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7 things to watch for in Bills vs. Vikings | Week 10

Matt Milano sack and celebration. Buffalo Bills at Minnesota Vikings, September 23, 2018 at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Matt Milano sack and celebration. Buffalo Bills at Minnesota Vikings, September 23, 2018 at U.S. Bank Stadium.

1 – Josh or Case?

Josh Allen's throwing elbow injury had him listed as day-to-day this week leading up to Sunday's game with the Vikings. Allen did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday, leaving backup Case Keenum to handle all the first team reps in preparation for Minnesota, one of his former clubs.

"That's my guy," said Stefon Diggs, who played with Keenum in Minnesota. "Me and Case go way back. He's a true pro. He's been around this league for a long time. So, I anticipate him preparing the right way - him and Matt (Barkley). So, giving those guys confidence from the receiver position. I told my guys regardless of whoever is out there, we've got to still do our job. Get open and catch the ball. And try to get as many reps as we can during the week so we can build confidence. We've got a small window."

Keenum, who had a pair of starts last season for Cleveland and won them both, insists he's preparing just as he does every week.

"It's the same, just got a few more reps (this week)," said Keenum. "I feel great. Feel great with the communication, the mindset of the team with (Ken) Dorsey and the communication from Sean (McDermott), everybody, and taking it a day at a time."

If Allen is able to recuperate from his elbow injury in time to play, one thing to keep in mind is how the Bills franchise quarterback has performed coming off of season-low passer rating performances. Allen's rating of 46.8 in Week 9 was a season low for him.

In his previous four seasons, when coming off a season low passer rating performance, Allen is a 65.6 percent completion passer with nine total touchdowns against two interceptions with a collective passer rating of 97.7. More importantly, he has a 4-0 record in games the week after a season-low passer rating game.

"We have to prepare like Josh (Allen) is going to play," said Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell. "I do have a lot of respect for Case and know that the offense probably won't change all the much if it ends up being Case, but Josh is one of the best players in our league."

2 - Fourth quarter finishers

The Vikings have won a lot of close games this season as every victory on their current six-game winning streak has been by eight points or less. Part of the reason Minnesota is pulling those games out is their scoring prowess in the fourth quarter.

Their 70 points scored in the final stanza ranks fifth in the league. The Vikings have been behind on the scoreboard in the fourth quarter in five of their last six games and they've come back to win all of them. Credit should go to the Minnesota defense as well as they've surrendered just 37 points in the fourth quarter this season allowing the Vikings to outscore their opponents by almost a 2:1 margin in the last quarter of regulation (70-37).

"We put a lot into being at our best at the end of halves," said Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell. "The end-of-game situations, we talk about them a lot. We talk about situations that may come up so that ultimately our guys have clarity and can play with quiet minds and just go execute. The best part about our team this year is although we haven't found that four-quarter football yet, and not many teams do, we have been able to make those adjustments as a staff and a team to go be our best when it's required.

"You don't always win with style, but when you're able to win football games and consistently win close games by winning in the fourth quarter, that does matter. Ultimately, you hate to continue to put yourselves in positions where you need to come from behind and win, but at least we know we've kind of removed all doubt and have a belief in ourselves that we can go get those wins when we have to."

"I do think good football teams have to find a way to make a play to change the game. You never know where it's going to come from," said Vikings QB Kirk Cousins. "But it's a week-to-week league. Just because you made a play last week, doesn't mean you will the next week. Even if you've made those plays for several weeks in a row. It doesn't mean you will the next week. Every week you've got to go out and earn it and I think we have to go out Sunday with that kind of urgency."

3 - Receiver special

Two of the top receivers in the league will be featured in Sunday's matchups between the Bills and Vikings. Stefon Diggs (60) and Justin Jefferson (59) rank third and fifth in the league in receptions and second (Jefferson) and third (Diggs) in the league in receiving yards.

Jefferson and Diggs have an intertwined history as the trade between the two clubs that sent Diggs to Buffalo gave the Vikings the first-round pick that became Jefferson in the 2020 NFL draft. All Jefferson has done since entering the league is lead the NFL with 3,883 receiving yards or that span. Meanwhile Diggs has led the NFL with 413 targets since the trade and is second in the league in receptions (290) since the trade.

"I think Stefon just wanted a different opportunity and it's certainly worked out well for him in Buffalo," said Vikings QB Kirk Cousins. "It was tough to lose him, but when you're able to go get Justin sort of made it sting a little less with the way Justin has played. But make no mistake, Stefon is an elite receiver. He's shown that here and he's shown that there. He's doing it again this year and it doesn't surprise me in the least having played with him."

The two wideouts also stand first and second in the league in receiving yards versus man coverage since 2020.

Jefferson needs just 117 receiving yards to reach 4,000 for his career, which if accomplished this Sunday would tie him for the record for fastest to 4,000 receiving yards with Odell Beckham Jr. at 42 games. If he manages 133 receiving yards on Sunday, he will tie a Vikings team record for the fastest to 1,000 yards in a single season (9 games – Randy Moss, Adam Thielen).

"Yeah, well, he's a problem, I'll tell you," said Bills defensive coordinator, Leslie Frazier of Jefferson. "He just gives defenses a headache every week. I watched some of his tape earlier and so many explosive plays and people are trying to take him away, but he finds ways to get open and their coaching staff does a good job of scheming ways to get him open. He's an excellent receiver, really good speed, really good route runner, excellent hands. He's a challenge, for sure. So, we'll have our work cut out for us trying to slow him down."

