The Minnesota Vikings are a team on the come. At 2-1, they've out-scored their opponenets 60-50. That stat is slightly skewed by their anemic Week 1 performance, where they allowed 20 points to San Francisco, while only scoring 3 of their own.
Over the last two games, they've scored 27 more points than their opponents and they're on a two-game winning streak. They obliterated San Diego last week to the tune of 31-14.
Minnesota is a team well balanced with both youth and veteran savvy. They have the best of both worlds—youthful explosion and battle-tested experience. They are not a team to overlook on the schedule.
This is not the 2014 Minnesota Vikings.
It will take a well-executed game-plan, in all three phases, for the Denver Broncos to come out on top. Let's get to the three keys to vicotory.
Protect Peyton Manning At All Costs
The Broncos took a big hit Friday, losing starting left tackle Ty Sambrailo for Week 4. He suffered a shoulder injury in Detroit and has been unable to practice all week long. Although the team signed Tyler Polumbus Thursday, they will roll Ryan Harris over to the left, and start Michael Schofield at right tackle on Sunday.
Polumbus will serve as the swing/backup tackle, should the moment prove too large for Schofield, who will not only be making his first career start, but will also see the first regular season snaps of his young career.
With 74 total quarterback pressures (sacks, hurries, hits), the Vikings pass rush is the No. 4 ranked unit in the NFL through three weeks, according to Pro Football Focus. Although the Broncos defense has more sacks (11) than the Vikings (6), they are tied in total QB pressures.
This Vikings front seven knows how to get after the QB. They're led by Everson Griffen, who's accounted for half of his team's sacks thus far. He'll be going against Harris at LT most of the afternoon.
Harris is an experienced veteran, true, but the vast majority of the snaps he's played as a pro have come on the right side. And on the other side, Schofield will be blocking for Peyton Manning when it counts for the first time.
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer will excert all efforts to exploit this vulnerability on the edge. And the onus is on the Broncos bookend tackles to hold up and buy Manning the time he needs to read the field and make his throws.
Fortunately, no one in the NFL is better at knowing where to go with the ball pre-snap than Manning. That gives the Broncos something of an advantage. But if the Vikings secondary plays press-man coverage, in the hopes of delaying Manning's release, it could lead to hits on the 39-year-old signal caller.
And the opportunity for turnovers—just what Zimmer wants.
We can expect head coach Gary Kubiak and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison to counter by running variations of their 12-personnel sets (2 TEs), especially on Schofield's side. Leaving a tight end in to chip or double team should mitigate Schofield's inexperience.
Regardless of how the Broncos scheme to protect Manning, doing so will be one of the keys to the game.
Capitalize On Shots Downfield
Zimmer is going to bring the heat. And knowing him, again I say he's going to press the Broncos receivers at the line of scrimmage to disrupt Manning's timing and force him to hold onto the ball longer.
There are a few ways to counter that aggression. One, run the ball with authority to open up the play-action game. However, as we all know, this has been a struggle for the Broncos early on and with the shake-up on the O-line this week, don't expect them to turn their running game around in Week 4.
Another way to counter press is by taking shots downfield. The key here, obviously, is to connect on said shots. Manning struggled in Weeks 1 and 2 to connect deep, but he had a couple of great vertical plays last Sunday in Detroit.
He seemed to get his groove back, after a disjointed start to the season. If Manning can build on that momentum and capitalize on the throws he makes downfield, he'll get in the heads of the Vikings defensive backs, which could lead to them giving the Broncos receivers more space.
Demaryius Thomas, in particular, has to be one of those guys to win deep. He has the size and wingspan to win the jump-balls, as we saw last week. Often times for Thomas, however, he struggles to consistently out-physical his opponents. He will have to be the more dominant player physically on Sunday.
Zimmer is one of the NFL's best defensive minds. He's studied how other teams have stopped Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Don't expect him to re-invent the wheel.
Don't Let Peterson Get Yards After Contact
Peterson has two consecutive games of 20+ carries and 100+ yards rushing under his belt. Remember how difficult it was for the Broncos to run the ball vs. the Detroit Lions last week? Peterson broke off 134 yards on them the week before.
Always a threat to take one to the house, Peterson is the engine that drives the Vikings offense. Find a way to limit him and you limit the Vikings. As it stands, the Broncos are currently the No. 6 rush defense in the league, allowing an average of just 82.7 yards per game on the ground.
They'll be without arguably their best run-stopping defensive lineman Derek Wolfe, as he serves out the last week of his four-game suspension. The onus will be on Vance Walker, Sylvester Williams and Malik Jackson to pick the right gaps to attack, win their matchups and impede Peterson's momentum long enough for the linebackers to swarm.
That's the key. The Broncos have to swarm tackle Peterson, as starting inside linebacker Brandon Marshall opined earlier this week.
“He’s just a guy that we have to swarm tackle," Marshall said. "We have to run our feet when we hit him. He’s a guy we have to tackle with a lot of aggression. You’ve got to tackle with a lot of aggression because if you try to hit him soft, he’s going to bounce off you.”
Limit Peterson and the onus falls on second-year QB Teddy Bridgewater to make plays. He might be inexperienced but he's a smart, athletic QB, who can beat you in a variety of ways.
With how the Broncos are rushing the passer and getting their hands on the ball in the secondary, forcing the game into Bridgewater's hands offers the best possible opportunity to get the result they want on Sunday—another win.
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