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Vikings, Rams in mirror matchup

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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings shouldn’t have any trouble game-planning for the St. Louis Rams’ first visit to TCF Bank Stadium on Sunday.

“They’re a good football team; similar to us, I think, in some ways,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “They’re very good defensively. They run the ball extremely well. They put a lot of pressure on the quarterback. I think it’ll be a good test for us.”

Saying these two teams are similar in “some ways” is an understatement.

Both rely on big, explosive running backs, high-pressure defenses, strong special teams, favorable field position and quarterbacks who are capable of doing more but often asked to play a more conservative role.

To many Vikings defenders, Rams rookie running back Todd Gurley looks like a 21-year-old version of Adrian Peterson, who is 30 but still showing no signs of age.

Gurley (6-1, 227) and Peterson (6-1, 220) are big backs with breakaway speed.

Peterson is third in the league with 633 yards rushing, while Gurley has posted the most rushing yards in a player’s first four starts (566) since the merger in 1970.

“Todd Gurley is Adrian Peterson all over again,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said to anyone willing to listen this week.

Offensively, the Rams rank 30th overall, third in rushing, 32nd in passing and 28th in scoring. The Vikings rank 29th overall, fifth in rushing, 30th in passing and 24th in scoring.

At quarterback, Minnesota’s Teddy Bridgewater ranks 31st in passer rating (85.5) while St. Louis’ Nick Foles ranks 38th (81.6).

Bridgewater has thrown six touchdown passes and five interceptions., while Foles has thrown seven touchdowns and five interceptions. Bridgewater is averaging 7.2 yards per attempt, Foles is averaging 7.0.

Defensively, the Rams rank sixth overall, second in sacks per pass play and are fourth in points allowed (17.9) after giving up only four field goals in back-to-back wins over the Browns and 49ers.

The Vikings rank seventh in overall defense, ninth in sacks per pass play and second in points allowed (17.4).

The last two weeks, Zimmer has used the outside doubters publicly to motivate his players. Before the win at Detroit, he used the team’s 1-14-1 division road record since late in the 2009 season to energize the players.

Before last week’s win over the Bears, Zimmer continuously reminded the players that the Vikings hadn’t won at Chicago since 2007.

Asked for this week’s motivational play, Zimmer said he had been advised to no longer share those feelings publicly.

“I take coaching well,” he said with a smile, suggesting the advice likely came from above.

If Zimmer needs help, he could use this statistic: 8-23. That’s the combined record of the teams the Vikings have beaten to reach 5-2. The Vikings haven’t beaten a team with a winning record and two of their wins were against the Lions (1-7).

The Rams, meanwhile, are 4-3 with a couple of signature wins. They beat the Seahawks at home in the season opener and the Cardinals on the road on Oct. 4.

Zimmer talked this week about what he considers the “four learns” in football. The first is learning to compete, then learning to win, learning to handle winning and then learning to be a champion.

As Zimmer pointed out, the Vikings are somewhere between learning to win and learning how to handle winning. Sunday’s game will help determine whether the Vikings are on the second or third step of Zimmer’s “four learns.”

SERIES HISTORY: 37th regular-season meeting. Vikings lead the series, 21-13-2. The Vikings are 10-3-2 at home, but have not played the Rams at TCF Bank Stadium, the Vikings’ temporary home. In their last meeting, the Vikings beat the Rams, 34-6, at St. Louis to open the Mike Zimmer era in Week 1 of last season. The teams have met seven times in the postseason. The Vikings are 5-2 in those games, winning all four at home, including the NFC Championship games in 1974 and 1976.

GAME PLAN: The Vikings basically are looking in the mirror as they prepare for the Rams. Both teams are built around a powerful, explosive running back, a high-pressure defense and sound special teams that provide favorable field position.

The Vikings need to use the home-crowd noise to their pass rush’s benefit. If they can contain rookie running back Todd Gurley, the pass rush should overwhelm a Rams line that has dealt with injuries.

Offensively, the Vikings would like for Adrian Peterson to have a big game that controls the tempo similar to parts of last week’s game at Chicago. But if the Rams are determined to stop Peterson, the Vikings aren’t afraid to make teams pay by throwing the ball more while sprinkling in just enough Peterson runs to keep the defense guessing.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

–Vikings NT Linval Joseph vs. Rams RB Todd Gurley.

Joseph was the first outside piece that coach Mike Zimmer reached for when he was hired last year to turn the Vikings around. The big, stout nose tackle has transitioned well into Zimmer’s scheme and sets the tone for the Vikings’ run defense, which has been better the last three games, but is still at risk of inconsistency. Obviously, Joseph will need a lot of help this week. Gurley, the 10th overall draft pick this year, has 566 yards in his first four starts, the most in a player’s first four starts since the merger in 1970.

–Vikings LT Matt Kalil and LG Brandon Fusco vs. Rams DE Robert Quinn and DT Aaron Donald.

Kalil, whose knees are healthy this season, and Fusco, who switched from right guard before this season, have improved QB Teddy Bridgewater’s blind-side protection this season. But Sunday’s game will be their stiffest challenge of the season. Quinn leads the Rams with five sacks. Donald is second with 4 1/2. Since the start of last season, they have 29 combined sacks, tied for second-most by an end-tackle tandem in the league.


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