Behind Enemy Lines: Vikings host Cardinals coming off win over Eagles
It’s been an odd season for the Minnesota Vikings.
They began the year with a win over the 49ers before a tie against the Packers, a confounding loss to the Bills and a touchdown defeat against the still-undefeated Los Angeles Rams. Then came a 23-21 win on Sunday over the reigning champion Philadelphia Eagles.
After signing with Minnesota this offseason, quarterback Kirk Cousins isn’t to blame for much. He’s second in the NFL with 1,688 passing yards through Week 5 and is completing 71 percent of his passes.
Cousins has thrown 11 touchdowns to two interceptions, though he has been bit by five fumbles.
Meanwhile, the Vikings’ run game (65.8 yards per game) is at the forefront of their concerns, as they rank just ahead of the league-worst Cardinals (64.6 yards per game), who they host in Week 6 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
To get to know Minnesota heading into Arizona’s visit, let’s go Behind Enemy Lines.
Saturday, October 13
Safety George Iloka all but confirmed he’s set to make his first start for the Vikings defense on Sunday against the Cardinals.
With safety Andrew Sendejo dealing with a groin injury, Iloka practiced alongside safety Harrison Smith throughout the week and said he’s ready to step back into the spotlight now that Sendejo has been ruled out against Arizona.
As the Vikings get ready to take on the Cardinals on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, wide receiver Adam Thielen will get a chance to continue chasing the records of one of his heroes, Randy Moss, while going up against another of his heroes, Larry Fitzgerald Jr., who will be on the field for Arizona in what may be his final game in his home city of Minneapolis.
• There’s nothing ‘soft’ about Vikings’ next two opponents (Star Tribune)
After five weeks, the Vikings must feel they’ve played something close to an entire season, such have been the emotional swings of what was predicted to be the most difficult portion of their schedule. Whatever its challenges and problems, the National Football League knows how to make its games feel epic.
As this Vikings team has proved, sometimes the games are too epic. Sometimes the easily overlooked games cause the biggest problems.
As Johnson and Cook hope to share a field for the first time in the NFL, both running backs are at something of a crossroads. Cook, who caught nine passes for 107 yards in the Vikings’ first two games, struggled to find open running room before injuring his hamstring in Week 2 against the Packers.
Johnson, meanwhile, hasn’t been the same kind of running back he was in 2016, when he led the NFL with 2,118 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns. He was limited to one game last season because of a wrist injury — the Cardinals replaced him in part by finally consummating a trade for Peterson last season — and has averaged only 3.3 yards per carry this season while touching the ball a modest 17.8 times per game.
In the three weeks since Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen was told to pause his football career and seek a mental health evaluation, teammates have expressed continuous support, saying the three-time All-Pro selection should take all the time he needs.
Meanwhile, for better or worse, these players are seeing how the modern NFL system tries to support mental health issues.
The Vikings offense has been a bit flashy in 2018. They rank third in passing yards per game (321.4) and both Kirk Cousins and Adam Thielen are on record paces. Heading into last week’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles, much was made on the outside about the Vikings imbalance of rushing and passing production.
Ironically, though, it was the running game, with a healthy dose of grit and physicality, that the offense tapped into along the way to helping earn what could turn out to be one of the biggest wins of the season last week in Philadelphia.
Friday, October 12
Left tackle Riley Reiff played through the foot injury suffered Sept. 22 against the Bills when he lined up just four days later to play the Rams in Los Angeles.
But the foot injury, which knocked him from last Sunday’s game in Philadelphia, kept him from practicing this week and he has been ruled out by head coach Mike Zimmer this weekend against the Cardinals.
• Vikings RB Dalvin Cook listed as questionable vs. Cardinals (Vikings Wire)
Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (hamstring) was a full participant in Friday’s practice after being limited earlier in the week.
Cook missed Week 3 and Week 5 with a hamstring injury, but signs point to him playing against the Cardinals on Sunday.
• Vikings will try to contain Cardinals RB David Johnson (Vikings Wire)
The Vikings have the test of dual-threat Cardinals running back David Johnson on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“A big challenge,” Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards said Thursday. “He’s an excellent runner, he’s an excellent receiver out of the backfield, so those are two things we really got to be conscientious of as we’re in preparation this week, and then go out and execute it on Sunday.”
The Minnesota Vikings’ defense wasn’t perfect against the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday, but with two forced fumbles, three sacks and only six points allowed in the first three quarters, they looked a lot more like last season’s No. 1 defense than at any other time this year.
Cook isn’t just a part of the rushing attack. He adds a dynamic element to the passing game as well, catching nine passes for 107 yards in limited duty this year. The Vikings have had success even in his absence working the ball around in the quick passing game. Cook could provide another layer to that strategy. DeFilippo explained his quick-pass philosophy on Thursday:
• NOTEBOOK: Cook ‘Still Trying to Get Where I Need to Be’ (Vikings.com)
Cook was limited in practice Wednesday. He fully participated Thursday before he was limited again on Friday.
Cook, who is questionable to play, said his status For Sunday’s game was still to be determined.
“I can’t tell you right now. It’s a feel thing … I’ve been practicing all week. But with these things, they’re tricky.”
Thursday, October 11
The Minnesota Vikings have gone up against some solid cornerbacks over the first five weeks a la Richard Sherman and Marcus Peters, but they have not faced a challenge for Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs quite like Patrick Peterson.
• Minn.-raised WRs Fitzgerald, Thielen on stage in Cards-Vikes (Star Tribune)
Adam Thielen wasn’t even in high school yet when Larry Fitzgerald entered the NFL in 2004 with Arizona with the acclaim of the third overall pick in the draft.
