Key Matchups And Storylines: Los Angeles Rams Vs Minnesota Vikings

Los Angeles Rams Running Back Cam Akers. Photo Credit: Brevin Townsell | LA Rams
Los Angeles Rams Running Back Cam Akers. Photo Credit: Brevin Townsell | LA Rams

Key Matchups And Storylines: Los Angeles Rams vs Minnesota Vikings

Sony Michel vs Alexander Mattison

The Rams recent winning streak can be directly linked to the emergence of Sony Michel. Three starts, three wins. Of course, the passing game is what drives this offense, but the addition of a viable run threat has forced opponents to more often devote resources to the box and also to play a physical brand of football. I wrote about Michel’s effect on the running game going into the Cardinals game two weeks ago. At the time, teams were committing eight or more defenders to stop him 22.3 percent of the time. In the three games since becoming the starter, that has almost doubled to 43 percent per NFL Next Gen Stats. 

Michel has been a better weapon despite increased attention from defenses. In his first 11 games, he averaged 3.7 yards per run and had seven runs of 10 yards or more and in the last three, he has averaged 4.7 and also had seven runs of 10 yards or more. It isn’t Jonathan Taylor-type production, but it has been enough to open up the passing game and that is all the Rams need from its running backs. 

While Michel is just now having his coming-out party, everyone knows what Dalvin Cook can do. However, Cook was placed in the Covid-19 List and will miss Sunday’s game against the Rams. Cook is currently third in the league in rushing yards, second in designed rushing attempts of over 15 yards or more and second in the league in missed tackles forced. All while the Vikings pass the ball 57 percent of offensive snaps. Of course, this points out what is dangerous about the Vikings; but will they be as potent with Alexander Mattison carrying the load?

Mattison is not as explosive as Cook, but still a very good back, and will be a good test for a much improved rushing defense. The Rams are the fourth-ranked run defense in DVOA by Football Outsiders and PFF has them graded as the highest run defense in the league. For all the flack that Raheem Morris has taken, it is a credit to him that he has taken a liability and turned it into a strength. 

The Vikings are one of the worst run defenses in the league. Minnesota gives up 128.5 yards per game on average, which is sixth-worst in the league. They are 0-4 in games in which they give up more than 128.5 yards. This isn’t to say that the Rams need to shoot for that number, but it does go to show that Minnesota is susceptible to a sound-rushing attack. The Rams won’t need a great game from Michel, but they will need him to execute in rushing situations.

What doesn’t play to the Rams advantage is that the Vikings are solid on the edges. This season, Michel’s biggest runs have come outside the tackles. Nine of his 14 rushes of 10 yards or more have come when rushing to the tackles or outside the tackles.

The most dynamic rushing team the Rams played so far was San Francisco. In that game, the Rams didn’t designate much help to stop the run. Elijah Mitchell only saw stacked boxes on 7 percent of his carries and Jeff Wilson on zero of his 10 carries. The result was a blowout loss to a divisional rival. 

They have continued to run lightboxes against opponents, but teams haven’t hammered the Rams on the ground. That could change against Mattison and Minnesota. The Vikings ran the ball 36 times against the Steelers. The 49ers ran the ball 44 times against the Rams. In week four, the Cardinals ran 40 times. The Vikings will do the same if the Rams can’t contain Mattison and the Vikings rushing attack. Not only can it propel their offense, but it will keep the ball away from what propels the Rams offense, Matthew Stafford.

Darious Williams vs Justin Jefferson

For better or for worse, Darious Williams plays in the shadow of Jalen Ramsey. Williams got an abrupt shove into the spotlight against the Cardinals when Ramsey was forced to miss the game due to testing positive for COVID-19. And, low and behold, Williams put on one hell of a show. He was primarily tasked with defending DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins caught three passes on eight targets when Williams was covering him and Williams broke up three of those passing attempts. 

Williams, now in his fourth year, has spent his career developing from an undrafted free agent to a quality starter. He is trusted to go up against some of the best receivers in the game. Which is no easy task at 5’9” 187. Hopkins is four inches taller and 25 pounds heavier and Williams held his own against him and has done the same against other top receivers this season. He has been what the Rams need him to be when in Ramsey’s shadow.

Justin Jefferson on the other hand is a first-round draft pick who had a phenomenal rookie season in 2020 and an even better season in 2021. Jefferson is second in the league in passing yards, behind Cooper Kupp, and he is among the league bonafide deep pass threats in average depth of target, which makes him another Vikings weapon that can take over a game. 

Ramsey is back in the lineup, so he will likely be covering Jefferson, but Minnesota also has an outside receiving threat in Adam Thielen. Thielen has missed the last few games with an ankle injury but looks to be back in the lineup against the Rams. Williams will inevitably be asked to cover Jefferson. The result of those plays will shift how this game plays out. If Williams can limit Jefferson, the Vikings offense will be forced to go elsewhere. Minnesota has targeted Jefferson nearly once on every three targets this season.

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Von Miller vs Brian O’Neill

It took a few weeks, but it looks like Von Miller has gotten his motor humming. Of his 22 pressures as a Ram, 14 have come in the last two weeks. He recorded his first sack since joining the team last Tuesday against the Seahawks.

The Minnesota offensive line has been a mess this season due to injury. They have played six different linemen across five positions. They have had centers playing guard and guards playing tackle and nearly every one of them has underperformed, except for Brian O’Neill. He is one of three Vikings to play 100% of offensive snaps and has only allowed 12 pressures on 570 pass attempts. But the biggest problem that the Vikings have on the offensive line is in the interior. 103 of the team’s 170 pressures have been allowed by interior linemen. 

What is perplexing about this is that Kirk Cousins continues to flourish. Despite getting pressured second-most in the league he takes the second-fewest sacks among current starting quarterbacks. He also doesn’t throw interceptions nor does he rely wholly on short high percentage throws. But Cousins does get worse when he is under pressure, particularly when he isn’t being blitzed. Cousins is actually very successful when teams send five or more pass rushers. According to PFF, 10 of his 25 big-time throws have come when blitzed. He has also thrown 10 touchdowns and zero interceptions. 

That is what makes the Miller/ O’Neill matchup so key to this game. Greg Gaines and Aaron Donald will likely be forcing pressure up the middle, but Miller will also have to win on the edge so that the team doesn’t have to send another pass rusher. The Rams aren’t the most blitz-happy team in the league, but they have relied on it. They blitz ninth-most in the league with 152. 

Los Angeles Rams Running Back Cam Akers. Photo Credit: Brevin Townsell | LA Rams

Los Angeles Rams Running Back Cam Akers. Photo Credit: Brevin Townsell | LA Rams