The Vikings return to action with expectations for the 2010 season back in full force after a 0-2 start. The arrival of Randy Moss has energized the locker room and the Super Bowl run that was anticipated at the start of the season has returned. However, the October schedule facing the Vikings is brutal, with a run of four straight 2009 playoff teams before the month ends. That gauntlet begins Monday night with a road date with the New York Jets.
The Jets are setting a standard of dominance early in the AFC East that has some believing the reason the Patriots were motivated to trade Randy Moss when they did was to have him available for this matchup. The Jets lost their season opener 10-9 to the Ravens, but since then have rattled off three straight decisive wins over divisional opponents – beating New England 28-14, winning at Miami 31-23 and posting a 38-14 blowout win last Sunday at Buffalo. This is a well-balanced team – ranked 13th in both offense and defense – and appear poised to make a deep playoff run, a journey that would be punctuated by a decisive win over the Vikings.
Perhaps the most improved player on the roster is quarterback Mark Sanchez. After posting one of the worst passer ratings in the league last year (62.7 after throwing just 12 TDs and 20 interceptions), it would appear a light has gone on for Sanchez. Through four games, he has thrown just 103 passes (less than 26 a game), but has been extremely efficient, throwing for 711 yards with eight touchdowns and no interceptions for a passer rating of 105.3 – a number that trails only Peyton Manning and Tom Brady among QBs that have thrown 100 or more passes. He has only been sacked five times, so it will be incumbent on the Vikings to provide a pass rush that pressures Sanchez into making decisions quickly, which is often a problem for young quarterbacks. The best way of forcing pressure on Sanchez will be to stop the run, which has proved difficult for just about everyone else this season.
The Jets have the second-ranked rushing attack in the league (trailing only Houston) and have more running plays (131) than passing (105), and have employed a two-headed beast to get the job done. Veteran LaDainian Tomlinson spurned a contract from the Vikings to sign with the Jets – a decision that has proved beneficial for both him and the Jets. L.T. leads the team with 56 carries for 341 yards and three touchdowns. Despite not having a run of more than 31 yards, he is averaging 6.1 yards a carry and looks like the L.T. of old. He isn't going to provide the "wow" factor, but is adept at gaining the extra yard and keeping the clock rolling on time-consuming drives. He is joined by second-year pro Shonn Greene. Greene took over the Jets rushing attack in the playoffs and was expected to be the primary runner when the team cut Thomas Jones. However, L.T. has overshadowed Greene, who has 52 carries for 223 yards. He has more burst than Tomlinson, but their time share has been split almost 50-50. Between the two of them, they will likely get 25-30 carries, but neither may have more than 15. Former Viking Tony Richardson leads them through the holes.
What separates the Jets from most teams is that run-based teams rarely have the receiver talent to be balanced if an opponent finds a way to shut down the rushing game and force that team to pass. The Jets have brought in talent from Rex Ryan's old stomping grounds – the AFC North – to bolster the receiving corps. A year ago this week, the Jets traded for Braylon Edwards of the Browns. He has regained some of his big-play form this season. He has just 12 catches through four games, but is averaging 19 yards per receptions and has three touchdowns. Joining him will be former Steeler Santonio Holmes, who makes his Jets debut after sitting out four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Edwards is a yards-after-the-catch type of slant receiver that can do damage in the short to intermediate area. Holmes is a dangerous deep threat who is ideal to stretch a defense and make the big play. He is a solid complement to the short group of wide receivers on the roster. Jerricho Cotchery is a possession receiver who moves the chains and Brad Smith is a multi-talented receiver/return man and Wildcat quarterback that will likely give the Vikings some looks that they haven't seen on film and will have to be accounted for in Wildcat situations. While the Jets have waited for Holmes to arrive to open up the passing game, tight end Dustin Keller has locked in as Sanchez's go-to receiver. He leads the team in catches (19) and yards (254), but his most important contribution has been a team-high five touchdowns, including two in each of the last two games. The Vikings defense has a history of struggling against top tight ends, so Keller will draw a lot of attention from Chad Greenway and Ben Leber and will have to be accounted for. The extent of the run-based offense is evidenced by the Jets having four tight ends on the roster, but the other three – Ben Hartsock, Matthew Mulligan and Jeff Cumberland – have combined to catch just one pass. They have a job, but it is as glorified offensive linemen – as if the Jets group really needed all that much help.
