Vikings' offense looks to torment young Colts
SEP 15, 2012 12:02a ET
The Jacksonville Jaguars had just taken a 23-20 lead with a 39-yard touchdown pass with 20 seconds left. But Minnesota proved this truly is a new season, coming back in the final seconds to tie the game and win in overtime. Now, after losing the first four games last season, Minnesota is in position to open a season with two straight wins when it goes on the road for the Indianapolis Colts' home opener on Sunday.
Indianapolis is another young team, in a similar position as the Vikings were last year -- a first year coach, new coordinators and a rookie quarterback.
Here are five things to watch as the Vikings go on the road to face the Colts.
1. Can Minnesota rattle Andrew Luck into more rookie mistakes?
The Vikings defense faces another young quarterback in Indianapolis rookie starter Andrew Luck a week after facing Jacksonville's second-year signal caller Blaine Gabbert. Gabbert wasn't rattled much, but Luck is coming off a rough first regular-season game when he had four turnovers against the Chicago Bears. Minnesota has talked about trying to pressure Luck into more of those types of mistakes.
The Vikings' defensive line went without a sack last week, but did put pressure on Gabbert and disrupted his rhythm in the second half. Defensive ends Jared Allen and Brian Robison, going against a Colts' offensive line that is in some transition with injuries and new starters, could struggle against the strength on Minnesota's defense. Luck ended up throwing 45 times against Chicago and the Vikings would like to force a similar unbalance for Indianapolis on Sunday, expecting the rookie to make a few mistakes. Luck entered the league as polished as any rookie quarterback in years, but he showed he still has a few things to learn in the NFL.
2. How will the offensive line handle a Freeney-less 3-4 defense?
The Vikings reworked their offensive line this offseason, adding Matt Kalil and Brandon Fusco as starters and moving Charlie Johnson to left guard. The new-look line fared well against the Jaguars, who were a top-10 defense last season, but were among the bottom teams in total sacks. The Colts were tied for the third-fewest sacks last season and have made the move to a 3-4 defense with new coach Chuck Pagano coming from Baltimore and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky transitioning from San Diego.
Minnesota's line struggled during the preseason with the Chargers' 3-4 defense and communication will be important against the different look and on the road in a domed stadium. Indianapolis is also missing its top pass rusher in Dwight Freeney, who's been listed as out with a high ankle sprain. Without Freeney's pressure and with the Vikings' line continuing to improve, Ponder could have the time to find mismatches with the Colts' suspect secondary.
3. Can Minnesota's passing game get going earlier?
The Vikings slow start offensively last week was partially attributed to not getting anything started through the air. Quarterback Christian Ponder said that changed after the first few series when he told himself he needed to play with more of a sense of urgency. The result, Ponder completed 17 of his final 20 passes. He finished 20 of 27 for 270 yards and had three pass plays of 20 yards or longer in the second half. Much of that could be attributed to getting the ball in the hands of playmaking receiver Percy Harvin with short, quick passes that he took for longer gains.
The key for Ponder and the offense is starting with that same urgency. Ponder said it's up to him to come out firing and “play almost mad.” He said he wants to play with a relentlessness that will allow him to be aggressive early and get his receivers involved. Teams will always load up to stop the running game with Adrian Peterson first, but if Ponder can prove he's evolved as a passer and loosen the defense the Vikings will have their desired balance. The Colts struggled to slow Chicago and quarterback Jay Cutler in the season's first week after Cutler, too, got off to a slow start.
4. How does Adrian Peterson look in his second game back from injury?
Peterson amazed most observers last week by not only playing his first game since Dec. 30 knee surgery, but taking 17 carries for 84 yards and two touchdowns. Peterson started and played 54 percent of the offensive snaps compared to 34 percent for backup Toby Gerhart. Peterson said he felt good after the game, but did experience some tightness in the knee during the week.
Minnesota will stay cautious with its franchise back and a split of carries between Peterson and Gerhart is still expected. But after last week's strong performance and improving health-wise during the week with treatment, how much can the coaches hold back Peterson. Gerhart has proven to be a steady backup and Peterson won't carry the full load. But will the Vikings get back to the old standard of Peterson being the workhorse back with Gerhart getting sparse carries, or will they, as the coaches have talked about, continue to sprinkle in Gerhart. Much of the split Sunday will likely come down to how Peterson's knee responds in-game. Peterson could garner more carries this week, but last week's 74 percent split of the carries between Peterson and Gerhart is still likely. Minnesota could end up with more offensive plays than the 59 it had last week, giving Peterson more of a chance to show how far he's come in his return.
5. Will the Vikings be leading the NFC North after two weeks?
It's only two weeks, but Minnesota could actually be leading the division after last year's 3-13 slide depending on the result of Detroit's game at San Francisco. Taking advantage of what appeared to be an easier early-season schedule is important for the Vikings, who would be only one win shy of last year's entire total after just two weeks if they could beat Indianapolis Sunday.
The Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears are tied at 1-1 after Green Bay's win on Thursday night. The Lions narrowly escaped a with a Week 1 win against the St. Louis Rams and now have to travel to face the 49ers, who beat the Packers in Week 1. Minnesota's slate might have been favorably opening with Jacksonville and Indianapolis, two teams that won a total of seven games last year. But in trying to prove they've moved on from last season and show they have improved being 2-0 would be big for the Vikings in the standings, and mentally.
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