In a game that carries potential playoff implications, the St. Louis Rams (4-3) will be shooting for their first three-game win streak since 2012 Sunday in Minnesota against the 5-2 Vikings (noon; TV-Fox Channel 2; Radio-WXOS-FM 101.1).
Here are five things to watch:
▪ 1. The Rams’ winning formula the last two weeks has been a large dose of rookie running back Todd Gurley backed by a shutdown defense. Can the Rams win on the road doing the same thing?
Gurley has four straight 100-yard games and 575 yards overall, the fifth-most yardage in the NFL. He leads the league with a 6.12-yard average. Teams are game-planning for him now and the Vikings have the NFL’s seventh-ranked defense, so it will be interesting to see how Gurley and the offensive line respond. The Rams’ defense is best at wreaking havoc through blitzes and constant pressure on quarterbacks from all angles. They have 26 sacks, plus 13 turnovers that have led to 10 scores and are tied for second in the NFL with 26 sacks. The Rams’ defensive front led by Aaron Donald, Robert Quinn and Michael Brockers may be the best the Vikings see all season.
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▪ 2. Everyone wants to talk about the matchup between Gurley and Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson. Will the best performance between those two determine the outcome?
A 100-yard rushing day in the NFL usually means success, but this one doesn’t seem as clear cut. Peterson ranks third in the NFL with 633 yards and three TDs while Gurley is fifth at 575 yards and three TDs. Typically in obvious matchups like this, something else (turnovers, special teams) happens that could have an even bigger impact. But who doesn’t want to see these two chewing up yards on the same field? Watch for many collisions between Peterson and Rams linebacker Mark Barron.
▪ 3. Why does the Rams’ passing attack rank last in the NFL and what has to happen for it to get better?
Blame Gurley and the successful running game for at least part of this problem. The Rams have become run-reliant since he burst onto the scene and began racking up 100-yard games. But when teams load up to stop the run, that should be opening things up for Rams quarterback Nick Foles and a passing attack that instead has remained stuck in neutral. Playmakers Gurley and receiver Tavon Austin have been about the only impact players on offense in recent weeks. Austin has a team-leading 24 catches for 285 yards and four TDs and also is the Rams’ second-leading rusher with 141 yards and two TDs on 17 carries. Foles has thrown for 1,310 yards and seven TDs with five interceptions, but has been far more of a game manager than an impact passer. The Rams haven’t needed him to stretch the field much in recent weeks, but that may not be the case Sunday. Even with playing a somewhat softer schedule than the Rams, the Vikings have held every opponent to 23 points or fewer this season.
▪ 4. How will the Vikings and second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater deal with the Rams’ pass rush?
Bridgewater has made strides in his second NFL season, but also has been inconsistent at times. He has completed 136-of-211 passes for 1,526 yards and six TDs with five interceptions and has a snazzy new weapon in speed-burning rookie receiver Stefon Diggs (25 catches, team-leading 419 yards, two TDs). Diggs has blossomed as a major deep threat with 10 catches of 20 yards or more in his last three games, nearly supplanting Mike Wallace (26 catches, 292 yards, one TD) as the Vikings’ top receiving threat. The Rams like to bring pass-rush heat from any and all angles, including unstoppable Aaron Donald up the middle. Getting lots of pressure on Bridgewater would go a long way to helping the Rams post a road win.
▪ 5. Could injuries become a factor for the Rams?
Already without defensive end Chris Long (knee), the Rams have three other key starters listed as questionable in defensive end Robert Quinn (knee), safety T.J. McDonald (foot) and right tackle Rob Havenstein (ankle). None of the three practiced on Friday, which typically isn’t a great sign. William Hayes and Eugene Sims help fill the void at defensive end, but the loss of both Long and Quinn would leave a dropoff. Maurice Alexander would be next up at safety if McDonald is out, but there’s no one with much experience behind Havenstein at right tackle. The Vikings are without linebacker Eric Kendricks (ribs) and defensive tackle Sharif Floyd (knee).
Norm Sanders: 618-239-2454, @NormSanders