With the quarterback battle subdued, Vikings-Titans could turn into a special teams duel.
By BRIAN HALLFS North
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Fresh off back-to-back wins, the Minnesota Vikings return home to the Metrodome to face the Tennessee Titans this week, dealing with heightened expectations.
Minnesota (3-1) has already matched last season's win total with wins against the San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions. The Vikings feel they are prepared to handle the success this season.
"I think we have some veteran guys who know how quickly things can change in our league," coach Leslie Frazier said. "And it doesn't mean that you're going to play 10 years or 11 years or 12 years; you have to seize the moment and they've done a good job of explaining to our young players we have to seize this opportunity. They see the hour glass, this isn't an hour glass, drooling away for some of them and they're doing a good job of bringing the young guys along with them. That helps a lot. I think that will be a part of our, hopefully, continue to mature as a team."
Here are five things to watch as Minnesota tries to continue its momentum against the Titans this week:
1. The two highest-paid running backs in the NFL.
Vikings' running back Adrian Peterson has avoided any comparisons with Tennessee back Chris Johnson. But the two were linked last year in signing to the two richest deals for a running back in the league. How they've done since signing those deals has been the contrast.
Johnson held out during training camp last season and ended up with his worst season in the NFL last year. He's off to an even slower start this season with 186 rushing yards through four games, 144 of which came last week. Peterson was still effective last year, but was slowed by ankle and knee injuries. And then he battled back intensely from knee surgery.
Peterson has come back strong in his rehab and is coming off first 100-yard performance of the season. The Titans have the 27t ranked run defense in the league, allowing 136.5 yards-per-game. Johnson, off his big performance against the top-ranked Houston run defense, faces Minnesota's run defense that is tied for seventh in the league, allowing 85.3 yards-per-game.
2. Two special teams players of the month
Kick returners Percy Harvin and Darius Reynaud were recently honored as the special teams players of the month in their respected conferences. Both won the award after 105 yard kickoff returns for touchdowns against the Detroit. They own the only two kick returns for touchdowns this season.
Harvin's usage on returns has been consistent and he leads the league with a 38.3-yard average on nine returns. He took advantage of the Lions' coverage units by returning the opening kick last week for a score, setting the tone for the game.
Reynaud, the former Viking, returns to the Metrodome while establishing himself as a dangerous returner after Tennessee lost returner Marc Mariani to an injury in the preseason. Reynaud has averaged 27.2 yards-per-return on a league-high 15 chances.
3. Can Minnesota's passing offense get going again?
Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder had led an efficient passing offense the first four games of the season, playing a large role in Minnesota's surprising start. But last week the passing game took a step back as Detroit focused on taking Harvin out of the offense. Ponder finished with just 111 yards on 16 of 26 passing. The Vikings had just 100 net yards passing after two sacks of Ponder. Tight end Kyle Rudolph only had two catches, both coming on one drive in the third quarter. Harvin was held to three catches.
Tennessee comes in with one of the league's worst-statistical defenses. The Titans are 31st in yards allowed and have given up a league-high 151 points. The pass defense ranks 27th, allowing 285 yards-per-game.
Minnesota has the potential to get Peterson his biggest game of the season, but also can take advantage of Tennessee's defense to develop more rhythm in the passing game with Harvin, Rudolph and get Jerome Simpson involved deep.
4. No matchup between second-year quarterbacks.
Ponder has established himself as the unquestioned starter for Minnesota at quarterback, but Jake Locker — selected four spots ahead of Ponder in last year's first round of the draft — had started his first NFL games this season. But Locker won't play Sunday after dislocating his left, non-throwing shoulder for the second time this season. An interesting matchup between Ponder and Locker, who will likely be linked for their career based on their draft status, will have to wait.
Veteran Matt Hasselbeck will start for Locker. The 14-year veteran is steady and will likely try to limit mistakes. He led the Titans to a 7-9 record last year and passed for 3,571 yards. He had 18 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Hasselbeck is a solid backup, but might not offer the big-play ability, or mobility, of Locker. The Tennessee offense will likely also be missing big-play receiver Kenny Britt, who has been dealing with an ankle injury. He's listed as questionable, but he didn't practice all week.
5. A return of an old friend.
If Johnson is going to build on his big rushing game last week, a lot of the responsibility for Tennessee will fall on the offensive line against Minnesota's front seven on defense. In particular, Titans guard Steve Hutchinson will have to deal with Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Letroy Guion along the defensive line.
Hutchinson was let go during the offseason after six years in Minnesota, and decided to continue his 12-year career rather than retire. Tennessee's struggled to block for Johnson, who is averaging a career-low 3.2 yards-per-carry. The going could be tough again for the Titans offensive line, blocking a Minnesota defense that has tried to play with a physical edge.