3TFO: Browns @ Vikings, Week 3
The Minnesota Vikings venture out of their division for the first time this year to play host to the Browns. Neither team can be too happy with their start to 2013, as both will be looking for their first win. For the Browns, it’s unclear when that win will come, as it took less than three weeks for the front office to deem 2013 a rebuilding year and trade away last year’s third overall pick Trent Richardson to the Colts for a 2014 first rounder in what has to be the most shocking trade in recent memory. Clearing house and starting anew is not an uncommon strategy, but trading away a promising young talent such as Richardson isn’t usually part of that strategy.
Good decision or not, Minnesota can only be happy that Cleveland is rid of their feature back. That said, in averaging just 8 points per game, Cleveland’s offense wasn’t exactly prolific even with Richardson on the roster. The Vikings have their own star running back in last year’s MVP, Adrian Peterson, who currently ranks third in rushing yards. In a tough NFC North, the Vikings will have to take wins where they can get them, and this is as good a time as any to climb back up the division standings. Here are three key points for each team to get that first ‘W’.
Cleveland Passing Attack
With Richardson gone and veteran Willis McGahee in to replace him, eyes will be on Brian Hoyer to make a good impression in only his second career start since entering the league in 2009. Lucky for him, Josh Gordon is back for his first meaningful action in 2013 after a two-game suspension. Gordon was Cleveland’s most targeted receiver last year, and led the team in receiving yards and touchdowns as well. Third-year wideout Greg Little actually caught three more passes than Gordon in 2012, but with 23 drops in the past two years (and three already this season), expect Hoyer to look for the more sure-handed Gordon to move the chains.
Lining up at right cornerback is returning starter Chris Cook. Cook has already allowed three touchdowns to be completed on him in two games, but he allowed only four last year in the 11 games he played, so Minnesota should hope he’s just shaking the rust off. Sophomore Josh Robinson will also see nearly every snap on defense despite a dismal start to the season. While he hasn’t given up a touchdown yet, all 14 balls thrown his way have been completed. Robinson’s 5.8 cover snaps/reception is third-worst of 78 qualifying corners, which can’t be to comforting for Viking fans. If it’s any consolation, first-round pick Xavier Rhodes has made an immediate impact for the team. He hasn’t spent quite as much time on the field as the other two, but in 72 coverage snaps, his stat line speaks for itself — Rhodes has seen eight passes thrown his way but allowed just 31 yards on those throws, with the longest completion being a meager 9 yards.
Shutting Down Peterson
It’s no secret that Adrian Peterson is the workhorse for the Vikings’ offense, and for good reason. A season ago Peterson finished just 9 yards short of the all-time rushing record, and he’s off to a solid start this year too. He’s averaging 3.51 yards after contact per touch, which combined with his 12 broken tackles yields an Elusive Rating of 86.0, fourth-best among halfbacks. Minnesota’s offensive line has done its share too, earning a combined +6.1 run blocking grade, but it’s the efforts of fullback Rhett Ellison that have impressed. Despite playing significantly less than fellow fullback Zach Line, Ellison has managed a +2.5 run blocking grade. This shouldn’t come as much surprise, as his +12.2 blocking grade in 2012 was better than all fullbacks not named Vonta Leach.
Peterson and company will have their work cut out for them, facing Cleveland’s fourth-ranked rushing defense. Allowing just 2.0 yards per carry, this underrated unit is suffocating opposing offenses on the ground. He hasn’t done much as a pass rusher, but defensive end Billy Winn has recorded a stop in the run game on 18.9 percent of his plays (first among 3-4 DEs), putting big names like J.J. Watt and Justin Smith to shame. Nose tackle Ishmaa’ily Kitchen is off to a terrific start as well — his +4.2 run defense grade is fourth-best among defensive tackles, even though he’s played only 28 snaps so far. And in spite of his reputation as primarily a pass rusher, offseason signing Paul Kruger has acquitted himself nicely, getting the best of a number of tight ends this year while setting the edge, even if three missed tackles in two games is far from perfect.
Can Minnesota Get Going Through The Air?
Peterson is one of the best in the business, but even the best can’t do a whole lot against a constantly stacked box. It will therefore be up to Christian Ponder to step up and manage some consistency in the passing game. Ponder has thrown two touchdowns compared with four interceptions en route to a dismal QB rating of 67.4. Offseason acquisition Greg Jennings leads all Viking receivers with 103 snaps, but it’s teammate Jerome Simpson who leads the team with 189 receiving yards. Simpson’s 21 yards per catch average indicates some big-play potential, an improvement over his miserable 2012 campaign where he failed to catch a touchdown pass on the 54 balls thrown his way. Should those two fail to get the job done, Ponder still has an imposing receiving option in Kyle Rudolph. He’s off to a slow start in 2013, but Rudolph has scoring potential, catching nine touchdowns last season.
With the likelihood of extra defenders around the line of scrimmage, it will be up to the Browns’ corners to keep Minnesota’s receivers in check without too much support. Joe Haden has been his usual self so far, with quarterbacks who throw into his coverage achieving a QB rating of 53.7. The story is a bit different for the others, as Buster Skrine (QB rating of 111.8) and Chris Owens in particular (QB rating of 125.3) have fared less well. Owens has given up a reception every 5.3 coverage snaps this year (second-worst), and allowing 12 of 14 passes to be completed is far from ideal. If these guys can shut down Minnesota’s passing game early, it may be enough to let their run defense further shut down the Vikings’ offense and squeak out a win.