Preview: Vikings, Jaguars try to turn tide with top weapons limited
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Who: Jacksonville Jaguars (0-0) at Minnesota Vikings (0-0).
When: Noon Sunday.
Where: Mall of America Field at the Metrodome (capacity: 64,111), Minneapolis.
TV: WCCO (Ch. 4).
Line: Vikings by 4.
Coaches: Vikings -- Leslie Frazier (2nd season, 6-16). Jacksonville -- Mike Mularkey (1st season in Jacksonville, 0-0; 3rd season overall, 14-18 in two seasons with Buffalo).
Series: Vikings lead series, 3-1.
Last regular-season meeting: The Vikings took a 14-0 lead only 1 minute, 41 seconds into the game following two lost fumbles by the Jaguars en route to a 30-12 victory on Nov. 23, 2008, in Jacksonville. Adrian Peterson rushed for 80 yards on 17 carries and had a touchdown.
At stake: The Vikings are coming off a 3-13 season in 2011 that tied for the worst mark in franchise history. While the team is a near-unanimous selection to finish at the bottom of the NFC North, the Vikings' first two games are considered winnable. Jacksonville went 5-11 last season, finishing ahead of Indianapolis (2-14) in the AFC South. The Vikings will face the Jaguars and Colts to open the year and thus have a chance to create some early-season momentum.
Vikings: LB Marvin Mitchell (ankle), S Andrew Sendejo (ankle) and WR Jarius Wright (ankle) are out. RB Adrian Peterson (knee) is questionable. CB Marcus Sherels (ankle), S Robert Blanton (hamstring), TE John Carlson (knee), DT Letroy Guion (knee) and G Geoff Schwartz (abdomen) are probable.
Jaguars: DE Austen Lane (foot), DE George Selvie (knee) and LB Daryl Smith (abdomen) are out. CB Derek Cox (hamstring) is doubtful. CB Mike Harris (hamstring) is questionable. C Brad Meester (not injury related), DE Aaron Morgan (not injury related), WR Justin Blackmon (ankle) and G Uche Nwaneri (ankle) are probable.
Five things to watch
Will Peterson play?: Peterson wanted to open training camp on the active roster, but the Vikings decided to start him on the active/physically unable to perform list as he attempted to return from torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee that he suffered on Dec. 24 in Washington. Peterson then set his sights on playing in a preseason game, but the Vikings sat him down and explained that wouldn't be a good idea. Peterson has now turned his focus to being back for this game. Will the Vikings again tell him that he needs to slow down a bit? Frazier said on Friday that a decision on whether the Pro Bowl running back will play will be made on Sunday, although signs have pointed to him being on the field. Even if Peterson does play, his role will be limited and HB Toby Gerhart will get the majority of the carries. Peterson was listed as questionable on the injury report. His presence would definitely give the Vikings an emotional boost.
Reserve role: Peterson isn't the only star running back who will have a close eye on him. The Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew, who led the NFL in rushing last season, ended his 38-day holdout last Sunday and reported to the Jaguars without getting a new contract. He had wanted the team to rework the final two years of his five-year, $31 million deal. Jacksonville coach Mike Mularkey has said Jones-Drew will rotate in on third-down plays and also get a series in place of starter Rashad Jennings. Not surprisingly, no one with the Vikings believes a word of this. The Vikings expect Jones-Drew's workload will be much greater than that and Jones-Drew made it clear he was planning to prepare for this game as if he's the starter. If Jones-Drew proved he kept himself in game shape during practice this week, don't be surprised to see him play a significant role on Sunday.
Quarterback comparison: Jaguars QB Blaine Gabbert was the 10th overall selection in the 2011 draft. Two picks later, the Vikings took QB Christian Ponder. Neither had rookie seasons to remember. Gabbert played in 15 games and started the last 14 for a team that went 5-11. Ponder won only twice in the 10 starts, and the second of those victories came as Joe Webb rallied the Vikings over Washington in a game that Ponder left because of a concussion. Sunday will mark the first game in which Ponder and Gabbert can begin to prove they have taken significant steps after having an entire offseason to work with their teams. Gabbert, 22, was the youngest quarterback in NFL history to start at least 13 games last season and is learning a new offensive under Mularkey. Ponder, 24, has the advantage of having worked under offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave all last season and through this offseason. That could give him the advantage.
Immediate impact? As the NFL draft approached in April, the three names tied most closely to the Vikings were Southern Cal LT Matt Kalil, Oklahoma State WR Justin Blackmon and LSU CB Morris Claiborne. The Vikings made a draft-day trade with Cleveland to move from the third pick to the fourth selection and took Kalil. Jacksonville grabbed Blackmon at No. 5. On Sunday, the Vikings will get to see what they missed by not taking the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Blackmon, who was slowed by an ankle injury in practice on Wednesday but fully participated on Thursday and Friday. He'll present Gabbert with a big target and could be a problem for either CB Antoine Winfield (5-9) or CB Chris Cook (6-2). The real issue, however, could come when the Vikings are in their nickel package and either use rookie Josh Robinson (5-10) or second-year corner Brandon Burton (5-11) at one of the outside spots. If the Jaguars can get Blackmon matched up on either Robinson or Burton, Gabbert will try to exploit that matchup. The Vikings may counter by using Cook on Blackmon as much as possible.
Improvement up the middle? One of the Vikings' biggest question marks entering training camp was how the defense would be up the middle. We're about to find out. NT Letroy Guion, who had been used at both the three-technique and nose tackle during his first four seasons in Minnesota, will start at nose and now is being employed exclusively at that position. He suffered a knee injury in the preseason opener at San Francisco and suffered a setback in practice that extended his absence. Guion said he's ready to go, but will the time off mean he's rusty? MLB Jasper Brinkley, who missed all of the 2011 season after having hip surgery, looked very shaky in the first two preseason games before looking much improved in the third exhibition game against San Diego. Brinkley, like many of the starters, did not play in the preseason finale at Houston. The question with Brinkley isn't whether he can simply shake off the rust, but whether he can play the middle linebacker in the Tampa-2 defense. Look for him to come out of the game when a third corner is employed in the nickel. S Harrison Smith, a first-round pick by the Vikings in April, will start at free safety. Second-year S Mistral Raymond is expected to start at strong safety. The Vikings' safeties struggled last season and if this team is going to improve they must be stronger at these spots. Smith is expected to provide an upgrade, but it's wait-and-see as far as Raymond and what he can bring to the secondary.
Judd Zulgad: The Vikings are in rebuilding mode and don't look like a team that will win many games this season. But there is no reason they shouldn't be able to open the year with a victory. The Jaguars have a new coach in Mularkey and Gabbert has just as many question marks surrounding him, or more, than Ponder. It won't hurt the Vikings cause that Jaguars outside linebacker Daryl Smith will miss this game because of an abdominal injury. Vikings 21, Jaguars 17.
Tom Pelissero: These teams combined for eight victories last season. Both will start second-year quarterbacks who had rough moments as rookies. And both are run-first offenses that are unlikely to have their best weapons at full strength. The Vikings have lost a lot of coin-flip games the past two seasons, but they get the benefit of the doubt here -- if for no other reason than it has been made clear to players this is one they can't afford to lose. Vikings 23, Jaguars 20.