EAGAN, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings (3-4) will try to rebound from a disappointing home loss in Week 8 during a rare visit to Baltimore in Week 9.
The Ravens lead the AFC North with a 5-2 record and are coming off their bye.
Vikings uniform combination: White jerseys and white pants
Matchup to watch: Vikings defensive front versus Lamar Jackson
It's starting to become thematic this season with Minnesota's defense missing an integral component of facing a particular foe.
In Week 4, Michael Pierce tried to grind through practice injuries and face Cleveland's vaunted running game. Pierce was forced to leave the game, and the Browns finished with 184 yards on the ground.
In Week 8, Minnesota was playing its first game this season without cornerback Patrick Peterson against talented Cowboys receivers. The trio of Amari Cooper (8 catches, 122 yards, TD), CeeDee Lamb (6-112-0) and Cedrick Wilson (3-84-1) combined for 318 of the 360 yards accrued by passing targets on Sunday.
This week (and the rest of the season), the Vikings will be without defensive end Danielle Hunter, who suffered a torn pec in Week 8.
Hunter's unicorn athleticism would have been helpful against Ravens QB Lamar Jackson's excellence at running option plays.
Since the start of Jackson's 2019 NFL MVP season, he ranks fifth in the NFL with 2,691 rushing yards. That's more than Packers running back Aaron Jones.
Aside from compensating for the containment that Hunter could have provided on keepers, the Vikings also must make do without one of the league's best pass rushers. Peterson will miss this week and next week at the very least, so the importance of rushing the passer will remain high. It remains to be seen if Pierce will be able to return to action to face his former team.
Look back at photos over the course of time featuring games between the Vikings and the Ravens.
Here are five Vikings-Ravens storylines to follow in Week 9.
1. Big shoes to fill
The Vikings must make the absence of Hunter less impactful than it was when he missed all of 2020 with a neck injury.
He completed his return with aplomb, recording 6.0 sacks in Minnesota's first seven games despite being double teamed often and sometimes triple teamed. Beyond the production, Hunter's presence forces teams to account for them and potentially diverge from who they'd most like to be.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer was asked about the loss Monday and said the following:
"I don't think you replace him. He's one-of-a-kind. It's unfortunate that we're going to miss the next half of the season with him, and all of last year. So, he's a great kid, and he'll do a good job in his rehab and he'll be ready to go."
Next Gen Stats that span Hunter's rise to becoming a starter in 2017 through last season show how his absence impacted Minnesota.
Between 2016-18, the Vikings ranked sixth in the NFL with a pressure rate of 31.7 percent. In 2019, the rate dipped to 26.4 percent, which ranked 24th. It fell again in 2020 to a rate of 21.3 percent, which ranked last in the NFL.
Prior to last week's game, the Vikings ranked 31st with a rate of 21.8 percent but had converted 43 percent of its pressures into sacks.
Minnesota at least this year has Everson Griffen, who has been highly productive but has been called on way more than Vikings coaches planned because of the team's inability to protect and build on leads to put games out of reach.
The timing of the injury occurred after Minnesota decided to trade Stephen Weatherly and just before rookie Patrick Jones II, who hasn't played yet, suffered a knee injury in practice last week, stressing Minnesota's depth.
2. Toughness test
It's one thing to lose one game in the final minute/on the final play. It's another to lose four in a team's first seven games.
The optimists will say it's a chance to show resolve. The pessimists are calculating potential draft order. The realists know there's a long way to go with a lot of teams jumbled in the standings. Everyone knows Minnesota can't keep making mistakes at critical junctures of games.
The road won't get easier for the Vikings (3-4), who should expect zero sympathies from a Ravens team that is still ruffled about losing 41-17 at home to the Bengals in Week 7 before going on their bye.
3. Reestablish rhythm
Every year an argument can be made for positives and negatives of a bye. It seemed like Minnesota's Week 7 placement this year was at a good spot, especially after so many emotionally draining games, but the same offense that put up 571 yards at Carolina in Week 6 returned from the rest with considerable rust on the way to netting 278 yards.
Sure, the Vikings scored on their opening possession, but they've been able to do that in six consecutive games before going quiet for long stretches of games.
It seemed like the Vikings were looking for big plays as if they were going to be in a scorefest with Dak Prescott but kept taking checkdowns when it felt like the protection wasn't there. The result was a lack of rhythm and a failure to fully involve the running game with Dalvin Cook. His primary nickname is "The Chef," but he's really the engine that get the entire offense going.
The other component, if Minnesota is going to attempt 36 passes, it needs to have more targets for Adam Thielen (nine) and Justin Jefferson (four).
Consider at Carolina, even though Cook rushed 29 times for 140 yards, Cousins attempted 48 passes. Thielen was targeted 13 times and caught 11 passes for 126 yards, and Jefferson was targeted 14. He totaled 80 yards on eight catches.
View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of Jan. 5, 2022.
4. Possibility for YAC?
If the Vikings look for intermediate routes this time, they could be rewarded unless the Ravens have been able to shore up their tackling over the bye week.
According to Jamison Hensley, who covers the Ravens for ESPN, Baltimore allowed 15 completions of 20 or more yards in its two losses. Hensley noted the Ravens rank last in the NFL with 1,200 yards allowed after the catch and that Head Coach John Harbaugh recently lamented the tackling problem.
That's led Baltimore to ranking 30th in the NFL with 6.27 yards allowed per play.
5. Containing the big plays
The Ravens have given up big plays, but they've also recorded plenty. Baltimore's offense ranks fourth in the NFL with 6.21 yards per play.
Besides the numerous threats posed by Jackson, the Ravens have been able to turn to multiple receiving targets for explosive plays.
WR Sammy Watkins is averaging 16.2 yards per catch (11th in the NFL among qualifiers). WR Marquise Brown ranks 16th (15.3 yards per catch), and TE Mark Andrews ranks 35th overall and fourth among tight ends (13.9).
Former Gopher Rashod Bateman, the 27th overall pick of the 2021 NFL Draft, debuted in Week 6 and has totaled seven catches for 109 yards (15.6).
The Vikings must navigate those threats without Peterson, who will miss his second of at least three games in a row while he is on Injured Reserve and rehabbing a hamstring injury he suffered at Carolina.