Minnesota Vikings: Brandon Jacobs

Vikings-Giants: What to Watch

October, 21, 2013
NEW YORK -- We're about six hours away from kickoff between the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants at MetLife Stadium tonight, as both teams try to begin the process of turning around seasons that have gone well off-course. I'll be heading to the Meadowlands in a couple hours to write about this one, as will ESPN New York's Dan Graziano, but in the meantime, here are a few things to keep in mind from the Vikings' perspective:

Reprieve for run defense? The Vikings have been uncharacteristically bad against the run this season, ranking 20th in the league in yards allowed and 29th in touchdowns after years of being in the top 10. Minnesota will be without safety Harrison Smith -- one of the team's top run defenders -- but could catch a break with the absence of bruising Giants running back Brandon Jacobs, who will likely miss the game with a hamstring injury. That means Peyton Hillis gets the start for the Giants, and while Hillis can be a sledgehammer between the tackles, it's tough to say how he'll fit with the Giants' offense and what he'll bring to the team after signing with them five days ago. If the Vikings can stop the run, they might have more luck making the Giants one-dimensional and capitalizing on Eli Manning's penchant for turnovers. Speaking of that ...

Picking off Eli: The Vikings have said all week that Manning looks like the same quarterback who has won two Super Bowls, but even that quarterback was prone to interceptions at times. And behind a shaky offensive line, Manning has thrown a league-worst 15 interceptions, becoming the first quarterback to hit that total in six games since Dan Fouts in 1986, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Smith is the only Vikings defensive back with an interception this season, and Minnesota's depleted secondary could have its hands full with Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, Rueben Randle and others, but the Vikings haven't won a game where they lost the turnover battle since 2010, and that required Brett Favre to throw for a career-high 446 yards. For the Vikings, winning the turnover battle has been the most direct route to success in the past few years, as it is for many teams. They need to take advantage of the opportunities Manning gives them tonight.

Freeman's debut: With quarterback Josh Freeman making his first start, the Vikings will likely run with a slightly leaner game plan than usual, though Freeman and coach Leslie Frazier both downplayed how much the team will have to change things to get Freeman up to speed. The biggest challenge for the 25-year-old quarterback, who signed with Minnesota on Oct. 7, will be verbalizing changes to plays and protection schemes, especially if the Vikings end up in a two-minute offense. "Some of these plays get somewhat lengthy, and there’s stuff within the play," Freeman said. "You understand exactly where everyone is going whether it’s a motion, whether it’s a route tagged in there, whether it’s a concept, you understand what everybody is doing, but being able to spit that out when you’re on the clock, when it’s loud, when stuff is going on, when you’re out of breath, whatever is going on, being able to spit that out and knowing exactly what you’re saying." Freeman has emphasized this week how he's got some familiarity with the Vikings' scheme after working with Ron Prince -- who previously coached with Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave -- at Kansas State. His ability to recall it on the fly could be a key for the Vikings tonight.

Improvement on third downs: Both the Vikings and Giants have had atrocious third-down defense this season -- they have the two worst opponents' conversion rates in the league -- and whichever team can break that trend might have a chance to turn the game tonight. Third downs could be especially important on offense for the Vikings, who are at their best when they can get a lead, extend drives and run Adrian Peterson. Considering how thin the Vikings are defensively, and how much they've struggled with time of possession this season, they'll need to give their defense a break by draining the clock on offense.
Adrian Peterson and Eli ManningUSA TODAY SportsAdrian Peterson and Eli Manning will likely have to carry the offenses on Monday night.
This time last year, the New York Giants and the Minnesota Vikings were both 4-2 and headed for winning seasons. But as they get set to square off on "Monday Night Football" at MetLife Stadium, the Vikings are 1-4 and the Giants an even more miserable 0-6.

ESPN.com Giants reporter Dan Graziano and ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling break down the matchup of NFC disappointments.

Dan Graziano: Ben, the Giants only have four interceptions and five sacks, so I imagine there were a lot of people in the Vikings locker room interested in playing quarterback in this game. Why did the Vikings pick newcomer Josh Freeman, and what do you expect their offense to look like with him running it for the first time?

Ben Goessling: A lot of this, I think, is an attempt to make a quick-course correction after things with Christian Ponder didn't pan out. If it works, GM Rick Spielman can make people forget about the Ponder pick, the Vikings might win a few games to keep coach Leslie Frazier's job and they could have a solution to their quarterback problem for next season. If it doesn't work? They're only out $3 million.

