Vikings vs Giants: Key Matchups and X-Factors

Vikings vs Giants: Key Matchups and X-Factors

Vikings Barroom Assistant Editor Drew Mahowald previews Monday night’s Minnesota Vikings vs. New York Giants matchup by breaking down the key matchups and x-factors.

3-0.

It was an unrealistic proposition just a few weeks ago. After Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater horrifically tore his left ACL at an early September practice, a 3-0 start for the Vikings seemed impossible — especially given that two of the first three opponents were the Green Bay Packers and the Carolina Panthers.

Thanks to the acquisition of quarterback Sam Bradford and historically outstanding play from Mike Zimmer’s defense, Minnesota has achieved a 3-0 record.

And this team is for real.

Today’s version of the Purple People Eaters boast legitimate All-Pro caliber playmakers on all three levels of the defense. Combine that with the brilliant defensive mastermind that is Mike Zimmer, and the result is the most feared defense in the league.

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In its Week 3 victory over the Panthers, Minnesota surrendered 10 consecutive points to open the game while reigning MVP quarterback Cam Newton swiftly completed his first nine pass attempts. From that moment on, however, a switch was flipped. Newton completed only 12 of his remaining 26 pass attempts with three interceptions and was sacked eight times as the Vikings recorded 22 unanswered points to close out the win.

The Vikings’ Week 4 matchup is the 2-1 New York Giants, who have struggled recently against the Vikings (minus the Josh Freeman game — that doesn’t count). Specifically, quarterback Eli Manning has underwhelmed during his entire career against the Purple and Gold, posting a passer rating of just 54.8.

In fact, in his eight career games against Minnesota, Manning has thrown as many interceptions for touchdowns as he has touchdowns to his own team.

Contrary to past years, Manning will have an elite repertoire of receivers at his disposal — all of which use excellent speed to run solid routes and find open spots in defenses. Head coach Ben McAdoo’s offense is operated almost exclusively through the air, leaving Minnesota with a tall task Monday night.

Defensively, Steve Spagnuolo’s unit has proved to be much improved after an abysmal 2015 season. The addition of playmakers in the secondary such as Janoris Jenkins and Eli Apple have made this group at least respectable. And given that Norv Turner’s Vikings offense hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire yet this season, this matchup could go either way.

Speaking of matchups, here are the key matchups and x-factors to look for during Monday night’s contest as the Vikings try to move to 4-0 for the first time since 2009.

Key Matchups

WR Stefon Diggs vs. CB Janoris Jenkins

The Giants acquired one of the more underrated cornerbacks in the NFL in Janoris Jenkins this past offseason. New York’s front office made sure to get defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo a few pieces to allow him to produce an adequate defense in 2016 after last season’s dumpster fire.

That plan has proved successful as Spagnuolo’s much-improved unit is a big reason for the Giants’ 2-1 start (which could easily be 3-0 if not for a late-game Manning interception last week). Jenkins gives Spagnuolo much more versatility within his defensive scheme.

Jenkins is a jack-of-all-trades cover corner for the Giants. The 5’10”, 190-pound cornerback is generally tasked with shutting down the opponent’s number one receiving option, whether that player lines up outside or in the slot.

Enter Stefon Diggs, Minnesota’s second-year wide receiver who has burst onto the scene through three games in 2016. After just one full season of regular season action, Diggs has established himself as the Vikings’ clear No. 1 receiving option. The former Maryland Terrapin’s 325 receiving yards so far rank second in the NFL this season, only behind Detroit’s Marvin Jones.

Monday night’s contest is one that could turn into a bit of a shootout (thanks in part to New York’s high-powered offense — more on that later). If this is the case, Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford and Minnesota’s passing attack will have to be on its ‘A’ game — and that starts with Diggs getting the edge in this matchup.

Jenkins is a fundamentally sound player who generally puts himself in the right position to defend plays. Additionally, Jenkins is a disciplined cornerback who generally won’t fall for subtle fakes if they’re not sold hard.

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Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant (88) initiates a slight fake 10 yards into his route, but Jenkins (20) doesn’t bite.

