Five things: Vikings begin season with clean slate

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier will gather his team this week in Detroit and reiterate the message heading into the 2013 season.

Minnesota was perhaps the biggest surprise among playoff teams last season thanks to its four-game season-ending run. Frazier isn’t holding on to the past. When the Vikings kick off against the Lions on Sunday, the 2012 season is history.

“I think everyone standing here knows; every year stands on its own,” Frazier said Friday of his message to the team. “It’s just 2013, this team, this league will be far different than 2012. So we got to come out and earn everything that we get. I’m sure Detroit is not talking about the fact that we were a playoff team a year ago. So, we got to put our nose to the grindstone and get it done. There’s nothing we can hold on to from a season ago.”

Here are five things to watch Sunday as Minnesota begins its 2013 regular season:

1. Is Christian Ponder ready to take the next step?

No position or player enters 2013 with as much scrutiny as the third-year quarterback. Ponder has started 26 NFL games and is still an unknown. His inconsistency is the issue. At times he’s looked like the franchise starter the team believed it was drafting with the 12th overall pick in 2011. Other times, Ponder looks unsure of himself and makes mental mistakes.

Ponder’s future is entirely on his shoulders , or at least his right shoulder. The Vikings added receivers Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson in the offseason. They kept the offensive line intact by making re-signing right tackle Phil Loadholt a priority. Tight end Kyle Rudolph returns off an MVP performance in the Pro Bowl. Receiver Jerome Simpson and tight end John Carlson are healthy and more is expected from them in their second year with the team. Emerging receiver Jarius Wright is another option and Ponder has the benefit of working with MVP running back Adrian Peterson in the backfield.

Minnesota focused on the passing game throughout the preseason but little is still known about Ponder’s progress and his cohesiveness with his new receivers, particularly Jennings, who steps in as the team’s top receiver after Percy Harvin was traded. The pieces are in place. Ponder is left to sink or swim as the Vikings’ starter.

2. Cook and Calvin

Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson is a nightmare matchup for any team and had 12 catches for 207 yards and a touchdown in his last meeting with Minnesota. Johnson — along with Chicago’s Brandon Marshall and Green Bay’s talented receiving corps — has forced the Vikings to try and upgrade the secondary with big cornerbacks and Chris Cook and Xavier Rhodes fit what Minnesota is looking for. Now Cook, Rhodes and Josh Robinson need to prove they can be a solid group. They’re the biggest question on the defensive side of the ball.

The proving ground for Cook is the ability to stay healthy and on the field. Cook’s matchups with Johnson have shown he has the talent to be a top cornerback. When Johnson exploited the Vikings in the second meeting last year, Cook was out with a broken arm. In the first meeting, Cook helped slow Johnson to five catches for 54 yards. Minnesota also hit Johnson whenever possible.

In 11 games against the Vikings, Johnson has averaged 5.3 catches and 76 yards per game, modest numbers for the receiver who set the NFL single-season record for receiving yards last season. Cook will have to do similar work Sunday against Johnson and allow Rhodes and Robinson to get their experience without worrying about the league’s best receiver.

3. The MVP’s first carries

Peterson didn’t carry the ball in the preseason for the second straight year and is eager for Sunday’s first game. Peterson has averaged 105.9 yards per game in his career against Detroit and he’s known for quick starts, like 2009 when he set a team opening day record against the Cleveland Browns with 180 yards rushing. With 151 yards rushing Sunday, Peterson would also join Jim Brown and Eric Dickerson as the only running backs with 9,000 yards in their first 90 NFL games.

Detroit is led defensively by its defensive line and tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. The Lions also added first-round pick Ziggy Ansah, Jason Jones and Israel Idonije to the mix. Minnesota’s offensive line will have its hands full opening holes for Peterson against the defensive line, but it never posed a problem for Peterson in the past against Detroit. Peterson ran for 102 yards and 171 yards in two games against the Lions last year.

4. Not afraid of ghosts

The biggest change for Detroit is the addition of running back Reggie Bush, a perfect fit for the pass-heavy offense. Bush, who was heavily involved in the preseason for the Lions, rushed for 2,072 yards over the past two years after finally being given a chance to be a true running back in Miami. Bush has also averaged 53.14 catches per season in his career.

The Vikings defense has to be concerned with Johnson going deep and taking the top off of the defense while also keeping Bush contained with runs and short passes, a new dimension for the Lions’ offense. Minnesota defensive coordinator Alan Williams said the key to defending Bush is reading the keys and staying focused. Williams didn’t believe the offensive scheme would change much and the Vikings would be hurt “if we hunt up too much snakes or too many snakes or too many ghosts.”

5. From old to young

The Vikings will be without five-time All-Pro defensive tackle Kevin Williams on Sunday because of his knee injury. Williams has been the foundation of Minnesota’s defense for his 10 years and he’s the longest tenured player on the Vikings. Filling Williams’ big shoes will partly be up to Sharrif Floyd, the youngest player on the team. Floyd, selected with the 23rd pick in this year’s draft, has missed a lot of time with his own knee injury, but will be asked to contribute immediately.

Minnesota will likely use a rotation with Floyd, possibly Letroy Guion and defensive end Everson Griffen on passing downs to account for the loss of Williams. Frazier said Friday the team hadn’t determined who would start Sunday. Floyd is considered the heir apparent to Williams, who is in the final year of his contract. The succession will begin Sunday.  Floyd is big, strong and quick and the coaches were pleased with how quickly he was adapting to the NFL and the Vikings’ defense prior to his injury. He practiced this week and the coaches have to hope he’s ready for his first regular-season game.

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