As for Monday night, I'd expect the Vikings to try to limit how much they put on Freeman, so I expect we'll see plenty of Adrian Peterson (not that we wouldn't anyway). Considering how bad the Giants have been at stopping the run, that could be a good approach for the Vikings. They're always better when they can get a lead and let Peterson go to work, and they haven't done a good job of controlling the clock so far this season. This matchup might give them a shot to do that.

Now back to the quarterbacks: We know Eli Manning has a tendency to turn the ball over, but this has been strange even by his standards. What has been his biggest problem?

Graziano: Yeah, 15 interceptions in six games is stone-cold ridiculous, and I think it speaks to a general lack of comfort for Manning, who for years has thrived on comfort and routine and familiarity. The Giants started the season with major problems on the offensive line, and they have continued (and in some cases worsened) as the year has gone along.

The inability to establish any kind of run game, combined with the early-season failures in pass protection, rattled Manning, and even though the protection has improved overall and Brandon Jacobs managed to rush for 106 yards against Chicago, Manning still just doesn't seem right. He's not making those great, deep sideline throws he used to make, he's missing too many easy throws, and even when he's throwing well, he's staring down receivers and isn't setting his feet. He's just been erratic, and the result the past couple of weeks has been interceptions in the worst possible spots. The Bears didn't really pressure him that much, but he coughed it up anyway in the clutch. Just not himself.

Will he have a chance to get comfortable at all Monday night? How's that Minnesota pass rush these days?

Goessling: It hasn't been up to the Vikings' normal standards, which has been one of their biggest issues on defense. In the past, the Vikings have been able to survive because their pass rush generated enough pressure to mask issues in the linebacking group and the secondary. But the Vikings have just 10 sacks this season, and what's worse, they've had to bring pressure to get some of them -- three of the 10 are from linebackers Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson. They shouldn't have to bring extra pressure with Jared Allen, Brian Robison, Everson Griffen & Co. on the defensive line, and having to do so exposes a porous secondary, which might be even worse this week with Harrison Smith battling turf toe. So, yeah, I think this might be a good week for Manning to get on track.

The Vikings also haven't been as good as they're accustomed to being against the run. Is Jacobs in line to hurt them, or do you see his game against the Bears being a fluke?

Graziano: Got to be a fluke, Ben. The Bears are down to third-stringers in the middle of that defensive line, and the Giants' game plan wisely took advantage of it for Jacobs' throwback-to-2008 game. His 106 rushing yards against Chicago represent 26 percent of the Giants' team total for the season. And, perhaps, most importantly, both he and Da'Rel Scott injured their hamstrings in that game. Scott has been released, and Jacobs didn't practice Monday. Even if he does play, they may not want to work him as hard as they did in Chicago.

The backups are rookie Michael Cox, who doesn't have an NFL carry yet, and Peyton Hillis (yeah, same guy), who signed Wednesday and is no sure thing to even get a uniform for this game. New fullback John Conner looked to be an asset as Jacobs' lead blocker in Chicago, so it's possible things are getting better for the Giants in the run game. But based on their options for carries, this has to come down to Manning and the passing game getting on track.

But I'd like to get back to something you said in your last answer. Ten sacks! That's twice as many as the Giants have. Oddly, in spite of the overall yardage totals, one thing they have done well on defense is stop the run up the middle. They're allowing just 3.9 yards per carry and have held Matt Forte, LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles to 67, 46, 65 yards, respectively, in the past three weeks. Peterson is obviously his own special case, but he didn't have a big game Sunday. Do you think the off-field tragedy was or could be a factor in his performance?

Goessling: I didn't see that as a huge issue on Sunday, though I'm sure it was on his mind. It had more to do with the Panthers' stout run defense and the inability of an offensive line that was pretty good last season to open holes for Peterson. As a result of that, he has gotten anxious at times, trying to turn every run into a big play, and he just hasn't looked as fluid this year as he did last season. Missing Jerome Felton, his Pro Bowl fullback, for the first three games didn't help, but now that Felton is back, Peterson has everything he had last year.

If the Giants have been able to hold the point of attack up the middle, Peterson might not have as much success as I would have initially thought. He's obviously capable of breaking a big run at any time (he has touchdown runs of 78 and 60 yards this season), but we're still waiting for him to control a game like he did so often last season.

To wrap this up, complete this sentence for me: The Giants will win on Monday if they ...

Graziano: Get some pressure on Freeman and don't turn the ball over more than once. I'm not holding my breath. Thanks, Ben. This has been fun. See you Monday night.