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Vikings vs. Jets Week 7: Darron Lee, other players to watch

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 14: Cornerback Morris Claiborne #21 of the New York Jets celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts in the first quarter at MetLife Stadium on October 14, 2018 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 14: Cornerback Morris Claiborne #21 of the New York Jets celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts in the first quarter at MetLife Stadium on October 14, 2018 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
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EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – OCTOBER 14: Cornerback Morris Claiborne #21 of the New York Jets celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts in the first quarter at MetLife Stadium on October 14, 2018 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – OCTOBER 14: Cornerback Morris Claiborne #21 of the New York Jets celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts in the first quarter at MetLife Stadium on October 14, 2018 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

The New York Jets have won two straight and are looking to finish 3-0 in this homestand. However, they will have their hands full against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 7. Here are the top five players to watch during the game.

Before this three-game homestand began for the New York Jets, they were sitting at 1-3 with three straight losses after a Week 1 victory in Detroit. Fans were calling for Todd Bowles job and considered this year a failure. However, after back-to-back wins against the Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts, the Jets are sitting at 3-3 with a new level of confidence.

The Jets are looking to go 3-0 in this homestand but will face possibly their toughest opponent in the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings (3-2-1) have won two straight with wins against the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles and the Arizona Cardinals. Quarterback Kirk Cousins and wide receiver Adam Thielen have led the way for the Vikings offense while Danielle Hunter has led the defense with seven sacks.

The Jets have weapons on both sides of the ball as well. Quarterback Sam Darnold has improved mightily the past two weeks with receivers Robby Anderson and Jermaine Kearse providing a spark for the offense. Linebacker Darron Lee and cornerback Morris Claiborne have been standouts on defense and will need to continue performing at a high level this week if the Jets expect to move to 4-3.

The Jets are dealing with a number of injuries, especially in the secondary and at wide receiver, but in the NFL it is always about that “next man up” mentality. When your number is called, you need to be ready to perform and that is what the Jets are going to need out of different players this week. If they are unable to step up, the Vikings will make it a long day for Gang Green. Here are the top five players to watch out for in the Week 7 contest at MetLife Stadium.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY – OCTOBER 07: Sam Darnold #14 of the New York Jets looks on against the Denver Broncos during the first half in the game at MetLife Stadium on October 07, 2018 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY – OCTOBER 07: Sam Darnold #14 of the New York Jets looks on against the Denver Broncos during the first half in the game at MetLife Stadium on October 07, 2018 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Quarterback Sam Darnold

After a rough first month to the season, Darnold has started to find his rhythm under center for the Jets. In Weeks 1-4, Darnold threw four touchdowns and five interceptions but in Weeks 5-6 he has thrown five touchdowns and just two interceptions. Against the Colts in Week 6, Darnold had arguably his best performance of the season going, 24-of-30 passing for 280 yards and two touchdowns with a rating of 113.9.

In Week 7, Darnold goes up against a Minnesota Vikings defense led by head coach Mike Zimmer who is considered as one of the best defensive minds in the league. The Vikings recorded four sacks against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 7 as Danielle Hunter led the way with two sacks. Hunter is second in the NFL with seven sacks and must be accounted for at all times on Sunday. Hunter is dealing with a groin injury that has kept him out of practice this week and if he is unable to go on Sunday, the Jets will catch a huge break.

Two huge areas that Darnold and the rest of the offense need to improve on this week is third down conversions and red zone offense. The Jets currently rank 23rd on third down conversions at 37.5 percent and are last in the NFL in red zone touchdown rate at 30 percent.

If the Jets are not able to extend drives or score touchdowns instead of field goals, the Vikings defense will be able to shut down the Jets offense. The Vikings have the league’s second-ranked red zone defense at 37.5 percent (9-of-24) and the league’s best third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert on just 16 out of 64 third downs on the season.

