Vikings facing a rough running challenge

The Jets are only 2-10, but their running game has been their strength while it is also the Vikings’ weakness on defense.

The New York Jets are 2-10, much closer to the No. 1 draft pick than they ever were at sniffing the playoffs this year. They have given up 129 more points than they have scored, are 1-4 in their last five games and 0-3 against NFC teams.

The Minnesota Vikings are 5-7, including 3-2 in their last five games, and have given up 24 more points than they have scored.

At first glance it would seem the Vikings should be in line for an easy win Sunday at TCF Bank Stadium, but there is one area the Jets are sure to try early and often against the Vikings, both as a strategic measure and, well, because they showed Monday night against the Miami Dolphins they don’t have much confidence in their quarterback, Geno Smith.

The Jets ran the ball 49 times for 277 yards, a 5.7-yard average, and defied the odds. They lost, despite teams that run the ball for at least 275 yards having a .948 winning percentage in the NFL, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

The Vikings, on the other hand, have been hot in many areas of their defense lately, but run defense is the admitted sore spot.

“We gave up too many rushing yards,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said after the Vikings’ 31-13 win against the Carolina Panthers. “I don’t know how many yards they had rushing and they had some plays we should of executed where we didn’t – we missed tackles and let Cam (Newton) scramble a little bit and make a couple plays, so I wouldn’t say it’s our complete best game.”

The Panthers ran the ball 33 times for 178 yards, a 5.4-yard average, led by Jonathan’s Stewart’s 12 carries for 85 yards. To be sure, Stewart has been a shell of his former self. In the nine prior games he played this year, he hadn’t eclipsed 80 yards. In fact, in five of those games he had fewer than 40 yards rushing.

Enter the Jets, who have the NFL’s second-best running attack and the worst passing game in the league. Is there any doubt they will try to take advantage of a reeling Vikings rush defense?

Jets running back Chris Ivory is the first person Vikings coach Mike Zimmer mentioned when asked about the Jets.

“I’ve been watching a lot of the offense and really they’re really talented. Chris Ivory is a hard running back,” Zimmer said. “The other running back … Chris Johnson has got a lot of speed.”

If Zimmer thought that before the Monday night game, his feelings were only reinforced. Against Miami on Monday night, the Jets split carries between Ivory and Johnson. Ivory had 16 carries for 62 yards and Johnson had 17 for 105, a 6.2-yard average for Johnson, who had a season-best 47-yard run.

Add to that the fact that the Vikings gave up a season-high 178 yards rushing to the Panthers and it left the defenders knowing what their weakness was on Sunday.

“Too many yards, too many rush yards,” Harrison Smith said in one of several times he mentioned that after the win.

Said Munnerlyn: “I think they adjusted well. We didn’t do a good job of tackling. The running backs did a great job of bouncing off our tackling and they came out and executed their game plan in the second half, but if we have a chance to get off the field we definitely have to get off the field.”

The Vikings have fallen all the way to 24th in run defense and have only two games where they have held their opponents under 100 yards – against St. Louis in the season opener and Tampa Bay five games ago. They have given up more than 120 yards rushing in each of their last four games.

Meanwhile, the Jets, with the worst passing offense in the league, have shied away from putting the game in their quarterbacks’ hands. Smith is 1-7 on the season, completing only 56 percent of his passes for a 5.9 yards-per-attempt average with seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Michael Vick has a 1-2 record with three touchdowns and one interception, completing 59 percent of his passes.

But the Jets are third in rushing yards per carry (4.8), second in rushing yards (1,778), third in first-down runs (92), fourth in carries (370), third with 49 rushes greater than 10 yards, and seventh in percentage of rushing plays (46.5).

“They’ve got a ton of weapons,” Zimmer said while including offensive linemen D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold in that conversation. “I’ve really been impressed, honestly. They’re physical up front, they run the ball hard, they run a ton of different things – Wildcat, reverses, options, boots and throwbacks and all kinds of stuff. I’ve been impressed.”

If stopping the run is always the top goal of the defense, as Vikings defenders have stated, Sunday will be their biggest challenge, despite facing a Jets team that has won only two games.

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