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Mark Gaughan's X's and O's: Bills offense bringing knives to gunfight against Vikings

The matchup of the Buffalo Bills' offense and the Minnesota Vikings' defense is a contrast of opposites this week.

The Vikings are in coach Mike Zimmer's defensive scheme for a fifth straight year. Ten of the 11 Vikings defensive starters are in their fourth season in the system. The Vikings were No. 1 in the NFL on defense last season.

The Bills are in the first year of Brian Daboll's offensive scheme. Five Bills offensive players are in their first or second year as a starter. The Bills ranked 29th on offense last year and are 31st through two weeks this year.

Sunday's game is not a fair fight for the Buffalo offense.

The Vikings' defense last season ranked No. 1 in the NFL in the following categories: yards allowed, points allowed, third-down percentage, yards after catch allowed and big-play passes allowed.

The Vikings were No. 2 in both run defense and pass defense, No. 3 in the red zone and No. 3 in three-and-out drives.

"It's like you're facing grown men, the way they play," said Bills guard Vlad Ducasse. "We have to step up to the plate and be on top of our game."

"They've had a nucleus that's been there awhile and a similar scheme the whole time," said fullback Patrick DiMarco. "They're comfortable in their defense. We're starting to get comfortable with our offense too now. They're not invincible. They're a team you can go out and attack."

[RELATED: Vic Carucci on the "stunning disaster" that is the Bills' secondary]

How did the Vikings get so good?

1. They hired a great defensive coach. Zimmer was a coordinator for 14 years before becoming the Vikings coach. In the last 18 years, counting his current Minnesota tenure, his defenses have ranked in the top half of the league 15 times, and they have been in the top 12 in points allowed seven of the last eight years.

Zimmer doesn't get enough credit for helping turn around the Bengals franchise. Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis created a more professionally-run organization with a first-rate personnel department when he was hired in 2003. But Zimmer transformed the culture of the Bengals. Cincinnati was poor on defense until Lewis hired Zimmer in 2008. The Cincy defense went from 27th to 12th in Zimmer's first year, and Zimmer's defense led the team to the playoffs six of the next seven seasons.

Zimmer isn't from the Gregg Williams or Rex Ryan schools of defense, relying on loads of complex calls and extensive blitzing. The Vikings typically play an aggressive Cover 2 with downhill attackers in the 4-3 front seven. Or they play man coverage. Zimmer has been one of the more effective proponents of A-gap blitzes (to either side of the center) the past decade.

"They disguise well; including the linebackers," New England coach Bill Belichick said before playing the Vikes in 2014. "All those guys do a good job of blitzing and covering and faking and man, zone."

2. Zimmer inherited a good core of defensive studs. Bills defensive chief Leslie Frazier was Vikings coach from 2011 to 2013. In those three years, the Vikings drafted two players who in 2017 were top two in the NFL at their position — cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Harrison Smith. Also on board was edge rusher Everson Griffen and star defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, a Frazier draftee whose career ended in 2017 due to health issues.

3. The Vikes have hit defensive home runs in the draft and free agency under Zimmer. His first two defensive free-agent signings (defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Tom Johnson) were great. Joseph is one of the top five defensive tackles in the NFL. In 2014 and 2015, the Vikings drafted first- or second-round stars in defensive end Danielle Hunter, linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks and cornerback Trae Waynes.

"They've got a good defense, starting with the way they've built it up front," said Bills coach Sean McDermott.

Bills-Vikings Scouting Report: Minnesota receivers pose tall challenge for Buffalo cornerbacks

The 30,000-foot view: The Vikings enter their third season in the $1.06 billion U.S. Bank Stadium. The state of Minnesota put up $348 million, and Minneapolis put up $150 million. The Vikings' contribution was about $447 million, but about $100 million of that came from personal seat licenses (the fans).

By the time new NFL palaces open in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, 19 of the 32 franchises will be charging for PSLs.

