Vikings' Efficient, Balanced Offense
The Chargers face a difficult challenge trying to contain the Vikings' strong offense, powered by quarterback Kirk Cousins and running back Dalvin Cook, who are each deserving of Pro Bowl selections this season. Cousins also has several receiving weapons in wideouts Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, and tight end Kyle Rudolph. In 2018, Thielen and Diggs were tied for third among teammate receiver duos with 18 combined touchdowns. Collectively, the Minnesota offense ranks seventh in points per game this season. The offensive line also protects Cousins well, having surrendered the seventh-fewest sacks.
"I know this (Minnesota) offense like the back of my hand," Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn said. "It's the one I grew up in. Half of those coaches I either played for or coached with. So you have to be disciplined with your pre-snap reads, because they make it look identical… It's simple for them, but it's complicated for others, and that's the way they like it."
During Lynn's playing career as a running back for the Denver Broncos, current Vikings offensive line coach Rick Dennison, assistant head coach Gary Kubiak, and tight ends coach Brian Pariani were all part of the Broncos coaching staff Lynn learned under. Consequently, Lynn possesses a deep understanding and knowledge of the threat posed by the Vikings offense.
Running Backs Who Can Catch
Both teams feature a running back who plays a prominent role in the passing game. The Chargers' Austin Ekeler leads the league in yards after catch, while Dalvin Cook ranks third in the category. Ekeler also leads running backs in yards receiving (830) and in receiving touchdowns (8), and he stands second in receptions (73).
"Ekeler's a really good back," Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said. "He's fast, quick, catches the ball well (and) accelerates well."
Both Cook and Ekeler are undersized – each at 5-foot-10 – and elusive. Like Ekeler, Cook is his team's second-leading receiver, having hauled in 50 passes for 503 yards this season.
"I'll tell you, he's a good back," Lynn said of Cook. "He's fast and he's gotten that wide zone read down… he's definitely a threat."
Meanwhile, Ekeler further emphasized his receiving ability last week, compiling over 100 yards receiving and 100 yards rushing. By going for '100 and 100,' Ekeler became the second Chargers player to ever accomplish the feat, with the other being Lionel James in 1985.
"Austin (Ekeler) has turned himself into just about as versatile as anyone else in the league," quarterback Philip Rivers said. "His route trees continue to grow, (and) it's still expanding. He wants that. He wants to compete and learn and see how much he can get better."
Ekeler says that he has no preference when it comes to rushing or catching the ball. As long as the ball is in his hands, Ekeler knows he has a chance to prove himself.
"It's just nice to establish myself in the league and show people I can consistently make plays," Ekeler said. "That's what I feel like this year has been for me. (I've) been building year after year in my role to show people, 'Hey, this is a small town kid, but he can make plays (and) he belongs.'"
Minnesota's Defensive Credentials
Entering Week 15, the Vikings rank 14th in total defense. They've allowed the fewest rushing touchdowns this season with five. Minnesota's also recorded 13 interceptions, tied for third in the league. The unit has also allowed the seventh-fewest points per game – slightly stingier than the Bolts, who have given up the eighth-fewest.
When asked how he would characterize his defense's identity, Zimmer responded by saying, "Typically, we're pretty solid, fundamentally sound, have different ways to pressure the quarterback, and hopefully we can (contest) catches."
Rivers mentioned that he's faced Zimmer's defensive schemes multiple times in his career from when Zimmer coached for the Cincinnati Bengals and when the Bolts last played the Vikings three years ago in the preseason.
"They're good, they work well together, and they fly around," Rivers said. "They make you earn every first down, so nothing will come easy, and it'll be a heck of a challenge."
Led by defensive end Danielle Hunter (more about him below), the Vikings pass rush is excellent, causing quarterbacks to lose the third-most yards on sacks in the NFL.
"Those guys, they can get after the passer," Lynn said. "That defensive line is outstanding. I like the interior guys as well. Pretty similar to what we saw last week, but maybe even better."
Sunday will mark the Chargers' first game of the season since being eliminated from the playoff race, but they can still play spoiler. The Vikings currently hold the sixth and final spot in the NFC playoff picture, with the Los Angeles Rams standing just a game behind Minnesota.
While Chargers players and coaches have seen the standings and understand what's at stake, the Bolts are focused on improving internally each week.
"We want to win for us," Rivers said. "But certainly, there's a lot on the line for them. The Rams are pulling for us as well. It'll be a heck of a game. Again, our focus is to be 1-0 this week. That focus served us well last week. We'll have the same approach, and we'll see if we can find a way to get another one."
In the meantime, the team expressed their satisfaction with winning last week by such a large margin, and hope to 'go 1-0' again this week in a similar fashion.
"Shoot, we need every game, my goodness," Ekeler said. "It seems like we've been so close week in and week out for the past few weeks, so it's a good feeling to finally have a dominant win where all phases of the game are clicking. We're looking to do the same thing this week."