The Jets have invested consistently in their offensive line, using first-round picks on left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson, eight-year veteran Brandon Moore – who has started 88 straight games at right guard – and free agency to bring in veteran Damien Woody at right tackle. The only question mark is at left guard, where Matt Slauson has held off second-round rookie Vladimir Ducasse. When Ducasse develops as expected, the Jets will have one of the most dominant O-lines in the league, which some can argue they already possess. The Vikings have a long history of dominance in run defense, while the run game is the bread and butter of the Jets offensive philosophy. This will be a battle of strength vs. strength and the Jets believe they can wear down the Vikings with a steady diet of running the ball – to control the clock and keep pressure off Sanchez. If successful, the Vikings defense could have a long, tiring night.
As strong as the Jets offense has been, their defense has more than held up its own. One of the league's better 3-4 defenses, the Jets suffered a serious blow when nose tackle Kris Jenkins, expected to be the huge anchor in the middle of the D-line, was lost for the season with a knee injury in Week 1. In his place is six-year veteran and former starter Sione Pouha. He is flanked by Shaun Ellis and Mike DeVito. Ellis is the top pass rusher on the team and leds the Jets with three sacks. DeVito is a 305-pounder who is stout against the run. They will be the first line of defense to containing Adrian Peterson from doing damage. Former first-round lottery pick-turned-unqualified bust Vernon Gholston remains a primary backup, along with veteran Trevor Pryce to provide depth. The Jets front line has done a great job of stopping the run thus far, limiting opponents to less than 75 rushing yards a game and an average of 3.2 yards per rushing attempt. If the Vikings are to set the tempo, they're going to have to do things that teams like Baltimore and Miami couldn't do – establish the run and keep the offense balanced.
For any 3-4 defense to be successful, having athletic, instinctive linebackers is a prerequisite. The Jets didn't have that when Ryan took over, but they have it now. He brought Bart Scott over from Baltimore to go with OLBs Bryan Thomas and Calvin Pace and inside LB David Harris. Pace has yet to play this season due to a foot injury, but is expected back Monday night. He is an aggressive playmaker, but, while he has been sidelined, ageless vet Jason Taylor has been able to make plays as a fill-in starter. With his snaps likely limited with the return of Pace, Taylor may be even more dangerous as a non-stop pass rushing LB. Harris may not be a household name to Vikings fans, but he is an aggressive playmaker who, teamed with Scott, have formed a dominant inside tandem. If the Vikings are to succeed either running or passing the ball, getting the job done against this LB corps will be a tall order at the least.
As strong as the Jets are in the front seven, their defense is predicated on the play of their secondary, which takes away a team's wide receiver and, because of how strong they are in coverage, the Jets blitz when they want to, not because they have to. Darrelle Revis is likely to lock down on Randy Moss the entire game and, as he has done so consistently in their last five meetings, will be asked to hold Moss under 40 yards receiving, which he has accomplished in each of those five games. The Jets released Lito Sheppard in the offseason and replaced him with former Charger Antonio Cromartie who, on any other team, would be viewed as the head-and-shoulders-above-the-rest shutdown CB. On the Jets, he's their No. 2 guy and he isn't a lone. New York used its first-round draft pick on Kyle Wilson, who is expected to step into a starting role at some point and, like Cromartie, has the ability to be a No. 1 corner, but here he's No. 3. At the safeties, another former Raven Jim Leonhard is a big hitter, as is Brodney Pool, but multiple concussions have some worried about his long-term future. Fifth-year pro Eric Smith has proved to be a valuable backup who has stepped in as a part-time starter every year of his career. He is another big hitter that will make plays. Like the defense Ryan had in Baltimore, their aggression is infectious and, if the Vikings aren't careful, they are the type of defense capable of making the game-changing plays that win games.
The arrival of Moss has increased expectations on the Vikings side of things, but one of the toughest tests they're going to face all season is coming this week. Already having tried to win on the road in New Orleans and failed, the Vikings have three of their next four games on the road – at the Jets, the Packers and the Patriots. None of them will be easy, but, if the Vikings are to right the ship and get back on course for a Super Bowl run, they're going to have to win at least one or two of them. A win over the Jets clearly won't be easy, but, if it comes, it may get the ball of momentum rolling high speed for the Vikings as they head through the toughest part of their 2010 schedule.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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