We can give you our take from the other side all week, but sometimes you just need to hear it from those who know the next opponent the best. For that we spoke with Chris Gates from SB Nation Vikings site, Daily Norseman.
1. Do you think Anthony Barr will play Sunday? How important is his presence to this defense?
From everything I’ve read, it certainly sounds like Mike Zimmer expects him to play on Sunday. If he doesn’t, it’s a pretty significant loss for the defense. Barr just does so many different things, whether it’s blitzing or dropping back into coverage (which is something he’s gotten exponentially better at over the years) or running down screen passes, his athletic ability allows Mike Zimmer and George Edwards to do some things that they might not be able to do if Barr wasn’t out there. I don’t think he’s the most important player on the Vikings’ defense. . .that distinction goes to Harrison Smith. . .but Barr is certainly a player that the Vikings would rather have out on the field on Sunday.
2. This week, Jon Gruden mentioned how impressed he was with the continuity on the Vikings defense. Do you think that’s the key to their success?
I think it really is. When Mike Zimmer got to Minnesota in 2014, there were a few pieces of the defense that were already in place in Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes, and Everson Griffen. Linval Joseph signed as a free agent that offseason, and Trae Waynes, Eric Kendricks, and Danielle Hunter all came in the 2015 Draft. Throw in guys like Anthony Harris (UDFA, 2015) and Mackensie Alexander, and you have a bunch of guys that have spent their entire NFL careers, or at least the better part of them, in the same defensive system. That has to do wonders for not only their understanding of the defense, but for their communication among themselves as well. They can go out there and do their jobs with confidence knowing that, by and large, the other 10 guys on the defense are going to be in the right place and doing what they’re supposed to do, allowing them to be more natural and aggressive.
3. Kirk Cousins seems to be the largest target for criticism with this Vikings team. Is that fair? How much is deserved and how much isn’t?
Quarterbacks always get far too much credit when a team wins and far too much blame when a team loses. Yes, the Vikings had opportunities to win last Sunday against Green Bay and Cousins played what might have been the worst game of his Vikings career, but the team was also down 21-0 shortly after they got off the bus and had to play from behind all game. Having said that, though, Cousins has a reputation. . .deserved or not. . .of being someone that can’t get the job done in a big spot, and until the time comes where he does get the job done in a big spot, that’s not going to change. Every mistake he makes will be magnified as a result of that. I still think Cousins is a better than average quarterback, but there are still plenty of things he needs to fix.
4. We know about guys like Dalvin Cook and Stephon Diggs. Give us an under the radar player to watch for the Vikings.
I’m going to go back to safety Anthony Harris. Harrison Smith gets a lot of the attention in the Minnesota secondary, and deservedly so, but Harris has started to gain a bit of a reputation as well. He started out on the Vikings’ practice squad, hung in and played special teams for a couple of years, and then got the starting job when Andrew Sendejo got injured last season. Even after Sendejo got healthy, Harris held on to that starting role, and is now in the last year of his contract. He did manage to capture the NFC’s Defensive Player of the Week Award for Week 1 of the season (picking up two interceptions and a fumble recovery in the victory over Atlanta), so I’m not sure how far under the radar he is anymore. But, I think if non-Vikings fans were to start listing the best players on the Minnesota defense, they’d list a lot of guys before they got to Anthony Harris, so that’s enough of a qualifier for me.
5. If there were one glaring weakness on that Vikings defense, what would it be?
I think the best way to take advantage of the Vikings’ defense is to play a lot of multiple tight end sets and keep them in more of a base defense. The team has been blessed with a couple of outstanding nickel defensive backs in Mackensie Alexander (who will miss Sunday’s game) and Jayron Kearse, who has stepped up in his spot, and might even get 2018 first-round pick Mike Hughes back on Sunday. If you can keep the Vikings in their base 4-3 and make them rely on their linebackers in coverage rather than an extra defensive back, they can be taken advantage of. We saw that a couple of years ago in a game against the Colts at U.S. Bank Stadium where Andrew Luck just torched the Vikings with a lot of two and three-tight end sets. If the Raiders have the personnel to take advantage of that, it could be beneficial to them. If they can’t, then playing with a quicker tempo is another way they could potentially take advantage, not allowing the Vikings to get into any sort of blitzes or anything exotic while trying to keep up with the pace of play.