Minnesota Vikings vs. Tennessee Titans: Vikings Preseason Week 4 Game Preview
While most of the Vikings starters will sit out the final preseason game, a win would cap a 4-0 preseason record and continue the winning culture that new head coach Mike Zimmer is trying to instill in the franchise.
Obviously all the records go back to 0-0 following Thursday night's full slate of games, and the preseason has never been a portent of things to come, (Minnesota went 5-11 following that 4-0 preseason in 2001) but it would certainly not be a bad thing to continue the momentum this team has built throughout August.
While the outcome of Thursday night's game will be shrugged off either way by the time the team boards the plane to come back home, the preseason finale is huge for players battling to make the roster. It's also the last chance for fringe players to put some positive game action on tape for the Vikings and every other team in the league to see.
Cornerback Marcus Sherels was supposedly on the roster bubble last preseason. Then his 109-yard kickoff return in the final game of 2013 probably reminded Vikings coaches what an asset he is on special teams.
Two years ago a rookie named Jarius Wright cemented his roster spot with a six-reception, 122-yard, one-touchdown performance in that season's final exhibition game.
Even if a player doesn't make his current team, an impressive outing in the final preseason game can keep his dream alive. In the same game in which Wright locked down a roster spot, running back Jordan Todman ran for a 76-yard touchdown for the Vikings and rushed for 114 yards on just 10 carries.
Anyway you look at it, the final preseason game means that real football is just over a week away.
Vikings Week 3 Recap
The Vikings improved to 3-0 in the preseason by throttling the host Kansas City Chiefs, 30-12, last Saturday.
Matt Cassel put in a another strong performance, throwing for 152 yards and a touchdown, but it was the Minnesota defense that was the most impressive unit on the field.
After finishing 31st in total defense in 2013, the Vikings brought on Mike Zimmer as their new head coach. Zimmer is one of the best defensive minds in the game, and his most important task with the Vikings will be to turn last year's dismal defense into one of the league's best.
Although the Vikings are still needing two starters to step forward on that side of the ball, things have certainly been looking up this preseason. Minnesota registered five sacks and three interceptions against the Chiefs, while holding them to just 285 yards of total offense.
Cassel got the offense going quickly, throwing a 53-yard touchdown pass to Cordarrelle Patterson on the Vikings fifth play from scrimmage. Teddy Bridgewater relieved Cassel late in the third quarter and took advantage of great field position in throwing two short touchdown passes to tight end Allen Reisner.
Bridgewater's second touchdown was set up by a 75-yard punt return by wide receiver Adam Thielen, who's special teams play has probably locked up a roster spot for the native of Detroit Lakes, Minnesota.
The Vikings are expected to sit almost all of their starters for Thursday night's game against the Tennessee Titans, so they'll be rested and ready to open the season Sept. 6 against the St. Louis Rams.
News and Notes
Cassel Officially Named the Starting Quarterback
Although there really hasn't been much doubt about who the Vikings starting quarterback was going to be since the first day of training camp, Zimmer made it official on Monday, naming Cassel as the Vikings starter for their opener against the St. Louis Rams.
Most of the Vikings players expected as much, and while Bridgewater's play has been lauded, running back Adrian Peterson summed up the thoughts of almost everyone in the organization when he said the following, according to Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press:
Right now, I feel like, just my personal opinion, I feel like Matt has the edge. Going off of understanding the offense and who’s running the offense better right now, you know, nothing to do with talent-wise, so that’s why Matt (has the edge). He’s been here. He’s a veteran guy. This is Teddy’s first year, so I feel like we are in a good position to even be having that conversation (about quarterback competition).
It's a pleasant change for the Vikings, who had a disastrous 2013 season at quarterback, shuffling among Christian Ponder, Cassel and even Josh Freeman during a year where it seemed nobody ever had a clue as to who would start during a given week.
While Bridgewater didn't win the starting job, he's been excellent throughout training camp and played nearly flawlessly during the last two preseason games, going 20-of-27 for 217 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions.
It wasn't enough to wrest the starting job away from Cassel, however. Cassel has been better in camp and just as good during the preseason, going 26-of-39 for 367 yards and two touchdowns.
Cassel is the starting quarterback, but Bridgewater is clearly the quarterback of the future. When that future begins remains to be seen.
