To say the Vikings had a down pre-season is putting it lightly. A team that little (in the fan community) seemed to have any faith in before the pre-season began created an all out panic by playing objectively bad football for the most part in the three games they participated in this pre-season. The why behind that play has been explained in many ways, from a veteran team struggling to figure out new scheme elements to problems with the completely overhauled offensive line gelling, but either way you break it down the Vikings really need to put that behind them tonight against the New Orleans Saints if they want to keep pace with the Green Bay Packers in the division and start the season out on the right foot. With that in mind, let’s talk about a few keys to tonight’s game (which we are hosting a viewing party for at the Parkway Theater in South Minneapolis, Click for details or to RSVP).
1) The Young Secondary gets a Test
Probably the biggest question mark on the team going into the season this year is how second and third-year corners Mackenzie Alexander and Trae Waynes will perform now that they’re going to be pressed for handle more action. Alexander played behind Captain Munnerlyn, who left for browner pastures in Carolina this off-season and Waynes still will be splitting time with ageless wonder Terrance Newman (who will also fill in at the nickel, if training camp was any indication). However, Waynes was injured on the first play of the first pre-season game and after playing one more down came out of the game and missed the second pre-season game. He struggled mightily in the third pre-season game and any thoughts of improvement were decimated in the process. People have been rightly worried about Waynes’ play for awhile now, as his problem seems to be more mental than anything physical. He’s an extremely physically talented guy who seemed to struggle to acclimate to the NFL and its “Rules”, he’s often played far too timid in a position that requires a balls to the wall mentality and while that has been his MO he’s also been known to pick up a lot of penalties, which is ironic considering how far off the ball he plays. He’s essentially the mirror opposite of Mackenzie Alexander, who is a very confident and aggressive nickel corner, but Alexander has struggled mightily in the pros (so far) and had an equally bad pre-season to that of Waynes. Considering the fact that the Vikings will be facing one of the greatest QB’s in the history of the NFL tonight in Drew Brees, you’d think that the game may come down to the play of Waynes and Alexander. Look to Brees to test out Waynes early and often, as he attempts to avoid throwing at Xavier Rhodes and figuring out what he can do against the third year corner. Hopefully, Waynes is up to the challenge as he’ll need a big game to silence his doubters. This very well could be the determining factor of tonight’s game so watch it closely!
2) The Offensive Line
As 2016 showed, this team will really only get as far as its offensive line will carry it and considering the fact that tonight’s line hasn’t really played together as a unit yet, it could be rough going for them and the Vikings offense as they attempt to get to know one another. The starting 5 is completely different from the unit they had at the end of last year and they also have a rookie on the line in center Pat Elflein, who replaced Nick Easton at the position (Easton is now playing left guard). The Vikings made a surprise move and cut last years best offensive lineman in guard Alex Boone, who may have asked to be released as opposed to being placed on the bench (and taking a pay cut) and really any depth they acquired in the draft was nullified by that move (and the release of guards TJ Clemmings and Willie Beavers, who was picked up by the New England Patriots). Vikings QB Sam Bradford had to run for his life a few times this pre-season and that’s definitely not something you want to see out of your franchise QB, especially one like Bradford is not known for his mobility (in fact it’s pretty much the exact opposite). If the line can hold up and the offense can move the ball it’ll help the defense stay off the field and keep Brees and company at bay. That’s a lot to ask a unit that’s never played together (in a game), though, and considering the horrible taste that they left in our mouths in 2016, it’s definitely something that should worry the purple going into tonight’s game. If things do get bad look for a lot of help from the backs and tight ends, as well, which will limit the offense’s options but should give Bradford enough time to air it out to Diggs, Thielen and Treadwell.
3) The Running Game
Because of the injuries on the offensive line last year the running game, which was devoid of a lot of talent even with the world’s best line, obviously struggled and was perhaps the worst unit in the NFL. The Vikings invested a lot of time, money and draft capital in rectifying that situation this offseason by moving on from 10-year Viking Adrian Peterson and bringing in former Raider Latavius Murray and drafting Florida State product Dalvin Cook. Both Cook and Murray are dissimilar from Peterson in that they are very capable receivers out of the backfield and you should expect to see them both catch a fair amount of balls tonight. This isn’t an explosive Vikings offense and so you should expect to see a lot of conservative plays, runs and short passes. Having two backs that can create yards from and after the catch should open up a facet of the offense that the Vikings didn’t have last year and especially if the line breaks down Cook and or Murray could be the lifeline that Bradford needs to keep moving the chains and avoiding pressure. With Adrian Peterson back in town all eyes will be on the running back position and considering the fact that this Vikings defense has struggled against the run, the team that bottles up the others running game will have a big advantage and could very well win the game tonight. Look for the Vikings to rely on Cook early and often and for Murray to get the short-yardage and goal line looks.
Prediction: Vikings: 20 – Saints: 17