Buffalo Bills vs. Minnesota Vikings Preview, Player Matchups, Keys to Game, Sleeper To Watch

This weekend, the Buffalo Bills (3-3) host the Minnesota Vikings (2-4) at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Both teams are coming off losses to division rivals and are looking to right the ship for the course of their respective seasons.

This Sunday’s game will be decided by a handful of one-on-one matchups, so here at BillsMafia.com, we’ll look into those, as well as breaking down keys to the game and a potential sleeper to keep an eye on.

Bills WR Sammy Watkins vs. Vikings CB Xavier Rhodes

Bills WR Sammy Watkins is familiar with Vikings CB Xavier Rhodes
Bills WR Sammy Watkins is familiar with Vikings CB Xavier Rhodes

Against the Patriots, the Bills essentially removed rookie phenom Sammy Watkins from the gameplan, as he was shadowed by Darrelle Revis, one of the elite talents at the cornerback position in the National Football League. This week, Watkins will line up primarily against Xavier Rhodes, a cornerback he’s very familiar with from his collegiate years. Rhodes, a first-round pick in 2013, was a standout at Florida State while Watkins was at Clemson. In Watkins’ two games against Florida State, in which he faced off with Rhodes for the majority of the game, he caught 13 passes for 165 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Rhodes is developing his game, using his length, size and athleticism to make an impact on the right side of the Vikings’ defense. In the first six games, Rhodes has broke up six passes while allowing just 51.5% of passes in his direction to be caught.

Watkins’ ineffectiveness against the Patriots essentially created a smaller field for New England’s defense to work with, so if the Bills want to get back on track, Watkins will need to be featured early and often.

Bills DE Jerry Hughes vs. Vikings LT Matt Kalil

Six games into the 2014 season, Jerry Hughes has already shown that his breakout 2013 campaign was no fluke. Hughes is currently the 6th most productive pass rusher among 33 qualifying players, racking up five sacks and 23 total QB pressures in the 168 snaps in which he’s rushed the passer.

Vikings LT Matt Kalil hasn't lived up to his Top-5 billing.
Vikings LT Matt Kalil hasn’t lived up to his Top-5 billing.

Matt Kalil was a Top-5 pick by the Vikings in the 2012 NFL Draft, but after a strong rookie season, he’s been atrocious and a liability to Minnesota’s offense. To start the year, Kalil has surrendered six sacks, three QB hits and 16 hurries. His work in the run blocking department hasn’t appeared much better, as the Vikings are gaining an average of 3.4 yards-per-carry when running behind him.

The Bills weren’t able to consistently pressure Tom Brady last week, which was a big reason why the secondary got picked apart as the game wore on. This week, both Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams have favorable matchups that should allow the defense to dictate the game.

When the Bills Have the Ball

The Bills’ passing game has been consistent and effective through Kyle Orton’s first two starts, but in order to sustain drives, Buffalo has to get better running the ball. The offensive line has failed to generate any sort of push in the run game, which has led to the Bills throwing the ball 40+ times on three occasions this year. With average QB play, 40 pass attempts isn’t a recipe for success, considering the stable of running backs at the Bills’ disposal.

Sharrif Floyd and Linval Joseph are questionable for the game, which could allow the interior of Buffalo’s offensive line to gain some confidence and run the ball. If the Bills want to not only win this game, but build a streak of them, running the football needs to be a focus.

When the Vikings Have the Ball

Win up front. The Vikings are fielding a talented, but green quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater, who’s completed 62.1% of his passes for 655 yards and three interceptions on the year. The passing game is centered around quick, horizontal routes that allow for the quick receivers like Cordarrelle Patterson and Greg Jennings to gain yards-after-the-catch.

The Bills have done a good job of clouding the middle of the field on defense, due to the ranginess of the linebackers and safeties. Buffalo’s defense matches up well with Minnesota’s offense, so if the defensive line can win at the point of attack, it will allow the back-seven to make plays, rather than fall victim to them.

Sleeper to Watch: Vikings LB Gerald Hodges

Vikings LB Gerald Hodges has emerged into a playmaker in his 2nd season.
Vikings LB Gerald Hodges has emerged into a playmaker in his 2nd season.

Anthony Barr was the Vikings’ first-round draft pick this year, and while he’s been impressive on the strong-side, weakside linebacker Gerald Hodges has been fantastic. The second-year linebacker was selected in the fourth-round out of Penn State last year, and through his first six games of the 2014 season, he’s racked up 29 tackles, two for a loss, two passes defensed, while ranking No. 9 in ProFootballFocus’ (Subscription Required) Pass Rush Productivity, No. 6 in Run Stop Percentage, No. 9 in Tackling Efficiency and No. 9 in Pass Coverage.

Similar to Nigel Bradham, Hodges is a run-and-hit linebacker with range that has made an impact in each game he’s played.