Wise Move to Keep Dobbs at QB & Keys to Beating Raiders + Jeff Diamond’s Pick
The five-game stretch run to the playoffs begins on Sunday in Las Vegas against the Raiders. The Vikings need a win to hold onto the No. 6 seed, with the Packers, Rams, and Seahawks having the same 6-6 record, but the Vikings have the best record in conference games at 6-3.
Wise Move to Keep Dobbs at QB & Keys to Beating Raiders + Jeff Diamond’s Pick
Coach Kevin O’Connell made the smart decision to keep Josh Dobbs as starting quarterback despite his six turnovers in the past two losses against the Broncos and Bears. With his dual threat of passing and running, Dobbs has the highest ceiling (as we saw in the wins over Atlanta and New Orleans) compared to veteran backup Nick Mullens and rookie Jaren Hall (at least at this early stage of his career).
But O’Connell has warned Dobbs that if he doesn’t protect the ball better, he’ll be pulled with Mullens stepping in.
The Raiders have some talented players, led by wide receiver Davante Adams and running back Josh Jacobs on offense and defensive end Maxx Crosby on defense. But like the Vikings, they’ve lost two straight (to playoff-bound teams in Miami and Kansas City) as they come off their bye and are offensively challenged. The Raiders rank 29th and have scored over 21 points in only one game this season.
The biggest storyline is how Dobbs will connect with All-Pro receiver Justin Jefferson, who returns to the Vikings lineup after his seven-game absence due to a hamstring injury.
When the Vikings were 0-3, if you told the team they’d go 6-3 in the next nine games and be 6-6 while holding the sixth seed headed to Vegas, they would’ve taken that scenario in a heartbeat. Now they have to finish the regular season strong, beginning on Sunday.
Here are my keys to the Vikings beating the Raiders:
1. Protect the football on offense — starting with Dobbs — and defense force turnovers: the Vikings and Raiders are two of the most turnover-prone teams in the league, with the Vikings minus 8 (tied for 29th worst) and the Raiders minus 7 (tied for 27th). The Vikings lead the NFL in fumbles lost (14), and the Raiders have thrown the most interceptions (17).
It’s going to have to start with Dobbs not being as careless as he was in the Bears game and the receivers hanging onto the ball (Jordan Addison’s drop resulted in the second pick). Aidan O’Connell has thrown six interceptions in his six games this season, so the Vikings’ secondary could have a good day.
2. Better pass protection and Dobbs scrambling when needed: Dobbs was pressured on 44% of his dropbacks by the Bears, who rank last in the league in sacks. So the O-line, along with other pass protectors, must be better against the Raiders, who are not a great pass-rushing team except for DE Maxx Crosby, who has 11.5 sacks and will be a handful for Brian O’Neill, who struggled against Chicago’s Montez Sweat (who had 1.5 sacks and six pressures). The Vikings should give O’Neill some help if needed, but Crosby is battling a sore knee and missed some practice time this week.
It will help the Vikings if Dobbs can get outside the pocket and find receivers or pick up some yards on the ground after the Bears did a good job of not biting on his rollouts.
3. Get J.J. involved but also use him to set up Hockenson and Addison: the Vikings should go early to Jefferson (who was averaging 114 receiving yards per game the first five weeks), so the Raiders are forced to double him, which will open things up for T. J. Hockenson and Addison. The Raiders are among the lowest-ranked teams in covering tight ends, and Hockenson ranks ninth in the league with 80 receptions (for 786 yards and 5 TDs), so this matchup favors Minnesota. Addison seemed to hit the rookie wall the last few games, and the Vikings hope the bye week rejuvenates him.
4. Get the running game going: The Vikings ran it well in Denver with Alexander Mattison and Ty Chandler combining for 153 yards, and then the Bears held them to 60 yards combined. The Raiders rank 25th against the run, so this should be a good opportunity to get the running game going to balance the offense and help Dobbs while setting up the play-action passing game. As I’ve repeatedly said, the speedy Chandler deserves more touches, rushing and receiving.
5. Defense stop Josh Jacobs on the ground and pressure the QB: the Raiders rank 31st in rushing; Jacobs led the league in rushing last season with 1,653 yards, but his production has fallen off (he has 771 rushing yards but his yards per carry has dropped from 4.9 to 3.5). Jacobs is a two-way threat with 35 catches for 280 yards and must be covered well out of the backfield.
Jacobs did have a 63-yard TD run against the Chiefs two weeks ago so the Vikings have to continue their fine play against the run (7th ranked) with Harrison Phillips leading the charge up front as he has most of the season along with Danielle Hunter, who has played great against the run and pass.
