5 things: Vikings’ ailing defense must circle the wagons

The Minnesota Vikings and Washington Redskins have been linked since Leslie Frazier took over as Minnesota’s head coach midway through the 2010 season.

The two teams renew acquaintances on Thursday night at the Metrodome, a matchup of two of the league’s star players in Robert Griffin III and Adrian Peterson, but one lacking the success the league would hope to showcase in its spotlight mid-week game.

Here are five things to watch as Minnesota hosts Washington on the short week:

1. The recent history

The Vikings’ franchise has undoubtedly been altered because of its recent games against the Redskins. Frazier earned his first win as a head coach against Washington, five days after replacing the fired Brad Childress, and is 2-1 in his career against the Redskins as the teams have met each of the past three seasons.

A year later, Peterson suffered a devastating knee injury in a game at Washington. Of course, Peterson came back stronger than ever, winning the league MVP award the next season. Starting quarterback Christian Ponder was injured in that 2011 game and Joe Webb came in to lead the Vikings to a surprise win, costing Minnesota the chance at the second overall pick in the following year’s draft.

St. Louis ended up with that No. 2 pick and ended up trading it to Washington for a bounty of picks and the Redskins’ selected Griffin to be their franchise quarterback. Minnesota missed its chance at Griffin or the bevy of picks that could have been used to replenish the franchise.

2. The last chance

Ponder gets his third straight start for the Vikings, based in part to the short week of preparation. Ponder was improved on Sunday against Dallas, going 25 of 37 for 236 yards passing, a touchdown and an interception. But he hasn’t silenced critics or truly taken advantage of his latest starting opportunity.

The issues in Ponder’s career can be reflected just by looking at his games against Washington. He was injured and didn’t finish his first game against the Redskins. Last season, Ponder was 35 of 52 for 352 yards passing, the second-highest, single-game total of his career. He had two passing touchdowns but also had two interceptions and lost a fumble.

Thursday could be Ponder’s last chance at securing the starting spot. Minnesota will have three extra days before playing again on Nov. 17 at Seattle. If Josh Freeman is acclimated to the offense, the extended break could be the opportunity to have him a return to the starting lineup for the Vikings. Ponder’s future in Minnesota might be riding on Thursday’s game.

3. Who’s left

The Vikings have seven starters either listed as out, doubtful or short-term injured reserve for Thursday’s game. Two-fifths of the starting offensive line could miss the game. Right tackle Phil Loadholt is out with a concussion and will be replaced by J’Marcus Webb. Left guard Charlie Johnson didn’t practice this week and is doubtful, likely replaced by Joe Berger. Tight end Kyle Rudolph is also out, leaving Minnesota to rely on John Carlson. Minnesota might need to sign an offensive tackle to the active roster for depth purposes.

Along the defense, the top two nose tackles could be missing. Fred Evans, the backup, is already out and Letroy Guion is doubtful after missing practice. The secondary is without safeties Harrison Smith and Jamarca Sanford and cornerback Chris Cook, meaning Andrew Sendejo and Mistral Raymond will start at safety and the starting cornerbacks will be Josh Robinson and likely Xavier Rhodes.

4. Vintage RGIII

OK, saying any second-year player is getting back to “vintage” stage might be a stretch, but Griffin is looking more like the dynamic player he was last season before a knee injury and Washington’s offense is coming along with him. Griffin, of course, was compared a lot to Peterson for his recovery from reconstructive knee surgery to make it back for the first game this season. Like Peterson last year, Griffin is looking more explosive in his movement in the middle of the season too.

Peterson’s season turned last year in Week 7, the Vikings’ seventh game. Griffin has looked progressively better each week and Thursday will make his ninth game of the season. In back-to-back games in Week 5 and 6, Griffin ran for 77 yards and 84 yards. Last week he was 23-of-32 passing for 291 yards in a win against San Diego. With Griffin coming around with his complete game, the Redskins’ offense has opened up, particularly the read-option game that Griffin was so successful with last season.

Minnesota’s defense had its issues with the read-option and will need to be sound in its responsibilities. Washington, with Griffin back as a weapon, is sixth in the league in rushing this year with Alfred Morris and Roy Helu having big games, and fullback Darrel Young had three touchdowns last week. The Vikings held Dallas to 36 yards rushing last week and now rank 11th in run defense this season.

5. What might have been

When Minnesota went looking for a receiver in free agency in 2012, Pierre Garcon was one of the players the Vikings were reportedly interested in. Garcon followed the money and signed a five-year, $42.5 million contract with the Redskins to be Griffin’s primary target.

Garcon battled injuries last year and finished with 44 catches for 633 yards and four touchdowns in 10 games. Garcon has been healthy this season and already surpassed his some of his number from last season while developing into one of the league’s better receivers. In eight games, he has an NFC-high 54 catches, which is tied for fourth in the NFL. His 684 receiving yards rank sixth in the NFC and 11th in the NFL and he has two touchdowns. Minnesota’s short-handed secondary will have its hands full again.

Follow Brian Hall on Twitter