The Minnesota Vikings successfully raided the Edward Jones Dome on Sunday, handing the St. Louis Rams a 34-6 drubbing, and bringing home the most important of spoils: sole possession of first place in the NFC North. Pending the outcome of the Detroit Lions game against the New York Giants on Monday Night Football, Minnesota could be the only team in the division to get a win on opening weekend. Here’s how they did it.
Bully the Bullies
In the last few seasons, the NFL has openly encouraged the passing game with rule changes, and it seems a major passing record falls every year. However, a more interesting trend has also clearly emerged, with hard-nosed, physical teams dominating the game, especially in the NFC, and most especially in the NFC West. While the Rams have not been the class of that division, their defense was a pretty good group, and ranked 9th in the league in rushing yards allowed. The Vikings, of course, have had a better-than-average, and sometimes great, running offense for some time. The story coming into the game was one of strength-on-strength.
The Vikings won that matchup, and won it big. Adrian Peterson ran 21 times for just 75 yards, and was effectively managed by St. Louis. However, Corderralle Patterson continues to impress, and ran three times for 102 yards and the game’s best touchdown. That score put the Vikings ahead 20-3, and they never looked back. Overall the Vikings ran for 186 yards, very good output against the staunch defense in St. Louis.
Coming into this year, the Vikings hired a new Head Coach, Mike Zimmer, who is known for running defenses that pressure quarterbacks. They retained Defensive End Everson Griffen by offering him a large contract, drafted Anthony Barr, and let Jared Allen go. Those moves and others paid off in week 1, as the Vikings put consistent pressure on starting quarterback Shaun Hill, and later his replacement, Austin Davis, who took over when Hill suffered a leg injury.
The Vikings tallied five sacks, eight other quarterback hits, and seven total tackles for loss. The also intercepted Rams passes on two occasions, including one 81-yard interception for a touchdown by Harrison Smith. Takeaways have been a notable weakness for Minnesota in recent seasons, and this certainly bodes well going forward.
Poise in the Pocket
The Vikings decided to start Matt Cassell this season over rookie Teddy Bridgewater. That decision, while not exactly controversial, did raise a few eyebrows, as many saw the Vikings as a team still in rebuilding mode. On the other hand, Cassell is seen as a known quantity who can manage an NFL game, especially with favorable conditions.
This was true on Sunday, as Cassell completed 17 of 25 passes for 170 yards, including two touchdown passes to Kyle Rudolph and Greg Jennings. While the raw numbers may not be mind-blowing, Cassell’s rating was 113.8, and he did exactly what he had to do: help keeps the chains moving, avoid turnovers, and stay within the offense.
Particularly positive, from a Viking standpoint, is Cassell’s continued ability to sync with Jennings. They closed last season playing well together, and Jennings had 6 catches on Sunday, including a very nice touchdown reception. While Jennings only tallied 58 yards, the Vikings need Cassell to feel he has a receiver he can count on, and have that receiver be up to the task. Jennings has long been a very good receiver for any quarterback who can take advantage of his precise rout-running. He will find openings for a quarterback who can find him. Cassell did, and the Vikings benefited.
Keep it Clean
The Vikings had 7 penalties for 60 yards. While some improvement can be made, those figures are positive, especially when compared to the 13 penalties for 121 yards suffered by the Rams. The Vikings’ best chance of qualifying for the playoffs is to play clean, fundamental football. Keeping penalties down is a big part of making that happen.
The Vikings have a tough opening schedule. Winning winnable games is very important early. By not only beating the Rams, but doing so soundly, the Vikings set themselves up well moving into week 2. Not all games will be against teams relying on a third-string quarterback, but the Vikings put a very sound whipping on the Rams, including running the ball down the throat of a run-stopping team. There are reasons for cautious optimism in Minnesota.