Pelissero: Vikings lineup sorting itself out, but key questions remain
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
MINNEAPOLIS -- Ideally, the Minnesota Vikings would enter practice this week with answers to all their major lineup questions.
"Yeah, but we're not in an ideal situation," coach Leslie Frazier said late Friday night, shortly after the Vikings' third string finished where the starters left off in a 36-14 exhibition win over Buffalo.
"We've got a lot of young guys battling for spots, and we're hoping, at the end of this third (preseason) game, we have a better idea of who's going to be who and who's going to start for us against Jacksonville. But we're not there yet."
They appear to be getting closer, given the way some of the first- and second-year players who will be the lifeblood of Rick Spielman's rebuilding operation rose to the challenge.
Quarterback Christian Ponder and the No. 1 offense clicked again, driving 80 yards in eight plays for a touchdown on their first drive and getting in position for two field goals before departing.
Brandon Fusco did his part, getting movement in the run game against a tough Bills front and perhaps wrapping up the starting job at right guard.
Rookie Harrison Smith brought discipline to the back end of a defense reeling from a brutal debut seven days earlier at San Francisco.
Even Mistral Raymond played the type of confident, aggressive football that always has made him the in-house favorite to be Smith's running mate at safety, as the defense forced two punts before starters began departing.
"It was very encouraging," said right end Jared Allen, one of four veteran starters who had been healthy scratches for the loss to the 49ers.
"To see our offense go down right away, score a touchdown, come back with (a field goal), to get points in the red zone each time we were there was great. Then defensively, we didn't like the way we played against San Francisco ... so we had to focus on coming out and playing fundamental Viking football."
They did that on Friday in a game that was tight until the final 3 minutes, 37 seconds, in which Blair Walsh converted his fifth field goal in six attempts and fellow rookie Audie Cole improbably returned two interceptions for touchdowns in a 13-second span.
Still, there are several key personnel issues to sort out in the 22 days remaining before the Jaguars arrive for the Sept. 9 opener -- in some cases because the Vikings have options emerging, in some cases because they don't.
They have to figure out how to replace split end Jerome Simpson, whose hurdle over Bills safety Jairus Byrd on a 33-yard reception may be his last until he returns from a drug suspension in Week 4.
Michael Jenkins' 35-yard reception belied the lack of separation he gained on the play, proving again he's not a vertical matchup threat. Devin Aromashodu still doesn't have a preseason catch. Stephen Burton's fumble ruined his 26-yard reception. Emmanuel Arceneaux caught a post for 48, but he barely even got into the game.
They have to figure out how to how to line up in the nickel defense, where veteran Chris Carr has been underwhelming as the third cornerback.
Rookie Josh Robinson broke up two passes and had a key third-down tackle, too, inserting himself into the conversation if coaches believe his technique and ball skills are progressing quickly enough after the time he missed with a hamstring injury.
Most pressing, they have to figure out if middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley will make the progress coaches hope after missing all of last season following hip surgery.
Frazier said Brinkley played the entire first half because he needed more reps. But he continues to look stiff and tentative at times, and Marvin Mitchell's turns in Erin Henderson's place on the weak side suggest the Vikings at least are giving thought to a backup plan.
Then again, maybe Henderson's starting job isn't completely safe either.
"They're quasi-starters," Frazier said of Henderson and Brinkley, "but we don't want them to feel like, 'I've got the job.' That's not where we are as a defense."
The Vikings' coaches and personnel men will meet on Saturday to discuss the roster, as they do every week. They'll be looking for answers wherever they can find them, even if Arceneaux's catch or Cole's pick-sixes come with qualifiers about the level of competition.
"What it does is it makes you think about putting them in other situations where they can compete as well," Frazier said. "You want to see guys make plays. That's what our business is all about. You can draw up X's and O's all day long, but if you don't have playmakers, you're listening in the wind."
The starters will get their most preseason action next Friday against San Diego. The first cuts come three days later, final cuts four days after that.
The Vikings have plenty of decisions to make at the bottom of the roster, too. But the fact they're still trying to sort out some things closer to the top is another reminder how far they have to go, no matter how encouraging their performance was on Friday in all three phases.
"It's good that we can build our confidence in this," Ponder said. "But it's only preseason. We still have a lot of ways to go and two more weeks before the regular season starts.
"We want to have the confidence that, yeah, we're moving the ball, making plays. But we don't want to get overconfident and we know that we've still got a ton of work to do and keep making strides.
"The good thing is we keep taking steps forward. We haven't really taken any steps back, and that's a good sign."