Preview: Vikings' No. 1 offense seeks momentum in dress rehearsal
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Who: Dallas Cowboys (1-1 preseason) at Minnesota Vikings (1-1).
When: 7 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Mall of America Field at the Metrodome (capacity: 64,111).
TV: KARE (Channel 11).
Line: Cowboys by 1½.
Coaches: Vikings -- Leslie Frazier (1st season, 3-3 as interim coach in 2010). Cowboys -- Jason Garrett (1st season, 5-3 as interim coach in 2010).
Series: The Vikings lead 11-10 in the regular-season series and have won seven of the last eight, including two playoff contests.
Last meeting: Percy Harvin's 95-yard kickoff return followed an impassioned halftime speech by Randy Moss as the Vikings rallied to beat the Cowboys 24-21 on Oct. 17.
At stake: It's the all-important third preseason game, which generally serves as a dress rehearsal for the regular season. Both teams plan to play their starters until halftime and perhaps a little beyond. If all goes well, Frazier hinted this week, QB Donovan McNabb and other key players may not play at all in the exhibition finale on Thursday against Houston. It's also the Vikings' first game at the 'Dome since the roof collapsed in December.
Vikings: LB Heath Farwell (hamstring), LB Jasper Brinkley (hip flexor), HB Toby Gerhart (ankle/Achilles), TE Visanthe Shiancoe (hamstring), DT Kevin Williams (foot), CB Asher Allen (toe) and LB Ross Homan (concussion) are out. LB Mark Washington (shoulder stinger) was waived on Friday. RG Anthony Herrera (knee/triceps) and LB Kenny Onatolu (foot) are expected to make their preseason debuts.
Cowboys: CB Mike Jenkins (neck stinger), C Phil Costa (knee), G Montrae Holland (back) and CB Terence Newman (groin) are out. LB Kenwin Cummings (thumb surgery) is questionable. LB Keith Brooking (hamstring), RB Tashard Choice (calf) and RB DeMarco Murray (hamstring) are expected to play.
Three things to watch
Make it six: In 31 plays over four preseason possessions, the Vikings' starting offense has amassed 140 yards (4.5 average), eight first downs and three points. McNabb has appeared comfortable operating the offense, and a 13-play, 86-yard drive from their own 1-yard line last week at Seattle highlighted how Frazier and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave expect to have success: run the ball, be efficient with a short passing game and exploit the occasional one-on-one matchup down the field. It's a recipe that protects a shaky offensive line and takes advantage of the explosive ability of players such as Harvin and HB Adrian Peterson, who can turn just about any play into a big gain. But grind-it-out possessions also leave lots of time for things to go wrong, such as the false start and batted pass that stalled that drive against the Seahawks. This game will be the first for which the Vikings have done any game planning, meaning there should be stronger indications of how Musgrave plans to attack beyond his base plays. Putting the ball in the end zone at least once may be a prerequisite for McNabb and company to get the finale off as expected. Joe Webb will run the second string and rookie Christian Ponder will pick up scraps with the threes.
Injury evaluations: Two veteran starters coming back from knee reconstruction surgery, CB Cedric Griffin and Herrera, have combined to play five preseason snaps. This will be the team's first look at both of them in extended action, and coaches can't be entirely certain what to expect. Griffin has held up well in practice, and he broke up a pass up the seam on his first play against Seattle. But can he play well for 60 to 70 snaps a game after two ACL tears? His skills always have been better-suited to zone coverage than man, and opposing coordinators surely will try to test him over the top when given the opportunity. Herrera improved enough from his first week of practice to get the starting nod against Dallas. But will he be confident enough in the knee to play with the physical aggression that has kept him in the league for eight years? He still is struggling to maintain his balance at times, and the Vikings' altered running scheme will ask him to show mobility by pulling on power-left plays -- something that's been a strength for him in the past. The options aren't enticing if either player falters. There's not an obvious choice to slide into the third spot in the nickel if Chris Cook has to become a starter, and Scott Kooistra's season-ending neck injury would leave guard in the hands of Chris DeGeare or Ryan Cook, who have starting experience but didn't do enough in Herrera's absence to seize the job.
Two for safety: Tyrell Johnson and Jamarca Sanford competed for the starting job at strong safety last preseason, only to have Husain Abdullah steal the job. Madieu Williams' release gave Johnson and Sanford another chance this year, and Frazier insists both playing well enough to take the competition to the wire. But what does either player have to show for it? They've combined for seven solo tackles, and neither has made a single play in the preseason -- or practice, for that matter -- that turned anyone's heads. The Vikings play a lot of deep zones in their Tampa-2 defense, putting a premium on consistency and discipline over playmaking. Missed tackles are one reason Williams became expendable. Still, the Vikings surely would like to see one player rise up and snatch the job, rather than leaving open the possibility someone such as rookie sixth-round draft pick Mistral Raymond could sneak in as Abdullah did a year ago. Johnson in particular has a lot to lose if he doesn't come out on top. Scouts remain high on the former-second round pick's potential, but he's entering the final year of his original rookie contract and brings so little on special teams that failing to earn the starting nod could make the Vikings consider moving on altogether. Of all the starting jobs that could sort themselves out on Saturday, no situation remains more clouded heading in.