With The Sports Xchange putting together their annual NFL previews, I was asked to provide a snapshot -- a big snapshot -- of the Vikings heading into Week 1. Here's a few thoughts:
- INSIDE SLANT
As the Minnesota Vikings open the 2018 season at home against the San Francisco 49ers, there’s only one goal in sight: getting to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1976 season.
The offseason has been geared to taking another step after Minnesota lost to eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia in the NFC Championship game last season. It’s the reason why the Vikings made the biggest move of the offseason in signing quarterback Kirk Cousins to a three-year, $84 million contract. Minnesota had the league’s top defense last year in terms of fewest yards and points allowed and is hoping Cousins is the final piece to the offense.
It’s a leap for both team and quarterback. Cousins has started one playoff game in his career despite throwing for at least 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns each of the past three years as a starter. The Vikings went all-in at the game’s most important position after piecing through the past several seasons. Journeyman Case Keenum entered after Sam Bradford’s injury last year and nearly got the team to its fifth Super Bowl. The “miracle” win against the Saints was followed by the 38-7 drubbing by Philadelphia a week later.
The loss stung and provided plenty of motivation for Minnesota coming back this season. The Vikings return 10 starters from their No. 1 defense. They signed former first-round pick and one-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson to take Tom Johnson’s spot next to Linval Joseph on the inside of a talented defensive line with ends Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter.
The league’s leading defense will try to stop San Francisco’s budding offense with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Garopplo went 5-0 as a starter for the 49ers last season after the midseason trade from New England, throwing for an average of 308.4 yards per game to go with six touchdowns and five interceptions. Minnesota was second in the league in pass defense last season, limiting opponents to 192.4 yards per game.
Cousins has plenty to work with on the offensive side. Adam Thielen had 1,276 yards receiving in a breakout year and Stefon Diggs was on the receiving end of Keenum’s “miracle” throw against the Saints. Diggs had 849 yards receiving and eight touchdowns in 14 games. Two-time Pro Bowl tight end Kyle Rudolph returns after catching eight touchdowns last season.
Dalvin Cook is back after a knee injury ended his promising rookie season after just four games. Cook was held back in the preseason – two carries for one yard in one series of action – but has looked quick and declared himself ready for San Francisco. Cook’s return gives the Vikings the 1-2 punch at running back that they desire with Latavius Murray, who had 842 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in Minnesota last season, coming on late from his own injury in Cook’s absence.
Cousins and the first-team offense are still coming together under new coordinator John DeFilippo. Previous offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur left to be the head coach of the New York Giants and Vikings coach Mike Zimmer went to the team that knocked him out of the playoffs last season for a replacement. DeFilippo was the Eagles’ quarterbacks coach.
Cousins, DeFilippo and the offense started the preseason with a dazzling first drive against Denver and then showed the transition still needs some work in the following two games. Cousins finished the preseason 24 of 40 for 236 yards passing. He averaged 5.9 yards per pass and had one touchdown. He didn’t throw an interception and was sacked once.
The biggest question – besides Cousins’ ability to take the Vikings to the next level – is the offensive line. If there’s one spot that can derail Minnesota’s “Super” dreams it’s the group that has given them much trouble the past few years and dealt with injury after injury. Health is already a concern. Center Pat Elflein started 14 games as a rookie last year but didn’t play in the preseason or practice throughout as he makes his way back from offseason shoulder and ankle injuries. Nick Easton, the starting left guard and backup center, is out for the season after undergoing surgery to repair a bulging disc in his neck.
Riley Reiff is the anchor at left tackle and the Vikings made the decision early to turn to Mike Remmers at guard and Rashod Hill at tackle on the right side. Elflein has been activated from the physically-unable-to-perform list but isn’t expected to play in Week 1 against the 49ers. Minnesota traded for interior offensive lineman Brett Jones from the New York Giants last week. Jones started 13 games at center and guard for New York last season and could be snapping to Cousins against San Francisco with less than two weeks of practice. Tom Compton, who played with Cousins in Washington, has been the first-team left guard throughout training camp and the preseason.
