Saints-Vikings Preview: Monday Night Mad(ness) to Open the Season

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And so, it starts like this, huh? The Vikings 2017 season begins with a grudge match. Not against its arch rival Green Bay Packers, whom they will be battling for supremacy in the NFC North all season. Rather it is a score settling with the team’s former starting (and future Hall of Fame) running back Adrian Peterson, who now plays for the New Orleans Saints—the team visiting U.S. Bank Stadium on Monday Night Football to open the season. At least it’s a grudge match with Peterson.

“In my mind, we’re starting and ending the season in Minnesota,” Peterson told the Star Tribune. “Of course, I want to stick it to them. I want to stick it to everyone we play. But going back to Minnesota, playing the Vikings? Yeah, I want to stick it to them.”

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In typical Peterson fashion, he sets his goals higher than he is expected to achieve (as in his former annual goal of 2,500 rushing yards)—this time projecting to finishing the season by playing in the Super Bowl at U.S. Bank Stadium. In AP’s defense, that is the stated goal of most NFL players before the season—no matter how realistic—and it is certainly on the minds of many Vikings players, as well, who would like nothing more than to finish the postseason with a win on their home field.

But the reality for most NFL players is annually something different than that. So, the Vikings, and their fans, should settle for just one stated goal this week—which is holding home court with a victory over the Saints and the defense keeping one Adrian Peterson out of the endzone.

“I hope we have a chip on our shoulder,” head coach Mike Zimmer said when asked about Peterson’s quote. “This game isn’t about Adrian Peterson. It’s about the Vikings and the Saints. They’ve got a lot of great offensive weapons and he’s a great player, but this game isn’t about Adrian Peterson.”

Still, the fact that Peterson no longer wears a purple uniform will be visually arresting to the fans and an opportunity for the Vikings defense.

“Before when he was here, we couldn’t tackle him. But now it’s a must—we have to tackle him,” Rhodes said of Peterson. “Which should be pretty fun. I see he’s making a big deal [of it]. But still, it’s a game. We have to go out there and tackle him no matter what.

“He’s a great player. Everybody has their weaknesses, but at the end of the day, him running that ball, him getting to the outside, and him breaking a few tackles once he gets going, it’s over. So, we have to stop him from gaining any momentum because once he gets that, it’s hard to stop.”

The Vikings defenders who saw him in practice for multiple years know just exactly what AP can do. In fact, even those players new to the team who have only seen Peterson on television also know how special he is.
“Amazing plays is all I can say,” said Vikings rookie running back Dalvin Cook—the player slated to replace Peterson. “The things he put on film is unbelievable, some of the tackles he broke and the long runs. We always know Adrian as a physical back. He can do it all and is just an amazing player. It’s going to be crazy with him returning. He did a lot for this organization. With him coming back, I know everybody is going to be hyped for it and be ready to play.”

Cook, himself, will be running behind a revamped offensive line—one that has changed as recently as a week ago when left guard Alex Boone, who came to the Vikings on an expensive free agent contract in 2016, was cut (and is now an Arizona Cardinal). The move came as a surprise to many, as Boone was the only returning full time starter at his position on the line from 2016, and was expected to lead the unit forward. But he reportedly hadn’t taken too well to the Vikings new zone blocking scheme and when asked to take a pay cut along with his demotion to backup, he refused and basically signed his walking papers.

“Well, I was trying to find out the best football team,” was all Zimmer said in response to a question about the factors that led to the decision.

The remainder of the offensive line, which now includes former center Nick Easton replacing Boone at left guard, will be the key to the success of this Vikings season, just as the line last season was integral to the team’s demise. Joining Easton will be left tackle Rile Reiff (a free agent pickup who missed most of camp with a back injury), rookie third-round pick Pat Elflein at center, Joe Berger (who played all three interior line positions in 2016) and Mike Remmers at right tackle—as a group that has yet to play a game together. Tell me if that lack of playing time together sounds painfully familiar. (Last season the Vikings fielded at least 10 different starting lineups on the offensive line).

“I feel good,” Zimmer said when asked about the line’s chemistry. “I’ve sat in that room a lot and these guys have good conversation. They work good together and we’ve been mixing around the rotations quite a bit. [The challenge is] basically being on the same page. You get different looks, different calls, I don’t think the calls will be anything different but it’s just making sure everybody is on the same page. No different than any other position really.”

So, it will be a work in progress for the group that will be protecting Vikings signal caller Sam Bradford. The good news is that Easton and Elflein, the two youngest members on the line, looked good at both run blocking and pass protection when they played together in the Seattle preseason game, according to Zimmer. Bradford will hope the entire unit gels sooner than later, as the formerly porous Saints defense (31st in points allowed with 28.4 per game in 2016) added a number of new faces this season.

“They’ve added eight new guys defensively,” Zimmer said of New Orleans. “So, it’ll be a completely different defense for them. The two guys on the outside are very good players. They’ve added some youth inside. It’s going to be a good test.”

On offense, the Saints bring more to town than Peterson, to be sure—namely one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL over the past decade in Drew Brees. And Brees typically has had success against the Vikings, posting nine touchdowns versus two interceptions and an average of 318 yards passing in four regular season games since 2008. (Plus, there was that one game in 2009 postseason in which he threw three touchdown passes, but we aren’t going to talk about that.)

Mark Ingram is the lead running back (making Peterson some kind of change of pace back—yikes) and Michael Thomas is the team’s number one receiver in his second season. The team traded explosive wideout Brandin Cooks to the New England Patriots, but Ted Ginn, Jr. joined the Saints receiver corps in hopes of filling that void. Zimmer says to expect the same from an offense that was number one in total offense (426 yards per game) last season and number two in points scored (29.3 per game).

“They haven’t changed too much,” Zimmer said. “They’ve been running the same offense for a long time. They get in the I [formation], they get in base personnel, run the ball then play-action, and then they’ll spread you out. They’re not going to change too much. They’re pretty darn good.”

The Vikings defense should be able to slow the Saints offense (if they don’t let up in thinking they aren’t supposed to tackle AP), so it comes down to whether or not the Vikings offense can sustain drives to keep Brees off the field and score enough points to stay ahead of him. That depends on the line’s protection and a more balanced offense actually scoring when it gets in the red zone on Monday night. Says here, there will.

Minnesota—23, New Orleans—20

(Oh, and Peterson will get 10 carries for 27 yards and no touchdowns . . . we can only hope.)

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