The Minnesota Vikings enter this week’s game against the Buffalo Bills as one of the NFL’s best teams this season. Minnesota is 7-1, trailing only the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles, who are the only team to defeat Minnesota thus far. The Bills are dealing with some big injuries in some big positions, most notably with quarterback Josh Allen, whose throwing elbow is the subject of much scrutiny this week.
In order to defeat the Vikings, Buffalo will have to do a much better job than they did last week against the New York Jets. Gang Green followed a similar blueprint on offense to what the Green Bay Packers did the week before—but they played a much better game defensively for four quarters, which led to the 20-17 win. Minnesota is a formidable opponent even with a healthy Allen, so the Bills will need to do their thing in order to return to their winning ways.
Here are our five Vikings to watch this week.
RB Dalvin Cook
The Bills have been dreadful against the run for two consecutive weeks now, allowing 208 yards on the ground to Green Bay and 174 yards to the Jets. This after allowing an average of just 76 rushing yards per game in the six games prior to this post-bye stretch. Against a running back like Cook, if Buffalo doesn’t improve fast, this could be ugly on defense. In the last two games, Buffalo’s opponents have exploited the edges in the run game, challenging the corners to make tackles with blockers in their face. Cook is big, physical, and fast, and he’s also excellent out of the backfield as a receiver. With linebacker Matt Milano expected back this week, that should be a big help; however, it’s going to take a much better effort from Buffalo’s outside corners to prevent some of the large gains that Michael Carter and Aaron Jones were able to achieve over the last two weeks from being Cook’s norm.
WR Adam Thielen
The Vikings have two excellent wideouts, and the veteran Thielen is overshadowed by his younger, more talented teammate. That’s not a knock on the 32-year-old wideout, who is on pace for 81 catches, 888 receiving yards, and four touchdowns this season. It is a compliment to the man across from him, though. If the Bills are fortunate enough to have cornerback Tre’Davious White ready to play this week, then I’d expect Thielen to be the one drawing matchups against either Dane Jackson or Christian Benford. That might be the matchup that quarterback Kirk Cousins likes. If White can’t go, though, then Buffalo’s secondary is going to be in a bind. They’ll need to be great in their zone concepts, and they’ll also need to stop that run game in order to limit the effectiveness of Minnesota’s play-action game. If they don’t, Thielen could have a strong outing.
WR Justin Jefferson
The biggest receiving threat, though, is Jefferson, the 2020 first-round draft choice who was acquired using the draft pick Buffalo sent to Minnesota when they acquired wideout Stefon Diggs. In a rare win-win deal, both teams ended up happy. Jefferson is among the league’s top receivers, and he is on pace to have another monster year. His 17-game projection is currently 125 receptions, 1,842 yards, and six touchdowns. Jefferson is a tough cover regardless of who’s on him, and Buffalo’s secondary will be challenged. He’ll either be covered by a rookie first-round pick, a rookie sixth-round pick, a third-year man in his first full year operating as a starter, or a guy playing in his first game after rehabbing an ACL injury. Cousins definitely likes Jefferson, and his name is one we’re going to hear an awful lot on Sunday.
LB Za’Darius Smith
The linebacker is one of the NFL’s most effective pass rushers, and he’s off to a great start this year. He has 8.5 sacks, 13 tackles for a loss, and 15 quarterback hits so far this year. All of those totals would lead the Bills, and it’s not as if Buffalo has struggled to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Smith will be a problem regardless of where he lines up and who quarterbacks the game for Buffalo, but if Allen and right tackle Spencer Brown—who has missed the last two games with an ankle injury—can’t go, then he could be in line for an even bigger day. David Quessenberry struggles in pass protection, and Case Keenum obviously isn’t as mobile as Allen is. The Bills may want to consider using fullback Reggie Gilliam a bit more in this one to help out in pass protection.
EDGE Danielle Hunter
The problem with committing too many resources to Smith, though, is that the Vikings have Hunter lurking on the other side. Hunter is a dangerous edge rusher in his own right, as he has five sacks, nine tackles for a loss, and eight quarterback hits on the year so far. He’s been with Minnesota since the 2015 season, racking up 65.5 sacks in his time with the team. He has great size at 6’5” and 263 pounds, and he’s adept at setting the edge against the run. Hunter isn’t a lightweight secondary rush option; he’s a legitimate concern for the Bills, and their tackles are going to be put to the test this week. If they can’t keep Smith and Hunter out of the backfield, it’s going to be a long day for Buffalo’s offense regardless of who plays quarterback.