If 2011 is going to be better than 2010 for the Vikings, it has to start Sunday afternoon in San Diego. Last year the Vikings also began on the road against a tough opponent, the Saints, and ended up losing 14-9. As the score indicates, the Vikings were in that game till the end – they were actually ahead at halftime – but were unable to make the big play and pull it out.
The big issue vs. the Saints last year was a lack of offensive rhythm related to Brett Favre having skipped training camp. The Vikings won’t have that excuse this year: Donovan McNabb was in camp from the start and fully engaged, and participated in three preseason games. Yes it’s a new offense and yes McNabb still has limited experience in it, but there’s no reason the Vikings shouldn’t be able to come out and execute early. If the offense struggles the blame will fall on the line, which looked okay at times during the preseason but is still a big question mark. The other issue is a lack of playmakers at receiver.
The equalizer for Minnesota is Adrian Peterson, who yesterday was locked up for 7 years and should come out Sunday with even more fire in his belly than usual. As Peterson proved the last time he played in San Diego, he can dismantle a defense all by himself. The Chargers figure to focus heavily on Peterson and dare the Vikings to attack through the air with their questionable receivers. Helping San Diego this time is the presence of Bob Sanders who, when healthy, is a great run-stopping safety.
This game represents a huge challenge for new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and his scheme. We got only a small taste of the new attack this preseason, and saw a lot of multiple tight end sets, and a lot of running to set up play action. We also saw Percy Harvin being lined up at multiple positions as Musgrave tried to take advantage of his unique skills. What we didn’t see was Visanthe Shiancoe, who missed the whole preseason with a bad hammy. Today we will hopefully find out exactly how Shank fits into the new plan. If Shank is 100% and Bernard Berrian can build on his good preseason performance against Dallas, the Vikings’ playmaking cupboard won’t be entirely bare.
Defensively the challenge is even greater for the Vikings. The Chargers have arguably the best array of receivers and tight ends in the league outside of Green Bay, and an MVP-caliber quarterback orchestrating the whole ensemble. All week we’ve heard how the Vikings must get pressure on Philip Rivers if they hope to stay in this game. The first choice for Minnesota will be to get that pressure from their revamped front-4, but if that doesn’t work, Fred Pagac will have no choice but to bring the blitz. Such an aggressive approach did pay dividends last season, most notably against Michael Vick and the Eagles, but Philip Rivers is not Michael Vick. If the Vikings are forced to bring extra men, Rivers will simply make the reads and hit the open receivers.
The Vikings defensive line will be squarely in the spotlight today. Brian Robison must start earning the big contract he signed this offseason by bringing consistent heat off the left end. Letroy Guion and the other men in the defensive tackle rotation must get push up the middle and make Rivers uncomfortable in the pocket. Jared Allen must avoid starting this season as slowly as he started last season. The Vikings simply do not have enough secondary talent to hold up against a team like the Chargers if there’s no pressure on the QB.
Beating the Chargers will certainly be a tall task, but the Vikings must find a way to make it happen, and get their season off to a positive start. As we learned in 2010, early losses can pile up fast. Had the Vikings found a way to pull out a win against New Orleans last year – and that was a very winnable game – they would’ve gone into week 2 at home against Miami with a whole different feeling, and very well might’ve rolled against that mediocre opponent. As it happened, they did not beat the Saints week 1, causing the pressure to already mount in week 2. The result: A poor performance against the Dolphins and an 0-2 start. The Vikings’ season was at that point, for all intents and purposes, already done.
Of course the Vikings’ season won’t be over if they lose to San Diego this week, and won’t even be over if they lose to Tampa Bay next week. Teams do rebound from 0-2 starts. However, given this team’s recent history, it would be much better for them to start fast. After last year’s experience, there will be a tendency for guys to lapse into “here we go again” mode if indeed they get off to a sluggish beginning. A win against San Diego on Sunday would cause all that lingering bad feeling from 2010 to evaporate, and would give the team tons of confidence going into a tough home opener.
Two straight wins to start the season would hardly guarantee a playoff berth, but it would go a long way toward building momentum and locker room chemistry. The Vikings may be talent-challenged in certain areas, but teams with inferior talent can rise above that if certain star players show up big, and if a few of those lesser players overachieve. And if the coaching staff proves itself to be especially adept at maximizing that limited talent through motivation and game-day savvy.
If the team starts 0-2 again however, all that bad feeling comes flooding back in, and the landslide begins. The situation may get out of hand very quickly, leading to yet another epic implosion. Despite Leslie Frazier’s reputation for player management, I don’t think he will be able to hold this group together if things go south early. We’ve seen that movie before, and it was ugly. If the Vikings want to avoid all that nonsense they need a fast start, and to get a fast start they need an early upset win at San Diego. It will be difficult but it is not impossible.