These Vikings players must excel against the Browns
By: Grant Schwieger
The outlook surrounding the 2021 Minnesota Vikings has changed drastically in the last two weeks. A mere two weeks ago, the Vikings were fresh off an embarrassing opening day loss to Cincinnati and facing a much more difficult opponent in Arizona for Week 2. Minnesota put forth a much better performance, albeit in another loss, and returned home at a record of 0-2 to face a Seahawks team led by Russell Wilson, who had never lost to the purple and gold. In a surprisingly normal Seattle-Minnesota game, Kirk Cousins continued his hot start and led the Vikings to a W and suddenly the season did not look so bleak.
This Week 4 matchup against Cleveland truly is a fulcrum in the Vikings’ season, as a loss would bring them to 1-3. According to playoffstatus.com, Minnesota currently has a 67% chance to miss the playoffs. A loss would bring that to 71%, and a win down to 64%. A win over a potential Super Bowl contender would be huge moving forward, and there are 5 (or so) players who will be vital in pulling that off.
If there were an article about Vikings players that need to perform for each game, Rashod Hill would likely find his way onto it every time. Through three weeks, he has been the weak link for this Minnesota offensive line. His 42.7 overall PFF grade is last on the Vikings offense, he has the lowest run-blocking grade among Minnesota OL, and his pass-blocking grade is only higher than the perennial bottom of the league in pass-blocking Garrett Bradbury. His 8 pressures allowed lead the team and his overall grade is 3rd lowest among NFL tackles. Pile all this together with the fact that first-round rookie Christian Darrisaw is beginning to do more and more in practice and will be active for the first time, and Hill is facing a lot of pressure to keep his job.
Taking a step back from the situation, it is unfair to judge Hill too cruelly. He has been a career backup swing tackle and not been a terrible liability when asked to spot start previously. At the time he was drafted, Darrisaw was meant to be the starting left tackle anyways. Hill is just doing the job he has always had, filling in when need be. The tough part of this week, though, is his job entails lining up across Myles Garrett, arguably the best edge defender in the NFL. I mean, who is to argue, when the below clip looks like Garrett is teleporting he is so quick. Not many NFL players can move like that.
The majority of Garrett’s snaps this year have come across the opposing LT, so Hill will have to bring it big time this Sunday.
There is a reason for optimism about this matchup, however. Fresh off of 7 pressures and 5 sacks against Tennessee in Week 1, Chandler Jones was held to only 3 pressures and no sacks in Week 2, lining up mostly against Hill. Klint Kubiak has done a fantastic job through three games protecting his offensive line and Kirk Cousins, calling a lot of quick game and screens, and getting the ball out of Cousins’ hands immediately. This way, even if any offensive linemen get beat quickly, it still does not affect the play much, if at all. Pro Football Focus has a data point called “True Pass Sets,” which are pass plays where the OL has to take a regular pass set, taking out any screens, rollouts, and things of that nature to best capture the OL’s pass-blocking performance. Minnesota’s OL has one of the lowest TPS rates in the league. Hill has allowed 7 of his 8 pressures in his 43 True Pass Sets, and 1 pressure in his remaining 83 pass-blocking snaps. Kubiak will continue to protect his LT as he has to this point, but there will still be plays where Hill is on an island vs Garrett. If Hill can keep him in check on those plays, Minnesota might be in for another offensive display of fireworks.
When Bashaud Breeland signed with Minnesota in the early parts of summer, it was widely considered a smart move by the organization to further bolster a new secondary. Breeland has followed that up by being the lowest graded CB in the entire NFL. It has not been a matter of scheme for him, either. He has the third-lowest coverage grade in man coverage and the lowest in zone coverage. I wrote last week about how coverage is volatile, and a bounce-back game for Breeland could very well be on its way. As the games go by, the chances of that seem to be slimming.
Patrick Peterson seems to agree that a slow start to Breeland’s season does not mean he will struggle all year. Breeland needs that type of encouragement if he is going to have any chance to regain his confidence. Secondaries are a weak-link system, meaning you are only as good as your weakest player. When your weakest player is among the league’s worst to this point, opposing teams will target them over and over. The Vikings desperately need Breeland to creep back towards average, something their previous CB2 Trae Waynes was in his time in Minnesota.
Minnesota’s CBs have not followed WRs so far this season, with Peterson staying on the right side of the defense and Breeland on the left. Cleveland moves their WRs around, so Breeland will get his fair share of matchups against Odell Beckham Jr. With Jarvis Landry out, the other Cleveland wideouts that Breeland will likely line up against are Donovan Peoples-Jones and rookie speedster Anthony Schwartz. Rashard Higgins will likely be in the slot on his snaps. This means Breeland will be in coverage against fairly inexperienced WRs for a decent portion of Sunday’s game. He has to win his reps against the young guys and hold his own against OBJ for Minnesota’s defense to have a chance. The Vikings cannot afford to have such a liability on defense much longer. Otherwise, Mike Zimmer might have no choice but to play disgruntled second-year corner, Cam Dantzler.
Michael Pierce/Dalvin Tomlinson
Michael Pierce and Dalvin Tomlinson get included together in this for a multitude of reasons. The first and most important one being that Pierce got hurt during practice this week and is questionable. If he is unable to suit up, this will all apply to only Tomlinson, and it will be even more important he play well this Sunday.
