Sid Hartman
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The Los Angeles Chargers, the Vikings’ road opponent on Sunday, may be 5-8 but every one of their losses has come by one score or less — including five losses by a field goal or less.

And whatever problems the Chargers have had, the passing game hasn’t been one of them.

Quarterback Philip Rivers is third in the NFL with 3,748 passing yards, trailing only Dak Prescott of the Cowboys and Jameis Winston of the Buccaneers.

And if you were going to point to one Vikings weak spot lately, it is the pass defense, which ranks 16th in the NFL, allowing 236.6 yards per game.

Safety Anthony Harris, who has started all 12 games this season, the most of his five-year career, said the Vikings need to build off of their performance against Detroit, when they allowed just 161 passing yards, their second fewest this year.

“We have to continue to improve, build off of the things we have been doing really well, and continue to work on the things we can do better. That way overall we can go out and continue to execute at a high level,” Harris said. “Pass defense has to continue to improve.

“As a team we know that’s a team effort. That starts in the back end and works its way down to the guys in the second level. We know how that goes hand in hand with the pass rush, as well. We just have to continue to communicate, be on the same page, make those windows tighter and compete for the ball with pass breakups and interceptions.”

Harris’ 53 tackles rank sixth on the team and second in the secondary, trailing only Xavier Rhodes, who has 59. His four interceptions lead the club.

He said that trying to figure out how the pass defense went from being ranked third last season, allowing 196.2 yards per game, to struggling this season has a lot to do with how opposing offenses are targeting the Vikings.

“Each year is different. We have a lot of the same people back, but some of the things that teams want to do offensively changed a little bit,” he said. “But we just have to adapt, continue to rely on our technique, the scheme and the coaches and let our athletic ability take over last and go play.”

Chargers a challenge

The Vikings know that if they’re going to stay in the hunt for the NFC North title, they need to win their final three games.

Harris said they’re not paying any attention to the Chargers’ record.

“A good offense, a lot of good pieces,” Harris said. “They have a veteran quarterback under center who has seen a lot of defenses, played a lot of football. He knows where to go with the ball, knows how to get the ball out of his hands fast, but offensively I see them doing a lot of different things to try and mess with your eyes. We’re going to have to really be disciplined.”

The Vikings haven’t faced Rivers since 2015 and have faced him only three times in his 16-year career.

Rivers is 1-2 against the Vikings but has averaged 259.3 yards in those games and thrown for three touchdowns against four interceptions.

“A big arm, knows what he’s doing out there, knows how to manage an offense, knows how to dissect a defense. It’ll be a big challenge for us,” Harris said.

And he added that this game is the first step in trying to stick with the Packers in the division race.

“Right now we’re just taking it one game at a time and focusing on the Chargers this week, studying up on them and making sure we’re prepared to go and give ourselves the best shot we can have.”

O-line better

The big question from Day 1 of the Vikings season was: Could this team improve the offensive line after a 2018 season in which the Vikings finished 30th in the league in rushing yards with 1,493, the fourth fewest in franchise history? Kirk Cousins also was sacked 40 times.

The Vikings started by hiring a new offensive line coach in Rick Dennison, drafting center Garrett Bradbury with their first-round selection, moving Pat Elflein to guard, signing Josh Kline, Brett Jones and Dakota Dozier and losing Nick Easton, Mike Remmers and Tom Compton.

So far the numbers say the changes have worked.

Football Outsiders ranks the Vikings offensive line fifth in the NFL in run-blocking and 13th in pass protection.

The Vikings also rank No. 4 in the NFL in rushing yards per game with 135.8, and their 23 sacks allowed are the seventh fewest in the league.

It has been one huge turnaround.

Offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, in his first year on the job, talked about the importance of hiring Dennison and how he has changed the offense.

“Rico has been outstanding. Again, a guy I lean on heavily,” Stefanski said. “His understanding of our scheme and how we’re attacking defenses is again so important to us having our success. I think he really is a great technician with the players. He works them really hard and teaches them a ton about their technique, and I think you’re seeing it show up on Sundays.”

Jottings

• The Vikings’ Dan Bailey has made 90% of his field-goal attempts (18-for-20), fifth in the NFL. Percentage-wise, Bailey is the best kicker in the league from 50 yards or more, having gone a perfect 3-for-3. His season percentage would rank eighth in Vikings history — Gary Anderson (35-for-35 in 1998) and Kai Forbath (15-for-15 in 2016) are the only two Vikings kickers to post perfect regular-season numbers.

• The No. 3 Ohio State men’s basketball team will face the Gophers on Sunday as one of five undefeated teams left in the country. They have faced two ranked opponents and demolished them. The Buckeyes beat then-No. 10 Villanova 76-51 and then-No. 7 North Carolina 74-49 in Chapel Hill.

• During the Timberwolves’ five-game losing streak they have outscored opponents by 0.6 points per game in the first half but have been outscored by 10.8 points in the second half — which is the second-worst mark in the league.

• Former Timberwolves standout Ricky Rubio is averaging a career-high 13.2 points and 9.2 assists per game for Phoenix, which beat the Wolves 125-109 on Monday. Rubio had 16 points and 14 assists in that contest.

• How flexible is the Twins’ payroll? The only players currently signed to contracts for the 2021 season are Jorge Polanco ($4.3 million) and Max Kepler ($6.5 million).

Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. • shartman@startribune.com