4 - A quick study and added weapon

The Vikings pushed all their chips to the middle of the NFC conference table at the trade deadline acquiring TE T.J. Hockenson from division rival Detroit in exchange for a second-round pick in 2023 and a fourth-round pick in 2024. What was remarkable was how quickly Hockenson mastered the offensive scheme in a span of four days.

Hockenson recorded nine catches – the most in a game for a Vikings tight end since 2018 – for 70 yards in last week's comeback win over Washington. He became the first player since 1960 to have nine receptions or more in his first game with a team after being traded during the season.

"Once I got into the huddle, after the first play, I was very comfortable," Hockenson said after the game.

Five of Hockenson's nine catches resulted in first downs with three of them going for third down conversions, including a clutch nine-yard reception on a 3rd-and-4 in the red zone late in the fourth quarter. It helped put Minnesota K Greg Joseph in position to kick the game-winning 28-yard field goal with 12 seconds left last week.

"He's a big target, really impressive with the way he was able to separate on some of those routes in the middle of the field," said O'Connell. "I think the ability to throw the ball in between the numbers, it's very important for offenses. When you have a guy like Justin and Adam and KJ and Jalen, his ability to absorb our offense in a short period of time we'll try to build on it. We'll continue to try to activate him."

5 – Welcome to the red zone

The Vikings may be a top 10 run defense and top 10 in sack percentage, but Minnesota ranks 27th against the pass. Even more eye opening is the fact that the Vikings sit at the bottom of the league in red zone defense.

Minnesota is giving up touchdowns in the red zone an alarming 79 percent of the time. Now to provide full context, the Vikings have given up a league-low 19 red zone possessions to their opponents, but when that opponent cracks their 20-yard line the odds are extraordinarily good that the drive will result in a touchdown.

Part of the reason is they're allowing opponents to run inside the 20. Minnesota allows the third-highest yards per carry average in the red zone this season (3.78/YPC), which is almost a yard higher than the league average (2.86/YPC). And with starting NT Dalvin Tomlinson unlikely to play this week due to injury, it might be tough for the Vikings to improve that figure.

Vikings radio color analyst Pete Bercich, who appeared on ‘One Bills Live’ this week, believes there are other elements at work in Minnesota's difficulty keeping opponents out of the end zone.

"They don't blitz as much down there," Bercich said. "It's typically a part of the field where you see a lot of zero blitzes, but the Vikings don't do that. I think they have to tighten up their coverage. This is a defense that lets its pass rush do its job and then capitalize on it on the back end. When you're in the red zone you play different coverage, there have been some mental errors. But it's hard to put my finger on one thing that's been the issue down there, but if I had to pick, I'd say they have to tighten up the coverage."

Opposing offenses have scored 15 touchdowns on 19 red zone possessions.

6 – Up for grabs?

Kirk Cousins has six 4,000-yard passing seasons in his career and is on pace to reach that plateau again this season with just about 2,000 yards passing this year at the season's midway point. But his passer rating of 89.5 is the lowest single-season rating of any year in which he has made eight or more starts.

Cousins has done a pretty good job at protecting the football, but his six interceptions this season have all come on downfield passes. According to NextGen Stats his six picks have been on passes of 10-plus air yards. It's the fourth-highest interception total this season on downfield passes.

"A lot of those interceptions were early on," said Bercich. "A lot of them were really bad throws. Cousins has had a few of those. Cousins doesn't make it up as he goes. He executes the call. He's a three-step drop and throw the ball guy. If he doesn't see things unfold properly then things can get a little crazy.

"The interception he threw against the Commanders last week is a perfect example. The play before he had a delay of game and he's visibly frustrated. And then the next ball is a 50-50 ball to the corner, and it gets tipped and intercepted. He'll throw more 50-50 balls to Jefferson, but he has left some meat on the bone because he hasn't mastered all the nuances of this new offensive system. But he's not a guy who improvises or makes it up as he goes."

Whether Buffalo's pass rush can create those kinds of interception opportunities for the Bills secondary remains to be seen, but the Bills have forced the fourth-most turnovers this season with 15.

7 – Sack tandem

The Bills may have the biggest name in the pass rush game in Von Miller, but Minnesota free agent signee Za'Darius Smith has been a productive performer through the first half of his first season with the Vikings.

Tied for second in the league in sacks with 8.5, Smith has been a terror off the edge for Minnesota. His fast start has pulled attention away from veteran edge rusher Danielle Hunter on the other side and now he's beginning to produce as well.

"It was kind of a slow roll for Danielle," said Vikings sideline reporter Ben Leber on the ‘Bills by the Numbers’ podcast this week. "We were openly wondering if he wasn't up to speed not too long ago and if this scheme fit him. I think the defensive staff is figuring him out more. You'll see him with his hand on the ground more in this new 3-4 scheme. He's moving around the line of scrimmage more too. They'll flip him to the right side more, so it's about him understanding his role more. Their effectiveness has reduced the need for the Vikings to blitz much at all."

Minnesota's defense ranks sixth in the league in pressure rate (30.7%) and ninth in sack rate (8%). Smith, who was named NFC Defensive Player of the Month for October, ranks third in the league with a pressure rate of 16.6 percent.

In the last three games, Smith and Hunter have combined for eight sacks and 16 quarterback hits.

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