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Updated: August 31st, 2011 4:38pm
Preview: Preseason finale all about assessing backups, bubble players

Preview: Preseason finale all about assessing backups, bubble players

by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com
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Who: Houston Texans (3-0 preseason) at Minnesota Vikings (1-2).
When: 7 p.m. Thursday.
Where: Mall of America Field at the Metrodome (capacity: 64,111).
TV: KARE (Channel 11).
Line: Off.
Coaches: Vikings -- Leslie Frazier (1st season, 3-3 as interim coach in 2010). Texans -- Gary Kubiak (6th season, 37-43).
Series: Vikings lead 2-0.
Last meeting: The Vikings sacked Texans quarterback Sage Rosenfels on consecutive plays in the final 2 minutes, forcing a turnover on downs in a 28-21 win on Nov. 2, 2008.
At stake: It's the final preseason game for both teams. The Vikings will rest quarterback Donovan McNabb and probably most other starters. The Texans plan to play their second and third string each for a half.

Injury report

Vikings: TE Visanthe Shiancoe (hamstring), HB Lorenzo Booker (back), LB Jasper Brinkley (hip), OL Chris DeGeare (concussion), CB Asher Allen (toe), CB Chris Cook (hamstring) and CB Devon Torrence (quadriceps) are out. HB Toby Gerhart (ankle/Achilles) and LB Kenny Onatolu (foot) are questionable.

Texans: HB Arian Foster (hamstring), ILB DeMeco Ryans (elbow/Achilles) and WR Devard Darling (knee) are out. HB Steve Slaton and CB Roc Carmichael are questionable.

Three things to watch

Under the center: Regardless of who secures the No. 2 job behind McNabb, this figures to be the last extended action until next August -- barring injury -- for QBs Christian Ponder and Joe Webb, whose competition remains too close to call. Ponder (17-of-33, 51.5%, 6.3 yards per attempt, four sacks, 71.1 rating) is slated to start Thursday's game and play until halftime. In the pocket, the rookie first-round pick has battled accuracy issues that probably are related to his compressed transition to the NFL. Outside the pocket, Ponder has made his share of plays, including a 22-yard dart to Stephen Burton in the 2-minute drill last week against Dallas that probably was his most impressive throw yet. Webb (12-of-23, 52.2%, 7.4 yards per attempt, one interception, two sacks, 58.2 rating) always will create with his feet first, and his 90 yards on nine rushing attempts this preseason rank third behind only Adrian Peterson and Booker. Is he too valuable as a potential Wildcat and multi-position threat to bog him down with the responsibility of being McNabb's top backup as well? And is it worth slowing Ponder's development to even a small extent by having him take mostly scout-team reps as the No. 3 in practice? Those questions should be answered at least in part by how they play against the Texans.

New faces, new places: Of all the Vikings' likely starters, only RG Anthony Herrera, whose recovery from knee reconstruction remains under evaluation, took significant first-team reps in the Vikings' last practice on Tuesday. That was as strong an indication as any the team will use this game to look hard at the second unit -- and try out some players in unfamiliar positions. DE Everson Griffen is slated to play about half of his snaps at outside linebacker, where his mobility and instincts will be tested in coverage. DT Christian Ballard is slated to spend some time in Griffen's place at end, where Ballard spent some time at Iowa. Besides right guard, where Herrera is the clear front-runner, the only starting job that appears to remain up in the air is at strong safety. Former second-round pick Tyrell Johnson will get the start, but Jamarca Sanford appears to have the edge going in. Punt-return duties will come down to CB Marcus Sherels and WR Jaymar Johnson.

Final audition: The Vikings must reduce the roster to 53 players by Saturday afternoon, making this the last chance for young players to make an impression -- and some veterans to save their jobs. Role players such as LB Heath Farwell and WR Greg Camarillo have been nicked up and may be odd men out because of inflated salaries. Undrafted rookies such as LB Larry Dean, FB Matt Asiata and TE Allen Reisner have an opportunity to end on a high note. Younger players who have disappointed in camp, such as FB Ryan D'Imperio, need to put together some positive tape. And several competitive position groups must be trimmed down -- none more clouded than receiver, where six players -- Jaymar Johnson, Juaquin Iglesias, Emmanuel Arceneaux, Devin Aromashodu, Camarillo and Burton -- probably will be trimmed to two. An anxious 48 hours or so awaits them all.

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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