Keys to Vikings Gaining First Win vs. Chargers + Jeff Diamond’s Pick
Two desperate teams meet this Sunday when the Vikings host the Chargers. This is not your typical battle of winless teams since both the Vikings and Chargers have plenty of talent, especially on offense, and both were playoff teams in 2022 who entered the season with expectations of a postseason return.
Keys to Vikings Gaining First Win vs. Chargers + Jeff Diamond’s Pick
We’ve heard the numbers on the difficulty of reaching the playoffs with an 0-2 or 0-3 start. The only team to make the playoffs after an 0-2 start since 2018 was Cincinnati last season. Six teams have started 0-3 and made the playoffs since 1978, but only Houston has done it in the last five years (and Pittsburgh would have made it in 2013 if the current system with 14 playoff teams was in place). Those two extra playoff spots help the chances for teams with poor starts, such as the Vikings and Chargers.
So there’s plenty on the line this Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium in what should be an exciting, high-scoring game.
Here are my keys to the Vikings beating the Chargers:
1. Win the turnover battle: the Vikings’ minus-six turnover ratio obviously has been their downfall the first two weeks. Coach Kevin O’Connell says he constantly preaches ball security and is now doing even more practice drills in this basic area. The Chargers are plus two in turnovers with no giveaways in their losses to Miami and Tennessee.
A critical factor will be if left tackle Christian Darrisaw is able to play with his ankle injury and protect Kirk Cousins’ blind side. Darrisaw was limited in practice this week. If he’s out, the Vikings will need to give help to replacement David Quessenberry, who played okay in limited duty at Philadelphia but with elite edge rushers in Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa (if he’s able to play with his hamstring injury) on the Chargers, Quessenberry will need help from tight ends and backs chipping.
2. Run it better, but be sure to exploit the Chargers’ league-worst pass defense: Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa threw for 466 yards and 3 TDs in the opener, and Tyreek Hill caught 11 passes for 215 yards and 2 TDs. The Vikings need to get the running game going much better than their minuscule 28 yards vs. Philly, which followed only 41 vs the Bucs for a league-low 69 rushing yards. Whether it’s Alex Mattison, Ty Chandler, or newcomer Cam Akers (acquired in a trade with the Rams this week), the backs must run well and hang onto the ball, and the line needs to open more holes.
If the Chargers have to somewhat respect the run, it will open up the passing game where Cousins and Justin Jefferson have to be licking their chops as they think about the Chargers pass defense that has been gashed for 712 passing yards thus far but Cousins needs time to throw so he can hit J.J., Jordan Addison (2 TDs in his first two games), K.J. Osborn and T.J. Hockenson (2 TD receptions at Philly).
Jefferson is playing at superstar level as he leads the league with 309 receiving yards, and Cousins ranks second in passer rating (114.2) and passing yards (708). Chargers’ cornerbacks Michael Davis and Asante Samuel have been targeted often, and big-bucks free agent J.C. Jackson is not playing as well as he did in New England before joining the Chargers in an injury-filled 2022 season. But the Vikings must beware of Pro Bowl safety Derwin James, who can blitz (four sacks last season), stop the run, and cover in the secondary.
3. Get Risner in the lineup ASAP: the Vikings just signed a quality free agent guard in Dalton Risner to help shore up the offensive line that has a struggling second-year guard in Ed Ingram and has missed two injured starters—Darrisaw and center Garrett Bradbury (who is battling a back injury but did return to practice Thursday on a limited basis).
Risner is not being paid $4 million this season to sit on the bench, so he must learn the offense quickly and step in this week if possible or ASAP for Ingram, who has not improved enough in his second season after a shaky rookie year. This is a good week for the O-line to get back on track, especially if Bosa is not full strength or misses the game due to his hamstring injury that kept him out of Thursday’s practice.