However, Darnold is confident in his supporting cast of play makers and believes they can make a play against any defense. Darnold’s top wide receivers now that Quincy Enunwa is out for a 3-4 weeks with a high ankle sprain are Anderson and Kearse; along with a solid group of tight ends. Here is what Darnold had to say according to the Jets Media Relations Department:

“We’ve got guys who can make plays, so it’s just a matter of the defense dictates what I’m going to do with the ball because I know no matter what the defense is doing, we’ve got guys in certain spots that can make plays.”

No matter who is on the field at wide receiver or tight end this week, they must step up and make plays for the rookie quarterback. Coach Zimmer will dial-up different blitz packages and coverages so Darnold needs to stay patient and find the open throwing lanes when they are there.

Next: Wide Receiver Jermaine Kearse

Wide Receiver Jermaine Kearse

On Sunday, Kearse has a good chance of being Darnold’s go-to guy coming off a nine-catch for 94 yards outing against the Colts. Kearse had been quiet for the first month of the season but broke out with his game against the Colts. The Darnold to Kearse connection must be on point if the Jets expect to win.

Kearse is no stranger to being the go-to guy for the Jets because just last season he led the team in receptions with 65. Kearse finished second on the team in yards (810) and touchdowns (five) behind Anderson. Kearse has been a reliable possession receiver during his time with Gang Green and will need to be because he will be going up against a Vikings secondary that features Pro Bowl defensive backs Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith.

While Kearse has been quiet up until his game against the Colts last week, he has remained prepared to contribute. Winning a Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks taught Kearse to never settle and continue to get better. Kearse recently talked about preparation and more with the Jets Media Relations Department. Here is what Kearse had to say:

I just continue doing what I’ve always been doing and that’s just make the most of each opportunity,” said the laid-back Kearse. “Some games there are more than others so I just try to stay focused and prepare for that situation and make sure that I’m ready so that when my number’s called, I can make plays.”

Kearse will be called upon to make a number of plays on Sunday against the Vikings. If he is able to make some clutch plays for the Jets, that will go a long way in a victory against the Vikings. Expect Kearse to make his presence felt throughout this game.

Next: Linebacker Darron Lee

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – OCTOBER 14: Running back Marlon Mack #25 of the Indianapolis Colts is tackled by inside linebacker Darron Lee #58 of the New York Jets during the first quarter at MetLife Stadium on October 14, 2018 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – OCTOBER 14: Running back Marlon Mack #25 of the Indianapolis Colts is tackled by inside linebacker Darron Lee #58 of the New York Jets during the first quarter at MetLife Stadium on October 14, 2018 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Linebacker Darron Lee

Linebacker Darron Lee’s on-field play during the first part of this season has become a pleasant surprise for the Jets. After a mediocre first two seasons, Lee has stepped up his game.  Lee has made his presence felt defending the run and pass. With the Vikings possessing an elite group of playmakers at all levels on the offense, Lee will need to be a major player in shutting down those weapons.

This season, Lee has 37 combined tackles with two tackles for a loss and one quarterback hit. But what has impressed the Jets coaching staff the most about Lee this season is his coverage skills. Lee is tied for the league lead with three interceptions and has graded out very well with Pro Football Focus. According to Pro Football Focus, Lee is ranked third for linebackers in coverage grade (82.3), fifth in passer rating allowed (75.2), and has his three interceptions are the most for a linebacker.

Recently, Lee spoke with Darryl Slater of NJ.com on how he improved his coverage skills and paid more attention to the little details in the offseason. Here is what Lee had to say according to Slater:

“Just definitely tightened up my technique and playing with better eyes,” he said. “And pretty much knowing what I’m about to get, based off the position of the receivers and tight end.”

The little details have made Lee a better player in 2018 and he will need to continue his great play against Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins. Cousins ranks fifth in the NFL with 1,921 passing yards while throwing 12 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Interceptions will be hard to force against Cousins but Lee has done a great job when quarterbacks have thrown his way, four passes defended. It will be a chess match between Cousins and Lee all game long.

Next: Cornerback Morris Claiborne

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – OCTOBER 14: Cornerback Morris Claiborne #21 of the New York Jets celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts in the first quarter at MetLife Stadium on October 14, 2018 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – OCTOBER 14: Cornerback Morris Claiborne #21 of the New York Jets celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts in the first quarter at MetLife Stadium on October 14, 2018 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Cornerback Morris Claiborne

Perhaps the most exciting one-on-one match-up in this game will be cornerback Morris Claiborne against the NFL’s receiving yards leader Adam Thielen. Claiborne is tied for the league lead with nine passes defended; Thielen leads the league in receiving yards with 712. Whoever performs the best out of these two will also be major players in their team getting a win.

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While prized free agent cornerback Trumaine Johnson and cornerback Buster Skrine has missed the past couple weeks with injuries, Claiborne has stepped up his game.

Claiborne has led a banged up Jets secondary with those nine passes defended and has helped out defending the run with five run stuffs (most among cornerbacks). Against the Colts last week, Claiborne recorded a pick-six just 12 seconds into the game that helped the Jets get off on the right foot in the win.

The Jets pass defense has given up a lot of yards but have been excellent in forcing turnovers, 10 interceptions (tied for second most in the NFL). The Jets have also allowed the sixth-lowest quarterback rating through the first six weeks.

Watch out for Jamal Adams this week too as Cousins has lost a league high five fumbles. Adams has lined up all over the place in the Jets defense this season. Thielen and Stefon Diggs will present Claiborne will a big challenge but there is a confidence about the Jets secondary right now that can’t be ignored. Claiborne recently spoke with Darryl Slater of NJ.com about this new level of confidence ahead of the matchup with the Vikings star receivers. Here is what Claiborne had to say:

“I don’t feel like it’s a prove-it, because I feel like we know who we are,” he told NJ Advance Media on Thursday. “We have a right to be confident in what we’re doing right now. Winning in this league is not easy. We’re not going to apologize for winning. I feel like this week, proving it to anybody, mostly it’s to ourselves, that we can do what we know we can do. And it’s just that simple.”

That opportunistic style of play by the Jets defense must continue against the Vikings this week. The Vikings will be able to hit on a couple big plays but the Jets will win some battles in the secondary too. That confidence that Claiborne has will help him out in a big way against Thielen.

Next: Kicker Jason Myers

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – SEPTEMBER 16: Kicker Jason Myers #2 and tight end Eric Tomlinson #83 of the New York Jets show camaraderie against the Miami Dolphins during the second half at MetLife Stadium on September 16, 2018 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Miami Dolphins won 20-12. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – SEPTEMBER 16: Kicker Jason Myers #2 and tight end Eric Tomlinson #83 of the New York Jets show camaraderie against the Miami Dolphins during the second half at MetLife Stadium on September 16, 2018 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Miami Dolphins won 20-12. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Kicker Jason Myers

Surprisingly, special teams have been an area of strength this season for Gang Green. Kicker Jason Myers deserved a game ball last week as he went 7-for-7 in field goals which were the deciding factor in the 42-34 win against the Colts. With his unbelievable performance against the Colts, he earned AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors. Overall this season, Myers has been close to perfect making 16-of-17 field goal attempts.

With the Jets struggling to score touchdowns in the red zone, Myers might be called on again to end drives with three points and keep the Jets in the game against the Vikings. Obviously, seven points are better than three, but the Jets know they are pretty much guaranteed three points every time with Myers. Seeing Myers less in the red zone will be a good thing on Sunday because that means the Jets are scoring touchdowns and Myers will be lining up for extra points.

Andre Roberts has provided a spark returning kickoffs and punt returns as well. According to Pro Football Focus, Roberts is graded as the best returner in the NFL with a grade of 87.5. Roberts has been able to make it a short field for the Jets on offense so they are able to get into field goal range for Myers or allow Darnold to make some great throws.

Must Read. Marcus Maye expected to miss three weeks due to injury

Myers and Roberts must continue to do their jobs at a high level so the Jets have short fields to work with and finish drives with at least three points. Special teams could once again play a huge part in the outcome of this game.

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