As seems to be the case every week, the Vikings' ability to get their running game going should be key to their success against the Denver Broncos. This time, the defense they face has been struggling against the run. We take a look at that scenario, the key matchups to watch and the important injuries entering the Sunday showdown.
The Washington Redskins
became the latest team to put nearly its entire focus on the Vikings' usually potent running attack and dare quarterback Tarvaris Jackson
to beat them via the pass last Sunday.
The Denver Broncos
are sure to follow suit this weekend at Invesco Field. Whether it works remains to be seen. The 49ers and Bears also focused on the Vikings run game but ended up losing.
The Redskins were able to have success in part because they have a top-10 run defense. Denver is a porous 30th in the NFL against the run, giving up an average of 140.7 yards per game.
Therefore, it's possible the Vikings' running back tandem of Adrian Peterson
and Chester Taylor
, not to mention an offensive line anchored by Pro Bowl players Matt Birk
(center) and Steve Hutchinson
(left guard), simply will be too much for the Broncos.
Considering the conditions in Denver stand to be less than ideal and the fact the Broncos' pass defense is rated seventh in the league, Jackson again will be asked to simply limit his mistakes and complete enough passes to loosen up the defense.
Despite the weather situation and the fact Denver is ranked ninth in rushing offense and 13th in passing, the Broncos might want to consider going to the air against the Vikings. For the second consecutive year, Minnesota is last in passing defense (266.1 yards per game) but first against the run (70.5 yards).
Ideally, the Broncos would like to establish the run. But Minnesota's run defense is fantastic. The Vikings, however, give up a lot of passing yards. So expect the Broncos to do what everyone else does, which is drop back on a majority of snaps. Their only concern might be keeping quarterback Jay Cutler
upright. Cutler has been sacked nine times in two games and has a sore knee.
On defense, the Broncos likely won't be fancy. They'll stick plenty of defenders near the line and let cornerbacks Dre Bly and Champ Bailey
operate against the pass without much help.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
QB Tarvaris Jackson has had more downs than ups this season, and it's clear the Vikings are going to have to think long and hard about keeping him in the starting role in 2008. It certainly wouldn't hurt for Jackson to make a good impression in the Vikings' regular-season finale. In order to do so, he's going to have to show some poise against the NFL's seventh-ranked pass defense and cornerbacks Dre' Bly and Champ Bailey. The two have combined for eight interceptions this season; Bly has a team-leading five, and will present a challenge for Jackson. It could get even more difficult if rookie receiver Sidney Rice (team-leading four touchdown catches) is out again because of a sprained ankle.
RB Adrian Peterson has not reached the 100-yard rushing mark in the past three games, the longest such drought of his rookie season, and has tried to contain his frustration about opponents' continual focus on him. Peterson is going to want to make Denver pay. The Broncos have a porous run defense but no doubt will make every attempt to extend Peterson's streak. Helping to lead that charge will be the defensive tackle tandem of Alvin McKinley and Marcus Thomas.
Peterson could run wild against the Broncos' porous run defense if linebacker D.J. Williams doesn't have a good game. Williams is second in the NFL with 133 tackles, but still doesn't look completely comfortable playing middle linebacker. The Broncos would like him to finish the season strong.
CB Cedric Griffin has received plenty of on-the-job experience in his second NFL season and figures to get some more against Broncos receiver Brandon Marshall. Marshall has a team-leading 92 catches for 1,211 yards and six touchdowns this season. The Broncos figure to try to get him matched up against Griffin, assuming that veteran left cornerback Antoine Winfield is able to return from a strained pectoral muscle after missing one game. If Winfield is out, Marshall could find himself lining up against rookie Marcus McCauley.
Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie is a good tackle, and his matchup against Broncos DE Elvis Dumervil will be an interesting one. The 6-foot-8 McKinnie could have trouble against Dumervil, who is less than six feet tall and uses that to his advantage, keeping tackles off balance.
Broncos LG Chris Kuper vs. Vikings DT Kevin Williams. Williams is a two-time All-Pro performer, and Kuper has only been a starter since midseason. If the Broncos want to get their stretch running plays going, Kuper will have to slow down Williams' penetration.
For Minnesota, Winfield could return after missing his fifth game of the season, meaning rookie Marcus McCauley will return to the bench after having a rough night Sunday against Washington. Receiver Sidney Rice continues to try to rebound from a sprained ankle, but the Vikings aren't going to take any unnecessary risks with the rookie. Injuries to linebackers Vinny Ciurciu and Dontarrious Thomas mean the depth on special teams is depleted.
For Denver, QB Jay Cutler returned to a full practice Thursday. He has a sore knee but should play on Sunday. TE Daniel Graham didn't practice Thursday because of a sprained ankle. Graham tried to play through the injury last week but had to come out of the game. He is unlikely to play this week, which will hurt Denver's run game against a stout Vikings front seven. WR Brandon Stokley hasn't practiced this week. His knee is still hurting and he could be held out of the season finale. LB Ian Gold is likely to miss the final game of the season. He has a knee injury, and the team is getting a look at Jamie Winborn at outside linebacker.