EAGAN, Minn. — Another week, another difficult opposing pass rush for the Vikings offensive line.
Last week, Minnesota faced a Washington defensive front that featured four former first-round picks.
On Sunday, the Vikings will be put to the test again, squaring off against a Buffalo defense that's ranked sixth in rushing yards allowed per game (104.9) and seventh in passing yards given up per game (194.8). The Bills also allow the fewest points per game at 14.8.
Buffalo has 15 takeaways this year (tied for fourth), with 11 coming on interceptions.
Leading the way in the Bills 4-3 base defense is defensive end Von Miller, who is tied for seventh in the NFL with seven sacks.
"You can watch all the tape you want [on Miller] – I mean, this guy's one of the great pass rushers to ever come through this league," Vikings Offensive Coordinator Wes Phillips said. "Anybody in the 100-sack club knows how to rush the passer and get to the quarterback."
The Bills defense has struggled with injuries recently, though. Defensive end and 2021 first-round pick Greg Rosseau and safety Jordan Poyer were both ruled out for Sunday's game. Rosseau has five sacks this season, and Poyer is tied for second in the NFL in interceptions with four.
Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds — who has a team-leading 62 tackles — is questionable for Sunday after practicing in limited fashion on Friday. Fellow linebacker Matt Milano (37 tackles, two interceptions) practiced fully on Thursday and Friday, as did cornerback Dane Jackson (28 tackles, one interception).
Rookie cornerback Kaiir Elam has 34 tackles and a pair of interceptions but is listed as doubtful for Sunday after not practicing Thursday or Friday.
Safeties Damar Hamlin (48 tackles) and Jaquan Johnson (25 tackles) and cornerback Taron Johnson (46 tackles, one interception) provide depth in the secondary for Buffalo.
Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell said Buffalo implements a not-so-complex defensive scheme, and its athleticism across all levels of the defense will be challenging.
"First and foremost, I don't think they try to reinvent the wheel defensively, and that's the challenge," O'Connell said. "A lot of times, you can know where they are and what they're doing, but they play really hard and they're really good players. They have great technique and fundamentals. Any ball that gets tipped, it seems like, ends up in their hands. Any time you're not extremely dialed into the protection responsibilities, anyone on their front can beat you at any time, so it's going to be a challenge to throw it, and when you try to run it, they've got defensive backs that fit the run as well as any team in this league."
Here's what Sam Thiel, Lindsey Young and Craig Peters of Vikings.com will be watching for in Sunday's game:
Look back at photos over the course of time featuring games between the Vikings and the Bills.
Allen or Keenum? | By Sam Thiel
Not only do the Bills have one of the top defenses in the NFL this season, but they also have one of the premier offenses.
Buffalo is ranked third in the NFL in scoring, averaging 27.5 points per game. The Bills are also first in total yards per game (416.4) and third in passing yards per game (292.1).
At the helm of that high-octane offense is quarterback Josh Allen. Currently an NFL MVP favorite, Allen is fourth in passing yards (2,403), second in passing touchdowns (19) and third in quarterback rating (74.4).
Vikings Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell said it's tough to prepare for a quarterback of Allen's skill set.
"It's like playing Cam Newton in the run game and like a big Ben Roethlisberger in the passing game," Donatell said. "You've got them both together, so that's the problem and why they win a lot of games – but they don't win every game."
Allen suffered a sprained elbow on his throwing arm during the Bills 20-17 loss to the New York Jets last Sunday. He didn't practice Wednesday or Thursday but was a limited participant on Friday. He is currently listed as questionable for Sunday.
If Allen doesn't suit up against Minnesota, the Vikings will see a familiar face under center for Buffalo in Case Keenum.
Keenum played for Minnesota in 2017 and led the Vikings to a 13-3 record. Keenum is also famous for connecting with former Minnesota and current Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs on a 61-yard touchdown as time expired against New Orleans in the 2018 NFC Divisional Round.
The play — better known as the "Minneapolis Miracle" — propelled the Vikings to a 29-24 victory and into the NFC Championship game.
