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Vikings Offense Focused on Eliminating Miscues, Versatile Cardinals Defense

EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings are headed to the desert in search of their first win.

The Cardinals were among the league's most impressive teams in Week 1, as Arizona powered its way to a 38-13 road win against Tennessee.

And while Arizona's offense certainly looked like a high-flying unit, the most impressive performance might have come from a defense that stymied Derrick Henry and the Titans rushing attack.

"They loaded up the box," Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said Wednesday about Arizona's defense. "They want to be a single-high [safety] team for the most part if they can.

"They'll mix in a little bit of quarters and two-deep, but they're predominantly a single-high team that wants to get extra guys in the box and they want to make you one dimensional … stop the run and make you throw," Zimmer said.

The Cardinals limited Henry, the NFL's leading rusher in 2019 and 2020, to 58 yards on 17 carries.

According to Next Gen Stats, Henry faced eight or more defenders in the box on 35.29 percent of his snaps, which tied for the eighth-highest rate in Week 1.

Tennessee primarily wants to lean on its star running back while allowing the quarterback to spread the ball around to skill players, all while playing a physical and tough brand of football.

Sound familiar?

"Yeah, I think us and Tennessee are pretty similar personnel-wise," said Vikings center Garrett Bradbury. "We like to run the football, use a fullback a lot. I think both the Cardinals and Bengals both had a similar game plan, loading the box up.

"As an O-lineman, you love that; that's a challenge," Bradbury added. "They're saying they're going to load the box up and you can't run on us, so you have to be able to run the ball and take that attitude of, 'We're going to run the ball no matter how many people you put in the box.' At the same time, you have to be balanced."

If that is the case with Arizona's defense again Sunday, that could mean more deep shots for Kirk Cousins and Minnesota's wide receivers.

The Vikings longest completed pass in Week 1 in terms of air distance was 31.1 yards, a figure that ranked 29th out of 32 teams.

Zimmer said Wednesday that longer passes could be in play against the Cardinals.

"Potentially, yeah, if we can get some protection and get guys on the right guys and get some open looks," Zimmer said.

Minnesota will need to clean up the penalties, including the 11 called on the offense, in order for that to happen. The Vikings faced third-and-20 or worse five different times Sunday, leading to a limited playbook and perilous situations.

Bradbury said eliminating mistakes is the key focus as the work week has begun.

"Penalties, they kill you. It puts you behind the 8-ball," Bradbury said. "That's the emphasis this week, that's No. 1 circled on the offense."

Bradbury, the third-year center, will also be in the spotlight against an Arizona defense that is among the most adaptable in the league.

Yes, Chandler Jones had five sacks off the edge in the season opener, and J.J. Watt is also a name to watch.

But according to analytics website Pro Football Focus, here was linebacker Isaiah Simmons' position breakdown after Sunday: 12 snaps as a defensive lineman, 29 in the box, 16 as a slot corner and one as an outside cornerback.

And safety Budda Baker, according to PFF, was also all over the place: two snaps along the defensive line, 14 in the box, one as a slot corner, three as an outside cornerback and 41 as a deep safety.

The Vikings harped over and over again Wednesday on just how important it will be to identify who is where, and who could potentially bring pressure.

"We'll do blitz walkthroughs on Wednesdays and mix it in practice," Bradbury said. "And on Thursdays we have a quarterback, running back, and O-line protection meeting where we look at all the different kind of looks they can give you on third down, in pressure situations, and talk through communications of it; who's got who. Make sure we keep [Cousins] clean back there."

Cousins on Wednesday explained the relationship between himself and Bradbury when it comes to calling out protections on the fly in a loud stadium.

"I told Garrett going back to his rookie year — the ball is in my hands. So if I need to trump you, I'm going to trump you," Cousins said. "But I said, 'You've got it,' so he's going to call it. And if something doesn't feel right to me, I'll let him know.

"But it's really communication across the way because the tight end has to know, tackle, guard. So we all have to be on the same page. The center many times in a loud environment will communicate the signal or the call, but the tackle may not even hear him," Cousins added. "Certainly the tight end may not. So everyone has to be on the same page all the way down the line, and that's where the preparation all week is so important."

Heck, even Dalvin Cook said the onus is on him to help keep teammates clean if the opposing defense send a blitz.

"Everything. I've got to know what they're doing. Running the football and passing, I've got to know what they're doing," Cook said. "Who they pointing at, who they going to. I got to know who they getting onto. Got to lock into the details and shore those things up."

Zimmer said he wants to see a better performance all around Sunday than what he saw in the season opener.

"Well, a lot of it's Garrett, but Kirk has some dealings with that too, and then part of it is the communication," Zimmer said. "There was a couple times we didn't communicate it well, we end up blocking the wrong guy.

"Yeah, part of it's communication. Part of it's identifying the front," Zimmer said. "But it's as a group."

Got all that?

Arizona loaded the box in Week 1, but was maybe even more effective by throwing a variety of looks at Tennessee, which is something Minnesota expects to see Sunday.

The onus will be on Bradbury, Cousins and others to identify the defensive setup and make sure the correct protection is in place.

Look back at photos over the course of time featuring games between the Vikings and the Cardinals.

And, once that happens, the Vikings will need to get their running game going while being on the lookout for play-action pass opportunities that could pick up yards in chunks.

It will be an all-hands-on-deck approach, especially as the Vikings look to avoid an 0-2 hole for the second straight season.

"We got the corrections made, we know what we weren't clear with, what we weren't precise with. We know what to work on, and it's just right back to it," Bradbury said. "There's a lot of football to be played on offense. A lot of guys understand the deal, it's Week 1.

"We didn't have the outcome we wanted, but it's Week 2 next," Bradbury added. "We have another opportunity to earn a win."

Cook said: "We've got to go out there and match their intensity. Play some good football this week and do the things we didn't do right last week. Play some clean football."

Zimmer added: "We're going to have to play good, start out fast and play a little bit more like we're used to playing."