If I would have told prior to the start of the season that the Minnesota Vikings would be the best team the Denver Broncos would face a quarter of the way through their quest for the Lombardi Trophy, you would have all fallen out of your seats laughing. Alas, coming into Denver with a 2-1 record, Adrian Peterson at full speed and a formidable defense forged by the insightful mind of Mike Zimmer that certainly seems to be the case when the two teams square off at Sports Authority Field this weekend.
The Vikings looked terrible in their first game of the year in a 20-3 loss against the San Francisco 49ers, but rebounded in week two when the team took down an awful Lions team 26-16. Last weekend, they had their best performance of the season when they dominated the San Diego Chargers at home by a score of 31-14. Neither of those teams Minnesota has faced this season are nearly as good as what the Broncos offer in terms of a match-up, but it is important for Denver to not underestimate an opponent who has a few budding stars on both sides of the ball and a coaching staff competent enough to improve their efficacy in both regards.
Looking back at the 2014 Minnesota Vikings
With the Green Bay Packers consistently demonstrating their dominance in the NFC North over the past decade, very few football analysts have predicted much from the Minnesota Vikings other than mediocrity.
Over the past ten seasons, the Vikings have only made the post season three times and went through four coaching changes. Mike Tice was sent packing a decade ago and neither the Brad Childress or Leslie Frazier experiments at head coach paid the dividends team owners were hoping for. Last season, the team was led by former Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who replaced Frazier in the off-season. He has been widely regarded as one of the best defensive coaches in all of football and the Vikings brass were impressed with the potential identity he could bring to their franchise.
To head their offense, Zimmer reeled in former San Diego Chargers head coach Norv Turner. He knew they lacked the quarterback on their roster to be a consistent contender in the NFC North, which prompted the team opted to trade up and draft highly touted Louisville product Teddy Bridgewater at the end of the first round in the 2014 NFL Draft. Bridgewater replaced Matt Cassel as the starter after he was injured in their game against the New Orleans Saints in September and never looked back.
Ryan Harris, Michael Schofield confident in O-line
Despite a lack of playing time together, the Broncos' offensive line moves this week are not worrying the offensive linemen.
Despite some growing pains, Bridgewater had a few comeback wins and was able to accumulate nearly 3,000 yards in the air and fourteen touchdowns while also registering 200 plus yards on the ground. He is an accurate passer and a student of the game and there is no doubt that he is a player of promise for the VIkings. He has all the tools necessary to be one of the top signal callers in the NFL, but will need better players around him in the receiving game for him to reach that echelon.
In summary, the team finished with a 7-9 record, just two games better than the year prior. However, it is important to note the team was without Adrian Peterson for the year after he was suspended by the NFL and were undergoing complete schematic changes on both sides of the ball. If the Vikings can get better on offense, I believe they have the ability to compete for a playoff spot in the NFC, but that is a big if that hasn't showed much promise so far this season.
Listed below is a comprehensive review of their recent offseason transactions:
Identifying the 2015 Minnesota Vikings
Key Additions: WR Mike Wallace, ILB Casey Matthews, CB Terence Newman
Key Losses: QB Matt Cassel, QB Christian Ponder, FB Jerome Felton, WR Greg Jennings, G Charlie Johnson, G Vladimir Ducasse, DE Corey Wootton, ILB Jasper Brinkley
2015 Draft Class: CB Trae Waynes, ILB Eric Kendricks, DE/OLB Danielle Hunter, OT T.J. Clemmings, TE MyCole Pruitt, WR Stefon Diggs, OT Tyrus Thompson, DT B.J. Dubose, OL Austin Shepherd, LB Edmond Robison
Note: All players from their draft class with the exception of Tyrus Thompson and B.J. Dubose made their active roster. Dubose is on their practice squad and Thompson is currently a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Summary: The 2015 Minnesota Vikings lost a lot more players than they brought in and were not very active with big name signings in free agency at all. Mike Wallace was brought in via trade to help bolster their receiver corps and cornerback Terence Newman followed his former coach from Cincinnati to Minnesota to help solidify a secondary that is on the rise. The huge difference maker is that All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson is back in the fold, after being suspended all but one game last season. His presence on the field for the Vikings should net them at least two more wins in their record total this year.
Additionally, the Vikings have been very active in the draft over the past several years under the leadership of GM Rick Spielman, who has secured eight first round draft picks in the past four years, most of which have been good contributors to the team. In order for the Vikings to take their next step and become playoff caliber, they will need those players to develop one step further to reach their goal.
Harris to start at LT, Schofield at RT
In a week that saw two tackles signed by Denver, the starting offensive line has now see two starters change.
