Jets vs. Vikings: What Are Experts Saying About Minnesota?

Robert Reidell@@RobertReidellFeatured Columnist IIDecember 5, 2014

Jets vs. Vikings: What Are Experts Saying About Minnesota?

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    Over four years have passed since the Minnesota Vikings (5-7) and New York Jets (2-10) last met on a football field. Back in 2010, the Mark Sanchez-led Jets defeated Brett Favre and the Vikings 29-20, extending their winning streak against Minnesota to seven consecutive games.

    Plenty has changed since the Vikings' most recent loss to the Jets. Sanchez is now a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, and Favre finally retired. Rex Ryan is in considerably better physical condition, and Percy Harvin, who scored against the Jets as a member of the Vikings four seasons ago, has switched sidelines.

    While Harvin did have a chance to play against the Vikings as a member of the Seattle Seahawks last season, this Sunday will be his first time returning to Minnesota since he was traded during the 2012 offseason.

    He isn't the only Jet making his return to Minnesota, as former University of Minnesota Golden Gopher wide receiver Eric Decker will play his first game at TCF Bank Stadium since 2009.

    Teddy Bridgewater and Co. will look to spoil homecoming weekend for the pair of former Minnesota standouts and snap the Vikings' seven-game losing streak against the Jets in the process.

    Let's see what the experts are saying about the Vikings this week.

Jeff Saturday, Darren Woodson: Vikings Will Beat Jets

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    Similar to the previous 13 weeks of the NFL season, NFL Live host Trey Wingo and a pair of analysts put together a short segment, predicting the outcome of the Vikings' matchup this weekend.

    After both Tedy Bruschi and Herm Edwards correctly predicted the Vikings to triumph over the Carolina Panthers last weekend, former Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday and former Dallas Cowboys safety Darren Woodson provided their thoughts on this Sunday's contest between the Vikings and Jets.

    For the second week in a row, both members of the NFL Live panel determined that the Vikings would be victorious. Following a rather cynical introduction—at the Jets' expense—by Wingo, Saturday briefly analyzed the matchup and made his prediction:

    I think if you’re looking at Minnesota, Bridgewater [and] what he is doing, they’re getting going. Greg Jennings is playing well. I just see them being able to run the ball effectively against the Jets. They won’t have to drop back a ton with Bridgewater and let that Jets’ pass-rush get to you. I think you win the game then.

    Given the focus of his analysis, I am not so sure Saturday did his homework on this matchup. While Bridgewater is coming off the most statistically efficient game of his career, he and the offense did not have to do much, thanks in large part to two blocked punts being returned for touchdowns. In fact, the Vikings offense only totaled 210 yards last Sunday, 138 fewer than the Panthers offense.

    Additionally, Saturday stated that he expects Minnesota to run the ball effectively against the Jets defense. Considering that the Jets run defense ranks third in the NFL, this seems to be a pretty bold prediction.

    Regardless of how he got there, I believe Saturday made the right call in selecting the Vikings to beat the Jets this coming Sunday.

    Immediately following Saturday's brief analysis, Woodson explained why he predicted the Vikings to defeat the Jets: "I’m going with Minnesota also. I like what Mike Zimmer has done with that defense. They’ve grown this entire season. They’ve gotten better and better week in and week out. They’re young, but they are getting after the football. I like Minnesota to win this one."

    Woodson, being a former safety, cited Zimmer's coaching and the Vikings defense as his main reason for picking Minnesota. Woodson certainly was not as bold as Saturday was with his analysis, given that the Jets rank 29th overall in total offense and the Vikings rank 10th overall in total defense.

    However, it is worth noting that the Vikings run defense ranks 24th overall this season, and the Jets are coming off a game where they rushed for 277 yards. It remains possible that the Jets could run all over the Vikings' porous run defense, especially if New York elects to run the ball 49 times again.

    My Score Prediction: Vikings 27, Jets 10

    I don't agree with Saturday's thinking that the Vikings will have success running the ball against a formidable Jets defensive line (especially with Jerick McKinnon ruled out due to injury), but this does appear to be a matchup Bridgewater can take advantage of.

    The Jets pass defense is statistically average in terms of yards allowed per game, but it has surrendered a league-high 27 passing touchdowns this season. Look for this Sunday to mark the first time Bridgewater passes for three touchdowns in a single game.

    As for the Vikings defense, Smith is set to start at quarterback for the Jets again. Assuming Ryan allows him to throw more than 13 times this week, the Vikings defense could put together a multi-sack, multi-turnover performance against arguably the worst starting quarterback in the NFL.