Vikings Players/Matchups to Watch
QB Kirk Cousins
In his second year with the Vikings, Cousins is enjoying his best season, ranking near the top of the NFL in most passing categories. He's thrown 24 passing touchdowns, and, among starting quarterbacks, only Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes have thrown fewer interceptions. Cousins also ranks third in yards per pass attempt and fourth in completion percentage. The eighth-year Michigan State product will be coming off an efficient performance, in which he went 24-for-30 with 242 yards passing and a touchdown pass.
"I think he's played much, much better (than last season)," Zimmer said. "He's always been really accurate. He throws the ball well. He's getting the ball out of his hands, and I think he's (been) going to the right places. I think the offensive line has helped him as well. He's playing with a lot of confidence right now."
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers joins Cousins at the top of some passing leaderboards this season, as the Bolts' veteran ranks third with 3,748 passing yards while Cousins ranks ninth with 3, 274. Additionally, Rivers' 12.4 yards per pass completion is sixth in the NFL, while Cousins isn't far off, ranking 10th with 12.0.
"I think Kirk's been a consistent player his whole career," Rivers said. "Competitor, accurate, and has done a heck of a job leading those guys. They've been scoring a lot of points and haven't turned the ball over, (and) their defense has gotten a lot of takeaways. They've won nine football games for a reason. (Cousins) has certainly had his hand in it, leading the group."
RB Dalvin Cook
Vikings running back Dalvin Cook has shown everyone what he's made of in 2019. Tied for the most rushing touchdowns in the NFL with Derrick Henry, Cook is also second in total yards from scrimmage behind Christian McCaffrey, elite company for the 24-year-old.
When asked what the difference has been for Cook in 2019, Zimmer attested that because of Cook's ability to stay healthy all year, opposing teams and fans are finally seeing what he can do.
"We're doing a really nice job blocking for him," Zimmer said. "But he's a really talented back, smart guy, runs hard. He's been impressive."
The running back, who attended Florida State with Chargers' Pro Bowl safety Derwin James, also ranks fourth in the NFL in rushing, third in yards after catch, and third in touches. And he is well-rested, having only played 34 of Minnesota's 73 offensive snaps against the Lions.
Receiving Threats: WR Stefon Diggs, WR Adam Thielen, and TE Kyle Rudolph
The Vikings also possess a talented receiving corps in wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, along with tight end Kyle Rudolph.
Despite not having played an entire game since October 13 due to injury, Thielen is still tied for the team lead with six receiving touchdowns. He's tied with Rudolph, a two-time Pro Bowler who has scored five of his six touchdowns over the Vikings' previous five games.
"Adam (Thielen)'s a really good player," Zimmer said. "He's a tough, competitive kid. He sets up routes and gets in the right place (and) blocks. He does all the things you need a receiver to do. When he gets back in, he's another weapon that I think (defenses) will have to respect."
Meanwhile, Diggs ranks fifth behind league-leader Mike Williams in yards per reception with 17.8 and is 10th in the league in total yards receiving. Similar to Williams, Diggs has a propensity for explosive playmaking, as the receiver is tied for fourth in the NFL in plays which exceed 20 yards with 17. However, Diggs is worst among receivers with four fumbles, and three of those were lost.
DE Danielle Hunter
With 12.5 sacks this season, the 25-year-old defensive end is tied for fourth in the NFL. Additionally, Hunter has the most total tackles among the top-14 sack leaders this season, demonstrating that he can do more than take down opposing quarterbacks.
The 2018 Pro Bowler will be coming off a monster game against the Lions, in which he sacked David Blough three times and became the youngest player in NFL history to reach 50 career sacks. On the season, quarterbacks have lost 100 yards on Hunter sacks. Hunter has recorded sacks in all but three games this season, and according to ESPN's count, he is tied for fifth in the league with 16 tackles for loss.
K Dan Bailey
Vikings kicker Dan Bailey has been one of the most consistent place-kickers in the league this season. The 2015 Pro Bowler has made 90 percent (18-for-20) of his field goals, including all three 50-plus yard attempts.
The Chargers and Vikings have split 12 all-time meetings, with the Bolts taking three of four at home. The Vikes won the most recent game between the teams, 31-14, in Minneapolis.
Vikings' Last Time Out
In their last game, the Vikings defeated the Detroit Lions at home, 20-7, in a divisional matchup to improve to 9-4. On the day, Minnesota shut down its NFC North foe, not allowing Detroit to eclipse the 100-yard mark until the fourth quarter or to score until just before the two-minute warning with the game already out of reach. The Vikings have now won seven of their last nine contests.
- Sunday, Dec. 15, at 1:05 p.m. PT
- ROKiT Field at Dignity Health Sports Park (Carson, CA)
- TV: CBS - Greg Gumbel (play-by-play), Trent Green (analyst) and Melanie Collins (sideline)
- National Radio: ESPN - Marc Kestecher (play-by-play) and Jack Del Rio (analyst)
- Local Radio (English): KFI-AM 640 - Matt "Money" Smith (play-by-play), Daniel Jeremiah (analyst) and Shannon Farren (sideline)
- Local Radio (Spanish): KFWB-AM 980 - Mario Solis (play-by-play) and Jorge Villanueva (analyst)
- APP: Chargers Mobile (iOS), Yahoo Sports (Android)
For more information on how to watch the game including the mobile app and live streaming, click here.