Matthew Coller is a published author and football writer who covers the Vikings. He also writes a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, in addition to hosting a livestream on the Bring Me The News YouTube and Facebook pages every Tuesday. You can find more of his work at Purple Insider.
Oh hey, Kevin Stefanski.
Is there a better opponent for a reckoning than a team that’s run by The One Who Got Away?
After going 0-2, the Minnesota Vikings argued that they were actually a good team that had a couple of tough breaks. In Week 1, the phantom fumble. In Week 2, Kicker. In Week 3, they made their argument strongly at US Bank Stadium with a 30-17 win over Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks, in a game that felt like an exorcism.
(Almost) everything worked against Seattle. Kirk Cousins put up one of the most impressive performances of his career, the Vikings ran wild without Dalvin Cook and the defense, well, they did enough.
As is often the case in the NFL, one win has entirely swung the conversation around the Vikings. Cousins is at the top of a bunch of statistical categories and the magic powers of US Bank Stadium are again being touted as the reason the Vikings can get their season back on track.
The train feels like it’s en route to Playoff Race Land. But what’s that on the tracks? It’s Myles Garrett!
Over the first three weeks, the Vikings have shown strengths that -- if sustained -- could lead them to be a very good team. Among the most vital is the performance of their offensive line, which ranks 16th in pass blocking grade by Pro Football Focus. That’s a modern miracle considering they’ve never had an above average grade since Mike Zimmer arrived in 2014.
But the Browns’ dawgs up front make Seattle’s defensive line look like puppies. Garrett, a former No. 1 overall pick, is tied for third in the NFL in QB pressures and already has 5.5 sacks. He has 41 sacks in his last 43 games. And he’s not the only werewolf on Cleveland’s D-line. Jedeveon Clowney only trails Garrett by two pressures. He twice has had great showings against the Vikings in trips to US Bank Stadium, once in 2016 with Houston and last year with Tennessee.
Cousins has the second highest QB rating in the NFL with a clean pocket, per PFF. What happens when he faces pressure for the first time this season?
Offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak has mostly had all the answers, especially when it comes to getting the ball out of Cousins’ hands quickly. Last week he didn’t push any passes beyond 20 yards in the air but went 7-for-9 with 133 yards on intermediate throws.
Kubiak has also been creative in the run game, getting back-to-back 100-plus yard performances from Dalvin Cook and Alex Mattison. The Browns have only allowed 201 yards rushing all year (fifth in the NFL).
The Vikings’ spotty defense that was rebuilt this offseason has to prove that it can shine in the biggest moments on a consistent basis. Last week they shut out the Seahawks in the second half but were gashed early in the game, falling behind by double digits. They very likely won’t be able to get away with that again against a Cleveland team that keeps its foot on the gas.
The defensive line that shined in the second half will go against one of the NFL’s best offensive lines. Can Danielle Hunter continue to carry the Vikings’ pass rush or will they get more contributions despite Cleveland’s stacked O-line?
And the coaching matchup. Come on. If Zimmer’s defense has been figured out, the one person wandering around this universe who would be the most able to solve it would be Stefanski.
The schematic game of chicken should be great. Both known for creativity and adaptation. Both coaches will try to add things that the other one doesn’t expect without outsmarting themselves. Both will need to adapt on the fly to the other’s counterpunch.
Jon Gruden voice: Football, man.
The biggest thing is what it all means. If the Vikings can take down a team with an exciting young quarterback, powerful running game, smart coach and great defensive line -- a team that has some of the best Super Bowl odds in the league -- that would signify that they can beat anybody. And they’ll need to beat a lot of bodys. The Cowboys, Ravens, Packers and 49ers are all on the way after the bye week.
It’ll also erase the 0-2 start and put them right back at .500, a place where they stood in 2017 before going on a run to 13-3.
On the other hand, going 1-3 is going to feel like a pretty big hole, even with Detroit on the way. One slip up against the Lions or Panthers in Week 6 and the season could slip through their hands. Beating Cleveland would give them a little bit of breathing room for randomness and calamity to happen without devastating the season.
And it would be cool for Vikings fans. Someone on the internet tweeted out a stat the the Vikings had gone the fifth most days of any NFL team without being over .500. It’s been a grind. There haven’t been many wins like last week’s against Seattle and there haven’t been back-to-back wins against really good teams since the Rams and Falcons in 2017.
If the Vikings beat the Browns, they’d be right about being a good team and the reset button would officially be pushed. If not, well, they’ll have a long way to go.