A year ago, the Minnesota Vikings were sluggish coming out of their bye and lost at Chicago to a Bears team they should have beaten. This year, the Vikings appear to be alert and energized by last week’s bye and should have no excuses for failure heading into a home game against a wounded Kansas City Chiefs team missing running back Jamaal Charles, their best player.
“It’s time for us to play our best football and not worry about what anybody else is doing,” said linebacker Chad Greenway. “We need to win all of our home games and then sneak enough wins on the road to get back to the playoffs.”
Under head coach Mike Zimmer, the Vikings are 7-3 at TCF Bank Stadium, including 2-0 this season. The Chiefs won their season opener at Houston, but have since lost four straight, including two on the road.
The Chiefs were believed to be a victim of the schedule-maker when they gave up 31, 38 and 36 points in losses to Denver, Green Bay and Cincinnati, three teams that are a combined 15-0. But then came last week’s stunning loss to a Bears team missing two starters on the offensive line and two starting receivers.
Not only did Kansas City lose 18-17 as a 91/2-point home favorite, they also lost Charles, their offensive identity, for the season when he tore the ACL in his right knee in the third quarter. The Chiefs led 17-3 and were inside the Bears’ 10-yard line when Charles went down. But they would have only two first downs while being outscored 15-0 the rest of the way.
“It changes things for them with Charles out because of how much he ran the ball and how many passes he caught out of the backfield,” said nose tackle Linval Joseph. “But this is the NFL. They have more than Jamaal. No team has just one player.”
Charles did, however, account for 30.9 percent of Kansas City’s offense since 2012. It was the shifty, deceptively powerful and versatile back who continuously bailed out a deficient quarterback, Alex Smith, and a passing game that went more than a full season without a touchdown catch by a receiver until two were caught this season.
“I don’t think they’ll change their offense,” Joseph said. “They’ll probably plug Knile Davis and (Charcandrick) West in there and keep going. We need to stop the run and put the game in Smith’s hands. If we do that, good things will happen.”
Davis has two career 100-yard games. West, a second-year player who worked his way past Davis as the primary backup, has only 12 career carries.
“West is probably the most similar player to Charles,” said Greenway. “So we have to keep an eye on him because he could be good.”
The Vikings’ defense comes out of the bye with a new three-down middle linebacker in second-round draft pick Eric Kendricks. Already the nickel linebacker who was beginning to play more than half the snaps anyway, Kendricks takes over in the base defense for Gerald Hodges, who was traded to San Francisco last week for a sixth-round draft pick and rookie center Nick Easton.
Hodges, a career outside linebacker, had never played middle linebacker until this preseason. Kendricks set the tackles record at UCLA and has the speed, quickness and instincts to upgrade the position.
A win Sunday would send the Vikings into a two-game road trip to Detroit (0-5) and Chicago (2-3). They should be 4-2 and anything but sluggish heading to Soldier Field in two weeks.
SERIES HISTORY: 11th regular-season meeting. Chiefs lead series, 6-4. The teams first met on Jan. 11, 1970 in Super Bowl IV. The Chiefs upset the Vikings 23-7 that day. The Vikings are 3-2 at home against the Chiefs, who haven’t played in Minnesota since a 45-20 loss in 2003. The Chiefs have won the last two meetings, both at Arrowhead Stadium. In 2011, Matt Cassel posted a 102.7 passer rating while beating Donovan McNabb and dropping the Vikings to 0-4 on the season.
–The Vikings will be like every other team against Kansas City in that they’ll be looking to put the game in Alex Smith’s hands, assuming he has neither the consistency nor the playmaking ability to beat them with passes down the field. Unlike most teams of late, the Vikings will take this approach knowing that Jamaal Charles won’t be there to burn them in the screen game. Assuming young Charcandrick West isn’t the next Jamaal Charles, the Vikings should be able to keep the Chiefs’ scoring low. That plays into their offensive identity, particularly at home, which is run the ball and control the game with Adrian Peterson. The Vikings are 2-0 at home with this game plan. They’ll go 3-0 if they execute it on Sunday.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
–Vikings RT T.J. Clemmings vs. Chiefs LOLB Justin Houston.
Clemmings, a rookie fourth-round draft pick, gave up two sacks and five QB hurries in the 23-20 loss to Denver two Sundays ago. Houston led the NFL with 22 sacks last season and started with three more in the first two games. But he has been shut out the past three games. Clemmings will have the advantage of playing at home. The crowd noise caused him problems in Denver.
–Vikings RCB Xavier Rhodes vs. Chiefs WR Jeremy Maclin.
With RB Jamaal Charles out for the season with a torn ACL, there will be more pressure on QB Alex Smith to play beyond the screen game and push the ball down the field. Maclin has the speed to stretch the field if Smith gets enough protection. Maclin leads the team with 36 catches for 483 yards and a touchdown. Rhodes is the team’s best cover corner and has been used to shadow the other team’s top receiver. But he’s also tied with teammate Everson Griffen for most penalties per game (1.8). To help teach Rhodes to grab less, the Vikings have had him wear boxing gloves during parts of practices this week.