Futhermore, Jenkins boasts impressive closing speed that allows him some room for error in the event that he does give some room for the wide receiver to operate.

Jenkins (20) shows off his recovery speed, breaking up a pass intended for Michael Thomas (13).

Jenkins (20) shows off his recovery speed, breaking up a pass intended for Michael Thomas (13).

Spagnuolo’s defensive scheme calls for plenty of blitzes — in particular, blitzes from the secondary — which will open up opportunities for big gains on quick-hitting plays if Diggs can win at the line of scrimmage.

A season ago, this duo did battle at TCF Bank Stadium when Minnesota hosted the then-St. Louis Rams. The Vikings’ didn’t boast much of a passing game in this contest, as quarterback Teddy Bridgewater threw for under 125 yards. Jenkins shadowed Diggs the entire game and surrendered three catches on fives targets for 42 yards.

Diggs didn’t light up the stat sheet, but he did shine on one particular play in which he torched Jenkins’ ankles so hard he probably needed an ice pack.

Diggs (14) takes Jenkins (21) for a dance with the shake out route.

Diggs (14) takes Jenkins (21) for a dance with the shake out route.

If this is a preview of what will take place Monday night, it will make for one entertaining show for the national television audience.

Giants Pass Protection vs. Vikings Pass Rush

Giants quarterback Eli Manning has earned a bit of a bad reputation the past few years for his high tendency to turn the ball over. And while much of that is due to his own shortcomings, he hasn’t been assisted by his offensive line very much.

However, the 2016 version of the New York offensive line is a significant upgrade for McAdoo’s unit. Through three games, Manning has only absorbed six sacks, which ranks ninth-fewest among quarterbacks who have played in all three games this season. And this is in an offense that is almost exclusively a passing offense.

The unit is led by left tackle Ereck Flowers, who clearly spent time fine-tuning his game this past offseason after a lackluster rookie season in 2015. The former first-round pick has kept Manning clean while earning an overall grade of 84.0 from Pro Football Focus, which ranks seventh among all tackles in the NFL.

In addition to Flowers, this Giants unit includes a pair of guards in Justin Pugh and John Jerry who have exceeded expectations thus far in 2016. It’s not a stretch to say that this unit, after performing among the worst in the NFL last season, is the best the Vikings have faced this season.

This isn’t to say there are weak links in that unit. Center Weston Richburg hasn’t quite caught up to the level of growth seen by Flowers, Pugh and Jerry. Additionally, an injury to Marshall Newhouse at right tackle vaulted backup Bobby Hart into a starting role. Despite a decent display against Washington last week, Hart’s inexperience leaves him as New York’s weak link.

Giants right tackle Bobby Hart (68) is the weakest link on the offensive line.

Giants right tackle Bobby Hart (68) will be the guy Zimmer and the Vikings coaching staff target with the pass rush on Monday.

Minnesota’s success rushing the passer this season is well-documented — after all, Zimmer’s team leads the league in sacks. But for as talented as the pass rush is, many of the sacks it has recorded have been due to elite coverage downfield, forcing the quarterback to hold onto the ball.

The Giants’ receiving corps will have a much easier time finding space than the units from Tennessee, Green Bay and Carolina had against this secondary. Manning will often plan to get rid of the ball early, and he’ll have the opportunity to do so with three excellent route-running receivers at his disposal in Odell Beckham, Victor Cruz and Sterling Shepard.

It will be crucial for Minnesota’s pass rush to find success against the Giants on Monday night in order to create those signature Manning turnovers. If it takes attacking the weakest link — and it just might — look for Danielle Hunter and Brian Robison to have a big night matched up with Hart.

X-Factors

Giants X-Factor: DE Jason Pierre-Paul

Jason Pierre-Paul may have less than ten fingers, but he can still rush the passer better than most players who have ten fingers.

The two-time Pro Bowl defensive end has lost a bit of his status as one of the league’s premier pass-rushers, but there is no doubt he has plenty left in the tank. Through three weeks in 2016, Pierre-Paul has displayed significant speed off the edge and frustrated quarterbacks on a weekly basis.

