Three Keys: Cleveland Presents Yet Another Test For The Purple OL

Brian O'Neill
Nov 18, 2018; Chicago, IL, USA; Minnesota Vikings tackle Brian O’Neill (75) blocks Chicago Bears linebacker Leonard Floyd (94) in the first quarter at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

We’re heading into yet another crucial game. Dropping the opening two games happens to give one’s season a sense of urgency. Our Minnesota Vikings are taking on the Cleveland Browns, a team that has made considerable improvements under Kevin Stefanski’s leadership. They finished last season with an 11-5 record. They’ve started their 2021 season with a 2-1 record, including a dominant win over the Bears. We begin with the Zim vs. Stefanski matchup. From there, we consider the challenge presented by Cleveland’s rushing attack and their defensive line.

Key #1: Zim vs. Stefanski

Stefanski spoke about his time in Minnesota during the week. He always seems sincere in his appreciation for his time with the Vikes. He denied needing to come up with anything too wild for this game: “They have really good football players. I know they have really good coaches. The challenge is just in that. We have to put together a game plan that our guys can understand, go execute and not think too much.”

I’m thinking that’s hogwash. I think he’ll have some tricks up his sleeve.

Stefanski knows how to exploit Zim’s defenses. I’d expect plenty of crossing routes and some consistent efforts to target our CB2. I’d also expect them to try getting our DTs moving sideways, thereby creating creases for Chubb and Hunt to run through.

Zim, in turn, is surely anticipating ways that Stefanski will try to undermine his defensive effort. Having Anthony Barr back would be a massive help, as would some improved play within the secondary. The Browns will be without Jarvis Landry, but they have enough offensive weapons to do damage. Somewhat ironically, I think the key for Zim may rest in simplifying things on defense. One wonders how many of the blown coverages and long touchdowns have flowed from players not fully understanding their role and/or trying to do too much.

Simplicity happens to allow a team to play fast. Let’s play fast so we can slow down the Browns.

Key #2: The Cleveland RBs vs. Minnesota’s Front Seven

Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb are a tremendous pair of backs. I can pretty much guarantee that a significant portion of Zim’s focus this week has rested on how he might slow down this elite duo. Take a look at the stats:

– Chubb: 48 carries, 262 yards, 5.5 Y/A, 3 TDs, 3 receptions, 21 receiving yards.

– Hunt: 29 carries, 165 yards, 5.7 Y/A, 2 TDs, 10 receptions, 104 receptions yards.

Minnesota’s run defense has been less than stellar. We’re allowing (on average) just under 120 yards rushing per game. We need to end that in Week 4. If we can make Cleveland one-dimensional, we’ll have a much better shot at winning this thing.

Both of Cleveland’s backs present a true test. Hunt concerns me the most since he’s equally as dangerous on the ground as he is in the passing game. Chubb doesn’t do too much in the passing game, so perhaps the Vikings can exploit that reality. PFF also indicates that he’s a below-average pass blocker. When he’s in the game, the Browns will be more limited than when Hunt is out there.

It’s possible that injuries might limit Cleveland since several of their o-linemen are dinged up. We can’t bank on that, though. Our front seven will need to be really focused.

Key #3: Cleveland’s D-Line vs. Minnesota’s OL

Myles Garrett created all kinds of issues for the Bears:

Now partner Garrett with Jadeveon Clowney, Takk McKinley, and Malik McDowell. Our offensive line will have another difficult day.

To their credit, the OL has done wonderfully over these past two weeks. So much of that success goes back to what Lil’Kub and Kirk have done to help out the line. The ball is getting out very, very quickly, so the line doesn’t need to hold up for long. What happens, though, if Cleveland finds a way to neutralize the short/intermediate areas of the field? We may be in some trouble.

At some point, our OL will need to come up with huge blocks on Cleveland’s talented d-linemen. I’m particularly concerned about the left side. Christian Darrisaw may be in pads, but I don’t imagine he’ll start. Rashod Hill will need to show some gritty resilience. If the OL can continue operating at even an average level, our offense is reasonably well positioned to have a productive day.

The Crystal Ball

Perhaps I’m just on Team Optimism because of the Seahawks win, but I actually like our chances against the Browns. Our offense has been excellent, largely because they’ve shown they have the capacity to limit elite edge rushers. The defense is definitely a work in progress; in their defense (see what I did there?), they did a nice job in the second half against Seattle. Let’s hope that foreshadows how they’ll perform the rest of the way.

I’m rolling with the good guys in a close one.

Offseason Prediction: Vikings 35 – Browns 24

Updated Prediction: Vikings 27 – Browns 24

After last week’s correct prediction, I’m sitting at a respectable 2-1. My hope is to climb to 3-1 as the purple climb to 2-2.

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