Minnesota's Cause for Concern: A Mediocre Offense Absent of an Arial Assault
Although the Vikings did make some moves to bolster their passing game over the past few seasons, they still do not have a formidable aerial assault. They currently rank 29th in the league in overall yards and 19th in points scored, which is a serious cause for concern for them this weekend and for the remainder of their season.
Their passing offense is ranked dead last in the NFL and they lack the offensive weapons at receiver and tight end to even come close to competing against Denver's top ranked secondary. It is a recipe for disaster and it will be the reason they lose handily to the Broncos this weekend.
Hart's 3 Keys to Winning against the Minnesota Vikings
1) Stopping the run, which means shutting down Adrian Peterson
The key to stopping the Vikings offensive attack is shutting down Adrian Peterson. He is their main man on offense and one of the few difference makers they have on that side of the ball that need to be accounted for. Denver has been great against the run this season and with little to worry about in their passing game, expect a heavy focus on Peterson and having the Broncos account for him with an extra defender every play, much like they did against Jamaal Charles. Expect a heavy dose of running by the Vikings this weekend. They can't win in a shoot out in Denver and will have to control the ball and the clock if they want any shot at coming out of Mile High with a victory.
2) Which forces Teddy Bridgewater to make plays through the air
If the Broncos are able to shutdown Adrian Peterson effectively, this will cause the Vikings to attempt to throw the ball against Denver's vaunted secondary. Although they have some players at the position, they are hardly big time match-ups to be worried about. Mike Wallace and Cordarrelle Patterson will see most of the snaps at receiver, with tight end Kyle Rudolph being an emphasis in the passing game.
Charles Johnson has been ruled out for Sunday's game and slot receiver Jarius Wright is questionable with injury. If Wright is not able to play, the Vikings will be down another receiver in their offense and will have to rely on younger players to make big plays against the Broncos. Don't count on that happening.
3) Win the battle in the trenches, especially against their formidable defensive line
The Vikings have one of the most underrated defenses in the NFL that has a plethora of formidable defenders on their front line. The player to watch is their rising star defensive end Everson Griffen, who is picking up this season where he left off in 2014 after he had a career year registering 57 and 12 sacks. Ryan Harris will have his hands full going up against him and Michael Schofield will have to play well in his first NFL start against Brian Robison, who is no slouch at getting after the passer either.
Shariff Floyd and Linval Joseph are two big interior forces on their front that could pose some trouble to Evan Mathis, Matthew Paradis and Louis Vasquez if they aren't on their A-game. It is essential that Denver's offensive line are able to compete at a high level against their defensive front or the Broncos may have issues on offense all game long. Zimmer is a mastermind defensive coach and expect him to throw everything, including the kitchen sink, at Manning and the rest of the Broncos offense on Sunday.
What Their Coaches/Players Are Saying
"They’re aggressive. They play tight coverage, bump and run, they have got not just two good rushers, they have four rushers — the guys inside can rush, the two guys on the outside are obviously special rushers. The two linebackers can run. They’re giving up 18 percent on third downs. They can be suffocating." — Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer on the Broncos defense
"He was always in command at the line of scrimmage, it was always like a chess match when you played Peyton Manning. He’s always making checks, audibles at the line of scrimmage, getting himself in and out of the right plays. Protecting himself. He’s a guy who plays extremely fast and he’s been playing at a high level his entire career." — Vikings Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater on Peyton Manning
What Our Coaches Are Saying
"Yeah, he's a hell of a coach. He was in Cincinnati, obviously, all of those years. [I have] known him and have great respect for him. He's got a football team that plays—we talk about playing hard all the time, being physical, being a consistent team from that standpoint. When you watch his team, that's what they are and one thing for sure. It's a big battle on our hands. Mike is a defensive guy and creates a lot of problems for you up front. It'll be a big challenge for our group." — Broncos Head Coach Gary Kubiak on Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer
"He's a very athletic quarterback. I think he's learning as he goes, but he's learned how to win. That's an important phase in a quarterback. Part of it's the running back, but also it's not making mistakes that cost the team when you have a game won. He's done really well at that." — Broncos Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips on Minnesota Vikings QB Teddy Bridgewater
Hart's Prediction for Sunday Night
Growing up in the Midwest and right next door to Minnesota, I have always had the opportunity to watch the Vikings closely. They are one of the most frustrating teams to watch year in and year out because they offer so much potential, but always seem to fall short of it. The team has a great defense, but the offense is too suspect to match-up against the tenacious group Denver will be fielding this weekend. I don't expect a complete beat down, but I don't believe that this game will be remotely close when the clock hits zero in the fourth quarter. Denver stays undefeated and never looks back after a few big plays early on in the game.
Denver 30, Minnesota 13.