Sunday’s game between the Vikings and Redskins will be full of reunions.
They start with Mike Zimmer and Jay Gruden, two 2014 head coaching hires and, respectively, the former defensive and offensive coordinators of the Bengals. But the on-field connections intensify along the offensive and defensive lines, which likely will carry the biggest weight in deciding between two NFC teams jockeying for power.
Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter and Redskins left tackle Trent Williams had looked forward to Sunday’s game. The two offseason training partners know many of each other’s tendencies, so they anticipated the real test within 50-60 game snaps.
But Williams hasn’t practiced this week because of a knee injury that will eventually require surgery. His absence could dampen Hunter’s upcoming matchup and Washington’s hopes of protecting quarterback Kirk Cousins, who took six sacks in Seattle last week.
Coming to Washington is sack specialist Everson Griffen and a Vikings pass rush that ranks eighth in the NFL with 24 sacks. And they’ve been studying a lot. Six Redskins offensive linemen are on this week’s injury report.
So Hunter is preparing as if Williams is playing.
“Literally, this is the most offensive line [options] we’ve had to study, ’cause of all the guys that have been playing,” Hunter said Thursday. “We have no idea who is playing, so we just have to study all of them.”
Vikings defenders are familiar with another Redskins tackle in T.J. Clemmings, a 2015 fourth-round pick who started 31 games for the Vikings’ injury-riddled offensive lines the past two seasons. Clemmings has been the Redskins left tackle for the past two games because of injuries to Williams and top backup Ty Nsekhe.
A couple defenders offered diplomatic evaluations of their former teammate, who struggled mightily in Minnesota and was the one who shuffled by Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner on the play allowing a Seattle safety last weekend.
“I mean, he’s an offensive tackle,” Vikings defensive end Brian Robison said.
The Vikings defense does have a lot of respect for the Redskins offensive line. It boasts two top-five picks in Williams and guard Brandon Scherff, whom the Vikings liked but had no chance of getting in the 2015 draft. And Nsekhe is a highly regarded backup tackle who likely could start for many teams.
Washington’s problem is none of the three has played in two weeks. Scherff and Nsekhe could return Sunday after being limited in practice this week.
“Offensively, [Washington] is pretty good,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said. “Looks like they’re going to get some of their offensive linemen back.”
The outcome in the trenches will be critical. In Washington’s first three victories — against the Rams, Raiders and 49ers — they allowed a total of only four sacks of Cousins. They’ve allowed 18 sacks in the other five games (1-4 record) with the only victory coming via a fluky Sunday featuring three Blair Walsh missed field-goal attempts in Seattle. So don’t overlook another connection Sunday in Vikings kicker Kai Forbath, who replaced Walsh but played 41 games for Washington from 2012-15.
If the Vikings rush flusters Cousins, he’ll turn to running back Chris Thompson as his main outlet. That’s a common occurrence recently because Cousins is the NFL’s third-most pressured quarterback (40.9 percent of pass plays) in the past three weeks, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s helped make Thompson, not a Washington receiver or tight end, the Redskins leader in catches (35), receiving yards (453) and receiving touchdowns (3).
“He makes a lot of guys miss,” Edwards said of Thompson. “When guys are in position to tackle, his yards after the catch have been pretty impressive.”
Impressive, too, has been the Vikings’ play against running backs. The NFL’s third-ranked run defense (81.4 points per game) also has only let three running backs reach 30 receiving yards this season.
But the Vikings want Cousins to hold the ball, creating sack opportunities and potentially forcing fumbles. No team has lost more fumbles than Washington (10) this season with Cousins putting the ball on the ground himself nine times (four lost).
“We want to use that to our advantage,” Hunter said.