VIKINGS // RAMS OVERVIEW
This game is likely to be skewed a bit in the public perception by what happened to the Vikings last week against the Bills — but the reality is that this matchup pairs two of the best teams in the NFL, with a couple of good offenses doing battle with a couple of top defenses.
When these teams faced each other last season, in Minnesota, the Rams scored on their first drive of the game before being shut out the rest of the way and losing 24-7. There are a few changes on each team, but the biggest difference this week will be that the Rams are the home team, which will make it far easier for Jared Goff to check into the play he wants to check into at the line, and for the Rams’ offense to attack this Vikings unit more fluidly.
The line in this game has been set aggressively in favor of the Rams (as of this writing, the Vikings’ Vegas-implied team total sits at 21.5, compared to 28.0 for the Rams), and it won’t be surprising if this game plays closer than that. But there are definitely enough offensive weapons on either side of this matchup for DFS goodness to pile up.
VIKINGS PASS OFFENSE
The Rams have been one of the toughest teams to pass on to begin the year, ranking fifth in yards allowed per pass attempt while forcing offenses to the short areas of the field and tackling well after the catch. This week, however, the Rams will be without Aqib Talib on one side of the field, and they will almost certainly be without Marcus Peters on the other. Although Wade Phillips has the ability to change his defense on the fly, and he is not going to overtask Sam Shields and Nickell Robey-Coleman with the same high-level responsibilities he gives to his two All Pro corners, the loss of these two players will have an impact across the board on this defense. The Rams will either need to be less aggressive on the attack in order to provide extra help on the back end, or they will expose themselves to big plays on the back end as a result of the talent loss they are currently experiencing.
We should expect Wade Phillips to mix and match these approaches — occasionally remaining hyper-aggressive, while at other times showing aggressive looks and backing out into zone coverage schemes that take away the perimeter of the field and force passes to the middle.
This Vikings passing attack really consists of only two players at the moment. Adam Thielen has accounted for 43% of the team’s air yards to date, while Stefon Diggs has accounted for a 37.7% share of his own — with these two combining to see over 80% of the Vikings’ air yards to date.
Thielen has doubled Diggs’ snap rate in the slot, giving him a much safer floor in this spot — especially as the Rams’ perimeter injuries should leave the middle of the field even more open against them, as they adjust outward on defense. Each guy should be heavily involved, however, and each is a strong bet for production in this spot. Thielen has at least 12 targets in every game this season, while Diggs has double-digit looks in two of three games. The matchup has the potential to be more difficult than people will assume at first glance, simply because Phillips will have something in place to account for the missing pieces on the back end; but especially on DraftKings and FantasyDraft, where pricing has been adjusted downward to account for the matchup, these guys stand out as strong tourney plays even on the 15-game slate, as the usage is absolutely locked in from week to week.
Behind these guys, Kyle Rudolph has seen an 11.7% share of the team’s air yards, with target counts of two, eight, and six — with two targets inside the 20 and one target inside the 10. The Rams are susceptible against the tight end; but as always, Rudolph will need a score in order to really pay off for your roster.
VIKINGS RUN OFFENSE
Minnesota has had a slow start to the year on the ground, ranking 29th in yards per carry while totaling only 198 rushing yards through three games. The matchup against the Rams is middling (the Rams do not focus on taking away the run — but their personnel is strong enough that they have been average against the run anyway), but the bigger concern for the Vikings is that they will likely be without Dalvin Cook again. Mike Zimmer and Cook himself have implied that he still has a chance to suit up this week, but their actions indicate otherwise. If Cook does play, he becomes an intriguing piece on the one-game “slate,” but he’ll be at risk of a lightened workload in order for the Vikings to avoid setbacks in this spot.
Last week with the Vikings falling into catch-up mode early, Latavius Murray played only 57.6% of the team’s snaps, seeing two carries — which he turned into one rushing yard. Encouragingly, however, Murray ran 28 pass routes and stayed in to block on only eight plays — leading to seven targets and five catches for 30 yards. Murray will never be anyone’s idea of an explosive weapon out of the backfield, but he can be teed up on the short slate as a game-flow-independent back with low-ceiling pass game involvement. Mike Boone and C.J. Ham each got decent run as well last week, and I don’t imagine we will see Murray crack a 70% to 75% snap share; but that will be enough to give him some touchdown upside in this spot, even if an explosive yardage game will be difficult to come by.
