Vikings vs. Redskins: Key Matchups and X-Factors

Vikings vs. Redskins: Key Matchups and X-Factors

Vikings Barroom Assistant Editor Drew Mahowald provides his weekly deep analysis on the upcoming Minnesota Vikings matchup. This week, he previews the matchup with the Washington Redskins.

Anybody else remember the 2003 season? You know, that season when the Minnesota Vikings started the season with a 6-0 record and wound up missing the playoffs by finishing 3-7?

Now that your memory is refreshed, how do you feel about the 2016 season?

After a dominant first five weeks in which the 2016 version of the Vikings sprinted to a 5-0 start, the team has tumbled after three straight losses and now holds a 5-3 record.

And they have to go on the road this week against an above-.500 team in the Washington Redskins.

On the bright side, Minnesota is somehow still leading the NFC North division by itself, despite having lost two straight divisional games. Hey, If I was told before the season that the Vikings would have sole possession of the division through Week 9, I would have been very pleased.

But the Vikings are in serious danger of losing that sole possession this Sunday in the nation’s capital. Washington is well-rested off a bye week and boasts a dynamic, high-scoring offense and a defense full of playmakers.

The outcome of Sunday’s NFC clash will be determined by a couple of key matchups and x-factors. Who will need to step up for the Vikings to get back on track?

Key Matchups

WR Stefon Diggs vs. CB Josh Norman

On the surface, this matchup strongly favors Washington. Josh Norman has established himself as an elite shutdown cornerback in this league, while Stefon Diggs is just a budding star still trying to reach his potential.

However, each of their most recent performances indicate this matchup could be a toss-up. Diggs has recorded 21 catches combined in his last two games for 156 yards and a touchdown. Meanwhile, Norman allowed Cincinnati wideout AJ Green to surpass the century mark on nine receptions back in Week 8.

Norman will line up across from Diggs on each snap in which Diggs is lined up on the outside, whatever side of the formation that may be. And for the most part this season, Diggs has been on the outside.

For Diggs, the key to winning this matchup is to match Norman’s physicality at the line of scrimmage. Green did this exceptionally well in London a couple of weeks ago and won a number balls because of it.

norman1

Of course, Green is much bigger receiver than Diggs. However, the second-year receiver from Maryland boasts some underrated strength that he will need to use often on Sunday.

Interim offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur was successful in finding ways to feed Diggs last week, calling screens and shorter routes often to potentially let Diggs gobble up yards in open space. Shurmur is notorious for getting his playmakers the ball, so look for more screens called this week for Diggs and also Cordarrelle Patterson.

But, as fans of the 2012 Vikings know, a passing game cannot be successful solely on screen plays. Diggs will need to win his matchup against Norman often not only to keep the Washington defense on its heels, but also to prevent one side of the field from being eliminated on each play.

Plus, this will be one heck of a fun matchup to watch. What’s better than two extremely talented, outspoken and arrogant players going head-to-head?

RT TJ Clemmings vs. LOLB Ryan Kerrigan

According to Pro Football Focus, TJ Clemmings is literally the worst player in the NFL. And as an avid watcher of the Vikings, it’s tough to disagree with that.

The hope that Clemmings would progress in his second season have turned into cries for his benching. Whether he is on the left side or the right side, Clemmings is overwhelmed each and every week.

Now, he gets to deal with Ryan Kerrigan, the most underrated pass rusher in the NFL. The 2011 first round pick is on pace for his best season yet, recording seven sacks through Washington’s first eight games.

Kerrigan combines lightning quickness with immense power off the edge. As Detroit right tackle Riley Reiff found out, if you underestimate Kerrigan’s strength, you’ll be thrown to the ground like a rag doll.

kerrigan1

But, as already mentioned Kerrigan doesn’t just possess strength. Despite being in his sixth season in the NFL, Kerrigan boasts the quickness and speed to use a speed rush to get to the quarterback as well.

Another dimension Kerrigan brings to the field is elite awareness. In London during a Week 8 matchup, Cincinnati decided to get fancy and lineup in a funky formation that included just three offensive linemen in front of Andy Dalton, with the remaining split wide right in front of receiver Tyler Boyd.

Kerrigan recognized the formation and the screen pass that was forthcoming and didn’t even attempt to rush Dalton. Instead, he floated towards Boyd to give him more time to react to Dalton’s pass and eventually bat it down.

kerrigan2

Minnesota loves to run screen plays (well, Pat Shurmur does, not Norv), especially to its receivers on the outside. Additionally, quarterback Sam Bradford has seen his passes batted down at the line of scrimmage at a higher rate than more quarterbacks. Kerrigan’s recognition of these plays could be a difference-maker in a key situation on Sunday.

