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Final Thoughts: Vikings Aim for Bounce Back in Baltimore

EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings 2021 season has been a roller coaster, no doubt, with ups and downs and twists and turns.

Minnesota might be at its lowest point following 20-16 home loss in Week 8 to Dallas that Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer called "very disappointing."

But the Vikings have a chance to swing the momentum back the other way with Sunday's road game against the Ravens.

Vikings right tackle Brian O'Neill said he liked his team's approach this week.

"It's no different in my mind. Guys aren't hanging their heads. Attitudes are the same. You aren't walking into the room and it's silent," O'Neill said. "People aren't walking around here with their heads down. That's just not the kind of group we are.

"We lost the game, not to discredit that, but guys are still motivated, guys are still engaged, excited about coming in and competing and getting better," O'Neill added. "The goal is to win, and guys still are excited to win and go in and try to get a win against a really good group on the road this week, but I haven't seen it any different than what I've been here the past three-and-a-half years."

Minnesota (3-4) will have its work cut out against Baltimore, which sits at 5-2, is coming off a bye and leads the AFC North.

The Ravens deploy an aggressive defense and feature one of the league's most exciting players in quarterback Lamar Jackson.

"Lamar Jackson, he's a phenomenal quarterback," said Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen. "We just have to go out there and play our game. We have to stop the run.

"Get to his feet," Griffen added. "No quarterback likes to be hit and have people around his feet. We have to stick to the game plan and go play."

There's no doubt the Vikings will need to be at their best Sunday against the Ravens.

If Minnesota can get a win, the roller-coaster ride will continue in a positive direction. But if it's a loss, the Vikings will face an even steeper climb in the second half of the season.

Here is what Eric Smith, Lindsey Young and Craig Peters of Vikings.com will be watching in Week 9:

Bounce back on 3rd down | By @Eric\_L\_Smith

Vikings Offensive Coordinator Klint Kubiak was asked Thursday about a woeful Vikings offensive performance against the Cowboys.

"Yeah, there's plenty to unwrap there," Kubiak noted.

That could be said about both sides of the ball, as both the Vikings offense and defense had their worst outings of the season on third downs in Week 8.

Minnesota's offense converted just once in 13 tries on the down and didn't move the chains on the final 12 tries after finding success on the first chance. That conversion percentage of 7.69 ranks as the lowest mark in Zimmer's tenure. It is just the second time Minnesota's offense has been held under 10 percent on third downs since his hire in 2014.

It's safe to say moving the chains has been a point of emphasis all week for the Vikings offense.

"The No. 1 thing is were some plays to be made and we've got to make some contested plays," Kubiak said. "We've got to be more aggressive on some plays, be more aggressive on some play calls. It's a combination of guys making plays, us getting in better position as coaches.

"It's something we're making a bigger point of emphasis. It's always a point of emphasis, third downs, but it's disappointing to go out and get that first third down but not get one from there," Kubiak added. "We've got to be better there."

Zimmer added: "Their defense brings a lot of different looks on third down. We're going to have to be diligent in the way we handle the protections."

Defensively, the Vikings entered Week 8 with the league's No. 1 defense on third downs, but allowed the Cowboys to convert on half of their 14 tries.

Zimmer knows his unit will need to be better prepared against the Ravens, who rank 23rd in the league on third downs with a success rate of 36.47 percent.

"This team will run the ball quite a bit on third down," Zimmer said. "We're going to have to do a great job in understanding situations. We can't just play pass there."

'Next man up' means opportunity for Wonnum | By @LindseyMNSports

It's been said multiple times this week: There's no way to truly replace what Danielle Hunter brings to the field.

But with Hunter being added to Injured Reserve after suffering a torn pec against Dallas, it's "next man up" in the Vikings defensive line room. That means opportunities will open up for D.J. Wonnum, who initially started opposite Hunter before Griffen returned to his starting role.

It could also mean the first regular-season action for 2021 rookie Patrick Jones II. Minnesota turned to 2020 seventh-rounder Kenny Willekes last week for 16 snaps after elevating him from the practice squad.

Vikings Assistant Head Coach/Co-Defensive Coordinator Andre Patterson said it's important to "have faith in the guys we have" available right now.

"Now, Kenny and Pat are going to get a chance to play, and I've been preparing them for this moment the whole season," Patterson said Wednesday. "They get their chances to go out there and show what they can do, so I'm looking forward to that, too. That's what you do. It's their time, their number's called, it's time for them to play.

"He did pretty good [against the Cowboys]," Patterson later added of Willekes, who would need to be elevated again or eventually signed to the 53-man roster. "He had one pressure playing at defensive end, he played physical. It was a good time for him to get a chance to go out there and play. Looking forward to him getting more numbers this weekend."

The Vikings also added defensive end Nate Orchard to their practice squad Thursday, increasing the position depth a bit.

"We have a good group of guys," Willekes said. "We come out to work every single day, we try to compete with each other and try to make each other better. Adding a couple extra guys to the group, that'll make us even better."

Special teams could sway things | By @pcraigers

It's hard to go into a game against the Ravens without thinking about special teams coming into play. Baltimore Head Coach John Harbaugh brought decades of experience as a special teams coordinator with him when he was hired by the Ravens in 2008 and has consistently fielded some of the best units.

Justin Tucker is the NFL's career leader in field goal accuracy, having made 90.8 percent (305 of 336). He is 14-of-15 this season, which is even more impressive considering the numbers include an NFL-record 66-yarder to beat the Lions at the buzzer in Week 3. Tucker has been named a First-Team All-Pro by The Associated Press in his first nine seasons.

Tucker's range and accuracy mean that Minnesota must do well in the battle for field position.

Sam Koch handles punting duties and is averaging 46.2 per boot this season. The 2015 Pro Bowler has been in Baltimore since 2006 and has a career average of 45.3.

Minnesota kicker Greg Joseph, punter Jordan Berry and long snapper Andrew DePaola have all played at M&T Bank Stadium, an outdoor venue at Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

Joseph made a 35-yard field goal and three extra points but missed a 46-yarder there as a member of the Cleveland Browns in 2018.

Berry has averaged 44.4 yards per punt at the venue (1,332 yards on 30 punts) in six previous games as a member of the Steelers. Those numbers include 431 yards on nine punts in a Nov. 6, 2016, game.

DePaola, a native of Parkton, Maryland, helped the Bears defeat his hometown team in 2017.

Vikings rookie kick returner Kene Nwangwu might have his first opportunity to return a kickoff as a pro this weekend. Nwangwu was active for the first time against Dallas, but the Cowboys recorded a touchback on every kickoff. Tucker has recorded a touchback on 24 of 40 kickoffs (60.0 percent) this year.

View photos of Vikings players from practice on Nov. 3 at the TCO Performance Center.

Notable Number: 6

The Vikings have played the Ravens just six times in franchise history, the second-fewest games against any team. (Minnesota's least-often faced opponent is Houston at five games).

The teams have split their half-dozen meetings, and the point differential has been almost even, too. Minnesota has scored 147 points while Baltimore is at 153 points in the six games.

Based on the NFL's current schedule rotation, the Vikings face the Ravens once every four years as the teams alternate hosting. Minnesota hosted Baltimore in 2017 while the Ravens hosted the Vikings in 2013. The next scheduled game will be 2025, unless the teams cross paths as the 17th game.

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