In Minnesota, the cost to season-ticket holders for a PSL average $2,600 in the lower level and $980 in the upper deck. About 75 percent of the stadium requires a PSL. The stadium is sold out. For Vikings fans, it's a one-time fee for as long as the fan holds the season ticket. Not counting the PSL cost, the season ticket cost for most fans in the lower bowl is $170 a game. (The Bills' range is $70 to $108 for the same seats.) The end zones are $115 a game. (The comparable Bills tickets are $61 a game.)

What a steal: The Vikings picked Hunter late in the third round in 2015 even though he had just 1.5 sacks as a full-time starter in his junior year at Louisiana State in 2014. Hunter has 27.5 sacks in the last three-plus seasons. His emergence gives the Vikes an elite edge rush tandem with Griffin, who has 32.5 sacks since 2015.

Some draftniks compared him to Aaron Maybin entering the draft. Everyone liked his physique — 6-foot-5 and 252 pounds. Most were scared by his production.

One unidentified scout before the '15 draft: "He can't set the edge. He is not a very instinctive football player. If it doesn't flash in front of him, he can't figure it out. Football does not come natural to him. He is an athlete, not a football player."

The News asked Zimmer this week what he saw: "He was an underclassman. He had one sack in college. But he's a guy that had tremendous athletic upside. I have a lot of faith in my defensive line coach, Andre Patterson, to develop these guys. He's done an unbelievable job developing our line. Danielle was a great kid, a great athlete, who we felt we could mold. The way he rushed in college didn't allow him to get sacks because of the way he had his angles. So we felt if we changed some of those things it would help him be a good player. Quite honestly, you never know. But some of these guys with length and speed and first-class character, we'll take a chance on."

Weak links: Right tackle and center. Vikings right tackle Rashad Hill was poor the first two weeks and went down Sunday with an ankle injury. He was replaced by second-round draft pick Brian O'Neill, who's likely to start vs. the Bills. O'Neill is a good prospect but he's green. He's a finesse blocker who weighed 295 at the draft. He pounded 6,000 calories a day this summer to try to bulk up. Center Brett Jones started for the Giants last year but lost his job in training camp. He's keeping the center job warm for Pat Elflein, last year's starter, coming back from shoulder and foot surgeries. Elflein is practicing this week but isn't an upper-tier starter, either.

Matchup Watch

Xavier Rhodes vs. Kelvin Benjamin. Not a good matchup for the Bills' big man. The best cornerback in the NFL is either Rhodes or Jacksonville's Jalen Ramsey. Rhodes typically travels with No. 1 wideouts. He shut down Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown early last season. Rhodes is long, at 6-1, 218, with 33 3/4-inch arms. Because the Vikings play two high safeties a bunch, they rely on their corners to be good in run support. Rhodes is up to that task, too.

Asked if he watches a lot of video of Rhodes, the Bills' 5-11 Tre White said: "He's a great corner, but our games are not the same. I study guys with a similar body type that I have, that move the way I move. I can't study a guy who's 6-3, 215 that's such an aggressive corner."

Josh Allen vs. Harrison Smith. The Bills' QB faced a rookie safety with freakish ability last week in the Chargers Derwin James. Now he faces a better, smarter, more experienced version of James this week. Smith had to be salivating watching James terrorize Allen on blitzes. Smith, the former Notre Damer and a first-round pick in 2012, is great at blitzing off the edge but also threatens blitz and backs off a lot. He blankets elite tight ends. He is a superb open-field tackler. Allen needs to know where No. 22 is at all times.

Dalvin Cook vs. Bills LBs. The second-year Vikings running back played tore up his left knee in Week 4 last season. He had a superb first three weeks, rushing for 288 yards. Through two games, he has 178 yards from scrimmage. The Florida State product is a home-run hitter. He is great on the perimeter, running stretch handoffs, pitches and sweeps. Look for the Vikings to try to get the ground game going against the Bills.

Stat for the road: The Vikings are 46-23 against the spread under Zimmer. The last seven teams favored by 16 or more in the NFL have covered.

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