This week’s edition of “Thursday Night Football” pits two of the NFC’s inner-circle contenders against each other. But while one of those contenders is off to about as good a start to the season as possible, the other is limping into the matchup. The Rams are 3-0 and look like the most complete team in football. The Vikings, meanwhile, are just 1-1-1 and are coming off a surprising drubbing at the hands of the lowly Bills.
Minnesota is dealing with several injuries and now the odd personal matters of star defensive lineman Everson Griffen, who will not play in this game. And the Vikings have to travel to LA on a short week to take on one of football’s best two-way teams, which is operating at the peak of its powers through the early part of the season. That’s a tough ask in even the best of times, and the Vikings do not look like they are in the best of times right now.
Can the Vikes get things back on track, or will the Rams continue to roll? We’ll find out Thursday night (8:20 p.m., NFL Network, FOX). Here’s how it’ll all go down:
When the Rams have the ball
The Kansas City Chiefs offense has gotten more attention than any in football through the first three weeks of the season, and with Patrick Mahomes seemingly setting a new record every other pass attempt, that attention has been warranted. But the Rams’ offense has been nearly as impressive.
Consider this: through three games, Sean McVay’s unit ranks third in the league in both yards and points per game … despite also ranking dead last in drives per game. The average NFL team has run 35.8 drives this season, while the Rams have run just 29. The Rams have just been absurdly efficient, and as such rank second behind only the Chiefs in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA. The Rams are the only team in the league to rank inside the top five in both passing and rushing offense DVOA, and they also rank fourth in yards per play, first in yards per drive (by a completely ridiculous 6.6 yards), and second in both points per drive and the percentage of drives that end in a touchdown or field goal. They’ve been buoyed by both a league-best third-down conversion rate (54.1 percent) and the fact that they almost never go three-and-out. Just 5.3 percent of LA’s drives have ended after three plays, the best mark in the league.
Desperately wish you had a 30-minutes-or-so, daily NFL podcast in your podcast app every morning by 6 a.m.? Put some Pick Six Podcast in your life and join Will Brinson as he breaks down the latest news and notes from around the league, as well as the win totals on a team-by-team schedule. It’s a daily dose of football to get you right for that commute or gym trip. Subscribe: via iTunes | via Stitcher | via TuneIn | via Google Play
Between McVay’s creative play design, the strong play of the offensive line (Jared Goff has been sacked on only 3.8 percent of his drop-backs and the line has zero blown blocks so far this season, per data from Sports Info Solutions), and the sheer amount of skill-position talent on hand, this is perhaps not that surprising. But a look at the data makes it fairly clear that it’s possible the offense could be even better.
Star running back Todd Gurley, for example, is averaging just 4.1 yards per carry so far this season. This is despite the fact that he’s seen eight or more defenders in the box on only 16.1 percent of his carries, one of the lowest rates in the NFL. Much of his relative lack of success, yardage-wise, stems from his runs up the middle. Per Sports Info Solutions, Gurley has carried 27 times for just 88 yards on interior runs, and 47 of those 88 yards have come after contact. If the middle of the Rams’ line starts getting a better push, Gurley could start gashing some defenses up the middle; and if he does that, things will become even more open for Goff and his receiving corps of Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp, each of whom is already off to a fantastic start.
Goff made arguably the biggest Year 1 to Year 2 jump of all time last season, his first under McVay. The step forward he’s taken so far this season is not quite as large, but it is significant. Goff has completed over 70 percent of his passes and is averaging 9.3 yards per pass attempt. He ranks sixth in the NFL in passer rating, fifth in QBR, and fourth in DVOA. He has been fantastic throwing deep, completing 14 of 22 tries on throws 15 or more yards in the air, racking up 351 yards on those plays. With the Rams moving Cooks, Woods, and Kupp all over the field, Goff just keeps finding whoever is open. Cooks has 19 grabs for 336 yards. Woods has 19 catches of his own, for 222 yards and two scores. And Kupp has 15 catches for 186 yards and two scores as well. Only two other teams in the league (Lions, Steelers) have at least three players with 15 catches or more, and one of those three on each team is a running back.
Seeing this machine go up against one of the NFL’s best defenses — last week’s debacle against the Bills notwithstanding — should be wildly interesting. Most of Minnesota’s pass defenders have played at an above-average level or better this season, even including the game against the Bills. Xavier Rhodes is doing his usual strong work. Harrison Smith is still arguably the best individual coverage safety in football. Rookie Mike Hughes has been fantastic, allowing just four completions on 12 throws on his direction. Trae Waynes has kept plays in front of him and done a strong job of tackling immediately upon the catch, yielding only 77 yards in coverage through three games.
