In many ways, the action really begins for the Minnesota Vikings this week in Buffalo for the season’s second preseason game.
Last week at home, Minnesota held out several defensive starters and the starting offense played only two plays. This week, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said the starters should play into the second quarter as he looks to get a better idea of the players that will truly shape the team’s fortunes this season. While each preseason game is important for players battling for roster spots, this week and next will be the trial run for the players that will make the biggest impact this season.
“We have got to continue to give guys opportunities to play, but this next week we are going to ramp up the reps for our No. 1s and give them more opportunities, because you have got to be able to now turn our attention to getting those guys ready for game time situations,” Frazier said this week.
Here are five things to watch as Minnesota faces the Buffalo Bills on Friday night:
1.Finally a look at the first-team offense, or at least part of it
Frazier didn’t intend for his starting offense to only play two plays last week, but after quarterback Christian Ponder threw an interception on the second play, and his second pass, Frazier stuck with his original plan for only one series. Ponder hit Jerome Simpson with a completion on the first play and then the second play was a pass that bounced off Simpson’s hands right to a defender and the group gave way to Matt Cassel and the backups. Knowing the importance of Ponder getting together with the receivers and the heavy emphasis on the passing game in the preseason, Ponder and company will play into the second quarter Friday.
Ponder needs game time to work with new No. 1 receiver Greg Jennings. Ponder could still use more time with Simpson and Jarius Wright. Frazier said there isn’t a focus to get Ponder working with rookie Cordarrelle Patterson, but the two could get some reps this week depending on game situations and fatigue. There is also tight end John Carlson, who has looked strong in training camp. Of importance too is more time for the starting offensive line to work together and with Ponder, especially after center John Sullivan was out for the offseason program.
Frazier said the passing game will be a focus in the preseason, but the offense might not be totally intact. Running back Adrian Peterson is still expected to play very little, if at all, Friday. Buffalo’s defense gave up the seventh-most points and 11th-most yards in the league last season and has undergone significant changes.
2.Healthy cornerbacks with something to prove
With Minnesota finally getting some players back in training camp, Friday begins the test for the largely unproven secondary, especially at cornerback. Chris Cook and Josh Robinson will start and rookie Xavier Rhodes will be the third cornerback. Cook is steady. The questions surrounding him is staying healthy and staying on the field. He’ll be given more responsibility and will need to lead the young cornerbacks on the field this season.
Robinson is currently the starter on the outside in the base defense. He spent all of his time on the outside last season but is still an unknown there. His work in the slot, where he moves inside when Rhodes comes on, is big too. The Vikings were always able to rely on Antoine Winfield covering the slot and also saving the secondary with his sure tackling. Robinson needs to prove he’s ready for the challenge.
Rhodes has returned after missing time with an injured hamstring and he will need to get up to speed quickly for Minnesota’s defense to prosper. A.J. Jefferson is back after missing time with a knee injury. Rhodes and Jefferson missed last week’s game and Friday will be Rhodes’ first in the NFL.
3.A test to see how Matt Kalil is progressing in his second year
Left tackle Matt Kalil is one of the keys to the passing game and the starting offensive line. He acquitted himself well in his rookie season, earning a Pro Bowl berth and generally rewarding the Vikings for the No. 4 overall pick last year. He particularly excelled as a pass blocker, only giving up two sacks in 1,056 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
It could be brief, but Kalil will likely be matched up with pass rusher Mario Williams. Williams will be a speed and strength challenge for Kalil. Williams, who had 10.5 sacks last season, is moving back to defensive end as Buffalo transitions back to a 4-3 defense.
4.More punt return tests
Patterson will again get his chance to show off as a kickoff returner and might have essentially locked up the spot to start the season. Punt return is still an unknown and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said preseason games will have a big impact on who wins the job. Marcus Sherels is still the leading candidate and will get the chance to return Friday, as will Stephen Burton, who is pushing Sherels and also trying his hand as a kickoff returner.
The Vikings have said they’re not going to work Patterson into the mix right now. Behind Sherels and Burton, Jarius Wright is still getting a look along with Bobby Felder. All four might get the chance to return punts Friday. Wright is locked into a roster spot because of his work as a receiver. Being able to contribute on special teams and maybe earn the top punt return job might be the determining factor on whether Sherels, Burton or even Felder make the final roster. Ball security is a premium, and being able to make a few defenders miss could cause separation among the candidates.
5.A bevy of rookie wide receivers
The Vikings were very pleased with Patterson’s first NFL game last week. He opened the game with a 50-yard kickoff return and added a team-high four catches for 54 yards. Minnesota made the bold first-round trade in April’s draft to acquire Patterson, believing in his big-play ability. Patterson was seen as one of the most electric returners and receivers in the draft along with Tavon Austin, who was drafted No. 8 by the St. Louis Rams.
If the Vikings didn’t trade four picks to get Patterson at No. 29, they might have been looking at the second- and third-tier of draft-eligible receivers, two of which went to Buffalo. The Bills drafted Robert Woods out of USC with the 41st overall pick and Texas’ Marquise Goodwin with the 78th pick. The two are expected to grow along with first-round quarterback E.J. Manuel.
Woods is already a starter for Buffalo and caught four of his five targets last week for 32 yards. Much like Patterson, Goodwin electrified his new team with a big return. He went 53 yards for his first return. Then, showing off his sprinter-type speed, Goodwin had a 107-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.