrimmage for him will be playing in his first game of the season. Three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Duane Brown is making his 2016 debut today after missing all of the offseason, training camp, preseason and first four games of the regular season as he recovered from a torn quadriceps tendon suffered in Week 17 last season. It's possible the Texans will have Brown on a snap count as they work him back into action, and if that's the case then Griffen may also see former Vikings teammate Chris Clark lining up across from him on some snaps. Regardless of who lines up at left tackle for Houston, it's a key matchup in the game because Griffen is an established pass rusher looking to notch more sacks after he and the entire defense were held without one last week against the Giants.
Things are pointing up for the Vikings running game
The offensive line has sustained yet another injury with right tackle Andre Smith out of action today and the Vikings enter today's game ranked last in the NFL in rushing yards. But things may actually be trending up for the Vikings running game right now. The Vikings had their best rushing effort of the season just six days ago against the Giants with 104 yards and two touchdowns on 33 carries, plus their opponent today ranks 26th in net yards rushing allowed per game at 125.3. With Diggs listed as doubtful on the injury report and the Texans bringing a dangerous pass rush to town (11 sacks in four games), a sound ground game would go a long way.