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Final Thoughts: Vikings Evaluate, Aim to Keep Momentum as Jets Open December Slate

EAGAN, Minn. — The calendar has officially turned to December, which means NFL teams are gearing up for the final stretch of the regular season.

For the Minnesota Vikings and Head Coach Kevin O'Connell, the focus is not only on securing a division title, but also continuing to trust what the team has done so far to get to 9-2 while simultaneously finding ways to improve in certain aspects.

The Vikings next challenge comes Sunday when they host the New York Jets (7-4) at noon (CT) in a game televised by CBS.

"It seems like the Jets are no different than a lot of the really good teams we've played," O'Connell said. "Arrow pointing up on everything they're doing, a lot of momentum with their team, playing well in all three phases of the game. It's going to be a heck of a challenge for us."

One point of emphasis the Vikings are trying to improve on comes on the defensive side of the ball, particularly against the pass.

While Minnesota's defense ranks fifth in takeaways per game (1.6), it is also currently last in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game at 276.1 and is 31st in total yards allowed (390.7 per game).

O'Connell said while the team is always trying to play more consistent defensively, he saw improvements in areas such as red-zone defense and third-down stops in the Vikings 33-26 victory against the Patriots last Thursday.

"I think we're always continuing to try to find ways of limiting some of the yardage and play a little bit more consistent throughout individual drives to try to stop those drives before they get into scoring position or generate any explosive plays," O'Connell said. "I will say our defense has done a really nice job, as they did last week, 0-3 in the red zone. I think they had seven successful stops on third down. I thought we generated a little more pressure in the second half with some designed pressures, but also our guys just getting home on some rushes."

Another area the Vikings are looking to improve in is their ground game. Minnesota ranks 26th in the NFL in rushing yards per game at 99.4 and 21st in yards per attempt at 4.3.

O'Connell said Minnesota is continuing to assess the running game.

"That's ultimately what we'll continue to try to challenge our guys to do: 'How physical can we be?' But also understanding we've got to have a great awareness of the second level," O'Connell said. "We've got to have an understanding of how teams are activating some secondary pressures to stop some of our run game that we've put on tape, and then as we progress forward, 'Can we be really good at the things we want to hang our hat on?' I'll also infuse some new and different things to provide an off-speed pitch that people have to prepare for."

O'Connell added as the team prepares for its final six regular-season games, the goal remains the same: be at its best when it's required.

"As the season progresses, the goal for our whole team this whole season is to try to continue improving and be at our best as it gets late into the calendar, the season, and hopefully into the playoffs," O'Connell said. "Ultimately, statistics are a full-year thing. I totally understand that. We do look at those things and try to make adjustments accordingly, both personnel-wise and schematics, but in the end, as far as being 9-2, is what matters ultimately to the guys in this building."

Here's what Sam Thiel, Lindsey Young and Craig Peters of Vikings.com will be watching for in Sunday's game:

Can the Vikings offense handle "Sauce"? | By Sam Thiel

The Vikings offense returned to form in Week 12 against New England with a collective effort.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins was accurate, completing 30 of his 37 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns. Wide receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen each hauled in nine receptions, with Jefferson recording 139 receiving yards and Thielen gaining 61 and each getting a touchdown. Tight end T.J. Hockenson added five catches for 43 yards and a score.

Jefferson, Thielen and the rest of Minnesota's pass catchers will have a tough test Sunday when they line up against the New York Jets' secondary. The Jets currently rank eighth in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game at 197.5 and are tied for 10th in takeaways per game at 1.4.

Leading that secondary is the team's second-youngest player, cornerback Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound rookie has recorded 28 solo tackles and a pair of interceptions (tied for 22nd in the NFL), and he ranks first in the league with 14 passes defended.

"I think Ahmad, really, the confidence in his play, but physically just the length – the size and length. He's really long. He's physical, he doesn't back away," Offensive Coordinator Wes Phillips said. "It's like, sometimes rookies have to kind of get acclimated and get the feel, and there's some receivers in this league that maybe they didn't face those types of guys or they didn't do a lot of bump in college, so they kind of have to adjust if they're playing a scheme where they have to get up and press guys more. But he hasn't really shown that he needs any acclimation period for that type of stuff."

Jefferson added he's looking forward to the matchup of going up against Gardner.

"He's a great corner, long, fast, he can play the ball in the air and play the hands," Jefferson said. "I look for these matchups just like I've said about every other defensive back, I'm excited to go up against him, but I'm confident in my game and my skill set to win my battles."

Besides Gardner, cornerback D.J. Reed also presents a difficult task on the opposite end of the Jets secondary. Reed is fourth on the team in tackles at 54 and has seven passes defended, an interception and a forced fumble.

Thielen said both Gardner and Reed play with a lot of physicality and confidence.

