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Minnesota Vikings: Keys to victory vs. Arizona Cardinals in Week 8

Purple Pain

This Minnesota Vikings fan blog entry was originally posted at Purple Pain Forums by MidwinterViking.

After a 5-1 start, the Vikings now host the 3-4 Arizona Cardinals in Week 8 on Sunday. If Minnesota manages to win, they’d be off to their best start since 2009, when a Brad Childress and Brett Favre-led squad delivered a magical 12-4 season ending in a painful 31-28 loss to the Saints in the NFC Conference Championship.

Seven years later, this is a much different squad. Let’s preview what it will take for a Kevin O’Connell and Kirk Cousins-led team to move to 6-1 against Arizona.

Knowing your opponent

The Arizona Cardinals have an interesting split that sticks out:

  • Record when defense forces two interceptions: 2-0
  • Record when forcing one interception: 0-0
  • Record when forcing zero interceptions: 1-4 (overtime victory over Raiders after fumble recovery)

The first question is: how did the Cardinals get these interceptions, and how do the Vikings avoid them? We looked at all five of the Cardinals’ interceptions to see if there was a defensive trend.

Interception 1 – This is a deep throw to D.J. Moore. Baker Mayfield’s pass was way behind Moore, who tipped it to a lurking safety. The announcer said, “He had him [open for the completion]!” but this looks like pretty good defense. The interception was lucky off a tip, but this was a small window on a deep out. Some credit to the defense for making a small window, but the interception was lucky.

Interception 2 – Here you can see Mayfield’s height limitations at 6-foot-1. The throw was open but never got there.

Interception 3 – Andy Dalton thinks this is “open.” You can form your own opinion. If you’re having trouble reading the number on that receiver, that’s intended for Marquez Callaway.

With two guys around Callaway, you might wonder if there was a better option for Dalton or if this was the best there was amid smothering defense — there was a better option.

Interception 4 – Here Callaway tries to haul it in, but the ball once again bounces into the arms of a Cardinals defender.

Interception 5
 – Pressure forces bad decisions. Dalton tries to hit Chris Olave on a cross but leaves the pass woefully short, leading to a pick 6. Juwan Johnson and Alvin Kamara were both open.

Our conclusion on Arizona’s interceptions is that the Cardinals are doing what the Vikings do and taking away deep passes first. Numbers one, three, and five are all deep shots that go wrong with better, open options shorter. The second and fourth examples are just tipped balls. There isn’t any magic or scheme here.

The Cardinals just benefitted from a few egregiously bad throws and tipped balls. The good news is the Vikings haven’t been falling into the trap of forcing deep balls. This is good news, but it’s just Minnesota running their normal offense. That means that the key to beating Arizona looks like it will be on the Cardinals’ offense vs. the Vikings’ defense.

Related: See where the Minnesota Vikings rank among NFL defenses

Cardinals passing game breakdown

We pointed this out with Jalen Hurts: “running” QBs are passers first and runners second. Stopping a mobile quarterback will almost always come down to shutting down their ability to throw the ball. Want proof? Here is Murray’s passer rating and rush yards per attempt in 2021 and 2022:

Stopping Murray’s passing will be the key. More good news, the Cardinals are already slowing themselves down. When looking into the Cardinals and Murray’s history, it’s almost shocking at how much of a drop-off there has been in explosiveness. Here are Murray’s passing yards per completion and Air Yards Per completion:

  • 2019: 6.9 (Yards per attempt ) / 5.4 (Air Yards per completion)
  • 2020: 7.1 / 5.9
  • 2021: 7.9 / 6.0
  • 2022: 5.9 / 4.3 (Second lowest in the league, ahead of only the Packers)

Knowing that Murray can scramble to set up a pass, the next thing we started to dig into was seeing if there are tricks or trends to his mobility. One of the great oversimplifications in football is “He’s a running QB,” as if QBs can be boiled down to a box score or Madden speed rating. The reality is that QB runs, especially scrambles, are high-pressure plays where individual human quirks can be found.

Related: Minnesota Vikings linked to several high-profile receivers ahead of trade deadline

So where does Kyler Murray run? We started with Next Gen stats looking for something like this (but for Murray).

Related: NFL QB Rankings: See how Kyler Murray and Kirk Cousins compare

Turns out that AWS doesn’t track runs for QBs. Step 1: Find which games are interesting by looking at his rush totals:

We chose Carolina because they held him to a really low yards per carry. Seattle, because they didn’t, and Philadelphia as a confirmation to Seattle.

Prepare yourself for a picture that is much uglier than AWS, but maybe, more interesting. In looking at the tape from those three games, we estimated Murray’s runs.

  • Light Blue – vs. Carolina
  • Black – vs. Eagles
  • Yellow – vs. Seahawks
  • Gray – called back due to penalty
  • Red – Touchdown

This was way more useful than a chart because, while watching, we realized three things that are critical for the Vikings to stop Murray:

  1. Murray almost always scrambles to his right. The only times he runs left is if he has no other choice. Additionally, Murray has taken sacks looking to run right before realizing his only out is left.
  2. Murray scrambles around the outside. He rarely scrambles up the middle.
  3. Designed runs for Murray almost always go up the middle. On that chart, the lines that start going straight upfield are almost exclusively called QB runs.

It turns out the Seahawks and Eagles were both victims of that third trend. They both allowed draw plays to beat them up the middle. This is a very different challenge to stop than Week 2 vs the Eagles when Hurts ran almost exclusively outside. If you take nothing else away from this article, you can be confident that Jalen Hurts and Kyler Murray are, in fact, different people.

With the Cardinals’ passing game is significantly less explosive this year than in prior years. Their run game isn’t different enough to make me think of that as a differentiator. If the Vikings can force a few negative plays, the Cardinals’ offense will be hard-pressed to dig out of a hole.

Even with Marquise Brown out, Rondale Moore is a capable enough running mate to Deandre Hopkins. Patrick Peterson did a great job on Hopkins in 2021, so this could end up as a plus matchup for the Vikings. The key will be to prevent Murray from buying time to hit big plays.

Related: Identifying 4 Minnesota Vikings trade targets before Nov. 1 deadline

How to beat the Cardinals

We’re going to trust that the offense can do their jobs. The Cardinals are 27th in both yards and points allowed, and from our analysis, their generation of turnovers was as much opponents shooting themselves in the foot as it was good defense.

The key to the game will be to stop Murray from making explosive plays with his legs. His running tendency can be exploited in two ways:
1) Be prepared for designed, up-the-middle runs – these will probably happen anyway, just by the nature of Murray, a few won’t lose the game.
2) Focus pressure on getting rushers from the defensive left side (Murray’s right side) the Vikings can make him uncomfortable and give extra breathing room to the coverage team or force Murray to run to his left, where he is less comfortable. If Minnesota can do this, Arizona’s passing game should flounder, and the Vikings’ offense should easily outpace the Cardinals’ defense.

Related: Love the Vikings? Get involved in the discussion on the Purple Pain forums