Raiders at Vikes Preview: Aye, Captain, Give it All Ye Got

Adam Thielen and Kirk Cousins discuss route running during the Vikings week 17 loss to Chicago.

The Vikings host the Oakland Raiders at U. S. Bank Stadium on Sunday at noon—but who cares about that because Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins said this:

“Believe me, I’m not going to be playing quarterback here—if I go out and play the way I did this past Sunday—for much longer. So, I understand that, and I look forward to getting out there and playing at a much higher level.”

Cousins had a bad game on Sunday in Lambeau Field. We all know it. His teammates know it. His coaches know it. And now we know that Kirk knows it. Recognition is the first step in recovery. And that’s what the Vikings need to do this weekend.

They don’t need to go find a new quarterback. They don’t need to bench Cousins a la Eli Manning (because they don’t have a young rookie gunslinger waiting in the wings). They do need to remember that they have a decent team and a quarterback who is capable of taking them where they want to go. Someone who has played well in the past and will again in the future. This is the horse the Vikings rode in on, and they are going to continue to ride him on Sunday and for the rest of the season.

“Kirk had an up and down game last week,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “He’s going to be fine. We have the utmost confidence in him. He’s in a good place where he’s going to play good this week and continue to play good for the rest of the year.”

This isn’t to say that the Vikings shouldn’t continue to be on the lookout for a new replacement at QB (such as in the draft next season), because  you always have to be acquiring, evaluating and developing this most important position in sports. But it is to say that for the 2019 season, Cousins is the Vikings quarterback, and he has to play better than he did on Sunday for this season to be any kind of success for the Purple.

And this Sunday’s game against the Raiders at home provides the perfect opportunity for doing just that. The 1-1 Raiders come to town with the worst passing defense in the league. In their two games (coming against Denver and Kansas City), the Raiders have given up an average of 341.0 yards per game. That should make the offensive game planners for the Vikings take pause, since they have leaned heavily on the running game the past two weeks—and the Raiders have the fifth-best-ranked rushing defense, giving up just 63.0 yards per game.

The Raiders defense in general hasn’t been the same since head coach Jon Gruden started the fire sale last season and traded Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears (thanks a freakin’ lot). They are ranked 26th in total yards allowed (404.0 per game) and 17th in points allowed (22.0 per game), but they did pick free agent linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who the Vikings will have their eye on this Sunday—as Zimmer coached him when he was defensive coordinator in Cincinnati.

“Number one, he’s the leader of their defense. He knows [Zimmer’s] defense as well as anybody, probably as well as I do,” Zimmer said. He’s very instinctive. He’s very athletic. He reads things extremely quick and he’s a thumper. He’s going to thump you. We better make sure the officials know he has to play clean.”

Speaking of familiarity, the Vikings acquired former Denver Broncos coach Gary Kubiak in the offseason, and his staff spent some time in the AFC West, so he should have some intel on their personnel, having seen them a couple times each year. Perhaps that will give the Vikings offense an edge.

On the other side of the ball, the Raiders have a middle of the road offense—ranked 23rd in total yardage with 332.0 per game (much like the Vikings, who are ranked 20th at 345.0). They are ranked 22nd in the league in passing yards (218.5 per game), but they are 12th in rushing (113.5 yards per game)—thanks to the fleet feet of rookie Josh Jacobs, who is the fourth-leading rushing in the NFL with 184 yards and two touchdowns. He will receive the focus of the Vikings rushing defense.

They will try to get to quarterback Derek Carr, who has two touchdown passes and as many interceptions, also taking on three sacks this season. The Raiders are putting up 218.5 yards per game through the air (which is much better than the Purple’s offense thus far) but they have only scored an average 17 points per game compared to the Vikings 22. So, if Zimmer’s chargers play as they have for seven of eight quarters this season (excepting the first quarter last week against Green Bay), they should be able to hold down the Raiders to a manageable number.

And manage is the operative word, here, as Cousins needs to manage the game, manage his emotions and manage to protect the ball (he had two picks and two fumble last week).  It is important that he do more than just be a game manager, however. The Vikings won’t just be able to rely on the greatness of league-leading running back Dalvin Cook and still be able to go anywhere this season. They need Cousins to be Captain Kirk and lead his team to strange new worlds at the head of the NFC North Division. To boldly go through his reads and find the right receiver. To look off double and triple covered receivers and find the wide open pass catcher who can seek out new life for the offense with new civilizations (i.e. first downs).

Okay, that’s enough. But, seriously, this game is all about how the Vikings, and most specifically, about how Cousins and the passing offense rebounds. They have put up two sub-par performances thus far (one where they weren’t needed to excel and another where they were) and that won’t cut it going forward. Lose another game because the QB is playing poorly and cracks in the hull of the Vikings ship will begin to appear and widen.

Captain Kirk responds this week. And he will do it in proficient fashion: 250 yards, two touchdown passes and no turnovers. Should be fun.

Minnesota—27, Oakland—17