The Minnesota Vikings off-season so far has been a merry-go-round of trades, signings and draft success stories, as the day one roster starts to become a bit less blurred. A stable mix of veterans and up and comers has created an excitable roster that looks set to stand toe-to-toe with the best in the league. It seems a lifetime ago that Vikings fans were howling from the depths of last in the NFC North early last season, a lifetime that treated Minnesota well. Following the release of the NFL schedule, analysts have studied each team’s slate of games, rosters, and the opposition for stories and matchups. Below are eight player matchups to watch for in the Minnesota Vikings schedule for Weeks 1 through 9. Be sure to check out Weeks 10 through 17.
Minnesota Vikings Schedule Key Matchups: Weeks 1-9
Week One vs Green Bay – Ezra Cleveland vs Za’Darius Smith
The second round draft pick for Minnesota will make his NFL debut up against one of the leagues most successful linebackers from 2019 in the Minnesota Vikings schedule opener. Cleveland will slide his way into left tackle on a rebuilding Vikings offensive line, with Riley Reiff most likely filling in next to him at guard. Smith is coming off a career year, leading the league in pressures, and setting a new personal best with 13.5 sacks. There is no doubt that the Boise State product will rely in Reiff for support, especially considering the emotions that a high draft pick must go through in their first start. Let alone it being at home, against the teams biggest rivals and arguably their best defensive player. Cleveland has it tough for sure to kick off his time in purple, and it will be intriguing to see how he fairs.
Week Two at Indianapolis – Ifeadi Odenigbo vs Anthony Castonzo
Filling the role of fan favorite Everson Griffen, Odenigbo needs to prove himself to the Vikings faithful. What better time to do so than against one of the leagues top O-lines and a new quarterback. It’s no secret that Philip Rivers became rather familiar with the grass at Dignity Sports Health Stadium in L.A, and Minnesota would love to do the same with the Indianapolis Colts. Standing in Odenigbo’s way is 6’7, 300 lbs of Anthony Castonzo, the second highest ranked left tackle in the league last year. Why that may seem like a tall ask, Ifeadi managed seven sacks and appeared in all 16 games last year. Not bad for a backup.
Week Three vs Tennessee – Adam Thielen vs Kevin Byard
For the first time since 2015, Adam Thielen won’t have receiving “buddy” Stefon Diggs lining up beside him. Instead, the second wide receiver spot goes to the new shiny toy in town in Justin Jefferson. Meanwhile, Kirk Cousins is one of the most accurate deep ball passers in the league, commonly linking up with Thielen on long shots down field. Lurking deep down field however will be the Tennessee Titans safety Kevin Byard, aiming to break up game changing plays. Byard had 60 tackles, nine breakups and five picks to his name last year, and is alert to any deep ball threat, especially if it’s a team’s top receiver.
Week Four at Houston – Texans Receivers vs Vikings Cornerbacks
With DeAndre Hopkins now donning the Arizona Cardinals red and white, Deshaun Watson has been looking around his receiving room looking for a new number one guy. Will Fuller has been Hopkins’ back up for years, and is eager to show what he can do. Randall Cobb and Brandin Cooks are both looking for bounce back years, as well as Kenny Stills trying to find his role in Houston. Drafting Tyler Simmons and an emerging Keke Coutee, he has an arsenal to choose from. Meanwhile, the Vikings corner situation is still looking a little bleak. Drafting Jeff Gladney was a help, but it wasn’t the whole answer. Holton Hill and Mike Hughes can only do so much to stop the bleeding.
Week Five at Seattle – Kirk Cousins vs a Primetime Game
Kirk Cousins can’t win in primetime. That’s the name of the broken record Vikings fans have been tormented to listen to since signing Cousins in 2018. While there is evidence to suggest he “chokes” in big games, you can make the argument that it isn’t as bad as it seems. His first 13 primetime games were with the Washington Redskins, so we’re cancelling those out. Cousins threw for 400+ yards and three touchdowns in a 38-31 loss against the conference winning Los Angeles Rams in 2018. Last year, the Seattle Seahawks defense tore apart the already bruised offensive line, yet Cousins still managed 276 yards and a pair of touchdowns, compared to Wilson’s 240 yards that game. Then of course he went into the Superdome against the New Orleans Saints, winning a game no one expected him to win, going for more passing yards on less attempts than the legendary Drew Brees. Is he great under pressure? Not necessarily, but maybe his primetime record with Minnesota has been taken without context for too long.
Week Six vs Atlanta – Irv Smith Jr. vs Foye Oluokon
Minnesota’s offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak studied under Kevin Stefanski in 2019, who loved using multiple versatile tight ends. Smith Jr had a breakout year last season, establishing himself to be the team’s second tight end. Being more athletic and agile than Kyle Rudolph, he would commonly be the one used in screens and bootleg plays. There’s no reason to doubt that he will be used in the same way this season, only with more reps. Oluokon on the other hand has stepped up into De’Vondre Campbell‘s role as one of the Atlanta Falcons top two linebackers, and (similarly to Smith Jr) needs to prove his value to the team. Oluokon’s speed and block shedding ability will match perfectly with the tight ends route running skills and ability to fit into multiple schemes.
Week Seven – Bye Week
Week Eight at Green Bay – Dalvin Cook vs Kenny Clark
Topping 1,100 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2019, Cook finally had the season fans had been begging for. Given his production, Minnesota naturally became a “run based” team, looking for short digs and slip screens to get Cook involved in the pass game as well. The team performed well when Cook performed well, it was that simple. However, it was simple enough that teams were able to do something about it. The Green Bay Packers beat Minnesota twice last year, and to make sure they do it again, they brought in Treyvon Hester to disrupt the run game. However, it’s Kenny Clark who spearheads the Packers defensive line, and will be the biggest problem for Garrett Bradbury to deal with. With six sacks and 62 tackles, Clark lived in team’s backfields last year, and he aims to do the same to Minnesota and Cook this time around.
Week Nine vs Detroit – Eric Kendricks vs Matthew Stafford
Eric Kendricks had a whirlwind of a 2019 campaign. Statistically one of the best linebackers in the league, Kendricks registered 12 break ups, two fumbles and 110 tackles. His best ability however, which doesn’t show up on paper, is his ability to read a quarterback’s eyes and body. Kendricks knows where the ball is going before the thrower even does, an attribute which is called upon so often in the middle of the field. On the other side, Stafford isn’t completely without a supporting cast. T.J. Hockenson, Kenny Golladay and a washed up Danny Amendola are commonly the names on the ends of Stafford’s passes. The Detroit Lions quarterback has been the backbone of the team basically since Calvin Johnson retired in 2016, one man dragging along a reluctant franchise. Despite Stafford’s undeniable talent, Kendricks is hungry and lurking, and a home game against a struggling divisional rival is all the motivation he needs in this game at the end of the first half of the Minnesota Vikings schedule.
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