NFC North: Phil Taylor

Phil Taylor, Adrian PetersonGetty ImagesPhil Taylor and the thus-far stout Browns run defense gets a major test in Adrian Peterson.
A pair of teams desperate for their first victory square off in Minneapolis this weekend when the Minnesota Vikings host the Cleveland Browns.

The Vikings are coming off a last-second loss in Chicago, after which players were venting about the defensive call that led to the Bears’ touchdown with 10 seconds left. Minnesota goes from Minneapolis to London for a date with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Vikings are in dire need of some positive momentum.

The Browns, meanwhile, have scored just 16 points in a pair of losses, and already have made major changes. They will start Brian Hoyer at quarterback this weekend with starter Brandon Weeden out because of a thumb injury. Meanwhile, the Browns traded running back Trent Richardson on Wednesday, parting with their top playmaker in exchange for the Indianapolis Colts' 2014 first-round draft pick.

As the teams meet for the first time since 2009, ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and ESPN NFL Insider Matt Williamson break down the game:

Goessling: Matt, the last time these two teams faced each other, it was on opening day in 2009, Brady Quinn was under center for the Browns and Brett Favre was playing his first regular-season game in a Vikings uniform. How things have changed since then. The Vikings have their own quarterback issues -- Christian Ponder probably keeps his job for now after a solid second half in Chicago last week, though he’s in serious need of some consistency. With Hoyer at quarterback, Richardson gone to Indianapolis and Josh Gordon coming back from a suspension, what can we expect from the Browns’ offense?

Williamson: I was feeling optimistic about Cleveland's offense going into Week 3 with Gordon returning and the disaster at the right guard position seemingly resolved. But now Weeden is out and Hoyer is in. That doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the loss of Richardson, who should be the foundation of this offense as a runner and underrated receiver. I truly think the Colts got themselves a great young back. But that leaves the Browns in a very precarious situation in the backfield. It is going to be a long year on this side of the ball.

The Vikings had an outstanding rookie class in 2012 and made three picks in the first round of this latest draft. Although there are obvious concerns at the quarterback position, Minnesota has quietly established a fine young nucleus. What roles do you see for its three first-round picks for this game, as well as going forward in 2013?

Goessling: It’s interesting you bring that up, because Cordarrelle Patterson's role -- or perhaps his absence -- has been a big topic of conversation this week. He got only five snaps in the Vikings’ first game, and had just six as a receiver last Sunday, even after he ran the opening kickoff back 105 yards for a touchdown. He’s young, and raw, but he might also be one of the most dangerous players the Vikings can put on the field, aside from Adrian Peterson. Coach Leslie Frazier all but called for Patterson to be on the field more during his news conference Monday. The challenge for the Vikings is to either work him into their base offense or go to enough multiple-receiver sets that they can use him, but I don’t doubt we’ll see him more going forward.

That could be especially important considering how good the Browns have been against the run in their first two games. They’ve allowed just 59.5 yards per game -- how will they fare against Peterson this weekend?

Williamson: Well, facing Peterson is obviously the ultimate challenge, and his run blocking, including the tight ends and fullbacks, is quite good as well. But I am very impressed with the Browns’ run defense -- and it starts up front. I believe that Phil Taylor is on the verge of stardom; his battle with John Sullivan, an excellent center in his own right, in the middle of the formation, will be crucial for the success of Cleveland’s interior run defense. But the Browns also have very good size at outside linebacker and do a nice job containing the outside run; their second- and third-level defenders get to the ball carrier well.

I mentioned before that the right guard position has been a nightmare, but the Browns’ excellent set of offensive tackles, Joe Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz, also has struggled much more than would be expected against two formidable defenses. As you know, Jared Allen is still playing at a very high level. But as some might not know, Brian Robison is also excelling this year and Everson Griffen is a highly athletic and intriguing end, too. Could Minnesota’s defensive ends rule the day?

Goessling: They certainly could. They struggled in Week 1 in Detroit, as Matthew Stafford found Reggie Bush on a number of early screen passes before the rush could get home. But the Vikings put consistent pressure on Jay Cutler last week, and Allen caused a Cutler fumble that Robison returned 61 yards for a touchdown. The Vikings also have not played at home yet, which means they will have the advantage of the crowd disrupting the opposing offense’s snap count for the first time this year. Minnesota has enough issues on the back end of its defense that it needs a strong pass rush to cover up for some of those deficiencies, and if the defensive line can get to Hoyer, the Vikings should be able to slow the Browns down and win the game.

To close this up, what’s the biggest thing you think the Browns need to do to win the game? What kind of a shot will they have without Weeden and Richardson?

Williamson: I really don’t like Cleveland’s chances at all, but its defense could keep this game close and limit Peterson’s production. Of course, Ponder could have a very poor game, or the Browns could score on defense or special teams. But I can’t see their offense this week moving the football with any sort of consistency. As Cleveland's front office is doing, it is time to start looking toward next year.

 
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Happy tax day to you. If you still wait in line at the post office to ensure the postmark is on your taxes, here's a potential distraction: The folks over at SportsNation are set to reveal the finalists in ESPN.com's tournament to determine the cover of "Madden '12." The announcement, to be carried live on the NFC North blog, will be at about noon ET.

As we noted last week, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was trailing Cleveland Browns running back Peyton Hillis in one bracket. In the other bracket, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick were fighting it out.

Will the NFC North be the Epicenter of Gamenity for the next week? Will we get shut out? Check back in a few hours.

For now, let's take a spin around the division:
I'm all for traveling outside of the box to conduct an otherwise traditional exercise, so kudos to ESPN's Todd McShay for steering two NFL scouts through a mock draft Insider that produced some interesting results based, I think, more on the best player available at each spot than the likely target of individual teams.

With that in mind, let's take a look at the players our teams received in this exercise:

12. Minnesota Vikings
Player:
Auburn nose tackle Nick Fairley Seifert comment: Earlier this year, Fairley was considered the top prospect in the draft. Scouts Inc. now ranks him No. 11 overall. Vikings coach Leslie Frazier has made clear that he wants to rejuvenate the defensive line, and the possible departure of free agent Pat Williams would open a hole that Fairley could fill.

13. Detroit Lions
Player:
USC offensive tackle Tyron Smith
Seifert comment: In this mock, Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers was already off the board. (Varying reports about his knee injury have caused some to speculate he will be available when the Lions choose.) I would be more than fine with Smith, who might be the top tackle in the draft. Coincidentally, he visited the Lions' Allen Park facility Wednesday.

29. Chicago Bears
Player:
Baylor nose tackle Phil Taylor
Seifert comment: This would be an interesting choice. The Scouts Inc. scouting report on Taylor paints him as a classic 335-pound run-stopping nose tackle. But the Bears need a pass-rushing three-technique defensive tackle much more following the release of Tommie Harris, even if unproven Henry Melton ultimately makes a successful transition from the end position.

32. Green Bay Packers
Player:
Baylor guard Danny Watkins
Seifert comment: At No. 32, general manager Ted Thompson could go in any number of directions. The Packers are set at right guard with Josh Sitton but have not displayed significant interest in signing left guard Daryn Colledge to a long-term deal.

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