On Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings will take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2015 edition of the NFL's annual Hall of Fame Game. The game kicks off at 8 p.m. ET and will be broadcast nationally on NBC.
For Minnesota, the exhibition contest provides an initial and additional opportunity to begin building upon last year's 7-9 record. It will be the first of five preseason games for the Vikings leading up to the start of their regular season on September 14.
Since the Hall of Fame Game will mark the official start to the 2015 NFL season, we decided it was worth taking an in-depth look at what this game means for Minnesota.
Where We Left Off
When we last saw the Vikings in action, the team was finishing off the Chicago Bears in a 13-9 contest that would put a cap on Minnesota's 7-9 campaign.
While the Vikings missed the playoffs and the 2014 season was ultimately a disappointment in terms of overall accomplishment, there was a ton of growth during the regular season and many things to feel good about.
For starters, let's look at the fact that Minnesota won seven games and did so almost completely without the services of star running back Adrian Peterson, who appeared in only one game. This made for a two-win improvement over the 2013 season.
Where We're Headed
Last year's improvement was a testament to head coach Mike Zimmer's emphasis on dominant defense and the development of then-rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (more on that guy in a bit).
The Vikings finished the season ranked 11th in scoring defense (21.4 points per game allowed) and 14th in total defense (344.7 yards per game allowed). These rankings might not exactly leap off the page, but just realize Minnesota was ranked dead last in scoring defense (30.0 points per game allowed) and 31st in total defense (397.6 yards per game allowed) in 2013.
Bridgewater was fairly efficient for a rookie signal-caller, but the offense overall (ranked 27th, averaging 315.5 yards per game) was not. If that side of the football can make strides, then the Vikings will have a realistic chance of becoming a playoff team.
Improving the offense while continuing to build the defense will be obvious goals in 2015.
What to Watch for on Sunday
We know you're all here because football Sunday is finally back. With that in mind, let's get down to business and take a look at some Vikings storylines worth following in the preseason opener.
The New Additions
We probably aren't going to see a lot from the starters on Sunday since this is the first of five preseason games for the Vikings. However, Zimmer and Co. are likely to use the game as an opportunity to take a look at some new members of the team—especially the rookies.
There will be a number of first-year players to keep an eye on against Pittsburgh. The first three players Minnesota selected in the draft—cornerback Trae Waynes, linebacker Eric Kendricks and defensive end Danielle Hunter—all have an opportunity to be impact players on defense this season.
Rookie lineman T.J. Clemmings and Tyrus Thompson will also be worth watching because either or both players could be in line to start at some point this season. Also be sure to watch rookie fifth-round pick Stefon Diggs. According to Mike Wobschall of Vikings.com, the wide receiver has been a "human highlight reel" in virtually every practice of training camp.
Don't sleep on the team's undrafted free agents, either. Guys like safety Anthony Harris, center Tom Farniok and wide receiver DaVaris Daniels could have a real shot at making the team with some solid preseason performances.
Daniels was previously on the non-football injury list, but he began practicing last week, according to Matt Vensel of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Though we probably won't see a ton of action from the projected starters, we might get a brief look at wide receiver Mike Wallace and how he fits into offensive coordinator Norv Turner's system. Wallace, you might recall, used to play for the Steelers. His ability to stretch the field should mesh with Turner's love of the vertical passing game.
It will also be interesting to see how backup quarterback Shaun Hill looks after going 3-5 as a starter with the St. Louis Rams in 2014. Hopefully, the Vikings won't need to turn to Hill at all during the regular season, but having a good insurance policy at quarterback is important.
As we've already mentioned, Minnesota isn't likely to give a ton of work to the starting cast. However, we might get to glimpse Bridgewater for a series or two before the night is over. At least, he seems to be preparing as if he will get some work.
"I'm excited to get back in that game mode," Bridgewater said Thursday, per Brian Murphy of the (St. Paul) Pioneer Press. "A week of game planning, it's going to be exciting to get out there and compete."
