3TFO: Vikings @ Bengals, Week 16
After early special teams gaffes doomed the Bengals against the Steelers last week, they return home for their final two games of the season and face a perilous road into the playoffs. Just like their primary threat, the Baltimore Ravens, the Bengals control their destiny and if they can defend their home field for two more games, they’re in the playoffs. There are other scenarios for Cincinnati to clinch a playoff berth this week, but winning, as usual, is their most direct path to the playoffs.
The visiting Vikings, meanwhile, have been on a hot streak in their last six games, winning three, tying one, and losing another by just three points in a crazy finish at Baltimore. With Harrison Smith and Adrian Peterson likely in action this week, Minnesota will have its injured stars back for the home stretch. As with all teams who are eliminated from playoff contention, the primary focus for Minnesota will be rookie growth and roster evaluation, all the while playing potential spoiler for the Bengals this week.
With the Vikings’ recent form and this game’s importance to the Bengals, the final Northern division cross-conference game of the year sets up an interesting game. Here are a few matchups to watch:
Back to the Passing Game?
With Andrew Whitworth suffering a concussion in practice this week, the Bengals are looking at an offensive line without its most dominant run blocker since Whitworth moved to left guard three weeks ago. The offensive line shuffle could force the Bengals to rely more heavily on Andy Dalton’s arm than they did in their wins leading up to Week 15. Given the Vikings’ woes in pass coverage, that’s a tempting option. They’ve allowed a 104.5 passer rating and nearly a 70% completion percentage on aimed passes this season and have ceded positive grades to opposing QBs on a vast majority of routes. Dalton could be rounding into solid form down the stretch, posting a +6.2 passing grade in the last two weeks with an opportunity to build on it this week.
The big play route to watch is the go route, which Dalton has thrown to A.J. Green 27 times this year. Green has reeled in 33% of those targets for five touchdowns. He’ll likely face a combination of Shaun Prater and Marcus Sherels on the outside as the Vikings play sides with their cornerbacks. Prater was solid in his debut last week, allowing just two catches on seven targets, but Sherels gave up five catches for 112 yards, with 56 coming after the catch. Minnesota has been vulnerable to corner routes in the red zone, too, where they’ve given up six TDs on 17 passes. That’s actually one of Dalton’s most efficient, albeit infrequently thrown routes, as he’s connected on 11 of 18 corner route throws for seven TDs. Marvin Jones, who has two touchdowns in his last two games, has been the recipient of 6 completions on corner routes for three touchdowns. To disrupt the passing game, the Vikings could bring extra pressure. Dalton has a -6.3 overall grade against the blitz, though Minnesota brings more than four pass rushers just 22.9% of the time.
Can Matt Cassel Beat the Bengals Deep?
If you had to guess at which quarterback sits atop the Deep Passing leaderboard, would you know that it’s Matt Cassel (minimum 19 attempts)? Cassel throws 14.4% of his total attempts more than 20 yards downfield, the ninth most in the league, and his 53.6% Accuracy Percentage on those throws is the best in the league. Last week, Cassel was 4-of-5 on his deep passes, accounting for 39.8% of his total yardage and a big portion of his positive grade. While it wasn’t as successful against Baltimore two weeks ago, when he was just 2-of-8 on the deep ball, nearly 20% of his aimed attempts in the last two weeks went to deep targets, suggesting an increased emphasis on the deep passing game. Presuming this keeps up with the return of Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart from injury, it creates an interesting tendency matchup with the Bengals.
In the last five weeks, Mike Zimmer’s defense has allowed just two completions on deep passes, on a mere 16 deep attempts. That works out to opposing offenses taking deep attempts just 8.5% of the time against the Bengals lately, going for three interceptions and two touchdowns. Teams have completed deep tries 26% of the time against the Bengals on the season, that number down slipped to 12.5% over the last five weeks. It could be unmovable object versus unstoppable force from a tendency perspective.
On the other hand, while they’ve worked to take away the over-the-top play, the Bengals have had tackling issues in the secondary in the last few weeks that have led to big plays for opposing offenses. It may behoove the Vikings to involve the ever-elusive Cordarrelle Patterson in space. In his last two games, Patterson has turned 13 targets into 10 catches, racking up 130 yards after the catch en route to two touchdowns and 176 total yards. The Bengals’ likely starting cornerbacks, Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam Jones, both have tackling issues, missing tackles about one in every five tries, making this a potential matchup to watch Sunday.
The Return of Adrian Peterson
Barring a setback in late-week practices, Adrian Peterson will be back in the starting lineup this weekend. He has been the best of the best in many categories over his career, and this year he sits atop the Elusive Rating leaderboard as the only qualified back gaining over three yards after contact. Combine that with 67 broken tackles on 296 touches, and you’ve got a highly effective back. Peterson has run it well behind the very solid Phil Loadholt, whose +7.5 run blocking grade ranks sixth for tackles. Brandon Fusco next to him is our fifth-best run blocking guard, while John Sullivan is our third-best run blocking center, creating formidable trio of run blockers on the right side. Peterson is averaging 7.1 yards per carry on runs to the right edge, where he’s picked up almost 30% of his rushing yards this season.
With Carlos Dunlap missing practices this week with a concussion, the Bengals could face the daunting task of containing Peterson without his +17.2 run defense grade, which ranks third for defensive ends. That’s especially scary for the Bengals considering Dunlap sets the edge on the right side, where the Vikings have been a stronger blocking team. Michael Johnson and Wallace Gilberry will likely be tasked with defensive end duties if Dunlap can’t go, with Margus Hunt the primary substitute at the suddenly thin defensive end position. The fall off is significant, with Hunt and Wallace’s run defense grades negative this year. If the Vikings choose to break from their deep passing game and pound Adrian Peterson against the edges, the Bengals could need someone new to step up and slow the running game down.
Follow Jake on Twitter.