Thursday Night Preview: Washington at Minnesota

By
Andy Benoit
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Jamie Squire/Getty Images :: Rich Gabrielson/Icon SMI
Adrian Peterson and Alfred Morris. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images :: Rich Gabrielson/Icon SMI)

Washington’s offense vs. Minnesota’s defense

If the Vikings have the nerve to play man coverage—with a mediocre secondary and classic zone-based foundation, they usually don’t—they’ll probably employ a quarterback spy even though Robert Griffin III hasn’t been the same dynamic runner this season. Coach Leslie Frazier remembers all too well RG3’s scampering 76 yards for the game-sealing touchdown against his team’s man-free coverage last year in Week 6. If the Vikings were to get beat like that again, GM Rick Spielman may regret his recent comments about Frazier’s job being safe through 2014.

The 76-yard score came on one of the few plays when Minnesota blitzed. Will they do more of that in this game? Frazier’s staff isn’t big on manufacturing pressure; they prefer to just have Jared Allen, Brian Robison and Everson Griffen, a movable chess piece, pinning their ears back. But there’s a reason defenses have blitzed Griffin more than any other NFL quarterback this season: his mobility has decreased and he’s struggling to adapt as a drop-back passer; the Vikings have been fairly successful with selective blitzing.

Mike Shanahan’s team always hopes it can discourage blitzes by running effectively enough to create short-yardage situations on third down. Their young star running back, Alfred Morris, is having another outstanding season (686 yards and five TDs in eight games). He is great on off-tackle concepts (especially pitches) and gets stronger down the stretch. The past several weeks, Morris has benefited from dominant blocking on the left side. Guard Kory Lichtensteiger is a solid seal-blocker in Washington’s zone scheme; tackle Trent Williams is an athletic monster. It will be a lot of fun watching him spar with Allen, who is 31 but still at the top of his game.

Minnesota’s offense vs. Washington’s defense

Christian Ponder gets the starting nod because, hey, who said the Vikings ever doubted the guy? Last week, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave chose to stretch out many of his condensed formations. The spread sets propagated more downfield throws without blurring the defined passing lanes that Ponder needs. Ponder was better, but still not as sharp as he needs to be. He threw an interception to Orlando Scandrick after misreading a Cover 2 look on the left side. There were also a handful of times when Ponder abandoned the play by scrambling early on third-and-medium. (The results here were a mix of good and bad.) And when pressure got to Ponder, which it did a few times from—of all places—offensive tackle Matt Kalil’s side, Ponder failed to take care of the football.

But there were also occasions when Ponder successfully stretched the field, which he may not have done earlier in the season. It helped that he was facing a depleted Cowboys’ pass rush. Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo pose a greater challenge this week. Of course, they’ll both have to initially focus on containing Adrian Peterson, who is coming off his best performance of the season. The rest of the defense will have to be alert for play-action. Then again, maybe they won’t, because coordinator Jim Haslett might just sic ’em all on the quarterback. Haslett has had to use a conservative, coverage-based scheme the past two weeks because he’s gone up against two of the league’s best pre-snap detectives: Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers. This week, he’ll likely be eager to see if the Vikings really have figured out how to complete hot routes against overload blitzes. Ponder did a nice job with this against the Cowboys, but that doesn’t erase all the negatives that still show up on previous weeks’ film.

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