WEEK SEVEN PREVIEW: The Cardinals
The Vikings hit a bump in the road last week, as RGIII and the Redskins delivered them their second loss of 2012, but they head home this week to take on a very troubled Arizona Cardinals team (also 4-2). Percy Harvin and company are looking to rebound in a big way, so lets take a look at what we can expect from this matchup.
The Passing Offense
The Vikings have had various issues with their passing game all season long, but the basic formula is the glue holding everything together. That formula consists of high percentage passes from Christian Ponder, who is second in the NFL with a completion percentage of 68.6%. Many of those targets are going to Percy Harvin, whose 49 catches are currently the most in the NFL, and the most any Vikings receiver has ever had through the first six games of any season. On top of that, Kyle Rudolph’s dependable hands provide an outlet for Ponder and a red zone target, as he leads all NFL tight ends with five touchdowns this season.
It appears that athletic receiver Jerome Simpson will make his second return to the game day roster this season, and the hope is that he will not only be productive in his own right, but will also open things up for Harvin, Rudolph, and the run game.
All-in-all, the Vikings have been a pretty average passing team this year. They rank 17th with 230.2 passing yards per game, 24th with a 6.8 yards per catch average, and 16th with 13 sacks allowed. Most worrisome is that Ponder has thrown four interceptions over the last two weeks while not throwing a single one during the first four weeks.
Ponder was visibly being pressured last week, even when he wasn’t actually being pressured, and he was having issues throwing on the run and failing to set his feet. The Cardinals present a challenge for Ponder and his line of protectors, as they currently rank third in the NFL with 19 sacks through the first six games.
In fact, the Cardinals are no pushovers when it comes to pass defense as a whole. They are ninth in the NFL in passing yards allowed, giving up only 216 yards per game, and are tied for fourth in the NFL with only five passing touchdowns allowed.
Additionally, it is impossible to ignore Patrick Peterson’s prowess as one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks, as he has an impressive three interceptions this season and continues to be a threat to avoid if at all possible.
THE EDGE: Cardinals
The Rushing Offense
The Cardinals are a little softer when it comes to stopping the run. They rank 19th in the NFL, allowing 113.3 rushing yards per game, but have only allowed three rushing touchdowns so far this season. They are allowing 3.9 yards per rushing attempt to opponents.
The Vikings, of course, are a very solid running team with Adrian Peterson still in search of his next 100 yard game that will see him tied for a franchise record. The Vikings are averaging 126.7 rushing yards per game, which is good for 8th in the NFL. They are averaging 4.2 yard per rush and rank 9th in that category.
Adrian Peterson (4.4 yards per attempt), Percy Harvin (4.2), Toby Gerhart (3.5), and Christian Ponder (4.7) all present defenses with uniquely dangerous skill sets capable of gouging them on long, sustained drives.
Those long, clock-chewing drives are going to be key to the Vikings success on Sunday and should also be viewed as the solution to their red zone woes.
THE EDGE: Vikings
The Passing Defense
With Larry Fitzgerald continuing his Hall of Fame career, Andre Roberts coming into his own, and a first round pick spent on Notre Dame star Michael Floyd the Arizona Cardinals are one of the best passing offenses in the NFL, right?
The Cardinals rank 28th with only 199.8 passing yards per game this season, 31st with only 6.2 yards gained per pass, and are worst in the league with an astonishing 28 sacks given up over six games. 28! Seriously, the next closest team has given up 23.
Those stats are bad, but they don’t even begin to tell the story of just how bad things could be for Arizona on Sunday. Regular starter Kevin Kolb is injured and will not be playing, so in steps backup John Skelton. Skelton has appeared in two games this season, starting one, and the results have been awful.
Skelton has completed only 42.1% of his passes, has only thrown for 194 yards on 38 attempts, has no touchdowns at all, has thrown two picks, and has a miserable quarterback rating of 36.5.
Conversely, the Vikings have done a good job of getting to opposing quarterbacks with 15 sacks on the season and are doing a very good job of keeping plays in front of them. They are tied for 4th in the NFL while allowing only 6.3 yards per pass attempt, but only five teams in the league have been passed on more than the Vikings.
The Vikings secondary is much improved this season, with three potential Pro Bowl players in the mix, but still have room to improve. Improvement, however, is completely attainable against this struggling Cardinals team.
To make matters worse for the Cardinals, the Vikings coaching staff have been milking recently acquired cornerback A.J. Jefferson for as much information about his former team as possible.
THE EDGE: Vikings
The Rushing Defense
The reasons teams are passing so often against the Vikings is the fact that their run defense has been doing really well (if you take RGIII out of the mix). RGIII’s dominance last week bounced the Vikings run defense out of the top ten (they are now 11th) as they are giving up an average of 96 rushing yards per game on 3.7 yards per carry average.
Insanely athletic quarterbacks aside, the Vikings are still a very solid run defense, and have yet to allow a running back to break off a big run.
This is a category in which the Cardinals are again in wretched condition. Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams, their top two running backs, have both been placed on injured reserve already and that leaves a lackluster group of running backs to run behind an already shaky offensive line. LaRod Stephens-Howling is only averaging one yard per carry, on 23 attempts, this season. William Powell, on the other hand, had a solid 5.4 yard average against Buffalo last week… but that was against Buffalo.
Powell, a rookie out of Kansas State, is somewhat of an unknown for the Vikings but it is hard to imagine their run game being much of a threat on Sunday. Hopefully, this means small gains on first down, so that Jared Allen and company can pin their ears back and go after Skelton without hesitation.
No team in the NFL has had a better average when it comes to starting field position than the 2012 Vikings. A lot of that is due to having the best kick returner in the NFL in Percy Harvin (37.1 yards per return) and coaches that would prefer to kick it short rather than give him a chance to break one. Marcus Sherel’s excellent punt return average, Blair Walsh’s booming touchbacks, and Chris Kluwe’s adequate punts are all contributing to one of the best Vikings special teams units that we have seen in a long, long time.
The Cardinals have a similar team of solid contributors on special teams, however, highlighted by punt returner Patrick Peterson who is averaging 10.1 yards per return. That stat isn’t very impressive, but we all know what he is capable of doing. William Powell and LaRod Stephens-Howling are doing a decent job returning kicks when called upon to do so, and Jay Feely is a consistently dependable field goal kicker, although he has been struggling from longer distances this season.
Walsh has the edge over Feely and I think Minnesota’s return men are superior to those Arizona fields, and both coverage units have been pretty much equal through six weeks.
THE EDGE: Vikings
The Vikings are still feeling the momentum of their surprisingly fast start and should get Jerome Simpson back on the field, while Arizona’s injury list does nothing but get longer. The home team looks like the one with the advantage here, and I fully expect to see them rebound, but the powers of Larry Fitzgerald and Patrick Peterson cannot be underestimated.
Expect a win, but don’t be surprised if you have chewed off all of your fingernails when the dust clears.
ADAM: 20 – 19, Vikings
BRETT: 20 – 13, Vikings