Matt Vensel: Vikings Must Keep an Eye on Percy Harvin

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    After a one catch, 17-yard performance against the Vikings last season, Harvin will look to have a much larger impact against his former team this weekend.

    Matt Vensel discussed Zimmer's thoughts on Harvin in his recent article for the Star Tribune: "They do everything with him, Zimmer said today. They put him in the backfield as a back. They run reverses with him. They run screens with him. They run pretty much everything. He’s definitely a focal point of what they’re doing."

    In an offense that is severely limited by Smith's deficiencies, Harvin is a dangerous threat who can score in a number of different ways. As Zimmer noted, he can catch the ball, take carries out of the backfield or on an end-around and hurt you as a return man.

    Being that he  is the only true threat on the Jets offense and considering that he can hurt you from just about anywhere, keeping a close eye on him definitely seems like a good idea. Zimmer told Vensel:

    We’ll know where he is. It’s the other guys, making sure we get the right matchups and everything else, he said. They might have three backs and two receivers and he might be lined up as the back. They might have three tight ends and two receivers and he’s the back. He can line up anywhere.

    So, not only is Harvin a dangerous playmaker who can hurt you as a receiver, rusher or return man, but he can line up everywhere in a number of different formations. As a result, the simple task of knowing where he is and trying to keep him irrelevant from the play is not as easy as it sounds.

    Harvin was dynamic as a member of the Vikings just two seasons ago, and there are still players on this team who remember witnessing firsthand what he can do. Zimmer may not have been around when Harvin was on the roster, but the coach understands how dangerous he can be.

Brian Hall: Former Gopher Eric Decker Returns to TCF Bank Stadium

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    While Harvin is simply returning to play the team who drafted him, Decker is literally returning to the field he called home during his last year in college.

    Decker's return to Minnesota is a focal point of Brian Hall's recent article for Fox Sports:

    I think it's more exciting than anything just to come back to campus, Decker said. I don't get back too often so it'd be nice to see some familiar faces and talking to the football coaching staff. Friends, family, everybody's coming to the games. It's always fun to go somewhere where you know a lot of people and I haven't been for a while. So it will be an exciting time for me.

    Unfortunately for Decker, he returns to Minnesota as a member of the struggling Jets, which, according to Hall's article, has really affected his happiness this season. Coming from a Super Bowl-caliber roster as a member of the Denver Broncos and catching passes from Peyton Manning, it is easy to see why Decker may not be too happy on a 2-10 Jets team led primarily by Smith.

    Over the previous two seasons with Manning throwing him the ball, Decker caught 172 passes and 24 touchdowns. Now, with Smith and Michael Vick as his quarterbacks, he has managed just 49 receptions and four touchdown catches in his first season with the Jets.

    Still, the former third-round pick is ecstatic to return to the place he made a name for himself and began to develop into the wide receiver he is now:

    Happy Glen Mason gave me the scholarship, because I don't think I'd be sitting in the position I am if it wasn't for him and playing for the Gophers, Decker said. I probably would've been playing for St. John's, a Division III school, and who knows where I would be? But I love the University of Minnesota. I'll always be a proud Golden Gopher. Really excited about what Jerry Kill is doing with the squad and the year they've had this year, and Minnesota will always have a piece of my heart.

    While most of the fans present at TCF Bank Stadium this Sunday will not be cheering for his team to win this time around, Decker should receive an overwhelming amount of support from the Gophers faithful who remember his success at the University of Minnesota.

Chris Tomasson: Young Quarterbacks Renew Old Rivalry

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    Harvin and Decker will not be the only players having some sort of a reunion in Minnesota this weekend; their starting signal-caller also will be in a familiar situation this Sunday.

    According to Chris Tomasson of the (Saint Paul) Pioneer Press, Jets second-year quarterback Geno Smith has a longstanding rivalry with Vikings rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Well, it can't exactly be defined as a rivalry because Smith was unable to beat Bridgewater in either of the prior meetings at the college and high school level:

    In their first meeting, on Dec. 12, 2008, Bridgewater was a sophomore at Miami Northwestern High School and Smith a senior at Miramar High School. In Northwestern's 42-23 state semifinal victory, Bridgewater completed 8 of 10 passes for 104 yards and a touchdown while Smith was 16 of 28 for 200 yards and no TDs in his final high school game. 

    Three years later, Bridgewater was a freshman at Louisville and Smith a junior at West Virginia. The Cardinals were underdogs on the road against the 24th-ranked Mountaineers but won 38-35 on Nov. 5, 2011. In that game, Bridgewater completed 21 of 27 passes for 246 yards and a touchdown, and Smith was 31 of 44 for 410 yards and three TDs.

