EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings enter Sunday’s home game with a sense of urgency following their 0-2 start.
Sunday’s opponent, the Cleveland Browns, added to the urgency early this week by making moves at quarterback and running back that sent Minnesota searching for film in preparation. Not only have the Vikings not faced Cleveland since 2009 and the Browns being run by a new regime since the last game, but personnel changes make Cleveland an unknown opponent.
“You can only speculate how different it will be with Brian Hoyer at quarterback, how different it will be with (Willis) McGahee or whoever else they play at running back, who’s at fullback, bringing their No. 1 receiver back off a suspension,” Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier said. “So, we’ll have to kind of see as the game goes on who exactly the Browns are with some of the new faces in their offense.”
Here are five things to watch in Sunday’s game:
1. Cleveland’s backup’s backup
The Browns are starting their previous No. 3 quarterback on Sunday and, perhaps, their best running threat wasn’t even on the roster before Thursday. The first change for the Browns came Wednesday morning when coach Rob Chudzinksi announced quarterback Brandon Weeden would miss Sunday’s game with a sprained right thumb and Hoyer, No. 3 on the depth chart and a gameday inactive the first two weeks, was going to start over backup Jason Campbell.
Wednesday afternoon, Cleveland traded running back Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts. Richardson was the best offensive playmaker for the Browns and the only back to register a carry through the first two weeks. Cleveland had only two other running backs on the roster before signing the veteran McGahee on Thursday. The other backs on the roster are fullback Chris Ogbannaya — three catches this season — and returner Bobby Rainey.
The moves left Minnesota scrambling to diagnose what it might see Sunday. The Vikings often say they’re most concerned about what they are doing. Sunday it will certainly be the case. Minnesota has tried to research Hoyer, McGahee, Ogbannaya and Rainey, but is more focused on preparation for Cleveland’s schemes than personnel.
2. Ponder, Ponder, Ponder
The weekly questions about quarterback Christian Ponder continue this week. Unfortunately for Ponder, his inconsistency throughout his career brings the weekly question of, “Which Ponder will show up Sunday?’
Ponder and the Vikings are hoping they have something to build from after last week. Ponder’s interception that was returned for a touchdown was costly in a one-point loss. It also turned the tide for Ponder and the offense. Ponder was 12-of-18 passing after the interception and the offense finally found rhythm with the offensive line and running game improving along with Ponder.
Cleveland brings the sixth-ranked defense in the NFL to the Metrodome on Sunday and are 12t in the league against the pass, allowing 226 yards per game. The Browns top defensive player, cornerback Joe Haden, is one of the true shutdown cornerbacks in the league. Cleveland has six sacks, led by defensive end Desmond Bryant’s two sacks and feature two pass-rushing outside linebackers in Jabaal Sheard and Paul Kruger.
3. Peterson’s challenge
Vikings running back Adrian Peterson is waiting for his first big game of the season, but the offensive line and Peterson will have their hands full against Cleveland’s fourth-ranked run defense. Led by big nose tackle Phil Taylor, the Browns have allowed a league-low 2.0 yards per carry this season. Cleveland’s defensive line features three 300-plus pound run stoppers in Taylor (335 pounds), Bryant (310) and Ahtyba Rubin (310). Inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson is a sure tackler.
But the Browns obviously haven’t faced a running back like Peterson this season, or a team as committed to the run as Minnesota. Peterson had his first 100 yard game of the season last week and is third in the league in rushing through three weeks, but feels he can be better and knows he’s missed chances at times this season. The offensive line opened more holes for Peterson last week and could be finding its way after a tough opening week. Peterson said the team is looking forward to the challenge of facing Cleveland’s run defense.
4. The one-on-one
Two perennial Pro Bowl players and multi-time All-Pros face each other this week with Vikings defensive end Jared Allen going up against Cleveland left tackle Joe Thomas. In Allen’s case, he will also face more one-on-one situations than he typically does each week. The Browns are willing to put Thomas alone on an island without much help, and for good reason. Thomas has been, perhaps, the best left tackle in the league since being the No. 3 overall draft pick in 2007.
Allen, though, is one of the top pass rushers in the league and is often faced with double-teams and chip blocks. Allen has one sack this season and will be eager to add to his total Sunday. Cleveland is one of four teams Allen hasn’t registered against in his career. Thomas helped stop Allen in the one meeting between the two in 2009.
5. A little more flash
Rookie Cordarrelle Patterson lived up to his “Flash” nickname last week when he returned the opening kickoff 105 yards for a touchdown. Patterson might not have as many chances this week as the team returns to the dome, where the environment and footing too often allows opposing kickers to hit kickoffs deep for touchbacks. Browns kicker Billy Cundiff has allowed only one kickoff return through two weeks.
But Patterson’s limited chances on returns might be in lieu of more action on offense. Patterson has only played 11 offensive snaps the first two games and Frazier said his usage would be “rectified” this week. Minnesota’s improved receiving corps is a positive for the Vikings, but Patterson’s game-breaking talent is obvious and the Vikings need to get him on the field more and get the ball in his hands in some way. Look for more opportunities for Patterson Sunday, even with Greg Jennings and Jerome Simpson starting and Jarius Wright also deserving of chances.