Ponder Will See Plenty of Action against the Titans
While the "Christian Ponder as Starter" era is officially over in Minnesota, expect the fourth-year man to get the lion's share of snaps this Thursday night against Tennessee. Matt Vensel of the Star Tribune reports that Teddy Bridgewater will start, with Ponder coming in next.
It's certainly been a different summer for Ponder, the Vikings first pick and the 12th overall choice in the 2011 draft. Drafted to be the quarterback of the future, Ponder hasn't seen things work out his way in Minnesota, as reported by Ben Goessling of ESPN.com.
It's hard to lay the blame on Ponder for the last three years, it was simply a bad choice by the Vikings. Most draft analysts ranked him as a second- or third-round choice and cried "reach" when the Vikings took him so high. That analysis has proven to be correct.
Rumors are flying that Minnesota may cut Ponder when it's time to set the final roster, but the belief here is that he'll remain on the roster as the third-string quarterback. Zimmer, according to Matt Vensel of the Star Tribune, said last week that, "I don't think there will be just two quarterbacks."
Certainly nothing is set in stone at this point, and Ponder just might be auditioning to keep his roster spot this Thursday night against the Titans.
Still Looking for Starters at Middle Linebacker and Strong Safety
The Vikings head into their final preseason game looking for starters at middle linebacker and free safety. While it's good to have stiff competition for the spots, it's probably not so good that nobody has earned those roles yet.
Tomasson also reports that Pro Football Focus graded out both positions poorly after Saturday's game against the Chiefs. Zimmer made it clear on Monday, however, that he doesn't put a lot of stock in what the PFF writers think. According to Doug Farrar of SI.com, Zimmer threw this out at his media session:
The last thing that I want to talk about before I let you guys go is this Pro Football Focus thing. I know everybody wants to get the scoop on this, but quite honestly there’s not really anybody... I look at the grades and I can’t tell you what a 0.7 is or anything like that, but I know that the people that are grading our games and our defenses and our offenses, they don’t know if the tackle gets beat inside, if we weren’t sliding out to the nickel or who our guys are supposed to cover. I guarantee they don’t know who is in our blitz package and what they are supposed to do. I would just ask everybody to take that with a grain of salt, including our fans. We as coaches get paid a whole bunch of money to do the jobs that we do, evaluate the players that we evaluate and grade them how we grade them and not based on someone else.
At any rate, don't be surprised if the players battling for those spots see some action on Thursday night. In the end, it may not matter who appears in the starting lineup on opening day, as all of the players involved will be counted upon heavily during the season.
There were no big surprises when the Vikings released 13 players on Monday and waived Mistral Raymond with an injury designation. Among the released the only two who could've slight raised some eyebrows were cornerback Derek Cox, whose 13 career interceptions were the most on the roster, and offensive tackle Kevin Murphy, who was on last year's practice squad.
Player Position Injury Status
Linval Joseph DT Out
Michael Mauti LB Out
Brandon Watts LB Out
Jamarca Sanford S Out
Jabari Price CB Out
Phil Loadholt OT Out
Anthony Barr LB Out
Rodney Smith WR Questionable
Gerald Hodges LB Questionable
While Joseph, Barr and Loadholt probably would have sat out anyway, injuries will keep them on the sidelines for sure on Thursday night.
Joseph is still recovering from a calf injury caused by a stray bullet at a nightclub incident earlier in August, but according to Master Tesfatsion of the Star Tribune, he assured reporters he would be ready to go against the Rams on opening day.
Watts (leg), Sanford (quad), Price (arm, shoulder) and Mauti (foot) are all somewhere around the bubble when it comes to making the final roster, so sitting this one out won't do them any favors.
X-Factors and Matchups to Watch
Teddy Bridgwater vs. Titans Defense, Zach Mettenberger vs. Vikings Defense
While the Vikings have been thrilled with the play of their rookie quarterback, the Titans boast a rookie who's been putting up stellar numbers in the preseason as well. Zach Mettenberger, who fell to sixth round, has looked like a draft-day steal in the preseason.
The 6'5", 235-pound Mettenberger was injured late last season, which probably sent his draft stock plummeting. But so far in the preseason, the big-armed Mettenberger is 35-of-51 for 504 yards and three touchdowns. His passing yards are the most in the league this preseason, but according to Josh Alper of NBCSports.com, Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt still says that Charlie Whitehurst will enter the season as the backup to starter Jake Locker.