    Naturally, Bridgewater, according to Tomasson, believes that Smith is seeking revenge—and it's hard to disagree with him. After the Minnesota QB crushed his dreams of a state championship in high school and upset his nationally ranked West Virginia team in college, it is easy to see why Smith may have a bone to pick with Bridgewater.

    These games may have been played some time ago, and plenty has happened since, but if Bridgewater remembers these moments well, Smith probably remembers them even better.

    While Bridgewater will be opposing Smith as his quarterback counterpart, he will not actually be on the field defending against him and the Jets offense. This job will be reserved for Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes—a friend of Smith since middle schooland the rest of the Vikings defense. 

    Rhodes told Tomasson: "I've known Geno since middle school, Rhodes said. We've been close friends. We just hang out when we're home. We do what guys do, with our friends. We like to chill, hang out, talk, watch sports."

    Tomasson does note that Rhodes has never been on the same team as Smith or opposed him in his career, due to varying interests, but the Vikings' top cornerback is excited to finally have the opportunity.

    Bridgewater and Smith are both early into their careers, but they appear to be following very different trajectories. Although both players were forced into starting earlier than expected due to injuries to Matt Cassel and Mark Sanchez, respectively, Bridgewater has done considerably more to suggest a brighter future than Smith.

    With Smith's career beginning to spiral downward with more obstacles than a double black diamond ski slope, this may end up being the final meeting between Bridgewater and the Jets' 2013 second-round draft pick.

    A victory for the Jets may be meaningless, but for Smith, finally beating Bridgewater—at the highest level of football—will carry some meaning if this is the last time they face each other.

Ben Goessling: Deep Pass Accuracy Improving for Teddy Bridgewater

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    With so much talk about the return of former Minnesota football players and the history of Bridgewater and Smith, there has not been as much talk this week about the Vikings' concerns as a football team.

    One of these frequently noted concerns is Bridgewater's inability to connect with his receivers on deep pass attempts. However, ESPN.com's Ben Goessling wrote this week that he has shown progression in his ability to throw downfield passes with accuracy.

    Goessling tabs a couple of Bridgewater's deep pass attempts against the Panthers last weekend as reasons to believe he has developed this part of his game:

    But the Vikings want to build an offense that can stretch the field, and it was on the two downfield throws Bridgewater made that coach Mike Zimmer saw progress. He put a 45-yard throw just beyond [Charles] Johnson's reach in the third quarter -- on a play where Johnson wanted interference on Panthers cornerback Josh Norman and Zimmer said he "thought we could have went up and got after a little bit better" -- and came back four plays later with a 35-yard strike to Jarius Wright on third-and-3.

    As Goessling notes, Bridgewater passed up shorter options to attempt these deep pass attempts, which Zimmer believes is a sign of progression.

    A lot of being a quarterback is taking calculated risks and having consistent success on these attempts. Although Bridgewater only completed one of the two aforementioned throws, the risk he took on the incompletion was calculated and had the potential to be a completion.

    While having an overall completion percentage of 50 percent doesn't cut it in the NFL—as Geno Smith has learnedspecifically completing deep pass attempts at this rate is better than satisfactory.

    According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), a 50 percent deep pass completion rate—throws that travel 20 or more yards in the air—would rank seventh in the NFL this season between Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (53.5 percent) and Cleveland Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer (48.3 percent).

    Although two attempts is an extremely small sample size and there is no certainty Bridgewater can continue to complete deep pass attempts at this rate—especially considering his issues this season with the same aspect of quarterbacking—the fundamental manner in which these passes were attempted is a enough of a reason to be optimistic. Specifically, both passes were thrown beautifully and in a place where only his receiver could make a play on the ball.

    Bridgewater will continue to work diligently on his deep ball game and has high expectations for himself, according to Goessling: 

    Each week in practice, whether it's 7-on-7, we're throwing routes on there or in live action, we're taking shots with those balls, whether it's a deep post, a deep out cut, a deep crossing route or just a '9' route, Bridgewater said. We've been having some success each week in practice and we've been making progress. Today we hit one out of the two.

    This does not sound like a satisfied quarterback who is relieved to finally have some success in the area that analysts have been most critical of him; it sounds like a player who is unsatisfied with his progress and itching to improve.

    It sounds like the attitude of many historically great quarterbacks and football players. Here's to hoping Bridgewater's strong work ethic and never-satisfied persona translate to further development.

    For more Vikings news and analysis, follow me on Twitter @RobertReidell