Preview: Shortages in Vikings secondary could tempt Broncos to throw
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Who: Denver Broncos (6-5) at Minnesota Vikings (2-9).
When: Noon Sunday.
Where: Mall of America Field at the Metrodome (capacity: 64,111), Minneapolis.
Line: Broncos by 1.
Coaches: Vikings -- Leslie Frazier (1st year, 5-12). Broncos -- John Fox (1st year, 6-5; 10th year overall, 84-79).
Series: Vikings lead 7-5.
Last meeting: Tarvaris Jackson lost a fumble on the Vikings' first drive of overtime and Jason Elam kicked a 30-yard field goal on the next play to lift the Broncos to a 22-19 win on Dec. 30, 2007.
At stake: These teams couldn't be headed in more opposite directions. The Broncos have won four straight and are one game back of first-place Oakland in the AFC West Division standings. The Vikings have lost three straight and are on their way to another last-place finish in the NFC North.
Vikings: HB Adrian Peterson (ankle) and CB Chris Cook (not injury related) are out. CB Asher Allen (shoulder), MLB E.J. Henderson (shoulder), TE Kyle Rudolph (quadriceps) and WR Percy Harvin (illness) are questionable. RG Anthony Herrera (knee), OLB Erin Henderson (hamstring), S Jamarca Sanford (shoulder) and TE Visanthe Shiancoe (hamstring) are probable.
Broncos: LB Von Miller (thumb) and WR Eddie Royal (toe) are questionable. HB Willis McGahee (illness), S David Bruton (Achilles), TE Daniel Fells (hand) and T Ryan Clady (knee) are probable.
Five things to watch
The Tebow show: The Broncos run an offense unlike any other in the NFL. They pass sparingly and utilize a variety of option plays designed to utilize the skills of Tebow, who has completed 45.5% of his 143 passes but has accounted for 11 touchdowns (eight passing, three rushing) and only two turnovers (one interception, one lost fumble) while going 5-1 as a starter. It's not all Tebow, though. Former Gophers WR Eric Decker is an emerging downfield threat, HB Willis McGahee is averaging 4.8 yards per carry and the Vikings need to key on the movement of WR Eddie Royal and TE Daniel Fells, too. This offense is all about creating confusion and exploiting holes when the defense isn't disciplined -- which has been an issue for the Vikings up front all season.
Figure it out: The Vikings lost another outside receiver on Tuesday, when WR Michael Jenkins (knee) was placed on injured reserve along with S Husain Abdullah (concussion), S Tyrell Johnson (hamstring) and LS Cullen Loeffler (back). That means WR Greg Camarillo and WR Stephen Burton are likely to see extended action along with Harvin and WR Devin Aromashodu. Harvin has been rookie QB Christian Ponder's favorite target since the bye week, with 20 catches for 220 yards and two touchdowns in the Vikings' past three games. But it remains to be seen how much Harvin plays after missing Friday's practice with an illness, especially since coaches continue to monitor his snaps closely. Somebody needs to produce on the perimeter -- and the smart money says it won't be Aromashodu, who plays the vast majority of snaps but has only two catches over the past three games. Camarillo and Burton both should have their chances, and the Vikings' tight ends may factor more heavily as receivers, too.
Run, run, run: That said, the Vikings' game plan can't be too much different than Denver's -- control the clock, avoid turnovers and keep the opponent's potent pass rush at bay with an effective run game. In Peteron's absence last weekend at Atlanta, HB Toby Gerhart never got going, in large part because the offensive line wasn't creating the creases he needs to get a head of steam. The Broncos rank 19th in rush defense but 12th in efficiency, allowing 4.1 yards per carry. It's on OC Bill Musgrave to get Gerhart downhill touches and on the line -- particularly LG Steve Hutchinson, who was terrible in the first quarter against the Falcons -- to give those downhill plays a chance. Herrera's return probably can't hurt, although backup Joe Berger held up well. If the Vikings can't run, it could be a long day for Ponder, especially if Miller manages to play less than a week after undergoing thumb surgery.
Secondary concerns: The Broncos just might let Tebow try to do more damage downfield, considering the sorry state of the Vikings' secondary. The only starters still standing are Sanford and CB Cedric Griffin, whose reconstructed knees have sapped his explosion. Allen didn't do much in practice during the week after spraining his shoulder against the Falcons. That makes it a good bet CB Benny Sapp will get the start and CB Marcus Sherels will play the slot in nickel, with rookie FS Mistral Raymond making his first NFL start behind them. Isolating Decker (6-foot-3, 218 pounds) on Sapp (5-10, 190) would be a mismatch even if Sapp were in shape. The Vikings surely will play some single-safety looks to combat the Broncos' option game. Whether Tebow exploit those looks downfield, of course, remains to be seen.
Listen up: The Vikings are 1-4 at home, they barely sold out this game and they've been outscored 58-7 in the first half since the bye. The environment inside the Metrodome could become toxic in a hurry if they sleepwalk early again, with fans fed up with the organization at every level. The Wilfs are in the midst of a push to gain public funding for a new stadium and they've been monitoring the situation in the football operation with increasing concern. All indications continue to be that Frazier is safe, but there's no telling how far changes could go if one of the worst seasons in franchise history gets even uglier. Wins don't matter at this stage, but ownership surely wants to see indications of increased competence, no matter the personnel shortages tying coaches' hands at so many positions.
The Vikings were favored by 1½ points as late as Saturday morning before the line moved towards Denver -- as it should have. A Vikings team with no Peterson, no outside receivers, no cornerbacks and nothing to play for? Even against the Broncos, who aren't exactly built to blow people out, it's tough to make an argument for betting on the home team.
Prediction: Broncos 19, Vikings 16.