Vikings will get good feel for defense vs. Bills
The Minnesota Vikings return to the Metrodome on Friday for the first time since ending the 2011 season with a 3-13 record, equaling the most losses in a single season in franchise history.
There have been quite a few changes for Minnesota since that 17-13 loss to the Chicago Bears. The Vikings are hoping to see more of how those changes will take affect this season when they host the Buffalo Bills on Friday in the second preseason game.
Minnesota will give the hometown crowd more to watch as well, with the starting units seeing more action than they did last week against the San Francisco 49ers. After sitting out last week, receiver Percy Harvin, defensive end Jared Allen, defensive tackle Kevin Williams and cornerback Antoine Winfield will play for the first time.
"Our goal is to get those guys through the first quarter and maybe some of the second quarter as well," coach Leslie Frazier said. "We have a number of plays that we want to get to and we will see how it goes. We want to get everybody some action before we get to that third preseason game."
With all the healthy players expected to play more Friday, here are five things to watch when Minnesota hosts Buffalo:
1. Can the Vikings finish drives with touchdowns?
Quarterback Christian Ponder had a simple answer when asked Wednesday what is the most important thing the offense needs to accomplish Friday.
"Touchdowns," Ponder said. "Two field goals on two drives, obviously we like points, but you need touchdowns to win in the NFL. So, we want, obviously continue scoring every drive, but we'd rather take seven than three."
Ponder led two scoring drives in his two series last week, and the first-team offense showed signs of improvement from last season. However, each time the offense drove deep into San Francisco territory last week, Minnesota had to settle for field goals from rookie kicker Blair Walsh. The offense was held without a point last week after Ponder and the starters left early in the second quarter.
Ponder was 4 for 9 passing and didn't have any turnovers. Now the offense needs to get into the end zone. Improvement from the receivers would help. Ponder suffered from three dropped passes during his two drives. Having Harvin on the field should make a difference too.
2. What does the defense look like with Allen, Williams and Winfield?
Missing the three veteran leaders, the defense struggled from the beginning against San Francisco. The 49ers ran for 73 yards on the first drive and quarterback Alex Smith was 3 for 3 passing with a touchdown. Most troubling for the Vikings, San Francisco ran for 260 yards in the game.
Minnesota put an emphasis on cleaning up the run defense problems in practice this week and said the issues had to do with playing within the framework of the defensive system and a taking a few poor angles on runners.
The starting defense could play a majority of the first half on Friday, giving the best look yet at how the run defense shapes up with Allen, Williams and Winfield in the lineup. For Allen's pass-rushing prowess and Winfield's small stature, but also are considered key parts of the run defense.
Buffalo features two running backs that have explosiveness in Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, providing a good preseason test for the Vikings.
3. Will Harrison Smith prove deserving of starting in his first start?
Smith, the No. 29 overall draft pick in April, wasn't handed a starting job immediately, but worked his way in with the first-team defense during training camp and draws his first start on Friday. Smith brings a physical edge to the secondary and is versatile enough to help in run and pass defense.
Friday will be the first of many starts for Smith. Part of his emergence has been the struggles of Mistral Raymond and Jamarca Sanford, but the Minnesota coaches want to see how Smith handles the starting assignment, playing with the first-team against a first-team offense.
"Yeah, we want to see how he does," Frazier said. "It's not a permanent deal. We still have to make a decision: Can he handle that? And this will be a good test for him, because Buffalo, I don't know how much they'll play their starters, but they've got a pretty good passing offense so we'll see. And they run the ball well, also."
4. Can Josh Robinson show a spark in his first game?
Josh Robinson was Minnesota's third-round draft pick and the team had high hopes for him both as a cornerback and returner. Robinson was slowed for a few weeks in training camp after straining his hamstring on the first day of practice.
Robinson has finally returned and should see a lot of playing time on Friday both on defense and as a returner. The Vikings would like him to prove capable of winning a return job and Frazier has remarked about Robinson's incredible speed and burst. He was the fastest player at the scouting combine in March. Since returning, Robinson has made a few big plays in practice. During team drills on Tuesday, Robinson leapt and swatted away a deep pass from a receiver.
Robinson could challenge for a significant role on defense as Minnesota looks to limit Winfield's snaps to keep him healthy. Free-agent addition Chris Carr will be one part and the Vikings hope Robinson can also prove worthy in his rookie season.
"We'll try to get him a number of snaps so we can evaluate him and so he'll be able to evaluate himself and find out what the pro game is all about," Frazier said. "It'll be a big test for him. He's anxious to get out there and perform and show everyone that he's capable of playing at this level and he wants to win a starting spot so we want to see him go out there and work and get some snaps against some good receivers and be able to gauge where he is at the end of this ball game."
5. How does the new-look offensive line fare against a strong defensive line?
With two new starters and Charlie Johnson moving from left tackle to left guard, Minnesota's offensive line has undergone as much transition as any spot on the team. Against San Francisco's 3-4 defense, the starting offensive line held up well even though the 49ers didn't play All-Pro defensive end Justin Smith. Now, rookie left tackle Matt Kalil and new starting right guard Brandon Fusco see their first 4-man defensive front.
Like the rest of the team, the starting offensive line will likely play deep into the second quarter, giving it time to match up against Buffalo's strong defensive line.
Buffalo has made the move back to a 4-3 defense and has the pieces to feature one of the top defensive lines in the league after signing Mario Williams to a big contract in the offseason to team him with tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams and end Mark Anderson. The quartet will give Minnesota's offensive line a new look.
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