Our five big questions going into Sunday’s huge match-up with Tennessee…
1. Will the Vikings get a chance to open up the offense?
The Vikings have gotten to 3-1 by playing incredibly conservative, under-control offense. Most of that offense has been Adrian Peterson running between the tackles and Percy Harvin catching short passes, with a sprinkling of Kyle Rudolph. Christian Ponder has done a fine job running this offense so far. The key for him has been playing with discipline and not forcing balls downfield. However, you have to wonder how long this approach can continue to be effective. We saw against Detroit that if you take away Percy Harvin you eliminate most of the Vikings passing attack. But now Jerome Simpson is back and it’s clear the Vikes want to press the issue a little. They went to Simpson a few times down the field against Detroit and got two pass interference penalties and a big late first down for their efforts. Certainly they want Simpson to be a bigger part of the offense than this. Of course you can’t just go out there saying “We’re going to pass the ball down the field.” You have to take your shots when they’re available and not go crazy. Detroit didn’t give them many shots so they didn’t take many shots. Against Tennessee however, I feel like they might have some more opportunities to open it up and get some chunks through the air. The Titans are just not a good defense right now. They’re struggling to get a pass rush going and their secondary is really terrible. I have to believe Ponder will see more openings this week than he has the past couple weeks. I think he may have a chance to challenge his high-water-mark in yardage, which came last year against Denver when he threw for 381. But this time he won’t have 2 picks like he did against Denver. I just feel like this could be a big game for Ponder. But I’m sure he won’t force it if for whatever reason the opportunities aren’t there.
2. Will Tennessee try to lock down on Percy Harvin?
Detroit was obviously focused on taking away Percy. Leslie Frazier talked about Detroit’s plan earlier this week, saying “There were a number of times we looked and they have guys bracketing and they rotated the safeties to play the reverse. They had a good plan, a good Percy plan and fortunate for us, we were able to run the football as well as we were and we were able to get some plays down the field to Jerome [Simpson] that helped us get some explosive plays. It was a good job by Detroit. Credit them for what they did.” A lot of Detroit’s plan was just jumping stuff. They jumped a couple screen passes and they had Cliff Avril all over an end-around. It was a tough day for Percy but like Frazier said, the Vikes made up for it by running the ball well and going deep to Simpson. I don’t know what Tennessee will do but if they game-plan for Percy the way Detroit did, that should open up other stuff. Christian Ponder just has to be smart and recognize when things aren’t there. One of the intended screens to Percy was almost picked off and it would’ve been taken to the house. It’s clear the Vikes will not be able to lean on Percy quite as heavily as they did for the first few weeks. He was kind of a crutch for them but that crutch has been kicked out. Now this offense has to walk on its own.
3. Could Chris Johnson be a problem?
Chris Johnson was a non-factor the first few weeks of the season. But last week against Houston he came awake, rushing for 141 yards on 25 carries. Titans people attribute a lot of this to an improving offensive line. Certainly, Tennessee will try to get Johnson going against the Vikings. That’s the obvious game plan on the road with a back-up quarterback in the game. Experienced as Matt Hasselbeck may be, I doubt Tennessee wants to put this game in his hands. They will put it on Johnson instead. The Vikings will have to play the kind of good, disciplined, hard-hitting run defense they played last week against Detroit. The Lions basically got nothing going with Mikel Leshoure as their #1 back. Of course Chris Johnson is a different animal. The key to stopping him will be getting penetration and getting stuffs in the backfield. Johnson is one of those guys who will dance at times, trying to hit the home run instead of just taking what’s there. Tackle him in the backfield a couple times early and I think he’ll get frustrated. Just don’t let him get free because he’s the kind of guy who can carry a team.
4. We’re going to see Kyle Rudolph this week right?
Much was made this week about how the Vikings are using Kyle Rudolph. Tom Pelissero wrote a whole big piece about it. How Rudolph is being used as more of an inline tight end than people maybe expected. This would explain a game like last week. The Vikes ran it heavily, so Rudolph was mostly lined up as a blocker. They didn’t line him up off the line much and it showed up in his lack of targets. They won the game so, no biggie. However, there’s a line of reasoning that says Rudolph is sort of being wasted in this role. Indeed, Pelissero says the Vikings themselves have had “internal discussions” about using Rhett Ellison more in the blocking role and trying to get Rudolph out into patterns. I say go ahead with this plan. John Carlson has shown he can’t do squat. The Vikes know what they have in Percy Harvin but they need more weapons. Rudolph can be a legit weapon. So can Jerome Simpson and maybe Jarius Wright if he ever sees the field.
5. This isn’t a question it’s a pat on the back.
The Vikes special teams are now among the best in the league. Kick coverage. Punt coverage. Returns. Place kicking. Everything is solid right now. Those guys get after it and Mike Priefer is the orchestrator. Take a bow Mike. You earned it.
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