Preview: Standouts must step up for Vikings to steal one in San Diego
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Who: Minnesota Vikings (0-0) at San Diego Chargers (0-0).
When: 3:15 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Qualcomm Stadium (capacity: 70,561), San Diego.
Line: Chargers by 9.
Coaches: Vikings -- Leslie Frazier (3-3 as interim coach in 2010). Chargers -- Norv Turner (5th year, 41-23; 14th year overall, 103-109-1).
Series: Tied 5-5. The Chargers lead 2-1 in San Diego.
Last meeting: Then-rookie Adrian Peterson broke the single-game NFL rushing record by amassing 296 yards on 30 carries (9.9 average) and three touchdowns to lead the Vikings to a 35-17 win on Nov. 4, 2007.
At stake: It's the regular-season opener for both teams. The Chargers are coming off their first non-playoff season since 2005 and have placed a priority on erasing their recent history of slow starts. Not much is expected around the league from the Vikings, whose schedule continues at home against two teams -- Tampa Bay and Detroit -- that appear to be on the rise. Stealing one in San Diego would go a long way in a locker room that's eager to buy into Frazier's message.
Vikings: CB Asher Allen (foot) was a limited participant in practice all week and was listed as questionable on the injury report. CB Chris Cook (hamstring), QB Donovan McNabb (right wrist) and TE Visanthe Shiancoe (hamstring) were full participants and are probable, although the decision to promote TE Allen Reisner from the practice squad on Saturday suggests the Vikings aren't yet 100% confident in Shiancoe's health.
Chargers: WR Vincent Brown (hamstring), WR Patrick Crayton (ankle) and LB Jonas Mouton (shoulder) didn't practice all week and are listed as questionable. LB Andrew Gachkar (back) was added to the injury report on Friday as a full participant and is probable.
Five things to watch
Start fast: For the Vikings to build some early momentum, they need their best players to come out the gate looking like their best players -- something that didn't happen consistently enough last season. WR Percy Harvin won't be miscast as an outside receiver, which should help him do more damage off slot work and manufactured touches. RE Jared Allen had an encouraging camp and will have his hands full on Sunday with Chargers LT Marcus McNeill. SLB Chad Greenway figures to draw the primary assignment against TE Antonio Gates. Peterson, MLB E.J. Henderson and CB Antoine Winfield also are a part of the informal leadership committee Frazier put together in hopes of carrying his message through the locker room -- and getting the right example set on Sundays.
Explosive offense: Outside of the 49-yard touchdown pass WR Bernard Berrian almost dropped in the preseason, one of the biggest questions about the Vikings' offense has remained unanswered. Can they balance the perimeter and stretch field vertically enough to prevent defenses from stacking the box to stop Peterson? McNabb is at his best on the move, waiting for receivers to clear zones underneath coverage. Coordinator Bill Musgrave has made clear he envisions his unit converting a lot of 10- to 14-play drives. But for that to work, the Vikings must demonstrate they're capable of threatening defenses down the field, whether that's with Berrian, Harvin, WR Michael Jenkins or someone else. The combination of Shiancoe and TE Kyle Rudolph has the potential to stretch the middle of the field, too -- and Musgrave is going to get creative with No. 3 QB Joe Webb sometime.
Secondary concerns: This will mark the most extended action yet for CBs Cook and Cedric Griffin since the knee injuries that ended their respectful 2010 seasons. It also will be the fourth NFL start for SS Jamarca Sanford, who beat out Tyrell Johnson for the job. And it will be a particularly stiff test against a Chargers offense that led the NFL last season in total offense, ranked second in passing and impressed scouts in this year's preseason, too. Chargers QB Philip Rivers surely will challenge Griffin from the get-go, as Cowboys QB Tony Romo did in the third preseason game, and Cook figures to get tested plenty when the Vikings are in their nickel package. Also, don't overlook tackling -- something Sanford must do better than departed veteran Madieu Williams to keep his job.
Along the lines: The Vikings will have four new starters between their offensive and defensive lines -- none more important than LT Charlie Johnson, who knows the Chargers' personnel well from his days in Indianapolis and has improved since the start of camp. How much help will Musgrave give him to make sure McNabb stays upright? That answer will clarify on Sunday, as will the ability of LE Brian Robison, NT Remi Ayodele and UT Letroy Guion -- starting for suspended veteran UT Kevin Williams -- to accomplish Frazier's goal of returning to No. 1 in run defense.
Something special: New coordinator Mike Priefer's special teams had some notable missteps in the preseason, from PR Marcus Sherels' fumble to blocked and missed field goals by PK Ryan Longwell. The Vikings simply aren't talented enough to give away opportunities or hand points to a team such as San Diego, which finished last season No. 2 in scoring offense -- and dead last in The Dallas Morning News' annual special-teams rankings. Harvin has been lobbying to handle kick returns over HB Lorenzo Booker, although the impact there may be muted by shortened-field touchbacks. Sherels will handle punt returns. Just as important will be the Vikings' coverage and return units, which will have a lot of new faces after the departures of veterans including LB Heath Farwell and TE Jeff Dugan.
The Vikings have a chance if they can control the clock with their running game and generate some takeaways on defense. However, the guess here is the Chargers' passing game wins this battle for the home team.
Prediction: Chargers 34, Vikings 23.