EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — NFL teams use this week’s third preseason game as the dry run for the regular season by simulating a regular work week as much as possible, adding in film study and game planning and then playing starters many times into the third quarter.
The Minnesota Vikings have shaped its week, in preparation for Sunday’s preseason game at San Francisco, the same way. The Vikings gave the players Tuesday off, as they would during a regular week. Wednesday’s practice included work against a scout team with players running the 49ers schemes and wearing numbers to mimic San Francisco players.
Simulating the 49ers offense can be tough, but this week is especially helpful for Minnesota this season. San Francisco’s pistol and read-option scheme, run by quarterback Colin Kaepernick, is the latest offensive trend in the NFL. The Vikings will see four teams during the regular season which will run a version of the offense, making this week’s third preseason game and test-run even more important.
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“I think it’s very valuable,” Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier said. “Seeing it this early in the season, we’re hoping it’s going to pay dividends for us down the road. Even the up-tempo offense (that Buffalo ran last week), we’re going to see some of that as well. We think all of that should help us.”
With a schedule that includes the Carolina Panthers, Washington Redskins, Seattle Seahawks and Philadelphia Eagles and dual-threat quarterbacks Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Michael Vick that will at least run some read-option plays, Frazier sought out Chris Ault, Kaepernick’s college coach at Nevada.
Ault is regarded as one of the innovative offensive minds to fully develop the pistol offense. His origins with the offense had many NFL coaches seeking his input this offseason. Some of them wanted to know how to utilize the offense. The Vikings wanted to learn how to stop it.
The ability for quarterbacks to read defenses and then decide to run or throw pressures the defense and takes away the aggressive nature of players.
“Everywhere,” Minnesota defensive coordinator Alan Williams said about where the scheme stresses defenses the most. “And I say everywhere because what you have to do is make sure that you don’t focus only on the zone read and let the other plays get you. You have to make sure you stop the other plays and then get everyone running to the ball on the zone read. So, you don’t want to just focus in on the zone read and not stop the base plays and that’s typically what some teams do, the trap so to speak that they want you to fall into.”
The Vikings have seen very little of the big trend. Even last year when Minnesota scored a big early-season victory against San Francisco, the Vikings faced Alex Smith at quarterback before the 49ers altered the offense behind Kaepernick.
With Kaepernick adding a different element, San Francisco advanced to the Super Bowl and is seen as one of the favorites this season. Vikings linebacker Desmond Bishop recalls being a helpless bystander, injured, last year in the playoffs as Kaepernick ran for a playoff quarterback-record 181 yard, added 263 yards passing with four total touchdowns to beat Bishop’s Green Bay team.
“I remember just a lot of confusion,” Bishop said. “We really weren’t prepared for it and that was kind of his really coming-out party.”
Along with getting its most important preseason action this week, Minnesota will be testing itself against an offense it knows it will need to stop later in the year.
“It’s the flavor of the month for the NFL, so a lot of teams are going to it and they’re a team that does it well,” Williams said. “It is a good tune-up for us to kind of see how we’ll operate and how we’ll do things against our base defenses.”
Bishop believes defenses will eventually catch up to the read-option offense. Many believe the scheme will find its way to the scrap heap along with former offensive innovations like the run-and-shoot and the Wildcat.
Williams sees a different angle that could eventually lead teams to look for the next big thing.
“I think the owners will take care of that to see how much they’ll let the quarterbacks get hit and to see if the quarterbacks can sustain a full year of running the ball and being able to pass it,” Williams said. “I’m not going to make any predictions as far as how long it will stay in and what the evolution will be of it down the road. It’s something that the offenses are going to. They had some success last year and we’ll see how much success they have with it in the NFL this year.”
In the meantime, Minnesota will be preparing for it with their biggest season test-run to date.