4. Get an elite QB in Justin Herbert rattled with crowd noise and the pass rush and no safeties trying to cover top receivers: Herbert is playing well enough with 533 passing yards, three TDs, and no interceptions, but star running back Austin Ekeler’s ankle injury kept him out of the Week 2 loss in Tennessee, and he did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday.
Danielle Hunter is off to a great start with four sacks in two games, but the rest of the D has only one sack (shared by Harrison Phillips and Ivan Pace). Edge rusher Marcus Davenport was a prized free agent signee but has played only four snaps due to an ankle injury. They need him back in the lineup while fellow edge rushers D.J. Wonnum and Patrick Jones must be more impactful, and DC Brian Flores should have Harrison Smith blitzing more often.
Speaking of safeties, the three-safety scheme has been picked on with deep balls to elite wide receivers Mike Evans and DeVonta Smith the first two weeks as they beat safeties, Josh Metellus and Theo Jackson. Safeties should be helping in double coverage on deep passes if they’re not blitzing, but if there is going to be single coverage, it has to be corners on wide receivers, including the Chargers’ excellent duo of Keenan Allen and Mike Williams (who have 26 catches for 315 yards and 2 TDs between them in the first two games). This game will be another good test for the Vikings D against a top passing team.
5. Contain the run: After the Eagles rushed for 259 yards last week, teams will test the Vikings run defense going forward, especially when they go to a three-man line. If the Chargers are without Ekeler, the focus will be on No. 2 back Joshua Kelley (130 rushing yards thus far). The three-man pass rush worked against Jalen Hurts and the Eagles early until they adjusted and started running at the Vikings undersized defenders. More is needed in run D by interior D-linemen Dean Lowry, Jonathan Bullard, and Phillips, along with the rest of the defense.
6. Win the special teams and penalties battle: hang onto the ball, Brandon Powell (who blew a nice 20-yard punt return in the first quarter with a lost fumble at the Eagles 34-yard line). And after a penalty-filled game in the opener, the Vikings played more disciplined with only two penalties for 15 yards at Philly. That needs to continue on Sunday against the Chargers in what should be a close game.
Jeff’s Prediction: The Vikings are 1 ½ point home underdogs. I look for a shootout between two high-powered offenses (Vikings No. 8 in the league, Chargers No. 4) against suspect defenses (Chargers ranked last overall and last in pass D, Vikings No. 17 overall but No. 29 against the run).
Former Vikings Pro Bowl linebacker Eric Kendricks (hamstring) did not practice Wednesday or Thursday, so he may miss a game he’d love to play against his former team. Cousins and Jefferson lead the way to a 34-31 victory.
Around the NFL Observations:
1. The Carolina Panthers are up next for the Vikings in Charlotte next week. They may be facing Andy Dalton at quarterback instead of 2023 No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young, who has an injured ankle and is expected to miss this week’s game at Seattle. Former Vikings star receiver Adam Thielen had seven catches for 54 yards and one TD in the Panthers’ Week 2 loss to the Saints.
2. The top-ranked Dallas defense took a major hit when their best cornerback — Pro Bowler Trevon Diggs — tore his ACL in Thursday’s practice and will miss the rest of the season.
3. In games of most interest in Week 3, along with Vikings-Chargers: I pick 1-1 Detroit in a close game at home over 2-0 Atlanta despite the Lions placing two key defenders on injured reserve this week — safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson and edge rusher James Houston.
I think the 1-1 Packers will prevail at home over 2-0 New Orleans if they can get some of their injured offensive stars back (top back Aaron Jones, Pro Bowl tackle David Bakhtiari, and starting receiver Christian Watson all missed their loss in Atlanta and Pro Bowl guard Elgton Jenkins left the game early with a knee injury). Otherwise, it will be tough for Jordan Love to have enough support against the improved Falcons, who have the league’s fourth-best rushing attack led by first-rounder Bijan Robinson (180 rushing yards in his first two games).
In a battle of unbeaten teams, I see the Eagles beating the Bucs in Tampa on Monday night, and I expect the Bengals to win their first game over the surprising Rams (1-1).
Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl