NFL: Vikings quietly confident entering season
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was asked a week ago to explain his thought process on distributing playing time for his starters in the fifth and final preseason game at Tennessee on Sept. 3.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. - Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was asked a week ago to explain his thought process on distributing playing time for his starters in the fifth and final preseason game at Tennessee on Sept. 3.
“Those who need to play,” he said, “will play.”
Apparently, the Vikings were more than ready for the regular season a week ago. Only two projected starters - strong safety Robert Blanton and middle linebacker Gerald Hodges - played in the 24-17 loss, the first defeat in nine preseason games over two years for Zimmer.
And Hodges, an outside linebacker who was moved into the middle just last month, isn’t a lock to line up with the starters on Sept. 14 in San Francisco.
“We’re excited that it’s September,” said starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, whose 82.9 completion percentage crushed the previous team preseason record of 71.7 set by Rich Gannon in 1992. “We like our chances this year, but we haven’t done anything yet. We were 7-9 a year ago. We have to prove ourselves this year.”
Offensively, the starters lacked only one thing this preseason: A consistent running game. The Vikings ranked 28th in average yards per carry (3.0) this preseason, but weren’t overly concerned internally because, well, there’s a presumed savior on the way.
Running back Adrian Peterson, who hasn’t played since the season opener a year ago, will be unleashed upon the rest of the league starting on “Monday Night Football” in San Francisco. After a year spent dealing with the law and the league over child abuse charges, Peterson, now 30, looks well-rested and in typical prime condition.
“He hasn’t played in a year,” Bridgewater said, “and he isn’t happy about it.”
Meanwhile, under the radar is tight end Kyle Rudolph, finally healthy after missing 15 games over the past two seasons. He’ll gobble up first downs as a mismatch who occupies the areas between Peterson’s running and the deep-ball possibilities to Charles Johnson and first-year Viking Mike Wallace. In the fourth preseason game, Bridgewater checked out of one play and into a deep ball to Wallace, who gained separation in man coverage and pulled in a perfectly-thrown ball for a 39-yard gain.
The biggest question mark offensively is the line, where every starter has something to prove. Left tackle Matt Kalil was horrendous a year ago. Left guard Brandon Fusco missed 12 games because of a torn pectoral and has switched positions from right guard. Center John Sullivan presumably will return to practice this week after missing three weeks of practice and two preseason games that he would have played in. Right guard Mike Harris is a career tackle who has played one regular season game at guard. And right tackle T.J. Clemmings is a rookie who was forced to start immediately when veteran Phil Loadholt went down with a season-ending Achilles’ tendon tear.
Defensively, the Vikings have the talent to make another jump from the dramatic one they made a year ago under Zimmer, the noted defensive strategist who believes in an aggressive, attacking style of play.
“We don’t sit back,” linebacker Chad Greenway said. “We try to make the offense react to us a lot of times.”
The defensive line struggled against the run as the team ranked 25th a year ago. But Year 2 in Zimmer’s scheme will help a solid unit balance between stopping the run and rushing the passer. Right end Everson Griffen is coming off a 12-sack season in his first year as a starter, while defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd is poised for a breakout year if he can stay healthy.
At linebacker, Anthony Barr has All-Pro potential because of a body and skillset that has no limitations. He’s also healthy again after knee injuries ended his rookie season after 12 games.
Greenway, the 32-year-old in his 10th season, is expected to play only in the base defense for the first time. That means he’ll likely play half of the snaps or less as rookie second-round draft pick Eric Kendricks assumes the second nickel linebacker job alongside Barr. Kendricks is small, but fast, instinctive and a polished tackler.
Look for Kendricks to make a run at being a three-down linebacker by season’s end. Right now, however, it appears the team is prepared to start Hodges in the middle despite his inexperience inside.
In the secondary, free safety Harrison Smith and right cornerback Xavier Rhodes are two rising players with Pro Bowl-to-All-Pro potential. The other spots are shakier, particularly at strong safety, where Blanton appears to have won the job by default for the second straight year after the more preferred candidate Antone Exum battled injuries this summer.
Meanwhile, the Nos. 2-4 corner jobs have some concerns. Starting left corner Terence Newman has been steady, except for getting badly burned by Raiders rookie Amari Cooper, but he’s also 37 years old. The nickel job could be shared by veteran Captain Munnerlyn, a natural slot corner who lost his starting job from a year ago, and rookie first-round draft pick Trae Waynes, who has promise but has been slower to develop. When Waynes is used in the nickel sub package, Newman has to switch into the slot, where he’s capable but less comfortable.
On special teams, the Vikings have much to be happy about and some big things to worry about.
First, their return games are extraordinary. Kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson, who broke off a 106-yard touchdown this preseason, appears to be back to his rookie All-Pro form, while the punt return job is in capable hands with annual roster survivor Marcus Sherels and exciting rookie Stefon Diggs.
But there’s another former All-Pro special teamer who is causing some angst, at least among fans. Kicker Blair Walsh, who made a career-low 74.3 percent of his field-goal attempts a year ago, was awful while making just 5 of 11 attempts and an extra point this preseason.
“Blair is our kicker,” Zimmer stated emphatically when asked if the team was concerned enough about their kicker to make a drastic move with the guy they just rewarded with a contract that makes him the fourth-highest paid kicker in the league.
Punter Jeff Locke continues to be inconsistent after two inconsistent seasons. And the long-snapper is first-year Viking Kevin McDermott, who beat out 11-year veteran Cullen Loeffler.
The Vikings also announced they signed 10 players to their practice squad on Sunday: defensive end B.J. DuBose, offensive lineman Isame Faciane, wide receiver Isaac Fruechte, safety Anthony Harris, linebacker Brian Peters, fullback Blake Renaud, linebacker Brandon Watts, running back Dominique Williams and offensive lineman David Yankey.