Bridgewater didn't necessarily set the stat books on fire as a rookie last season, but he was accurate, efficient and extremely poised throughout his inaugural campaign. He went 6-6 as a starter and was rated 15th overall among 75 quarterbacks by Pro Football Focus for the year.
No rookie was rated higher.
It will be exciting to see how Bridgewater carries himself heading into Year 2 and if he's picked up any new tricks during the offseason.
The Minnesota defense did a ton of things right in 2014, but its inability to force turnovers on a regular basis was an area of concern.
The Vikings ranked a respectable 18th in interceptions with 13, but they only recovered six forced fumbles on the year. Only three teams forced fewer than the nine fumbles caused by the Vikings defense in 2014. Just imagine how much better that defense would have looked if it was turning the ball over with regularity.
This is a fairly correctable issue, however. You can bet that Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards have been busy in the offseason stressing the importance of stripping and securing the football. When Zimmer was defensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2013, his unit recovered 11 forced fumbles to go with 20 interceptions.
The Vikings defense will probably be extra vanilla on Sunday, but it will be worth watching to see if individual players are making the extra effort to create turnovers.
Let's not forget that this weekend, first and foremost, is about honoring the 2015 class of Hall of Fame players. One of those players, center Mick Tingelhoff, has a special connection with the Vikings franchise.
Originally an undrafted free agent out of Nebraska in 1962, Tingelhoff spent his entire NFL career with the Vikings. He was the team's starting center until his retirement in 1978 and was a member of all four Minnesota Super Bowl teams.
Tingelhoff was named to the Pro Bowl six times in his career.
What We Won't See
You probably know that running back Adrian Peterson spent the vast majority of last season on the Exempt/Commissioner's Permission List. Did you realize, however, that this meant he has never been on a game field with his current starting quarterback.
Peterson didn't play at all in the 2014 preseason and appeared in only one regular-season game, and Bridgewater didn't arrive on the scene until Week 3. At some point, these two are going to get together and wreak some offensive havoc.
|Vikings 2015 Draft Picks|
|Round 1 (11)||CB Trae Waynes||Michigan St.|
|Round 2 (45)||LB Eric Kendricks||UCLA|
|Round 3 (88)||DE Danielle Hunter||LSU|
|Round 4 (110)||OT T.J. Clemmings||Pitt|
|Round 5 (143)||TE MyCole Pruitt||Southern Illinois|
|Round 5 (146)||WR Stefon Diggs||Maryland|
|Round 6 (185)||OT Tyrus Thompson||Oklahoma|
|Round 6 (193)||DE B.J. Dubose||Louisville|
|Round 7 (228)||OT Austin Shepherd||Alabama|
|Round 7 (232)||LB Edmond Robinson||Newberry|
However, it isn't likely to happen on Sunday. Peterson hasn't appeared in a preseason game since 2011, and Zimmer has made it clear he doesn't plan on changing the trend.
"I probably don't see that, no," Mike Zimmer told Chris Tomasson of the (St. Paul) Pioneer Press earlier this offseason when asked if Peterson could see preseason work. "We're talking in June, so you can't hold me to it, but he's carried the ball a lot (in his eight-year career) and he's going to continue to carry the ball a lot. He'll get plenty of looks and reps in practice."
Instead, we'll probably get a heavy dose of backups like Matt Asiata, Jerick McKinnon and Joe Banyard.
There is a chance that second-year linebacker Anthony Barr might also miss Sunday's game, though he is listed as probable with knee inflammation. According to ESPN, he is the only player currently listed on Minnesota's injury report.
The bottom line is that the Hall of Fame Game is a yearly ritual to honor the newly inducted class of legends and to allow fans to celebrate the start to a new year. So be sure to sit back, grab some wings and a beverage, and enjoy the experience.
There will be some fun things to watch for, even if your favorite superstars aren't out on the field for very long.
Be sure to check back here at Bleacher Report before, during and after the game for the latest updates and information.