Against Dallas in the Giants’ Week 1 matchup, ‘JPP’ disrupted quarterback Dak Prescott by beating Cowboys right tackle Doug Free repeatedly inside. Pierre-Paul subtly set up Free on the outside before using his elite acceleration to blow past him.

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However, opposing tackles can’t just play for that outside fake, as Morgan Moses of the Redskins found out last week. Pierre-Paul possesses the speed to win simply by getting low and fighting around the edge.

jppsack

Newly-acquired right tackle Andre Smith has been a large (literally and figuratively) disappointment for the Vikings in 2016. The former first-round pick has appeared overwhelmed in each of his first three games in Purple and Gold, and his Pro Football Focus overall grade of 38.2 (70th among NFL tackles) shows it.

Minnesota will have to devise a game plan to keep Pierre-Paul in check on Monday night in order to allow Bradford and the passing game to keep up with Manning. That game plan simply cannot include Smith on an island by himself. Expect Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner to have tight ends or running backs chip Pierre-Paul frequently to disrupt his rush.

JPP is set up to have a highlight-reel evening on Monday night facing one of the worst starting tackles in the NFL. Minnesota’s chances of winning greatly improve if Pierre-Paul is kept in check one way or another.

Vikings X-Factor: CB Xavier Rhodes

The Vikings got Xavier Rhodes back last week against the Panthers, and he blanketed wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin all afternoon. In fact, Benjamin was held without a catch on just one target the entire game after posting over 100 yards and two touchdowns the week prior.

As impressive as that performance was, Rhodes is faced with a much tougher task this week in Odell Beckham. The third-year receiver out of LSU is already a two-time Pro Bowler, and with good reason. He possesses elite speed, route-running ability, elusiveness and hands. Multiple times last week, Beckham toasted Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman.

Beckham shakes Norman on a corner route.

Beckham shakes Norman on a corner route.

Manning hits Beckham on a quick hitch, who then makes the entire Redskins defense look silly for a big gain.

Manning hits Beckham on a quick hitch, who then makes the entire Redskins defense look silly for a big gain.

McAdoo’s offensive attack features three receivers on virtually every down. Each of these receivers (Beckham, Sterling Shepard and Victor Cruz) are of the same mold — small and shifty with excellent route running. Additionally, each of those three guys can find space from any spot on the field, whether it be outside or in the slot.

Zimmer’s defensive attack will likely include plenty of press man coverage in order to give the pass rush plenty of time to get home on Manning. In this case, all the Vikings defensive backs — but specifically Rhodes — will need to execute at the point of attack. If there’s one way to disrupt each of these receivers, it’s to get physical at the line of scrimmage and drive them off their routes.

Throughout Rhodes’ career, he has excelled against bigger, more physical receivers such as Benjamin, Calvin Johnson, Alshon Jeffrey and Julio Jones. However, Rhodes has not experienced that same success with receivers of Beckham’s mold.

Monday night will pose a daunting threat for Rhodes. If he doesn’t step up to the challenge, the Giants’ passing attack will find a rhythm early and that could spell a long night for the Minnesota defense.

Game Prediction

While many will consider the Packers or the Panthers a more daunting test to Mike Zimmer’s defense, what the Giants bring to the table might actually be more of a challenge. The Vikings have not seen a passing attack near this level thus far in 2016, which leads me to believe New York will put some points up on the Vikings.

However, Minnesota’s offense should find a rhythm against New York’s improving but still young defense. Bradford found tremendous success against Green Bay two weeks ago and this Giants secondary is less scary than anything he has seen as a member of the Vikings.

If Bradford can stay upright most of the evening (all eyes on Andre Smith), the Vikings should be able to keep up with the Giants and make the plays necessary to win.

Vikings 27, Giants 23

Be sure to listen to Episode 10 of the About The Labor podcast in which Drew Mahowald and BJ Reidell go in-depth to preview the Monday night matchup between the Giants and the Vikings.

Also, be sure to follow @VikingsBarroom on Twitter and ‘Like’ Vikings Barroom on Facebook for exclusive and engaging Minnesota Vikings content.

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