O'Connell coached Keenum in 2019 in Washington when O'Connell was the offensive coordinator. He said he's watched Keenum transfer what he succeeded on as a quarterback at the University of Houston to the NFL.
"I just think he's got the ability to extend plays," O'Connell said. "He's so instinctive; I know going back to his Houston Cougar days he was a gunslinger, throwing for hundreds of thousands of yards, it seemed like. I just remember every time I ever watched him before I started coaching him, the guy was going to make the right plays, he's accurate, plays with great fundamentals and techniques within an NFL pocket. I think that's the big thing, he can translate what it looks like to just throw the ball and play quarterback, but he can do it in an NFL pocket and then he's got some toughness, he's got some leadership qualities that come out in those moments."
Softening Stefon's Impact | By Lindsey Young
Vikings fans are quite familiar with what Stefon Diggs can do.
The receiver spent the first five seasons of his NFL career with the Vikings, for whom he starred in the Minneapolis Miracle, before being traded to Buffalo ahead of the 2020 NFL Draft. The first-round draft pick acquired by Minnesota was used to select Justin Jefferson.
Diggs recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons for the Vikings in 2018 and 2019, and he didn't miss a step in transitioning to the Bills. Last season, he racked up 103 catches for 1,225 yards and a career-high 10 touchdowns. Through eight starts this season, Diggs already has totaled 60 catches for 857 yards and seven touchdowns.
Patrick Peterson and the Vikings know full-well they'll have to be at their best to keep Diggs contained Sunday. As a member of the Cardinals, Peterson tracked Diggs only to watch Adam Thielen total 16 catches for 188 yards and two scores over games in 2016 and 2018 (Diggs combined for 70 yards on nine catches in those two games). The Vikings have favored playing corners on sides instead of travelling with specific receivers.
"[Stefon Diggs] does a very good job of running his routes. He plays with his big-boy pads all the time." Peterson said Thursday. "Plays with a ton of energy, a ton of passion, and those types of guys that feel that type of energy for 60 minutes are hard to keep under wraps.
"We know he's going to have a lot of energy going into the game [against his former team] – a lot to play for, to put into this game as I did a couple weeks ago [against the Cardinals]," Peterson added. "Hopefully we can keep him under control as much as we can."
Diggs is absolutely the Bills top receiving threat, but Minnesota's defense also will need to account for Gabe Davis (18 catches for 451 yards and four touchdowns) and Isaiah McKenzie (20 catches for 182 yards and three touchdowns).
Can Harrison Smith Continue Streak? | By Craig Peters
The win column isn't the only streak going for the Vikings.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins has an impressive run of 38 consecutive games with at least one passing touchdown (tied with Tony Romo for sixth-longest in NFL history).
Safety Harrison Smith has recorded an interception in each of the past three games, boosting his total to four on the season. This is the first time in his career that he's had three consecutive games with a pick. A fourth such game will tie his career best of five interceptions in a season.
"I'd say it definitely starts up front, and then the defensive scheme," Smith said after Sunday's game in explaining his current streak. "We like to keep stuff as muddy as we can, so yeah, it all kind of works together."
The Vikings had come close to picking off former Minnesota QB Taylor Heinicke a couple of times before Smith's 33rd career interception. Camryn Bynum was camped under one pass until a collision with the back judge resulted in a Washington touchdown, and there were tips and a couple of other overthrows.
I asked Peterson and Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell this week if they can "sense" an interception about to happen once they see a couple of close calls.
"Yeah, you kind of do," Peterson said. "The more the ball is batted, you're kind of like, 'OK, this ball is – it's gonna turn out way here at some point.' And you know, going into that game last week against Washington, we understood that once Taylor makes one mistake, it's almost like a ripple effect – they continue to come.
"You just have to stay patient and wait for that first one," Peterson said. We finally got the first one at the right time in that ball game to help – I believe that was a tying touchdown when Harry got the pick, and it ultimately took the momentum from them. That's what it's all about – diffusing the momentum."
Donatell said: "We're always thinking that the next one is coming. We feel the same thing you did. When that ball got tipped up early in the game, we're thinking it's going to be ours, but we work on it. It's a very important thing to think about getting the ball, and when we do, it certainly helps our team."