One of the most important tasks of a youth coach is to assess daily who is missing from their team and make adjustments. At any given moment, haircuts, dentists, orthodontists, sicknesses, or family emergency may present itself. I have had heard them all. They outnumber injury absences 10:1 at the youth level. I can count on both hands the number of games missed by injury in the last five years by a young player in football. For all the other absences I would need a calculator.
Luckily, the games at that age are not focused on winning so much as development. And if a star 7th grader need braces on game day, than an opportunity arises for another to step up. "Mom, the starting quarterback has to have that 4:00 PM appointment at the hair salon?" That's OK, we practice with three for that reason. In fact, half of the team could play at quarterback if so needed.
At the professional level, injuries can change a team's fortune instantly. When Aaron Rodgers went down last year the Packers imploded. Minnesota without Adrian Peterson to run last year was a non-factor all season. Teams try and build as much depth as possible, the best teams being able to overcome injuries consistently.
Minnesota, like most NFL teams this season, has had to deal with injuries to key starters. Replacing John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt on the offensive line was a challenge to start the year. One can see guys like Joe Berger, T.J.. Clemmings, and Austin Shepherd are improving every week. We are thankful that Matt Kalil stepped up in 2015, or this might be a different season.
Defensively, Minnesota has dealt with a rash of injuries as well. On the front line, Everson Griffen, Justin Trattou and Sharrif Floyd have been waylaid with injuries. Thankfully, Tom Johnson and Danielle Hunter have filled in well.
In week nine Minnesota deals with their biggest defensive injury of the season. Losing star rookie inside-linebacker Eric Kendricks when Todd Gurley is coming to town is plain bad luck. The way Kendricks was heat-seek tackling opponents, it would have been fun to watch the matchup.
But most coaches know, if your defensive line does not do their job, linebackers end up making less tackles than the secondary. As great as Harrison Smith is, no one in the organization wants him to lead the team in tackles. That is for Kendricks and Anthony Barr. So the play of Linval Joseph and Tom Johnson will matter just as much as the two or three linebackers on the field.
Enter Audie Cole.
Audie, a 7th round draft pick, is a fan favorite. I assume it is because he scored a touchdown in the preseason of his rookie year returning an interception. He had two I believe that game. Instant preseason hero. Or it may be that he overcame his outside shot of making the team.
During that time Minnesota had just begun to struggle at the linebacker position. We had been anxiously awaiting improvement on that part of our defense. We spent draft choices on guys like Brandon Watts, Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges, and others. Nothing emerged. That is until we spent a first rounder on a linebacker named Anthony Barr in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Chad Greenway, a top linebacker for a very long time, had just begun to slow down a little from all those years of tackling everything in sight. E.J. Henderson and Erin Henderson did not get the job done consistently, even though E.J. looked pretty good at times.
And so Cole's fan base grew.
Most fans would probably admit they wanted Cole to have the starting job. Even as recent as the beginning of this season. But after watching Kendricks play this October, no one is talking like that any more. We just want Eric to get better quickly.
The talk in the media and amongst purple skeptics is strength of schedule. It is noted that Minnesota has had a soft schedule so far in 2015. Their only opponent with a winning record (Denver, 7-0) defeated them 23-20. The Rams game will begin a stretch of nine games in which only one Viking opponent (Chicago, 2-5) has a losing record.
It turns out about two of every three teams in the league do not have winning records. Besides Minnesota, there are only ten more winning teams. That is out of thirty two. It is so bad this year that two divisions (NFC East and AFC South) do not have a single team with a winning record.
You play who you play.
If Minnesota is going to pressure Green Bay for the North division, they will have to beat a few winning teams. Of course, if Minnesota does beat St. Louis this weekend, the critics can point to the fact that the Rams would no longer be a winning team.
The streak intact.
No, the key to this game is the Rams need to run with Todd Gurley vs. the Vikings ability to stop the run. The 49ers' Carlos Hyde ran for 168 yards week one. The Broncos' Ronnie Hillman made it over 100 yards thanks to a 72 yard run. Those are the only two backs to top 100 yards vs. the purple defense.
And it happens to be the only two games we have lost.
Audie Cole is being asked to step up and fill in for a rookie having a Pro Bowl type year. Facing a running back that has started his career with four straight 100 yard games. And in his 5th start vs. the Vikings, will undoubtedly surpass the great rookie start of our own Adrian Peterson.
Time to kick the Rams' can.