Pregame: Six Vikings' starters doubtful or out in Minnesota-Washington
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First and goal, two timeouts left and the San Diego Chargers were sure to come away with a victory at home against the Washington Redskins last week.
But the Redskins held on three downs from their own half-yard line, forcing the game-tying field goal only to take the overtime kickoff and drive 78 yards to win the game.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Vikings are trying to survive the short week following another late-game collapse by their defense. After holding the Dallas Cowboys to less than 50 net yards on four of their last five drives in the second half, their fifth went for nine plays, 90 yards and the game-winning touchdown.
The Vikings play on their third primetime stage in four weeks as they host the Redskins on Thursday night. Coach Mike Shanahan's Redskins have a hope of saving their season in a hapless NFC East, while the Vikings hope to avoid their worst start in franchise history (1-8).
Quarterback Christian Ponder will get his third start in a row, sixth of the season. He's still searching for his first win in his third season of trying to be the franchise quarterback. Even with veteran backup Matt Cassel and free agent signing Josh Freeman on the sideline, coach Leslie Frazier said Ponder has the entire game, barring injury, to continue to prove his worth.
It's less than two years ago that the Vikings beat the Redskins near the end of their 3-13 season, which ultimately cost them the No. 2 overall pick and chance to draft Redskins quarterback Robert Griffen III, who won NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year last season. In the same contest, running back Adrian Peterson tore his ACL before returning to his miraculous 2012 form.
In another disappointing season, Thursday night's matchup against the Redskins is one of the relatively winnable games left that, in hindsight, could have some play in next year's draft order.
The Vikings will likely be without seven starters from their season-opening lineup -- four more from just a week ago -- as right tackle Phil Loadholt (concussion) is out. Left guard Charlie Johnson (elbow) is doubtful, along with defensive tackle Letroy Guion (shoulder). Tight end Kyle Rudolph will miss four to six weeks with a broken foot while safety Jamarca Sanford (groin) and cornerback Chris Cook (hip) will miss their second straight games. Safety Harrison Smith (foot) has been on injured reserve since the Oct. 13 loss.
Let's take a look at the five key matchups heading into Thursday night:
For the purple
AP's memory lane - There aren't many teams that have running back Adrian Peterson's 'number,' if you will. Perhaps it's just a matter of happenstance, but Peterson has struggled each of the four times he's played against the Redskins in his seven-year career, including the 2011 game (that they won), in which Peterson tore his ACL.
AP vs. 'Skins
12/23/07 -- 9 car. 27yds [3.0ypc]
11/28/10 -- 6 car. 36yds [6.0ypc]
12/24/11 -- 12 car. 38yds [3.2ypc] + 1 TD
10/14/12 -- 17 car. 79yds [4.6ypc] + 7 rec, 50yds.
Peterson's 25 carries for 140 yards helped get the Vikings' offense moving in the right direction last week, but they'll need more from their quarterback play to keep up with a Redskins' offense that averages more than 400 yards and 25 points per game.
John Carlson - Ponder's 32nd career start will be his first without tight end Kyle Rudolph. Two of his three passing touchdowns this season have gone to Rudolph, who is the third-most targeted weapon in the offense.
Tight end John Carlson, who has been lost in the fold due to injury and Rudolph's performance, will be in for an expanded role on Thursday. However, it's unclear if offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave intends to use Carlson like Rudolph - a downfield threat and endzone target - or just more of how they've already used Carlson, as a run blocker and checkdown option.
Carlson had 19 plays of 20-plus yards in three seasons at the Seattle Seahawks, some included in his 13 touchdowns. However, the Rudolph-Carlson tandem hasn't lived up to the offensive hype the Vikings would've liked when they signed him after spending 2011 on injured reserve with a torn labrum in his shoulder. The Vikings initially signed him to a five-year, $25 million contract in March 2012 that was renegotiated this spring after he missed training camp from a sprained knee and sat out two games because of his fourth documented concussion.
On Thursday, Carlson's 23rd game in purple will also be his first as the team's top tight end as Rudolph begins his four- to six-week recovery from a broken left foot. Tight end Rhett Ellison is questionable with an ankle injury, but could also help with added depth.
For the red
RGIII - Redskins' running back Alfred Morris leads all running backs with 5.2 yards per carry this season. His quarterback, Robert Griffen III, averages the same on the run. However, coming off his own ACL injury, Griffen has not looked the same as in his standout rookie season. At 3-5, Griffen has struggled taking care of the football as he has accounted for 10 turnovers (nine INTs, one fumbles) in eight games. Griffen has fumbled five times on his 49 rushing attempts this season, losing just one.
The Vikings defense jumped out to grab 12 turnovers in the first four games, but they have just two across the last four.
Cornerback A.J. Jefferson's interception of Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo last week was the team's first pick since Sept. 29. If the defense can get back on track, it'll be against a turnover-prone Griffen, who has gone just one game without throwing a single interception this season.
Look away - Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall is on par with Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson and Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman in terms of pass deflections and interceptions this season. However, Hall's team has struggled overall defending the pass as the Redskins are one notch below the Vikings in yardage allowed (282, 28th). Only the Buffalo Bills (20) and Vikings (18) have allowed more passing touchdowns this season than the Redskins (17). However, it could be sage advice to look away from Hall, who successfully defended future Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates three times in goal-to-go situations during last week's win.
Aim low - Redskins safety Brandon Meriweather has already racked up more than $100K in fines this season and after serving a one-game suspension in a loss to Denver last month, he wanted to stir the pot even more.
"To be honest, you've just got to go low now," Meriweather told ESPN980. "You gotta tear people's ACLs. Mess up people's knees. You can't hit them high anymore. You've just got to go low."
Meriweather's suspension came from two penalized hits in a loss to the Chicago Bears, one on receiver Alshon Jeffery and another on receiver Brandon Marshall. Earlier in the season, Meriweather knocked Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy from a game with a helmet-to-helmet hit.
And now he's coming for the next NFC North team.
Or not. Meriweather hasn't expressed the same polarizing attitude since and said he 'aimed a little lower' in last week's win at the Chargers. Fortunately for Minnesota, who has already seen low-blows leave injuries to center John Sullivan and defensive tackle Kevin Williams, Meriweather didn't take his seemingly vengeful attitude to the field.
Interesting note: The last Thursday night game the Vikings or Josh Freeman participated in was the 36-17 loss on Oct. 25, 2012 when Freeman threw for 262 yards and three touchdowns as the leader of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Now a member of the Vikings, Freeman could very well be a healthy scratch again on Thursday.
Out - RB Matt Asiata (personal), DT Fred Evans (knee), RT Phil Loadholt (concussion), TE Kyle Rudolph (foot), S Jamarca Sanford (groin) and CB Chris Cook (hip).
Doubtful - DT Letroy Guion, G Charlie Johnson (elbow)
Questionable - TE Rhett Ellison (ankle)
Probable - CB Xavier Rhodes (leg), CB Josh Robinson (chest) and LB Chad Greenway (wrist).
Questionable - RB Chris Thompson (shoulder)
Probable - TE Logan Paulsen (knee), DE Stephen Bowen (shoulder), WR Leonard Hankerson (hamstring), S Jose Gumbs (ankle), LB London Fletcher (knee)