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Monday Morning Mailbag: Another Week, Another Tough NFC Test

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Atlanta seems like the biggest test overall at this point of the season. Julio Jones versus Xavier Rhodes – this matchup should be a classic. I think the Atlanta offense, both running and passing, is a good test for the best defense in the NFL. What do you think are the matchups that will be factors in the game? -- Larry Lujan

Rhodes versus Jones is certainly an important matchup in this game, as is Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews against Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen and Falcons center Alex Mack against the Vikings interior defensive line plus Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks when they are in the A gap. On the flip side, I'll be interested to see how the Vikings passing offense operates against a Falcons defense that has a lot of speed. Their linebackers are good in coverage, safety Keanu Neal is a physical presence in the middle of the field and their pass rush can get after it. Another crucial matchup will be the Vikings run defense against Atlanta's rushing offense, which features two really good runners in Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman.

I was wondering what happened during that first drive in the second half that opened up the ground game and then went away. Did Keenum catch the Lions in a soft defense to allow our blockers to open holes for the backs? It was magical! -- Nicholas Balkou

I did watch those four runs back, and it was a tremendous job of blocking by the offensive linemen and tight ends. The running backs hit the right holes and even shrugged off some tacklers, but for the most part it was really clean blocking, with interior guys executing reach blocks well and then getting to the second level, as well as blockers on the perimeter kicking their defenders out. On the 64-yard run to open the 3rd quarter, tight end David Morgan did a good job on defensive end Ziggy Ansah, right guard Joe Berger took care of defensive tackle Akeem Spence and right tackle Rashod Hill got to the second level on linebacker Jarrad Davis. On Jerick McKinnon's 11-yarder, left guard Nick Easton worked up to Davis, center Pat Elflein reached and sealed Spence, Hill sealed Ansah and Morgan kicked out linebacker Paul Worrilow. It was just precise execution by the offensive line and tight ends (Kyle Rudolph had a key block against linebacker Tahir Whitehead on McKinnon's 16-yard run) and a good job by the backs of finding lanes, getting small in the hole and running north-south.

We had several negative running plays on Thursday. It was about the only thing that went wrong. But what was causing it? It looked like the Lions had picked up something in Keenum's cadence and had a great jump a couple times. -- Kerry Watkins

I'm sure some of it was a lack of execution on the Vikings part, but another part of it is you have to give credit to the Lions defense for committing to stopping the run and then executing properly to do it. They were crowding the box most of the day and defeated some Vikings rushing attempts with sheer numbers. On all 10 of the Vikings non kneel down lost yardage runs, the Lions had at least seven defenders in the box; they had eight defenders on five of the snaps. If a team is going to do that and then is also going to shoot gaps, then they are going to get some negative yardage tackles. But they are also susceptible to giving up explosive runs and passes, which the Vikings were able to exploit at times. Murray's 46-yarder came against a stacked box, as an example.

I have noticed that after big plays, Case Keenum runs the offense up to the line of scrimmage without a huddle. The result seems to be that the opposing defense is kept off-balance, and a lot of positive plays leading to good drives. Is this something that is installed by Coach Shurmur? Or does Keenum add this tempo to the Vikings offense? -- John Bowers

My understanding is this is something coach Shurmur introduced to the offense and is in control of on game days. I'm guessing if you asked him about it and he felt like sharing, he might say it's an idea he took with him from his days of working with Chip Kelly in Philadelphia. Coach Kelly is known for using tempo regularly, and perhaps Shurmur saw some of the benefits of using tempo on offense and wanted to draw upon that by using it occasionally with his offense in Minnesota.

The biggest question mark going into the last five games is our kicking game. Is the problem with Kai Forbath or the whole kicking team? I haven't seen so many blocks in one game for quite a while. The Vikings need to be at their best on all three phases going into the next five games, as it may come down to an extra point or field goal to pull out the win. What are your thoughts on this? Can Forbath pull out of the slump? Can we do better at slowing the rush to the kicker? -- Jeff N. Littleton, CO

I wouldn't say Forbath is in a slump. He's 24 of 28 (85.7%) on field goals this season, and that includes five makes in six attempts from 50+ yards. The two missed kicks on Thursday probably weren't his fault, and the second blocked kick at the end of the game was a product of the Lions jumping offsides. With that being said, no errors can go uncorrected and the Vikings clearly made some errors in the kicking game. Jeff is correct that it's likely the Vikings are going to play in some games where the outcome comes down to a kick, so it's best to be sharp in this area and to get to that point as soon as possible.

I love what I have seen the past two games, but what concerns me is that I don't see a killer instinct when we have a team down by a wide margin. I know the clock is on our side, but they seem to play a bit complacent. What are your thoughts? -- Ossie Gay

It's the age-old dilemma with which play callers are so often met – calling plays to win the game versus calling plays that decrease your chances of losing. One could argue the Vikings got conservative in their play calling in the 4th quarter at Detroit, but one could also argue the Lions lost the game partially because they ran out of time to score more points, and a big reason why they ran out of time is because the Vikings kept the clocking moving so often in the final quarter. I'm a big proponent of sticking with what got you there and with not being afraid to call a play to win the game, but there are times when that strategy needs to be curtailed in favor of a more conservative approach.

Why do we not try for the two-point conversion? After the extra point was blocked on our first drive versus the Lions and we scored again, we didn't try for two? I think it's something we should try if the situation arises again. What's your take? -- Scott Kocienski Albany, NY

I agreed with head coach Mike Zimmer's decision to go for one in that particular situation, but now that the point after touchdown try has been moved back to a 33-yard attempt, I am a fan of the idea of exploring the idea of going for two more often. The obvious risk associated with it is bypassing what should be a 90-94% proposition – the extra point kick – for a play from scrimmage that could net you zero points. But I believe teams could achieve a high enough success rate at going for two that it would make it worth the risk in many circumstances. I don't expect most coaches will change their philosophy on this, though, especially the coaches who have kickers who are making the extra points at a clip of 95% or higher.

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