Vikings’ new defense look may stifle Cleveland’s running game

The Minnesota Vikings face their biggest test this season when they host the Cleveland Browns this Sunday at US Bank Stadium. Minnesota’s success will be determined by its running defense. It’s a football cliché that often doesn’t fit into the modern NFL game. But since the Browns hired former Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski ahead of the 2020 season, few teams have relied more on ground play than Cleveland.

In the first three weeks of the season, the Browns have the league’s second rushing offense. Only the Baltimore Ravens, led by Lamar jackson, can take distances on the ground due to Jackson’s ability to jam on passes. So it’s no huge surprise that the Browns are the only team to eclipse more than 100 rushing attempts this year. They do it with a strong 1-2 running duo. Nick chubb and Kareem Hunting.

Cleveland also pulls in healthy amounts of yards on every carry. Their 5.1 yards per attempt are tied for third in the NFL, including 18 carries over 10 yards. And they hit the ball in the end zone with eight touchdowns, three more than any other team. It all builds on their rushed third-place offense last year, which averaged 4.8 yards per attempt.

Meanwhile, the Vikings are looking to build on their strong second-half defensive performance against the Seattle Seahawks. For the first 10 quarters of the season, Minnesota’s new-look defense, with defensive tackles headlining Dalvin tomlinson and Michael pierce, was not imposing. In three weeks, the Vikings’ overall defense is up from last year, when they placed 20th in the league, but they are allowing 4.8 YPA after giving up 4.6 YPA last season.

It becomes of concern that the team has spent too much money on a defense that has not produced big results so far. However, this is the week when things are going to work out. The Cincinnati Bengals were numbered Minnesota in Week 1, with a rush of 149 yards. But the Arizona and Seattle Cardinals both have lethal weapons on offense and like to stand vertically. With movable quarterbacks at the helm, the Vikings devised a game plan that called for a different approach to the Minnesota defensive line.

Cleveland’s offensive is similar to Minnesota’s because of the Stefanski connection. This should result in more snaps under cross, further straining the Vikings’ defensive line. The Browns are at their best when using tracks that start from the left side. Last year they averaged 6.2 YPA on the left tackle. This year, that number is 7.5. It seems simple enough to stop until you realize Cleveland is good for running almost anywhere else.

This is where Pierce and Tomlinson can dictate the play. If they can take runs indoors and eat blockers, linebackers Eric kendricks, Nick vigil, and Anthony barr, if in good health, can suffocate the racing game. Pierce is already the highest ranked Minnesota defenseman by Pro Football Focus. Tomlinson is fifth. Their impact has been felt, but this confrontation forces them to alter Cleveland’s plans.

If they can pull out the race and put the game in Baker Mayfield‘s hands, the Vikings have a chance to upset him. Cleveland ran just 45 yards on 18 carries in its Week 16 loss to the New York Jets last year. The entire left side of the racing game has been neutralized; the Browns only ran in that direction five times over five yards. With the running game neutralized, Mayfield had 28/53 passes for 285 yards and no touchdowns or interceptions. The Jets managed to sack him four times and the Browns ultimately lost 23-16 to one of the worst teams in football.

Baker struggled in a Week 8 loss last year to the Las Vegas Raiders under similar circumstances. The Browns never started the game on the ground, running five times down the left side for 39 yards, and they struggled everywhere else. They finished with 18 running plays designed for 76 yards. Baker added 25 yards of scrambling, but with the running game not working, he only made 12/25 passes. He threw no touchdowns or intercepts and racked up just 122 yards in the air in a 16-6 loss.

It won’t be easy for the Vikings on Sunday. The Browns are their toughest opponent this season. Mayfield is in a system he’s well suited for, but if Minnesota can pull off the running game, they can force Mayfield into a position he’s uncomfortable with. If they do, the Vikings can right the ship with a 2 Record of -2 before Week 5 against the Lions.

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