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5 Questions with the Enemy: Christopher Gates of SB Nation’s Daily Norseman

We have a sit-down with one of the main contributors over at our network’s Minnesota Vikings site to get the inside scoop on this week’s matchup.

The Cincinnati Bengals are on a bit of a hot streak, but as the weeks pass, the games become more meaningful, and the margin for error shrinks. Cincinnati hosts a similarly scrappy Minnesota Vikings team this week in a clash of teams that boast both stark contrasts and similarities.

We tapped the knowledge of Christopher Gates at the Daily Norseman within the SB Nation network for the inside scoop this week. Here’s our chat:

1.) AC: The Vikings are on their third quarterback starting this year, with Nick Mullens now at the helm for Minnesota. Give me the pros and cons of this move. He did bring some excitement to the Niners a few years back...

CG: Mullens is now the starter because Josh Dobbs struggled again against the Raiders this past Sunday, though it certainly wasn’t all his fault. His receivers had numerous dropped passes and didn’t do him any favors. Mullens came in towards the end and generated the game’s lone scoring drive, so the Vikings have decided to stick with him going forward...well, for this week, anyway.

I think the biggest “pro” that Mullens has in this case is that he’s the closest thing that the Vikings have to Kirk Cousins now that Cousins is injured. For whatever reason, the Vikings didn’t seem to be calling a lot of plays that played to Dobbs’ strengths, including getting him out of the pocket and on the move.

I’d say that’s something that falls under the “con” column for Mullens, but again, it’s not like the Vikings were taking advantage of the mobility of their previous quarterbacks anyway. Mullens has been in the Vikings’ system for a couple of years now and, as you pointed out, has had success as a starter in this league. If the Vikings are going to insist on calling plays the way they would if Cousins was still their quarterback, it makes sense that they turn to the one quarterback they have on the roster who’s the most like him.

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2.) AC: Talk to me about the changes to the Vikings’ defense under Brian Flores. He seems to always bring an edge and tenacity to his unit. What have been some of their biggest improvements this year?

CG: Brian Flores has been an absolute revelation for this defense. Last season, under Ed Donatell, the Vikings were content to play just a soft shell of a defense, rarely blitz anyone, and let teams nickel and dime their way down the field, hoping at some point the opposing offense would make a mistake. It was a “bend but don’t break” defense that broke a lot more frequently than it should have.

With Flores, he’s made things so unpredictable that opposing quarterbacks really can’t get a handle on what’s happening. The story on Flores’ defense is that they’ve blitzed a lot this season, and they’re the only defense in the NFL that blitzes more than 50% of the time on defense. However, they also lead the league in snaps where they bring three or fewer rushers, giving the look that they’re bringing the house and then backing out of it.

Under Flores, it seems like opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators are consistently off-balance. Heading into the season, most of us Vikings fans were hoping that the defense would “get it” sometime around midseason and show significant improvement over the second half of the year, but over the last two months, they’ve legitimately been one of the best defenses in the NFL, and that’s almost entirely due to Brian Flores putting his charges in a position to succeed.

3.) AC: Alexander Mattison appears to be out this week. What’s the Vikings' plan of attack in the backfield without him and with a new starter at quarterback, to boot?

CG: Ty Chandler will get the majority of the carries for the Vikings with Mattison out, and that’s something that a lot of Vikings fans have been calling for some time. Mattison is a solid back, but he doesn’t seem to have quite the second gear that Chandler has. It just seems like whenever Chandler gets an opportunity, good things happen.

Granted, he isn’t as good a blocker as Mattison is, and I’m sure the Bengals will attempt to take advantage of that, but Chandler will make the Vikings’ run game more explosive. When he needs to go to the sideline, you’ll probably see some of Kene Nwangwu, who at this point is still better known as a kick return specialist than a running back, and the team will likely bring either Myles Gaskin or seventh-round pick DeWayne McBride up from the practice squad for this one as well.

I’m sure the Vikings will try to get Chandler going in the run game to try to open things up for Mullens, and the screen game will probably be more successful with the ball going to Chandler rather than Mattison. Hopefully, this will be the chance that Chandler needs to grab onto the No. 1 running back role and not let go of it.

4.) AC: Who has been the biggest pleasant surprise for the Vikings on both sides of the ball this year, and why?

CG: Offensively, I think you’d have to go with center Garrett Bradbury. The Vikings didn’t pick up Bradbury’s fifth-year option and instead signed him to a shorter free agent deal this year. He had a reputation for getting tossed around a bit by bigger guys in the trenches, but this season has been stellar in terms of both run blocking and pass blocking.

He missed a couple of games earlier in the season, and the difference in the middle of the offensive line for Minnesota was quite noticeable. He’s improved quite a bit and played a significant role in the development of Minnesota’s offensive line overall.

Defensively, I’ll go with a guy that Bengals fans might be familiar with, that being rookie linebacker Ivan Pace Jr., who played his college ball there at Cincinnati. Pace was just named the NFC’s Defensive Player of the Week for his performance against the Raiders (13 tackles, 1 sack, and the game-sealing interception) and has been huge in stepping in for the injured Jordan Hicks in the middle of Minnesota’s defense.

Every game that goes by, it gets harder and harder to believe that Pace wasn’t drafted in the 2023 NFL Draft, but we’re pretty happy that he decided to come to Minnesota in the undrafted free agent signing frenzy because he’s certainly presented himself as a player that the Vikings can build their defense around for the long term.

5.) AC: The DraftKings line on this one has hovered between Bengals -2 and -3 this week. What’s your take on this game with so many roster wild cards taking place from both teams?

CG: It’s really hard to get a read on this game one way or another. Jake Browning has been very good in relief of Joe Burrow, but he hasn’t seen anything like what Brian Flores is going to bring on Saturday.

For the Vikings, Mullens is getting his first start for the team, and we’ll have to see whether or not Justin Jefferson is going to be able to make it through more than a quarter without getting re-injured again. The Vikings are also missing a couple of key pieces in Mattison and right tackle Brian O’Neill.

This should be a pretty good football game between two teams that are still trying to scrap and claw to either stay in the playoff picture in the case of the Vikings or climb into it in the case of the Bengals. I know that I’m biased, but until I see someone really solve the Vikings’ defense, I’m going to feel like they can carry the Vikings to a victory almost anywhere, and I think that’s going to happen on Saturday in a fairly low-scoring affair. I’ll call it 20-17, Vikings.

Our thanks to Christopher Gates and the gang over at The Daily Norseman. Go check out our other side of the conversation here.