Vikings-Redskins: Familiarity breeds …

The Vikings and Redskins have played each of the last four years and both rookie head coaches were together last year in Cincinnati. What will it all mean with their seasons on the line?

With the Vikings preparing for their final game before their bye week, they face a familiar opponent with whom the team has developed something of a rivalry with – a rivalry that takes another step forward Sunday when the two head coaches are thrown into the mix.

Thanks to scheduling quirks that had the teams finishing in the same divisional positions, the Vikings and Washington Redskins have played each other each of the last four years, with the Vikings winning three of those games. The teams have built a level of familiarity given how often they play one another, but it got ratcheted up in the offseason when both teams hired new head coaches from the Cincinnati Bengals coaching staff. Mike Zimmer was the defensive coordinator for the Bengals, while Jay Gruden, Washington’s head coach, served as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator. Sunday will mark the first meeting between the two as head coaches and will add an extra layer to a matchup that has plenty of storylines going for it already.

The biggest question coming into the game is how sharp Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III will be. Griffin was injured during the 2012 playoff run by the Redskins and tore an ACL in his right knee. Coming off the heels of Adrian Peterson’s miraculous comeback from his own torn ACL, Griffin was pushed back onto the field too early in the estimation of many and his 2013 season was disastrous.

He was deemed to be 100 percent and big things were expected in 2014, but he suffered a dislocated ankle in the first quarter of Washington’s Week 2 matchup with Jacksonville and he hasn’t been back on the field since. With one week before the Redskins’ bye week, there had been speculation that the team would hold him back one more week to assure that he would be 100 percent when Washington returns to action in Week 11.

The Redskins are in a difficult situation in that they need Griffin to play well and win the game. If he struggles or, even worse, gets hurt, the second-guessing will be on so the pressure will be quite intense for Griffin to play at midseason form despite not having played much of the season.

The Redskins offense has been pretty effective without RG3, posting the fifth best pass offense in the league with big-play talent Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson and Jordan Reed and, with Alfred Morris leading the way on the ground, the team is able to achieve a nice balance between the pass and run. The Vikings will need to take away the run option by bottling up Morris and making Griffin more one-dimensional and predictable.

One of the bigger wars will be in the trenches, where the Redskins offensive line, which includes veterans Trent Williams, Kory Lichtensteiger and Chris Chester, will be taking on a hard-charging Vikings defensive front that continues to climb the charts in terms of team defense and sacks. If they can keep the Vikings front four at bay, Griffin may be in line for a strong day in his return to action.

Despite losing Pro Bowl pass rusher Brian Orakpo, the Redskins have the 11th-ranked defense in the league and the defensive front has been spearheaded by outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, who leads the team with 7½ sacks. The Redskins have the talent to apply pressure with the front three, but the strength of the defense is the ability to blitz and bring pressure from different spots by sending linebackers and safeties on a regular basis.

With any 3-4 defense, the key to making it work is a swarming linebacker corps and the Redskins are loaded there, with Kerrigan and Trent Murphy on the outside and Perry Riley and Keenan Robinson in the middle. They can disguise coverages well and aren’t afraid to bring the kitchen sink on blitzes. They did it all Monday night against veteran Tony Romo, so Norv Turner is expecting a similar approach against rookie Teddy Bridgewater to try to rattle him and either get sacks or force him to throw ill-advised passes. If Bridgewater does the latter, the Redskins have the playmakers in the secondary to get the job done, especially at safety.

The Redskins are extremely young at cornerback, where second-year man Dave Amerson and rookie Bashaud Breeland line up as the starters, but it is the playmaking ability of their safeties – Brandon Merriweather and Ryan Clark – that makes the Washington secondary so dangerous. Both Merriweather and Clark are ball hawks, despite Washington having just three interceptions on the season. Both are disruptive and dangerous both in coverage and as occasional blitzers. The Vikings blockers will have to be on their toes because the Redskins will take risks and try to bring one more player than the opponent has blockers – leaving their coverage guys on an island in a risk-reward style of defense that can either get lit up or can create the plays that blow up drives.

There are a lot of similarities between the Vikings and Redskins aside from having the same record and two first-year head coaches that came from the same system before getting the top job with their respective teams. Both teams are looking to enter the bye week on a high note. The winner will be riding a two-game winning streak and looking to make a late-season run. The loser will drop to 3-6 and likely bring an end to any realistic chance of making a playoff run given the records within their own division.

In many respects, this will be an elimination game and the Vikings had best be on their “A” game if they want to keep the momentum they’ve been building because the Redskins are a team that won’t go down easy and, fresh off a win over the Cowboys, are looking for more as they come to TCF Bank Stadium looking to leave with a win.

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