The areas where the Rams will likely want to target on Thursday night are Mackensie Alexander (6 of 7, 88 yards) and linebacker Eric Kendricks (9 of 12, 161 yards and a touchdown). That likely means throwing over the middle against a group of dangerous athletes, but if there is any coach who can get his best pass-catchers isolated in space against specific defenders, it is probably McVay. With the Vikings presumably working without Everson Griffen yet again, Goff should be at least somewhat well-protected, giving him time to pick out the right matchup and make an accurate throw.
And while the Vikings have been stingy against the run when confronted with the Rams’ favorite personnel grouping (the Vikes have allowed only 3.83 yards per carry on runs out of 11 personnel — or one running back, one tight end, and three receivers, which the Rams have run 98 percent of the time this year), they’ve also given up a first down on 31.4 percent of those running plays, which ranks 28th in the league. That type of rate would allow Gurley to keep Goff and company on schedule, and the Rams to march their way downfield just like they have during the first three games of the year.
When the Vikings have the ball
The Vikings’ offense has not been as explosive or efficient as the Rams’ so far this season, but it has a similarly strong collection of talent and the potential to reach similar heights if it ever achieves peak efficiency.
Kirk Cousins has long been over his early-career turnover issues and has become one of the most accurate passers in the league as well. The running back tandem of Dalvin Cook (working his way back from another injury) and Latavius Murray is strong, with Cook in particular a terrific athlete able to contribute in all three phases of the game (running, pass-blocking, pass-catching). Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are arguably the NFL’s best wide receiver duo. Kyle Rudolph, when healthy, has been one of the league’s most consistent tight ends. The offensive line, while not elite, is better than in years past and has kept Cousins relatively well-protected thus far.
But the results for Minnesota have not yet been nearly as good as they have for the Rams. The Vikings rank just 14th in yards and 22nd in points through three weeks, as well as 22nd in DVOA. (They’re 19th in pass offense DVOA and 31st in rush offense DVOA.) They’re 17th in yards per play and 28th in points per drive. The team has turned just eight of its 37 drives into scores. That’s a 21.6 percent rate that is worse than every team in the league except for the decrepit Cardinals.
So which teams should you back in Week 4 of the NFL season? And which team with postseason aspirations gets absolutely stunned on the road by an underdog? Visit SportsLine now to see which teams are winning more than 50 percent of simulations, all from the model that has outperformed 98 percent of experts tracked by NFLPickWatch.com the past two seasons.
Their run game has been dreadful, with Cook and Murray combining for just 3.5 yards per carry. Cousins has already thrown two picks and is at just 6.9 yards per attempt — the second-worst mark of his career. Diggs has caught only 55 percent of passes thrown in his direction. No. 3 wideout Laquon Treadwell has been almost a complete non-factor. Even Thielen, while he already has 32 catches in three games, is averaging a career-worst 10.6 yards per reception — a figure that is well short of the 14.0 per reception he averaged during each of the past two seasons. Kicker Daniel Carlson has converted just one of his four field goal tries.
While it might seem wildly unlikely that they’ll be able to get on track against what has been one of the NFL’s best defenses (the Rams are sixth in yards allowed, first in points allowed, and eighth in defensive DVOA through three weeks), the Vikings are lucky to be catching the Rams at an opportune time. Cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib — who have been absolutely out of their minds incredible so far — are both likely to miss the game, Peters with a calf injury and Talib with an ankle ailment that necessitated surgery. (Peters is listed as questionable, for whatever it’s worth.) Hybrid defender Mark Barron is also still working his own way back from an ankle injury and also seems unlikely to play.
There is still, of course, plenty of talent on the Los Angeles defense, what with Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, and Michael Brockers lurking up front, and Lamarcus Joyner, John Johnson III, and Nickell Robey-Coleman patrolling the back end. But the potential/probable absence of the team’s top two corners unquestionable opens up opportunities on the perimeter, especially for someone like Diggs to get going. Sam Shields is a fully capable corner who has been relegated to spot snaps so far and should do an admirable job filling in, but he’s not nearly as much of a playmaker as Peters and he’s not nearly as physical and strong at the line or the catch point as Talib. If the Vikings can get him or Troy Hill isolated in coverage, they should take a shot. They’ll need to dent the scoreboards in order to keep up with Gurley, Goff, and company anyway, so they might as well swing for the fences.
Prediction: Rams 24, Vikings 17