Cousins’ 64.7 completion percentage and 8.1 yards per attempt under pressure rank second and fifth, respectively. His 51 passing attempts when pressured are the most of any QB without an interception in that situation this season.
• Likely the last game against Vikings for Larry Fitzgerald (Vikings Wire)
“Probably first of all his professionalism,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said Wednesday on what stands out about Fitzgerald. “I think he’s not one of those rah-rah guys, he’s just tries to do his job the best he can for his team. Runs great routes, has great hands, excellent blocker.”
ESPN reported Sunday prior to the Vikings’ 23-21 win in Philadelphia that Griffen wasn’t expected to return to the team “anytime soon” as he focuses on his mental health.
Minnesota’s lack of running game has hurt their production, no doubt, but without Dalvin Cook at 100 percent, they have essentially replaced the running game with quick passes and creativity from offensive coordinator John DeFilippo.
Wednesday, October 10
The starting cornerback for the Vikings is expected to play after sustaining a connection in the team’s Week 4 loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
“I feel good, ready to go,” Waynes said Wednesday. “I’m coming back this week, so it’s all good.”
• Vikings-Cardinals injury reports: Dalvin Cook returns to practice (Star Tribune)
For the first time since the Sept. 27 loss in Los Angeles, running back Dalvin Cook took handoffs from quarterback Kirk Cousins during Wednesday’s Vikings practice.
See the significance of each Minnesota player on the injury report.
• Rookie Mike Hughes wears a lot of hats for Vikings (Star Tribune)
The Vikings selected Mike Hughes out of Central Florida with the 30th overall pick in the lastest NFL Draft and the corner plays different roles for Minnesota.
That includes starting at both nickel and left cornerback while also returning kicks and punts.
Hughes played all 59 defensive snaps in Week 5.
“He does such a good job of just making it easy on us,” Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen said of his quarterback Kirk Cousins’ accuracy.
Cousins has completed 71.2 percent of his pass attempts this season, the fifth-best mark in the NFL.
Tuesday, October 9
Philadelphia allowed a season-high 77 yards rushing to a team still trying to find its footing in the ground game.
That rushing total won’t cause many heads to turn, but given that Minnesota’s running backs gained a league-low 182 yards from scrimmage in the first four weeks, including just 14 rushing yards against Buffalo, the type of performance the run game turned in against Philadelphia is noteworthy, not for its immense production but the strategy behind it.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy to just come in here and run the football,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “In some cases you have to be smart and not play into their hand by running the ball. I do think when we picked our spots, we were pretty efficient and had the runs when we needed them.”
DeFilippo decided that the best way to mitigate the Eagles’ pass rush was by getting around it, forcing runs outside designed to attack the perimeter and utilizing quick screens to generate early production.
• Stephen Weatherly answers the call for Vikings (Star Tribune)
While Everson Griffen remains away from the team while dealing with mental health issues, the Vikings have turned to Weatherly, installing him as their starting left end while moving Danielle Hunter to Griffen’s normal spot on the right side.
He had played just 91 career snaps on defense before this season, working mainly on special teams while studying under Vikings veterans and defensive line coach Andre Patterson. He had primarily been known to fans for his unique background off the field: Weatherly plays nine musical instruments, was the captain of his high school robotics team, spent time in Germany in high school, and has a grandmother, Dianna Johnson, who studied at MIT and Harvard.
Meanwhile, Cousins is overcoming the biggest question mark he faced when coming to Minnesota — playing under pressure. The Vikings’ top-5 passing attack has thrived in spite of the quarterback feeling heat on more than 42 percent of his throws, according to Pro Football Focus. That pressure rate trails only Houston’s Deshaun Watson (45.7 percent) through five weeks of the NFL season.
Cousins impressed again in Philadelphia, completing a remarkable 81 percent of his passes while getting hit (not hurried, actually hit) on 10 of 37 throws. His few “unbelievable” throws, as head coach Mike Zimmer described them, came with multiple Eagles in his face.
• Kirk Cousins has more than lived up to expectations so far (Star Tribune)
Five games into the season is not the biggest sample size, but so far it is clear the Cousins is at least meeting — and perhaps exceeding — expectations as a Tier 2 quarterback. His fumbles have been a source of concern, but everything else about his game has been on point.
Pro Football Focus has him as a top-10 quarterback overall, with sterling numbers on deep ball accuracy and passing under pressure — two things that were combined in one critical play Sunday when Cousins found Adam Thielen on a 68-yard connection. Cousins also ranks No. 7 in ESPN’s Total QBR metric.
Aside from numbers, Cousins has made a handful of seemingly impossible throws every game.
• Should the Vikings stop trying to run the ball? (1500 ESPN)
The Vikings would hardly be the first team in history to succeed while abandoning the run. Last year the Detroit Lions ran just 363 times for a league-worst 1,221 yards and still finished seventh in the NFL in total points. In 2015, the New England Patriots were third worst in total rushing yards and yards per carry and scored the third most points.
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer talked on Monday about how defenses are impacting rushing throughout the league.
“The thing that I think is the defenses now, there’s so many defense now that are playing single-high,” Zimmer said. “That makes it much more difficult to run the football into usually. These teams that are checking the ball and throwing it. They’re taking a five-yard throw as opposed to a two-yard run. I think that’s just kind of how it is. I do think it’ll get more balanced as the season continues to progress a little bit. I could be wrong but I think it’ll get more balanced.”