"They play with a lot of confidence; you can tell on the tape," Thielen said. "Sauce is obviously a long, tall corner that even if he does get a little bit of separation on him, you can tell he's still breaking up footballs. There's a couple of go balls that the [receiver had] a step or two on him and they weren't completed passes because he's so long and has that make-up ability. [Reed] might not be as long, but you can tell he plays with a lot of confidence and is physical. A lot of contested catches that aren't catches on tape because of their physicality when the ball is in the air."

View photos of Vikings players' custom cleats in honor of the NFL's 2022 My Cause My Cleats initiative that allows players to represent causes that are important to them.

Protecting the pocket | By Lindsey Young

Over the Vikings past two games, the Vikings have faced the NFL's No. 1 and No. 2 defenses, respectively, in sacks this season.

Minnesota encountered Dallas, who tops the league, and allowed quarterback Kirk Cousins to be sacked a season-high seven times in a brutal, 40-3 loss. The Vikings played the Patriots on Thanksgiving night, just four days later, and kept Cousins largely clean, allowing just one sack of the QB.

How did the Vikings offense rebound so quickly and keep Cousins on his feet? Offensive Coordinator Wes Phillips was asked just that Thursday morning.

"I think sometimes when you go into a game, sometimes the plan that you have versus the plan that they came up with doesn't mesh well, or sometimes the matchups – just the individual players, it's not always a great player against a lesser player or vice versa, it's just some guys don't, it just doesn't match up the way that you saw it happening," Phillips said. "I think playing the team who was number one in sacks and then going to the team that's number two in sacks, I do feel like we tried actively to give them a better opportunity to get these guys blocked and have a cleaner pocket.

"I put a lot of that on us," Phillips added. "The players, they're the ones out there playing, and they have a responsibility. But I do feel like if we obviously played Dallas again, that we would do some things differently."

The Vikings task doesn't get much easier this weekend, as they prepare to face a Jets defense ranked seventh in the NFL with 34 sacks. Phillips, along with Head Coach Kevin O'Connell, have been working on a game plan to keep Cousins safe in the pocket. Protecting the QB will be key for Minnesota, which is seeking Win No. 10.

View photos of Vikings players unboxing their custom cleats for the 2022 "My Cause My Cleats" campaign that showcase nonprofits that are important to them.

Another "backup" QB but … | By Craig Peters

It's not common for a No. 2 overall pick to be benched two years after his selection by a team with a winning record heading into Week 12, but that's exactly what happened to Zach Wilson last week after a rough one against the Patriots in Week 11.

Mike White stepped in last week and torched the Bears, completing 22 of 28 passes for 315 yards and three touchdowns without an interception in his first game action of 2022. White's passer rating of 149.3 is the third-highest by a QB in any game this season behind the 153.3 by Daniel Jones of the Giants in Week 10 against the Texans and the 149.6 by Saints veteran Andy Dalton in Week 11 against the Rams.

So it will be another matchup for the Vikings defense against a backup QB, but it's clear that the Jets think White is the guy who enable them in their run for a playoff spot.

"He's a guy that seems like he makes all the right decisions with the football, has a host of speed of receivers on the outside," Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "They're everywhere, and then they have a host of running backs, and then they've got a solid defense, so I think Mike understands the position he is in, that he doesn't have to force the issue. He just wants to find ways to keep him and the team in the game going into the fourth quarter. It's going to be a dogfight.

"This is a very talented team that has a very solid defense, that's very scrappy," Peterson added. "[Head Coach] Robert [Saleh] has those guys flying around like he had that San Francisco defense flying around a couple of years ago, and now they feel like they have a quarterback they can trust and is not going to turn the ball over and keep them in games."

Counting New Orleans in Week 4, the Dolphins (Skylar Thompson and Teddy Bridgewater) in Week 6, and Washington (Taylor Heinicke) in Week 9, the Jets will be the fourth team this season to play the Vikings and open with a QB who didn't start the season atop the depth chart.

Vikings Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell said White, a fifth-round pick in 2018 with four career starts, showed he made the most of his experience.

"That's not his first game playing. He's been in this league a while now," Donatell said. "He has starts and was up to the task. He was getting the ball out of his hands quickly and making good decisions. They were blocking well, catching well and doing all the things good teams do."

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Since Minnesota limited Aaron Rodgers to a passer rating of 67.6 in Week 1 and Jared Goff to a 79.0 in Week 3, the other four quarterbacks to start against the Vikings have had passer rating of at least 95.5 in games at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Minnesota will try to be less hospitable than it has in the first two contests of its three-game homestand (139.3 by Dak Prescott and 119.8 by Mac Jones).

Getting Dalvin Tomlinson back on the defensive line could help push the pocket, and cornerback Akayleb Evans is expected to be back at the cornerback position opposite Peterson.

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