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The Skinny Post: Vikings Prepare for Chargers RB Tandem in Final Road Test

EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings will hit the road this weekend for one final test as Minnesota tries to get its record away from home to .500.

The Vikings are at the Chargers on Sunday in Los Angeles, with kickoff at 3:05 p.m. (CT).

While Minnesota is 9-4 and looking to stay in the thick of the NFC playoff race, Los Angeles is 5-8 and has been eliminated from playoff contention.

But this isn't your average 5-8 team that the Vikings will see in Week 15.

Los Angeles ranks fourth overall defensively with 304.8 yards per game allowed, and is 10th offensively at 375.7 yards gained per game. The Chargers are just one of five NFL teams to be in the top 10 in both categories, with the other four teams (49ers, Ravens, Rams and Cowboys) either having clinched a playoff spot or still in playoff contention.

"They beat Chicago, they beat Green Bay," Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said of the Chargers. "When they don't turn the ball over, they're pretty hard to beat. They've done a good job in those games, and they get some turnovers defensively.

"But they're good in a lot of areas, so we're going to have to be really effective in understanding their defense, the things that they allow us to do and the things they don't," Zimmer added.

All eight of Los Angeles' losses are by seven or fewer points. Plus, the Chargers are coming off their biggest win of the season in Week 14 with a 45-10 thrashing of Jacksonville.

Minnesota is a perfect 6-0 at home in 2019, and has a 3-4 record on the road. Teams usually try to follow the formula of taking care of business at home and at least splitting their road games in order to have a chance at the playoffs.

If the Vikings want to get to .500 away from U.S. Bank Stadium, they will have to win in a unique environment.

The Chargers currently play at Dignity Health Sports Park, a stadium primarily used for soccer that is the home to the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer. The venue only seats roughly 27,000 people. The venue also features grass, a surface on which the Vikings are 0-3 in 2019.

Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins played at the stadium in 2017 with Washington and suffered a 30-13 loss.

"I played there in 2017, about this same time in the season and the Chargers took it to us," Cousins said. "We didn't play very well. Once we kicked it off, the number of people in the stands really made no difference.

"If you're not playing well, it will feel like a tough environment on the road. If you are playing well, even the most packed away stadiums can feel like a friendly environment if you're playing well and keeping them quiet," Cousins added. "I think that game in 2017 taught me that it really doesn't matter, and it's about what happens between the lines."

Minnesota could have a chance to make its 2019 season a special one with home games against Green Bay and Chicago in Weeks 16 and 17.

But the Vikings would be wise to take care of business one final time on the road against a team that is much better than their record indicates.

Here are three areas to watch in Sunday's contest, plus some noteworthy stats on both teams:

Chargers have weapons at RB | By @Eric_L_Smith

The Chargers seemingly have big-play threats all over on offense, but keep an eye on the running back tandem in the backfield.

Melvin Gordon, who has played nine games, leads Los Angeles with 523 yards on 132 carries and has five touchdowns. Austin Ekeler, meanwhile, has 481 yards and three scores on 112 rushes.

Both players are also a threat in the air, especially Ekeler, who has a team-high eight touchdowns on 73 receptions and has 830 yards, the second-most on the team.

Add in all up, and the duo has combined for 1,986 of the Chargers 4,884 offensive yards (40.7 percent). They also have 17 of Los Angeles' 30 offensive touchdowns.

"Well, they're a little different style of back, but not tremendously. Both can really hit the perimeter. They both run hard," Zimmer said. "Ekeler is probably a little bit more of a receiver, but they use Gordon on screens as well. Sometimes they have them on the field at the same time.

"They use Ekeler a little bit more as a receiver, but they'll use Gordon as a receiver there and [Ekeler] will be in the backfield, or vice-versa," Zimmer added. "They're similar backs, but they have maybe a couple different plays. Gordon likes this play a little bit more, and Ekeler likes that one."

The duo is coming off a strong game against Jacksonville, as Gordon and Ekeler combined for 29 offensive touches that went for 297 total yards and two scores.

Ekeler topped 100 yards rushing and receiving, including an 84-yard touchdown catch.

"We've got to do a good job of leveraging him in the coverage, understand what they're trying to get accomplished with him route-wise," said Vikings Defensive Coordinator George Edwards. "We have our work cut out for us this week."

It will take a team effort by the Vikings to slow down the tandem, but linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks could play a vital role in limiting explosive plays.

Minnesota has allowed nine total touchdowns to running backs in 2019 — five on the ground and four through the air.

Keeping an eye on the CB rotation | By @LindseyMNSports

Against the Lions last Sunday, the Vikings implemented a rotation at cornerback.