While the Titans are bullish on Locker, who was drafted the same year as Ponder, they opted to take Mettenberger this year as some insurance at the QB position. The Vikings, meanwhile, have virtually given up on Ponder after having selected Bridgewater in the first round.
We'll almost surely see a lot more of Mettenberger on Thursday night, which will be interesting for Vikings fans, many of whom had hoped Minnesota would look at him in the second or third round had they not taken Bridgewater.
Jerick McKinnon vs. Titans Defense, Bishop Sankey vs. Vikings Defense
While the Vikings will sit most of their starters, the Titans may play at least a few of theirs for a series or two, according to Paul Kuharsky of ESPN.com.
Kuharsky writes that it's crucial for the Titans rookie Bishop Sankey to get some carries behind the first-team offensive line. Sankey began the preseason with problems securing the football, but he had a pretty good game last week.
Thursday's game should feature plenty of carries for Sankey and the Vikings' own rookie running back, Jerick McKinnon.
Sankey was the first running back chosen in the 2014 draft, when the Titans took him in the second round with the 54th overall pick. The Vikings then took McKinnon in the third round with the 96th pick.
Sankey is one of three Titan backs expected to share carries in 2014—Shonn Greene and Dexter McCluster being the other two. McKinnon obviously won't get as many carries as Sankey, playing behind Adrian Peterson, but he can still be a valuable asset.
McKinnon had his best game of the summer last week against the Chiefs, rushing for 43 yards on just six carries and catching two passes for nine yards. McKinnon will probably get more rushing attempts this week, and a good showing would probably make the Vikings coaches more willing to go to him during the season.
Blair Walsh vs. Titans Kickers
Thursday night might be a good time for Vikings fans to take a second to thank the heavens the Vikings used a sixth-round draft pick on kicker Blair Walsh in 2012.
Vikings fans now take kicking for granted. Walsh is one of the best in the game, and when he misses a field goal, it's a surprise.
The Titans, meanwhile, are still auditioning two kickers who have never played in the NFL. Neither Maikon Bonani or Travis Coons has been good enough throughout the summer to lock up the job, so the Titans enter Thursday's game still auditioning the two of them, according to Teresa Walker of the Associated Press.
Kicking is an easy thing to take for granted when you have a good one, like the Vikings do. Thursday night might give Minnesota fans an greater opportunity to appreciate Walsh more than they already do.
Obviously the kickers don't matchup against each other, but this is a good time for Minnesota fans to appreciate Walsh as they watch the two Titans battle for a job.
Vikings X-Factor of the Week: Audie Cole
The Vikings third-year linebacker just always seems to come through with big plays when called upon.
Cole was a sixth-round afterthought in 2012 before he took two interceptions back for touchdowns in a preseason game against the Buffalo Bills.
Last season, he was briefly waived by the Vikings to make room for a roster addition, before coming back and playing great football down the stretch, giving a spark to what had been a terrible defense in 2013.
Cole has been locked in a summer-long battle for the starting middle linebacker spot with Jasper Brinkley, and while Brinkley is probably the favorite heading down the stretch, the Vikings have learned never to count out Cole.
His eight tackles against the Chiefs were a team-high, and we expect him to have another big game against the Titans. Cole is currently the Vikings second-string middle linebacker, and with Michael Mauti (the third-stringer) not expected to play because of foot injury, Cole could get extended time Thursday night.
Vikings fans need to remember just one statistic heading into Thursday's game against the Tennessee Titans: The last time Minnesota went 4-0 in the preseason was in 2001, when they went on to go 5-11 during the regular season.
So what does that mean for this squad? Absolutely nothing.
Does this game matter? Ask the dozen or so players who are playing for a spot on the Vikings final roster.
As Vikings.com's Mike Wobschall writes, Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner says that the fourth preseason game may be the best of all the practice games.
People think it’s a throw-away game. This is probably the most important preseason game there is. These young guys get a chance to go play and get to show what they’ve been working on. Every year it seems to me a guy in the fourth preseason game does something to distinguish himself and make a case for himself.
So there you have it. You have some of the best athletes on earth who have worked their tails off for an entire offseason and training camp...and some left with just one final audition to make their mark.
Look for the Vikings reserves to put their best foot forward. Expect to see big performances from running back Jerick McKinnon, wide receiver Jarius Wright and safety Antone Exum Jr..
The Vikings finish off a perfect preseason, but the regular season will go much better than it did in 2001.
Vikings 21, Titans 17
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