Zone Coverage: Big matchups and key stats for the Vikings-Colts game

Sunday's Week 2 matchup kicks off at noon.
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Brian O'Neill

This story first appeared at Zone Coverage and was re-shared through a collaboration with Bring Me The News

Fans of both the Minnesota Vikings and Indianapolis Colts have been reaching for the Listerine all week, feverishly attempting to rid their mouths of the bad taste left behind by disappointments from their squads in Week 1. It won’t work. The only prescription for freshening up the collective pieholes of any 0-1 fanbase is a win in Week 2. Or more cowbell. But mostly a win in Week 2.

Devotees of one of these teams will be pretty down by dinnertime on Sunday; because if you think 0-1 is bad, 0-2 is twice as bad. The math checks out.

Let’s keep this positive for now, though. Focus on the fact that five of the 12 teams that made the NFL playoffs last season started their campaigns 1-1. The other seven, as you might have guessed, started 2-0. Your Vikings could easily be 1-1 by Sunday afternoon. The Colts are only favored by a field goal and one would have to think – or more accurately, hope – the Vikings got their annual stink bomb game out of the way in Week 1. No place to go but up, right?

Hey, I’m trying here.

So, as you gradually get yourself worked into a lather for Week 2, here are some things you should be looking for once the Vikings-Colts game gets underway.

THE BIG MATCHUPS

The marquee matchup in this one will undoubtedly be Adam Thielen vs. Xavier Rhodes. The TV cameras will be following Rhodes pregame as he chums around with his old pals in Purple, but once things kick off, Thielen should have the upper hand when the two of them tangle one-on-one. Indy would be wise to provide Rhodes help in coverage, and that will probably be the case. Or else, as Vikings fans witnessed the past two seasons all-too-frequently, the Rhodes won’t be closed. Kirk Cousins will happily exploit any lack of double-coverage schemes thrown at Thielen. ICYMI, Sam Ekstrom put together an in-depth look at Thielen vs. Rhodes.

Beyond that, the most meaningful matchup – the one that has the potential to go so poorly for the Vikings that it completely swings the game in the Colts’ favor — is the Vikings’ beleaguered defensive line against Indy’s offensive line.

You don’t need a Zimmer-level of football defense IQ to recognize that the Vikes’ defensive line play against the Packers – most notably the absence of anything resembling a consistent pass rush – was sub-optimal. And that’s being generous. To the surprise of precisely nobody, it seems they really do miss Danielle Hunter. Unfortunately, this probably won’t be the week that Yannick Ngakoue or anyone else in the rotation gets it going. Or if they do, it will require a Herculean effort because if you thought the Packers’ offensive line was good, wait until you get a load of the Colts’ big fellas.

You don’t need a John Tuvey-level of offensive line IQ to realize that Indy’s line might be the best in the NFL. Indeed, the savvy analysts at Pro Football Focus had them ranked No. 1 heading into the season.

Will Zimmer and Dom Capers dig deep into the playbook and dial-up some seldom-before-seen exotic blitzes to aid in the quest to pressure the notoriously immobile Philip Rivers? And what can they do to prevent the Colts from running it down their throats at will behind their road-grader line, controlling the clock as Green Bay did in Week 1 so effectively?

If Zimmer doesn’t draw up a clever way to combat this mismatch and/or if the players fail to execute said plan, it could turn into another endless day at the office for the defense.

COLTS PLAYERS TO WATCH

The Colts’ backfield committee became a little less crowded in Week 1 when Marlon Mack tore his Achilles tendon. From here on out, head coach Frank Reich will turn to the duo of Nyheim Hines – who scored twice against the Jaguars last week – and a player many in these parts are pretty familiar with, rookie Jonathan Taylor.

Golden Gophers fans surely remember Taylor from his time spent shredding FBS defenses for the Wisconsin Badgers. Following his record-setting career with the Badgers, Taylor was selected 41st overall by the Colts in this year’s NFL Draft. And now he’s been crowned their starter behind that bruising offensive line.

However, it’s not just the Colts’ running game Vikings fans should be wary of. Both Hines and Taylor are adroit at catching passes out of the backfield – a skill set that aligns perfectly with that of Rivers, who throws screen passes as effectively as he creates offspring.

[Narrator: At last count, Rivers had nine children – two boys and seven girls.]

Hines and Taylor caught 14 of 14 targets in Week 1 against the Jaguars, making up 112 of the Colts’ 363 passing yards. And before he was injured, Mack reeled in all three of his targets for another 30 yards. Thus, while we might see T.Y. Hilton or Parris Campbell occasionally torching and stacking the Vikings’ inexperienced cornerbacks this week, we will absolutely see Rivers dumping off quick passes to his backs. This predicament will further complicate things for a Vikings team seeking to pressure the pocket. Selling out to do so could leave them susceptible to chunk gains on screen passes.

KEY STATS

The lack of a pass rush in Week 1 contributed mightily to the Vikings’ failure to prevent third-down conversions. The resulting lopsided time of possession drew the most groans, but the closely related metric of third-down efficiency was just as concerning.

It’s not like this is a new problem for the Vikings. Third-down defense became a real issue for them last season, as I pointed out in this space back in April. The Vikings used to be pretty darn good on third downs, but that hasn’t been the case since 2018.

The Vikings are now 6-7 since the start of the 2017 season when losing the third-down efficiency battle. By contrast, they have gone 35-12-1 in that same timeframe when winning on third downs. That’s a pretty telling stat to keep an eye on going forward.

Now it’s time for good news, bad news.

First, the bad news: Last season, there were nine teams that started the season 0-2, and of those nine teams, none of them made the playoffs. Their average final record was 5-11. Moreover, according to Pro Football Reference, 247 teams have started the season 0-2 since 1990. Of those 247 teams, only 30 made it to the playoffs. That’s 12.1 percent.

The good news is that four of those 30 teams that claimed postseason berths even after starting 0-2 went on to play in the Super Bowl. And three of those four teams won the dang thing: the 2007 New York Giants, 2001 New England Patriots and 1993 Dallas Cowboys were all sporting rings when all was said and done.

So, if things go sideways on Sunday for the Vikes, they statistically still have a glimmer of hope.

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