Slot corner Mackensie Alexander was on the field for 57 (80 percent) of Minnesota's 71 defensive snaps, being that the Vikings heavily use their nickel defense. Trae Waynes played 54 snaps.

But Mike Hughes (29), Xavier Rhodes (29) and Holton Hill (27) split time almost equally. Worth noting is that Rhodes left the game with an injury, which did increase Hill's playing time.

Zimmer said the rotation was something they decided to use after the Seattle game. Asked if it will be a consistent approach going forward, he said, "We may not do it this week."

He added, though, that he believes the secondary played better.

"There was only, like, one or two things during the course of the ball game that we did not do like they're being coached to do," Zimmer said. "Hopefully that continues to improve; maybe take a little wear a tear, where they have to be thinking all the time, off their plate. I don't know, we'll see what this week holds."

Rhodes spoke with Twin Cities media members earlier this week and said he'll do whatever the coaches ask him to do.

"I can't really go to the coach and say, 'I don't want rotations.' That's what they feel is right. They have a scheme, and they [are doing] what they feel is right," Rhodes said. "So, we're just going to abide by that. If the coaches feel like it's not right this week, they'll change it. If they feel like it's right this week, they're going to keep it going.

"I just have to make plays when I'm in games. That's my mindset," he added. "That when I get in the game, that's just when I have to flip that switch. When I was in, I was able to make those plays, work those reads, worry about my assignments."

View practice images from the Vikings practice on Dec. 12 at the TCO Performance Center.

3rd-and-short of extra importance? | By @pcraigers

Third downs can be quite pivotal in the NFL, and that could be the case Sunday.

The Vikings and Chargers have had similar numbers of third downs in terms of opportunities and conversions, as well as on defense.

Minnesota's offense is 68-for-156 (43.6 percent), and Los Angeles is 69-for-157 (43.9 percent) on all third downs this season. Vikings opponents are 67-for-173 (38.7 percent), and Chargers foes are 67-for-157 (42.7 percent).

What about third-and-1-or-2 situations?

The Chargers rank ninth in the NFL with a success rate of 73.7 percent when running the ball on third-and-1-or-2, having converted 14 of 19 tries. The Vikings have had the same amount of attempts but have converted one fewer time for a percentage of 68.4 that is tied with the Rams for 14th.

As for the defenses, Minnesota has come up with stops on 10 of the 21 times that opponents have tried to run on third-and-1-or-2. Los Angeles has allowed conversions on 15 of 23 rushes by teams on third-and-1-or-2.

Vikings running back Dalvin Cook is managing a chest injury, and his rookie understudy Alexander Mattison has been ruled out. That leaves Ameer Abdullah and Mike Boone, as well as C.J. Ham as options behind Cook.

Of course, the Vikings also could turn to the air where they've converted 15 of 19 third-and-1-or-2 situations with passes this season.

Substantial Stats

— Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer is 5-2 in his career against the AFC West. Minnesota went 3-1 against the division back in 2015, and would have the same record against the AFC West with a win Sunday. The Vikings beat the Broncos and Raiders at home in 2019, but lost on a last-second field goal to the Chiefs in Kansas City.

— Harrison Smith recorded the 22nd interception of his career Sunday against the Lions. The Vikings safety (who wears No. 22) is now tied for seventh in franchise history with Orlando Thomas and John Turner.

— The Vikings are a victory away from 10 wins, which would mark the 20th time in franchise history of getting to double-digit wins in the regular season.

— The Vikings are looking for their first win in Los Angeles in 27 years. Minnesota's most recent victory in the City of Angels occurred on Nov. 29, 1992 against the Rams. (L.A. didn't have a team after the 1994 season because the Rams left for St. Louis and the Raiders headed back to Oakland. The Rams returned for 2016, and the Chargers moved from San Diego for the 2017 season).

Quotable

"I think we have an opportunity to play our best football in December. When you start in April, that's your goal. You want to build toward December and hopefully you're playing meaningful football. For us, we feel like we haven't played our best game yet offensively, defensively and on special teams. That's still out there for us."

— Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph

Scoreboard watching

Only four of the 16 scheduled games in Week 15 are intra-division matchups, but one will surely catch the eye of the Vikings.

Green Bay (10-3) hosts Chicago (7-6) on Sunday at noon (CT) at Lambeau Field.

If the Vikings win and the Packers lose, both teams would be 10-4 headed into a Week 16 showdown on Monday Night Football at U.S. Bank Stadium. A Green Bay win means the Packers would be in position to clinch the NFC North in Week 16.

The Minnesota-Green Bay tilt is one of eight intra-division games in Week 16. The Week 17 slate features divisional contests in all 16 games.

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