RAMS RUN OFFENSE
Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen is dealing with mental health issues that will take him off the field for Thursday night’s game, but the Vikings still boast an extremely strong defense, with impact players at all levels of the field. With Harrison Smith at safety, the Vikings are able to roll with five defensive backs against the Rams without sacrificing too much against the run; and last year in this matchup, the Vikings were able to trust their front four to slow down Todd Gurley, while allowing linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks to play back against run looks from the Rams — enabling them to be in position against the pass on all the misdirection and play-action the Rams like to run. This is a poor setup for the Rams’ passing attack, which relies on the threat caused by Todd Gurley to suck in linebackers and safeties and open up deep routes on play-action and short routes on misdirection plays. Last season in this matchup, the Rams had to fight for every yard, as the Vikings were able to maintain coverage and force tight-window throws all game long.
Last year in this matchup, Todd Gurley totaled 37 yards on 15 carries, while catching only three of four targets for 19 yards — for one of his most disappointing fantasy weekends on the year.
While these elements add up to make this a spot in which Gurley is less likely to hit than normal, his secure usage and his explosive ability will always keep him in play. His ceiling remains as high as it is in any matchup; but this is one of the rare matchups that requires us to bump down floor expectations. Gurley is always a fade-at-your-own-risk kind of player, but the Vikings have the personnel and the defensive philosophy that would allow them to hold Gurley below expectations more often than not in this spot.
RAMS PASS OFFENSE
Last year in this matchup, Xavier Rhodes primarily followed Sammy Watkins around the field — and given the way the Rams are using Brandin Cooks, it would make sense for the Vikings to shift Rhodes onto Cooks this week.
“Rhodes on Watkins” freed up Robert Woods last year for 11 targets and an 8-81-0 line, while Cooper Kupp maintained his typical role and hauled in six of seven targets for 64 yards and no scores. Woods is going to have a difficult time shaking free for big plays downfield against this clamp-down Vikings defense, but he should again see heavy usage, and he enters this week third in the NFL in percentage share of team air yards, behind only Julio Jones and Odell Beckham.
Incredibly, Woods, Cooks, and Kupp account for over 93% of the Rams’ air yards, which always makes this a great passing attack to target when we expect one player to have a below-average game (or, at least, to have a below-average matchup). Woods stands out above Kupp from an upside perspective, but Kupp carries a nice floor in this spot, with a locked-in role that yields six to nine targets most game, and that has yielded the fourth-most red zone targets in the NFL (seven).
Finally, realize that a bad matchup does not make it impossible for Cooks to hit; it simply makes it less likely. Cooks should go overlooked in this matchup with expectations that he finds himself in Rhodes’ shadow — making him an intriguing “upside” tourney pivot for the big play potential he carries.
I like to avoid players against elite defenses when I can, as such matchups introduce more question marks than I like to find on my team. As such, I would consider all of these players to be fringe options if this game were on the main slate — guys I would mark down on my early-week list, but would probably not end up playing.
With that said: Adam Thielen and Robert Woods each stand out as strong “opportunity” plays, as each guy should see guaranteed work filtered his way as a result of the way his matchup sets up. Each is a strong play on the one-game slate, with Thielen the preferred option, but with Woods around 30/70 to outscore him.
Kupp carries “floor” with sneaky upside, while Cooks and Diggs have slate-winning upside if things go right. We should still expect Thielen to out-target Diggs, but Diggs is getting downfield looks (an aDOT of 11.8, compared to 8.9 for Thielen), and the injuries to the Rams’ secondary give him a great opportunity to hit. Cooks will need to blow past Xavier Rhodes a couple times in order to post a monster score himself, but he has the ability to do so. In all, the wide receivers in this game fall into this order for me:
Thielen // Woods // Diggs // Kupp // Cooks — but all five of them are playable on the one-game slate.
Latavius is uninspiring, but he’ll have a goal line role and should haul in another two to four receptions. If he punches in a touchdown or two, he’ll pay off.
Gurley still has to be given the highest raw projection on the one-game slate, given his role and his talent; but we shouldn’t be surprised if he falls short of expectations this week.
I don’t expect either defense to be among the five or six highest-scoring “players” on the small slate, but each side has the talent to force mistakes and score a touchdown.
Kirk Cousins and Jared Goff set up nicely for something like a 250-2-1 line through the air, with upside for more. The nature of this matchup means that shootout expectations should be kept in check — but there are enough explosive weapons on either side of this game that some crazy things could happen.