The 1-4 Minnesota Vikings take on the 0-6 New York Giants Monday night, a game ESPN might regret claiming for their Monday Night Football alignment.
The two teams could potentially field a good team if they combined squads, but absent that might be relegated to the top of the draft order come May.
Nevertheless, should the Vikings hope to beat up on another winless team to pad their record, they'll have to win key matchups; ones that will determine the contest more than most.
Victor Cruz, WR vs. Josh Robinson, CB
The most worrisome matchup of the night, Cruz has clearly established himself as the most talented receiver on the Giants roster, and accounts for 26.5 percent of the Giants' offensive yards, the fifth highest share of team yards of any player in the league.
At the same time, Josh Robinson has given up more yards in the slot than any other receiver in the league, along with more receptions and yards per snap in coverage per Pro Football Focus.
This match will line the worst slot cornerback in the league against the most productive slot receiver in the NFL and sparks should fly.
The Vikings shouldn't be naive enough to think that Robinson will suddenly turn it on against Cruz and shut him out, but he should receive more help from safeties and linebackers as well as use the extra preparation afforded him by the schedule to nail down even the subtlest nuances of Cruz's game.
Despite a massive breakdown on Brandon LaFell's long touchdown, Robinson actually had a surprisingly good game last week. The other two targets in his direction included a pass where he was hung out to dry on a Steve Smith touchdown that he shouldn't have been expected to stop for two yards and a seven yard reception to DeAngelo Williams.
That doesn't excuse his coverage, but it is a hopeful sign in a week where he'll need as many good omens as possible.
Mike Patterson, Cullen Jenkins and Linval Joseph, DTs vs. Charlie Johnson, John Sullivan and Brandon Fusco, Interior Line
While the Giants have struggled in creating edge pressure, their interior linemen have been devastating.
No single interior rusher has had more than 250 snaps on defense despite the fact that the Giants have had 460 defensive snaps so far, so it would be short-sighted to isolate on lineman among the many productive defensive tackles the Giants have produced.
Not only do they have three of the thirty highest-graded defensive tackles in the league in Pro Football Focus' premium player grades, they've each been able to produce in stopping the run or rushing the passer.
Patterson ranks fourth in the league in stop percentage, a measure that seeks to isolate how many high-impact tackles in the run game a particular player has. Joseph ranks 14th and Jenkins ranks 31st. They've each been able to collapse the pocket and force quarterbacks to move outside of the pocket and throw under pressure as well.
This spells trouble for an interior line that has been spotty at best in stopping interior pass-rushers in addition to their issues consistently clearing lanes for Adrian Peterson.
Sullivan hasn't been himself this year, and has been an average run blocker at best to pair with his less than desirable pass-blocking resume this year after having given up two sacks and several hurries. Meanwhile, Fusco has been extremely inconsistent and has put together excellent games to go with his mediocre ones.
While he's been able to move defensive tackles around in the run game, he's been unreliable as a pass blocker. Occasionally he puts together a big game but follows it with a poor one. Fusco will have to work well in concert with Sullivan in order to end up on the positive side of that ledger which will perhaps be the key to taking pressure off of new quarterback Josh Freeman.
On the other hand, Charlie Johnson has simply been bad. He may have done well in London against a depleted Pittsburgh team, but he hasn't had a notably good performance in the United States. He's usually the first offensive lineman to collapse pressure in the pocket and often needs help to contain opposing tackles. Against the Giants' defensive corps, this will pose a real challenge.
Antrel Rolle, S vs. Josh Freeman, QB
Josh Freeman's first start as a Viking couldn't come at a better time, at least from a matchup perspective. Not only will Eli Manning likely set a relatively easy standard to compare to, the Giants pass defense ranks 28th in the league, according to Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, which adjusts for the strength of opposition.
Antrel Rolle is the leader among New York's defensive backs, and often will call the defensive checks for the secondary. Even though he's massively underperformed this year, he'll still be the one playing chess against Freeman, who has barely had time to learn the Vikings playbook and may be at a disadvantage in terms of options.
Freeman's new role as a Viking will depend in part upon how well Rolle can adapt to a quarterback who he doesn't have team-specific film on, and will have to play mostly on instinct instead of study. That might be his only strength as he suits up against the Vikings, and it may be enough to cause trouble for the passing offense.
Prince Amukamara is the most talented player in the secondary, but there's no telling who he'll line up against on a particular play given the Giants' scheme. The Vikings could very well rotate receivers against him and look somewhere else to throw, making him less important of a matchup than the players who the Vikings may always seek to challenge.
Given Freeman's natural tendency to search for the deep ball, he may test Rolle and his partner in the defensive backfield, Ryan Mundy. While neither have been performing up to the NFL standard for their positions this year, it's a critical set of tests the Vikings will have to pass if they want to win.
Spencer Paysinger, LB vs. Jerome Felton, FB
Paysinger has been the only consistent linebacker to play for the Giants, but he's better described as the best of a bad bunch than a player the Vikings should be overwhelmingly concerned about.
But he'll be the player they need to target in the run game, not only because he'll be there for every down, but because they'll have a better understanding of his capabilities than other players they might throw out there.
New acquisition Jon Beason played well against Chicago on Thursday night, but there's no telling if he'll revert to his form from the last few years or his productive younger years with Carolina. His role hasn't been fully defined in the Giants offense yet, and it's clear that the Vikings will have a more complete report on Paysinger this season.
Luckily for them, he hasn't been an extraordinary force in the run game, accumulating his 35 combined tackles after the running back has accomplished his goal or after the ball has been caught. He is by no means the worst inside linebacker in the league, but he simply hasn't been particularly worrisome.
Felton will have to establish himself after a quiet re-introduction to the NFL and build off of his six snaps against Carolina, where he at least didn't look like a liability.
With a new quarterback under center, Adrian Peterson may be more important than any other player on either side of the ball as he'll be relied upon to carry the offense even more than usual. In order for that to work out, the pieces around him must perform as well, and Jerome Felton may be the most important of those pieces.
If the Vikings want to control the game, their best bet will be through the ground.
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