Cleveland has one of the best offensive lines in the game, along with what might be the best one-two punch at running back as well in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. The Browns overall have the fourth-highest run-blocking and pass-blocking team grades in the NFL along with the third-highest rushing grade. That all amounts to the highest Expected Points Added per rushing play in the NFL. Piecing that all together and it is quite obvious why run-stuffing DTs like Pierce and Tomlinson are vital to Minnesota slowing Cleveland down.
The Browns run the ball at the second-highest rate in the league, meaning the Vikings can expect them to come out rushing early and often. Getting stops in the run game will put Cleveland in second and long and third and long situations, allowing Vikings pass-rushers to tee-off on Baker Mayfield. Mayfield ranks near the bottom of the league in PFF grade under pressure, so it would be huge for Minnesota to get in the position to pressure Mayfield as much as possible. If Pierce and Tomlinson are unable to do their jobs, Cleveland will be able to move the ball at will and keep the Vikings on their heels, similar to what Minnesota did to Seattle last week.
While Pierce and Tomlinson are both known for their run-stuffing abilities, they can rush the passer when necessary as well. Pierce is second on the team in pressures with 6 and Tomlinson also has 4 on his 58 pass-rushing snaps.
Tomlinson’s best game as a Viking came last week as he received a game ball after the game for his performance and was the team’s highest-graded defender. Minnesota’s interior duo will have their hands full, as Cleveland guard Joel Bitonio is playing like one of the best guards in football, currently owning PFF’s top pass-blocking grade among guards and is top-10 in the run as well. Wyatt Teller, the Browns’ other guard, was one of the best guards in football last year. It does not stop there, as Cleveland center JC Tretter owns the top pass-blocking grade among centers and is a solid run-blocker too. However, there is good news for Vikings fans. Tretter is questionable for Sunday’s contest. If he were to miss the game, that could potentially give Pierce and Tomlinson the advantage they need to have a huge impact. (For what its worth, Cleveland tackle Jedrick Wills is also questionable, and their backup tackle Chris Hubbard is out, but that will not play much of a part for Tomlinson and Pierce’s games)
Nick Vigil/Anthony Barr
Once again, I am grouping two players under one umbrella, for similar reasons to Pierce and Tomlinson. Anthony Barr is questionable, with a chance to play for the first time since Week 2 of the 2020 season. If he can play, that would slide Nick Vigil down to the Vikings’ third linebacker. With Cleveland’s heavy use of tight ends, though, Vigil likely will see the field a lot no matter what. The Browns have 3 TEs that have all registered 83+ snaps through three games, meaning Minnesota will see a lot of 2 TE sets, bringing Minnesota’s base defense onto the field. This heavy personnel usage plays another part in Cleveland’s impressive rushing game, and their TEs, Austin Hooper, David Njoku, and Harrison Bryant, are 3 of their top-5 targeted pass catchers, too.
Barr has often been described as a leader of the Vikings’ defense when he is on the field. He will handle their defensive play-calling duties and brings an added element to the defense with his athleticism and versatility that Cleveland will have to be on the lookout for.
Plays like the one above are plays the Vikings just have not seen much of out of any linebacker not named Eric Kendricks lately. If Barr plays, that means he should finally be healthy enough to cause offenses headaches once more.
Vigil has received a lot of praise for his play this year, making splash plays like his pick-six off Kyler Murray as well as a big sack against the Bengals. His down-to-down consistency has not been the greatest, however, struggling in the run game at times.
He owns the 8th lowest run-defense grade in the NFL among LBs to this point (former Viking Eric Wilson is last, for what it’s worth). Vigil has never been a huge plus in the run game in his career, so this should not come as a big surprise. He is capable of stringing together multiple good games in a row, though, and that is what Minnesota needs out of him right now. Between Vigil and Barr, the Vikings’ LB play in addition to Eric Kendricks will need to be big time on Sunday.
Quarterback is the most important position in all of sports, so of course, Kirk Cousins finds himself on this list. Simply put, if Cousins does not show up, Minnesota does not stand a chance. The good news is that Captain Kirk has been playing like one of the best QBs in the league through September. He is Minnesota’s highest-graded player, and trails only Tom Brady and Ryan Tannehill in overall grade among QBs.
Much has been made about Cousins’ ability to succeed when kept clean in the pocket, and his NFL-leading grade when kept clean backs that up. What many fans are not used to seeing, however, is Cousins delivering strikes with pressure in his face as he did on this clutch third-down conversion in the 4th quarter of the Seattle game.
It feels like we have seen that type of play happen many times with Cousins, but it usually concludes with him pulling the ball down and going into the fetal position for a sack before taking a big hit. Is this a sign of Cousins being a changed QB? That sure would be ideal for the Vikings’ chances, both this week and throughout the remainder of the season. His start to the season marks just the third time in his career in Minnesota where he has strung together 3 or more straight games with 80+ PFF grades. His weeks 10-12 in 2020 and weeks 5-8 in 2019 are the other two, with the latter resulting in Cousins earning NFC Offensive Player of the Month for Kirk-, I mean October.
This means that while Kirk has largely played well during his time in Minnesota, after a few good games in a row, he is usually due for a letdown game. Cleveland owns the 15th highest team pass-rushing grade, and they rank 12th in coverage grade. However, rookie CB Greg Newsome has been their highest-graded secondary player to this point and will miss this game with a calf injury. Minnesota cannot afford to have Cousins cool off from his hot start if they want to keep their season alive. What should we expect? Who knows, it is Kirktober now, after all.