In my years as a Vikings fan, I can’t remember a time quite like the beginning of last season. After strong performances in the first half of each of the initial three games, the team collapsed in epic fashion to start off 0-3. In those games, there were always one or two players from the opposition who came up big to save the day, and a player in purple who simply couldn’t keep up.
Every game has a key matchup to watch, and this season won’t be any different. That being said, here is a game-by-game breakdown of the most interesting matchup to watch during the first half of the 2012 season for the Vikings.
Week 1 – Home against Jacksonville Jaguars
DT Kevin Williams vs. RB Maurice Jones-Drew: As much as it pains me to say, the Jaguars are a very similar team to the Vikings. Both squads feature one-dimensional offenses led by second-year quarterbacks. Like the Vikings, that lackluster scoring group is led by a primetime running back. MJD is a power runner who loves to bowl people over and break through the interior of the defensive line. Kevin Williams, in a contract year and needing to prove himself useful as an aging veteran, will have to bounce back from a down year last season and stuff the run.
If Williams can step up, Jacksonville will have to rely on their passing game. This should be an easy first test for the rebuilt Minnesota secondary. Despite drafting the best rookie wideout Justin Blackmon, he still has the worst rookie quarterback from last year, Blaine Gabbert, throwing to him. Stopping MJD and the Jags’ run game is crucial if Minnesota wants to start the reason off on the right foot.
Week 2 – At Indianapolis Colts
LB Jasper Brinkley vs. QB Andrew Luck: Plenty of eyes will be on this game as the sports world watches Andrew Luck try and live up to the hype associated with a No. 1 overall pick. This is a pretty evenly-matched game, but one that should come down to one factor: Can the rejuvenated Colts offense pick apart a suspect Vikings defense? The answer to that question will depend on how Jasper Brinkley performs. As the middle linebacker, he’s essentially the quarterback of the defense and will be responsible for understanding and outperforming the quarterback of the offense in Andrew Luck.
Both players are unproven, especially Brinkley, who needs to shake off his injury-prone past and show enough potential to warrant his starting role. Brinkley will most likely have to deal with the other top draft pick from Indianapolis, being responsible for covering tight end Coby Fleener. At this point in the offseason, Brinkley is the biggest question mark on defense, but could alleviate some of those concerns with a strong performance against a rebuilding team.
Week 3 – Home against San Francisco 49ers
RG Fusco/Berger/Schwartz vs. DT Justin Smith: 49ers defensive tackle Justin had a breakout season last year, cementing his status as one of top rushing tackles in the league. This could be trouble for the Vikings and a restructured offensive line. While the tackles, center, and left guard positions seem to be locked in, the right guard position is much murkier. As training camp approaches, Brandon Fusco, Joe Berger, and Geoff Schwartz will battle for that last spot.
Smith is a beast up the middle, so it’s important for whoever wins the right guard spot to step up. The middle of the Vikings offensive line will have to hold up to keep Christian Ponder from spending most of the game on back.
Week 4 – At Detroit Lions
CB Chris Cook vs. WR Calvin Johnson: San Francisco in Week 3 may be the toughest test early in the season, but the Detroit Lions are the biggest test for the revamped secondary of the Vikings. A key part of this new look secondary is the returning Chris Cook, who will be spend most of the game covering Calvin Johnson. Minnesota needs to put a big-bodied CB on the big-bodied Megatron, and Cook fits that bill better than the other corners on the roster. Given how dynamic the Lions offense is, Cook is likely to see some man coverage throughout the game and will need to have a good showing against the elite wideout.
Week 5 – Home against Tennessee Titans
LB Chad Greenway vs. RB Chris Johnson: Luckily for me, I avoided Chris Johnson during last year’s fantasy football draft. Others, however, were less fortunate and watched in frustration as CJ2K put up mediocre numbers. Regardless, Johnson is a home run threat who will need to be kept in check. This is the perfect opportunity for Chad Greenway to prove his massive contract worthwhile. Greenway is a tackling machine and will need to be at his best against the Titans. The reason why Greenway should be the top tackler this game is Johnson’s running style. CJ2K likes to bounce around to the outside, and is extraordinarily good at avoiding the front four. Whether or not Johnson makes it past the second line of defense is what will determine the outcome of this game.
Week 6 – At Washington Redskins
DE Jared Allen vs. QB RGIII: The Vikings continue to make the rounds against young quarterbacks, with Washington being their fourth game featuring a first or second year signal caller. Typically, it would be up to the secondary to keep the QB in check, but the Redskins are a little different. While RGIII is a tremendous upgrade over Rex Grossman, the Redskins did practically nothing to fix a porous offensive line. This means Jared Allen should get through the protection easily and often. This is where things get interesting. Because Griffin looks to be one of the most athletic players in the entire league, Allen might have a hard time catching him to bring him down. Regardless of how many times we see Allen “roping the calf,” it should be an entertaining matchup to watch.
Week 7 – Home against Arizona Cardinals:
Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer vs. PR Patrick Peterson: Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer has done a good job of turning around a typically sub-par group despite losing what few leaders it had, like Heath Farwell. Usually, Priefer’s biggest responsibility is deciding what to do about Devin Hester twice a year. However, this could be his biggest test with Patrick Peterson establishing himself as the new top returner in the league right now. The battle for field position is always an important factor in winning games, and this game will hold true to that.
Week 8 – Home against Tampa Bay Bucs
DT Letroy Guion/Fred Evans vs. RB LaGarrette Blount/Doug Martin: Prior to Cleveland switching draft picks with the Vikings to get Trent Richardson, the Buccaneers were often thought of as the most common landing spot for the top-rated running back. LaGarrette Blount has shown flashes of promise the past couple seasons, but has tendency to make boneheaded moves on and off the field. While Tampa missed out on Richardson, they still drafted running back Doug Martin in the first round. This gives the Bucs a formidable 1-2 punch in the backfield.
The Vikings have struggled to stop the run consistently since Pat Williams left. That reinforced running game of the Bucs means the Minnesota defensive tackles will be tested heavily. All signs are pointing towards a rotation of Letroy Guion and Fred Evans next to Kevin Williams. Can this DT rotation hold up against the Tampa Bay running backs? The answer to that question may also decide who wins this game.
Check in a few days, when I dive into the interesting matchups for the second half of the Vikings regular season.
You can follow Steve Retka on Twitter @steveretka.