Of course, the 49ers’ soft spot is on the defensive side. They were 24th in the league last season in fewest yards allowed. The 23.9 points per game they surrendered were tied for 22nd in the NFL. As such, San Francisco’s biggest move in the offseason was signing cornerback Richard Sherman after he was released by Seattle. The 49ers then made six of their nine draft picks for the defense, but the highest pick was linebacker Fred Warner in the third round. None of the defensive rookies are expected to start, while first-round tackle Mike McGlinchey will help protect Garoppolo.
SERIES HISTORY: 42nd regular-season meeting. Vikings lead series, 21-19-1. San Francisco won the last meeting between these two teams with a 20-3 win in the regular-season opener in 2015. Mike Zimmer’s second season was opening with promise before the surprise loss on the road to the 49ers. Minnesota might hold the advantage in the regular season, but it hasn’t gone well in the postseason. The Vikings have lost four of the five playoff matchups between the two teams, including most recently after the 1997 season.
--Minnesota remembers the last meeting well. “We got beat bad,” Griffen said. “It was a learning experience. We played around like 10 – it was like 9 p.m. our time though. It was like really late California time but we don’t make excuses, we got beat. They ran some good plays. They out-schemed us. We couldn’t get them down on the ground. We learned a lot of things.”
--Jerick McKinnon will miss the chance to play against his former team. McKinnon, the Vikings’ third-round draft pick in 2013, signed a four-year, $30 million contract with San Francisco in the offseason. But McKinnon tore his ACL in practice two days ago and was placed on injured reserve. The 49ers signed Alfred Morris during the preseason and he could start Week 1 at running back and split time with Matt Breida. “I was real excited to get to go up against him,” Griffen said on Tuesday. “I know he was all pumped up and fired up.”
--Minnesota got younger this weekend by releasing defensive end Brian Robison and having cornerback Terence Newman announce his retirement. Robison, the longest-tenured Viking and tied for ninth in team history with 60 sacks, was a surprise cut as the team got to the 53-man roster limit. The 12-year veteran had lost his starting spot to Hunter last season and the Vikings decided to go young with Tashawn Bower and Stephen Weatherly as the backups at defensive end.
--Newman retired, but he isn’t gone. Newman, who was three days shy of his 40th birthday when he retired, joined the coaching staff and he will work with the team’s defensive backs, particularly the nickel, slot backs. “At some point, you have to be true to yourself and say, ‘Hey, do I want to keep going forward, have a chance to maybe tear up your back or neck or whatever,’” Newman said on Tuesday. “Some of the younger talent, obviously, you have to either say, ‘I’ll be selfish,’ and maybe take the roster spot or get somebody else an opportunity to live their dream. So, it was pretty easy. Everybody’s asking me if I’m OK and all this. I’m good. I’m still in football. I still have an opportunity to chase a Super Bowl ring.”
--Minnesota is hoping Cousins can end the revolving door at quarterback. No quarterback has led the team in passing for three straight seasons since Daunte Culpepper from 2000-04. Keenum led the team in passing last year with 3,547 yards. Bradford led the team in 2016. Teddy Bridgewater had back-to-back seasons as the passing leader, but injuries forced the Vikings to move past Bridgewater and then Bradford.
--Zimmer was unwilling on Tuesday to announce who will start at center against San Francisco. With Elflein not expected to play, Minnesota has Jones and Danny Isidora as possibilities. Jones has started in the NFL at the position. Isidora is a guard who got his first game action at center last week in the fourth preseason game. Isidora started the game with Jones at left guard. Jones played center in the second half with Isidora shifting to right guard. “I think that might be the natural position for him,” Zimmer said of Isidora. “He hasn’t done it before, so for him to do it in basically a week, I think, has been impressive. He’s been good this week, as well.”
--The Vikings made one waiver claim after setting their initial 53-man roster. Minnesota claimed punter Matt Wile from the Pittsburgh Steelers and released Ryan Quigley. Quigley was last in the NFL last season in gross-punting average and was 27th in net average, but he didn’t have a touchback on any of his 71 punts. He entered training camp uncontested for his spot, but the punting team struggled in the preseason with punts and coverage. Quigley averaged 46.0 yards per punt in the preseason with a 36.4 net average. Wile averaged 49.0 yards on eight preseason punts with a 48.8 net average. “His hangtime is really good,” Zimmer said of Wile. “His average is good. We just didn’t feel like we were punting very well in the preseason.”