Overall, Clemmings has his work cut out for him. Shurmur will need to do everything he can to neutralize this matchup, including utilizing some draw plays and slip screens to keep the Washington defensive line honest. But in the end, if Clemmings gets destroyed again, Kerrigan could single-handedly wreck this game for the Vikings.

X-Factors

Redskins X-Factor: LB/S Su’a Cravens

Washington defensive coordinator Joe Barry utilizes a unique package in third down situations, and that package includes second round rookie Su’a Cravens.

Cravens has seen his usage increase throughout the season as a linebacker on passing downs. Against Cincinnati two weeks ago, the Barry consistently found ways to give Cravens opportunities to make plays as a pass rusher.

The former USC Trojan can certainly wreak havoc in coverage, but he has been most effective thus far as a pass rusher. Take the below play as an example. Cravens delayed his rush while also disguising his gap, which flustered Cincinnati’s protection and gave him free run at Andy Dalton. (Note: Kerrigan also embarrassed his man with a simple speed rush.)

cravens2

The Redskins are realizing the impressive combination of burst and speed Cravens possesses and are attempting to get him as many favorable matchups as possible. Typically, the Redskins like to form blitzes that pit Cravens against a running back.

In the below blitz, Cravens is able to creep into the pocket before Giovanni Bernard can reach him. Then, Cravens’ strength takes over against the smaller running back, and he collapses the pocket completely. Meanwhile, Kerrigan is again beating his man while Trent Murphy (93) curls from the inside left position all the way around to Dalton’s blind side.

cravens3

Cravens’ pressure up the middle gives Dalton no chance of stepping up, and he has to take the sack.

This Sunday, Cravens will be able to tee off against an offensive line that has struggled, to put it nicely. And the group of running backs hasn’t been any better in their role.

Jerick McKinnon, Matt Asiata and Ronnie Hillman will need to be aware of No. 36 in every pass protection scenario. If they fail to recognize and pick him up early, Bradford and the Minnesota passing game could be in for yet another long day.

Vikings X-Factor: LB Eric Kendricks

Kendricks returns this week after missing Week 9 due to an injury, and his return will certainly be welcomed. Detroit tight end Eric Ebron dominated the Vikings last week, and the absence of Kendricks played a large role in that.

This week, the Vikings get to deal with an enhanced version of Ebron. Redskins tight end Jordan Reed has established himself as one of the premier pass-catching tight ends in the NFL, and he does much of his damage in the short and intermediate area — Eric Kendricks’ neighborhood.

Reed has made a living of finding the open spots in opposing zone defenses. And in the “Grudenized” West Coast offense run by Washington, Cousins often will look to Reed early in his drop between a couple of defenders.

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Reed also acts as the chain-moving safety valve for Cousins. In other words, the Vikings better know where Reed is on third down. Most of the time, he’ll find himself in Kendricks’ territory.

Over the past three weeks, another trend has emerged regarding the Minnesota defense — undisciplined tacking. Usually, this isn’t a concern when it comes to tight ends. But Reed possesses unique acceleration and quickness not typically seen at the tight end position.

Take his touchdown against Cincinnati two weeks ago. He ran a simple out route into an open spot in the zone defense and made the catch. Then, surrounded by black jerseys, Reed turned and accelerated into the end zone in a manner only few players in the league could repeat.

reed2

Not only will Kendricks have to bring his ‘A’ game in coverage, but he will also have to bring his ‘A’ game as a tackler to contain Reed from breaking away like he did on that play.

Kendricks won’t be responsible solely for Reed, though. By its nature, the West Coast offense is designed to attack shorter areas of the field, which is where Kendricks lives in Zimmer’s defense. On many occasions, it will be up to Kendricks to take away Cousins’ first read to allow the Vikings pass rush to get to Cousins.

Prediction

I actually feel better about Minnesota’s chances this week than I did last week. To me, the Vikings just match up better with the Redskins than they did with the Lions. For example, Washington’s rush defense is 31st in the league, giving the Vikings a perfect opportunity to get their 32nd-ranked ground attack going as Jerick McKinnon returns to full form.

Defensively, Minnesota’s cornerbacks are superior to the wide receivers the Redskins will employ. Reed and fellow tight end Vernon Davis are a bit of a cause for concern, but the fact that Washington should struggle to get a ground game going will make that duo the only real threat the Vikings will have to gameplan for.

It’s crazy to feel any kind of confidence coming off three straight losses and entering a road game with an above-.500 team, but that’s exactly where I’m at.

Vikings 24, Redskins 14

Be sure to check out Episode 22 of the About The Labor podcast, providing an in-depth preview of this Sunday’s Vikings-Redskins 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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