Vikings vs. Cardinals: Key Matchups and X-Factors

Vikings vs. Cardinals: Key Matchups and X-Factors

Vikings Barroom Assistant Editor Drew Mahowald provides an in-depth preview of Sunday’s pivotal NFC matchup between the Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals.

I really don’t need to go into much detail.

The Minnesota Vikings, who looked like the best team in the NFL five weeks ago, now look more like the Cleveland Browns than a playoff team.

The Vikings need a win in the worst way, and they will have to do it against one of the most talented teams in the NFL. After winning the NFC West and earning a first-round bye a season ago, the Cardinals have underperformed in 2016 and enter Week 11 with a 4-4-1 record.

Given where each team stands in their respective division races and the NFC wild card race, the argument could be made that this is the most important game of the season for both teams to this point.

Minnesota is tied for the NFC North lead, but Detroit owns the tiebreaker after winning at U.S. Bank Stadium in Week 9. Arizona trails Seattle by two games in the NFC West and is simply trying to stay afloat.

On paper, Arizona is the superior team on both sides of the ball. There is talent all over Bruce Arians’ team and given the abundance of injuries Minnesota has endured, a lot of things will have to fall in place for the Vikings to escape with a win this Sunday.

There are a couple of matchups and an x-factor on both teams that could sway the result of the game one way or the other. Let’s take a look.

Key Matchups

WR Stefon Diggs vs. CB Patrick Peterson

It has been widely reported throughout the week that Peterson will shadow Diggs all over the field on Sunday. Get your popcorn ready and get comfortable on your catch, because fans are in for one heck of a treat with this matchup.

Both players are highly competitive, trash talkers and rank in the upper-echelon of their respective positions in the NFL. Diggs should come in with an oversized chip on his shoulder after the way this particular matchup went last season in Arizona.

Peterson shut off Diggs’ water, holding the rookie phenom to two catches (both on screen plays) for 12 yards. In a game in which Teddy Bridgewater passed for a season-high 335 yards, Diggs was a complete non-factor thanks to PP21.

Times have changed, however. Since Pat Shurmur took over as Minnesota’s play caller, Diggs has spent a majority of his time in the slot — and Shurmur has made sure to get him the ball. In fact, Diggs is coming off two consecutive 13-catch games, which no receiver in the history of the league has accomplished.

In short, the passing game has virtually run through Diggs similar to a basketball offense being run through a star scorer. Peterson is one of the most complete shutdown cornerbacks in the NFL, but playing an entire game in the slot against an elite route-runner is one heavy task.

And since this offense is completely one-dimensional now — Minnesota’s rushing attack is literally the worst since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 averaging 2.67 yards per carry — the pressure will be on Diggs and quarterback Sam Bradford to sustain drives.

If Diggs is able to improve substantially upon last meeting’s statistical output, the Vikings will have a chance to earn a win for the first time in over a month.

WR Larry Fitzgerald vs. CB Captain Munnerlyn / CB Terence Newman

Arizona head coach Bruce Arians unconventionally moved big, physical wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald into the slot last season, and it has worked out better than most imagined.

The Minnesota native is the most targeted receiver on Arizona’s offense, hauling in 68 of 99 targets for 686 yards and five touchdowns. Fitzgerald does most of his damage out of that slot position, which poses a problem for the Vikings.

You see, Fitzgerald is a large human — he stands 6’3″ and weighs 225 pounds. And he uses his large frame beautifully to shield smaller defensive backs to make those tough third down catches with consistency. To some degree, there’s really nothing opposing teams can do.

He’ll face small cornerbacks once again on Sunday. If Captain Munnerlyn is healthy, he will be the guy defending the slot. If Munnerlyn can’t go, it will be 54-year-old Terence Newman tasked with Fitzgerald.

Munnerlyn and Newman are both no taller than 5’10” and both weigh roughly 40 pounds less than Fitzgerald. Arians is famous for identifying weaknesses and/or mismatches in a matchup and doing everything he can to exploit it. Fitzgerald had a mismatch last week most of the game, and Arians utilized that mismatch heavily as Fitzy caught 12 balls.

I expect Arians to all No. 11 often on Sunday given these size mismatches. If there’s one way to defend Fitzgerald out of the slot, it’s copying how 49ers defensive back Eric Reid did so last week on the play below.