--Safety Harrison Smith: The easy answer here is the quarterback and Minnesota really needs Cousins to be close to an MVP-type. Quarterbacks seem to always be the default pick league-wide, and for good reason. But we’ll stick with the leader of the defense and arguably the best safety in the league in Smith. This defense just looks different when Smith is in the middle of the action and at his best. Look at the NFC Championship game last year for an example of Smith’s impact. Smith, admittedly, didn’t play to his ability against Philadelphia. He missed a key tackle at one point, allowed tight end Zach Ertz to have a big day and couldn’t get back as Torrey Smith caught a long touchdown on a flea flicker. The Eagles had 346 yards passing and 456 total yards in the game. But Harrison is also coming off his first season as a first-team All-Pro. He had 93 combined tackles, 1.5 sacks and five interceptions. He’s adept at blitzing, a sure tackler in run defense and covers a lot of ground in pass defense, allowing Zimmer the ability to design more surprises for opponents.
TEAM ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
--Cornerback Mike Hughes: If everything goes to plan for Minnesota, there are only two possible answers for the team’s top rookie. Hughes, the first-round pick (No. 30 overall), has proven to be a quick learner. Other than kicker Daniel Carlson, the rest of the team’s rookies are seen as development types. Hughes isn’t expected to have a big role at the start of the season – maybe serving as the fourth cornerback against San Francisco in Week 1 – but he could force his way into more playing time. He’s practiced inside and outside and picked up both spots in Zimmer’s defense. Hughes will also get the first shot as the team’s kickoff returner to start the season.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
GAME PLAN: There should be few surprises in Week 1. While Cousins came out passing in the third preseason game – a stunning 28 pass attempts in one half of action – the regular-season opener will likely see the offense go back to its run-heavy approach. Minnesota has Cook healthy and Latavius Murray probably will see more action in the early-going as Cousins and Cook get more comfortable. Many of Cousins’ pass attempts in the preseason were short and quick, no doubt a design to get the quarterback in rhythm and to ease the pressure on the makeshift offensive line. The first-team offensive line will not have played together when it convenes against San Francisco, so quick passing and a reliance on the running game should be the order of the day against the 49ers, who gave up 116.3 rushing yards per game last season, which was tied for 21st in the NFL. The Vikings’ offense should continue to evolve with more time together throughout the season.
Defensively, Minnesota will likely look to pressure Garoppolo as much as possible. They can’t let him get comfortable as he looks to unheralded, largely unproven group of receivers. San Francisco has speedster Marquise Goodwin and veteran Pierre Garcon at receiver, along with rookie Dante Pettis, a second-round pick out of Washington. George Kittle and Garrett Celek are the tight ends. Losing McKinnon is a blow and the Vikings were second in the NFL in run defense last year, giving up 83.6 yards per game. Morris and Breida aren’t likely to find much running room.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--49ers CB Richard Sherman vs. the receiver San Francisco decides to line him up against. Sherman is looking to prove he’s not past his prime after a torn Achilles ended his 2017 season and he was released by Seattle. San Francisco can let Sherman handle one side or shadow a receiver, but who would they select, Diggs or Thielen. Diggs and Thielen will both be outside in the base offense, with Thielen likely moving inside to the slot in three-receivers sets with Laquon Treadwell outside. Diggs and Thielen have the speed and quickness to test Sherman.
--Vikings DE Everson Griffen vs. 49ers LT Joe Staley. Staley has been one of the league’s best left tackles, being named to the Pro Bowl after six of the last seven seasons. He’ll have his hands full with Griffen, who had 13 sacks last season and can pressure with speed or power. Staley will try and protect Garoppolo’s blindside against Griffen, who has 43.5 sacks the past four seasons. Staley is a technician and it will be a fun matchup on Sunday with two of the best at their positions.
--Vikings DE Danielle Hunter vs. 49ers RT Mike McGlinchey. McGlinchey was San Francisco’s first-round draft pick (ninth overall) in this year’s draft to give the 49ers a pair of bookend tackles. McGlinchey’s first true NFL test is the emerging Hunter. Hunter, who has 25.5 sacks in his first three seasons, was rewarded with a five-year, $72 million contract. Hunter seems ready for a breakout season after a strong preseason. He’s a unique combination of strength and athleticism and continues to refine his game. McGlinchey was heralded for his physicality and technique as the draft’s first offensive tackle selected.