O’Connell has been fairly effective against the blitz (93 ratings), so it will be interesting to see how much DC Brian Flores blitzes the rookie fourth-rounder vs. threatening to blitz and dropping more defenders into coverage. The Vikings will have corner Akayleb Evans back this week, which should help, although he’s been up and down in coverage.
If O’Connell has time to throw, it will be a challenge to contain the Raiders’ excellent receivers in Davante Adams, Jakobi Meyers, and Hunter Renfrow, along with two good tight ends in Austin Hooper and second-round pick Michael Mayer.
Edge rushers Hunter (13.5 sacks, third in the league) and D.J. Wonnum (6 sacks) must lead the way in pressuring O’Connell. Timely blitzes from players such as Josh Metellus also will help the Vikings cause, but the secondary must do a better job than they did on the Bears’ last drive when they allowed D.J. Moore to get wide open in setting up the game-winning field goal. Harrison Smith has no interceptions this season, so he’s due to make a pick after having five last season.
6. Special teams contributions: the Vikings need to win the special teams battle, with Greg Joseph kicking well, and Ryan Wright has to punt better than he did on the last punt (26 yards) in the Bears game. The Vikings face a top 10 team in kickoff and punt returns, so they must be wary of DeAndre Carter. Ex-Viking Daniel Carlson has missed four field goals, including a 30-yarder against Kansas City that was costly early in the last game.
The Raiders blew a 14-0 lead before losing to the Chiefs 31-17 in their last game before their bye. Interim Coach Antonio Pierce is 2-2 since taking over for the fired Josh McDaniels. Aidan O’Connell is 2-3 with a low passer rating of 76.4 since replacing inconsistent and often-injured Jimmy Garoppolo.
It’s a big game for both teams, but I think it’s more of a long shot for the Raiders to make the playoffs in the loaded AFC than for the Vikings, who control their own destiny.
I think Dobbs will play better, and Jefferson will boost the offense while opening things up for Hockenson and Addison to make game-changing plays. The Vikings running game should be better against a weak Raiders run D. I see Flores and the Vikings’ defense confusing O’Connell with blitzes and the threat to blitz so that he turns it over a couple of times.
I predict the Vikings leave Las Vegas with a 24-17 win.
Around the NFL Observations:
1. The 49ers are rolling, and the Eagles are reeling a bit headed into their big divisional games on Sunday. San Francisco is so tough to stop with wide receiver/running back Deebo Samuel rolling as he was in the 42-19 victory last week at Philly. Brock Purdy threw four TD passes in the game, and having a healthy Trent Williams at left tackle makes a big difference.
The 9-3 49ers have now won four straight games, and they should handle the 6-6 Seahawks (who have lost three straight) in the Bay Area, which will help the Vikings in the wildcard race.
The 10-2 Eagles top NFC seed is at risk as they head to Dallas on Sunday night for a showdown with the 9-3 Cowboys who have won 14 in a row at home. Philly’s pass defense is shaky (ranked 29th after they were top-ranked last season). This is a litmus test for Dak Prescott, an MVP candidate who has not beaten a top team this season (with previous losses to the 49ers and Eagles).
I think the Cowboys and Micah Parsons get after Jalen Hurts, who is battling a knee issue and Prescott connects with CeeDee Lamb on several big plays as the Cowboys get the victory.
2. Detroit and Green Bay have interesting games this week where I expect them to win, but they could get upset. The Lions are struggling on defense and have a rematch with the Bears, who should’ve beaten Detroit three weeks ago when they blew a 12 point lead with four minutes left as they went too conservative on offense while their defense fell apart. Chicago will go into the game looking for revenge and feeling confident after their win over the Vikings.
The Packers play on Monday night at the 4-8 Giants in what seems like a mismatch until you look closer and see the G-Men have won two straight, and undrafted QB Tommy DeVito is 2-1 as the starter with a 92.4 rating. But Packers QB Jordan Love has taken a step forward the past several weeks to lead the Pack back into playoff contention.
3. The other key game in the NFC wildcard chase is the surging Rams (three straight wins) at 9-3 Baltimore, with the Ravens currently the No. 2 AFC seed. Lamar Jackson and the NFL’s No. 2 defense should prevail and help the Vikings.
4. The Vikings opponent a week from Sunday — the Bengals — got back to .500 with ex-Vikings practice squad QB Jake Browning passing for 354 yards and 1 TD in an upset at Jacksonville last Monday night. Cincinnati hosts 7-5 Indianapolis on Sunday as the Bengals try to stay in the AFC playoff race.
Another AFC team hoping to make a late-season run is Buffalo, but they have a tough task at Kansas City on Sunday, with the Chiefs looking to rebound from their upset loss to the Packers last week.
Speaking of the Chiefs, they have not done the Vikings any favors this season with their losses to Detroit and Green Bay and the close Week 5 win in Minnesota.
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