 

Reid shadows him to the inside and is able to ride his right hip. This forces quarterback Carson Palmer to try to place a pinpoint pass on a rope or throw a ball above both players’ heads and let Fitzgerald’s size and length make the play.

Palmer tries to throw a pinpoint laser that winds up a bit behind Fitzy, but it was Reid’s technique that forced such a tight throw for Palmer. Really, that’s all I’m asking out of Munnerlyn and/or Newman — find a way to get around Fitzgerald and decrease the size of the throwing window.

There’s a legitimate possibility that Munnerlyn could execute this to perfection and Fitzgerald still comes up with the catch. In fact, this will probably happen a few times. But as long as it doesn’t happen consistently, especially on third down, it’s a win for the Vikings.

X-Factors

Cardinals X-Factor: OLB Chandler Jones

T.J. Clemmings is back at left tackle, everybody. Buckle up and hold on tight.

After newly-acquired Jake Long suffered a torn Achilles last Sunday in the nation’s capital, Clemmings will resume his position at left tackle. The second-year player has been dreadful on both sides of the ball, and particularly bad on the left side.

And he matches up with Pro Bowl pass rusher Chandler Jones this week. The 6’5″, 247-pound freak leads the Cardinals with seven sacks in nine games and has wreaked havoc on a number of other plays this season. Clemmings will absolutely be his easiest test of the season.

The responsibility won’t fall squarely on Clemmings, though. Shurmur will need to call an offense that gets the ball out of Bradford’s hands quickly with slants, sticks, hitches and drags. Additionally, the use of screens, draws and other forms of misdirection will be needed to keep the pass rush — particularly Jones — on its heels.

Some responsibility also falls on Bradford and his receivers. Opposite of Peterson, Marcus Cooper will likely match up with Adam Thielen or Charles Johnson. Cooper does have three interceptions on the season, but he has been susceptible to allowing big plays. Meanwhile, Bradford must be able to get rid of the ball if at all possible before tacking sacks — which is something he has struggled with (although it’s tough when you have cement blocks for feet).

A year ago, it was Dwight Freeney and his patented spin move that made the game-saving play for Arizona. This time around, it very well could be Jones who makes the winning play for Arizona from the same position.

Vikings X-Factor: DE Danielle Hunter

Hey, remember when Danielle Hunter was an impact player for the Vikings? Yeah, me either.

Hunter gets a plus matchup this week in Cardinals right tackle D.J. Humphries, who is in his first year as a starter. As a whole, Arizona’s offensive line has been below average in 2016, allowing a third-worst 26 sacks.

Humphries might be the weakest line of that unit, especially in pass protection. Pro Football Focus has given Humphries a pass protection grade of just 57.8, second-worst on the team. If you still don’t believe me, just ask Cliff Avril.

Hunter possesses the size, speed and strength to rival what Avril does as a pass rusher. Behind a battered offensive line, Palmer has become more vulnerable to turning the ball over, throwing eight interceptions and fumbling the ball a total of 10 times.

It’s about time the Vikings pass rush returned to its pre-bye week form. Everson Griffen has a plus matchup on the right side with Arizona left tackle John Wetzel and Hunter has the advantage with Humphries. If the Vikings don’t get a consistent rush this week, I’m not sure there’s much hope for it.

Score Prediction

I’ve picked the Minnesota Vikings to win the last four weeks for some reason. And this week’s matchup is probably tougher than all of those, to be frank.

Mike Zimmer’s team has a lot of issues that need to be fixed before I can trust the it, even in a home game. Larry Fitzgerald will be a problem in the slot. Chandler Jones wins that nightmare matchup against Clemmings. And Minnesota’s rushing attack stays as the worst since the merger because all 6’8″ and 285 pounds of Calais Campbell says so.

Cardinals 27, Vikings 19

Be sure to check out episode 24 of the About The Labor podcast, diving deep into the Vikings-Cardinals matchup.

Drew Mahowald

Drew Mahowald

Drew Mahowald is a student at Saint John's University (MN) pursuing a degree in media communications and a career in sports media. In addition to serving as an assistant editor at the Barroom, Drew also writes about the Minnesota Timberwolves for OnTheProwlMN.com. You can follow Jim Kleinsasser's #1 fan on Twitter at @DrewMahowald.



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