Coming off a 20-13 victory over the Detroit Lions last week, the Vikings flip their calendars to Week 5 on Wednesday and prepare to embark on the second quarter of the 2012 regular season. To do so, they return to Mall of America Field on Sunday to take on their third AFC South opponent of the season – the Tennessee Titans.
Here are 10 Vikings-Titans storylines to chase this week…
1. Hasselbeck Likely To Start In Place Of Injured Locker
For the second consecutive week, the starting QB of the Vikings upcoming opponent is dealing with an injury that could prevent him from playing. Last week, it was Matthew Stafford with a hip injury. This week, it’s Jake Locker and his left shoulder. Stafford’s status for the game was technically in question, but it was a foregone conclusion very early in the week that he’d be able to play. That is not the case with Locker, however.
According to Jim Wyatt of the Tennessean, Locker is unlikely to play on Sunday. If the Titans choose to rest Locker, it will be Matt Hasselbeck who makes the start against the Vikings. Hasselbeck is a 14-year veteran who knows the ropes. And while it may sound appealing to have the opponent’s starting QB on the mend and off the field, one could argue that Hasselbeck, who has 147 career starts in the NFL and last started against the Vikings in 2009, gives the Titans just as good a chance to win on the road in a tough environment.
At this point, count on Hasselbeck starting and the talk this week being about how his experience perhaps better equips him to play the Vikings this week.
2. What a Rush – Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson Go Toe-to-Toe
Sunday’s game features two of the most explosive running backs in the NFL. The Vikings, of course, boast Adrian Peterson, who has more rushing yards (7,084) than any other player since 2007. The Titans offense features Chris Johnson, who rushed for 2,006 yards in 2009 and has more rushing yards (5,831) than any other player since entering the League in 2008.
Both Peterson and Johnson come into this week’s matchup off 100-yard outings last week, with Peterson pounding the Lions defense for 102 yards on 21 carries and Johnson slicing through the Houston Texans defense to the tune of 141 yards on 25 carries. Those big-time performances are significant moments for both players and their teams because there’s a sense that the superstar RBs are regaining their form after facing adversity a season ago – a holdout for Johnson led to his least productive NFL season and Peterson is returning from a knee injury.
Peterson faces a Titans defense that ranks 27th in the NFL and allows 136.5 yards per game on the ground, while Johnson will go up against a Vikings run defense that has been stout in 2012 and is allowing just 85.3 yards per game, good enough for 7th in the NFL.
3. Eye On Special Teams
The Vikings and Titans both have solid special teams groups, just ask the Detroit Lions. In Week 3 against the Lions, Tennessee scored on a 65-yard punt return and a 105-yard kickoff return en route to a wild 44-41 victory. The following week, the Vikings did the same thing to Detroit, scoring on Percy Harvin’s 105-yard kickoff return and Marcus Sherels’ 77-yard punt return on the way to a 20-13 win. The Vikings and Titans are the only NFL teams with kickoff return TDs on the season, and they are both among just 7 NFL teams with punt return TDs.
Each team has been solid in the kicking game, too. Titans K Rob Bironas has made 91.3% of his FGs the past two seasons and is 6 of 8 so far this year, while Vikings K Blair Walsh is off to a hot start in his first NFL season with 9 makes in 10 attempts and 3 FGs of 50+ yards already. Also, both Bironas and Walsh have been impressive on kickoffs. Bironas has 10 touchbacks on 18 kickoffs and is reaching the end zone on 94.4% of his kicks, while Walsh has 12 touchbacks already on 20 attempts and is reaching the end zone 95% of the time.
The special teams battle will be a fun one to watch this week because both teams are solid in all phases and both teams have the experience already this season of having their special teams group make a profound impact in victory.
4. Vikings Offensive Line: Keep Rolling
The Vikings offensive line is coming off consecutive impressive performances. Against a very good San Francisco 49ers defense, the Vikings offensive line paved the way for 146 rushing yards, 24 points and a 7-minute advantage in time of possession. The following week was good for the offensive line, too. Frazier said the offensive line generated its best performance of the season against Detroit, as Peterson ran for 102 yards on 21 carries and QB Christian Ponder was not sacked.
If the Vikings offensive line continues to execute well this Sunday, they should win their matchup against the Titans defensive front. There is plenty of talent on the Titans defensive line, there’s no question about that, but there’s something to be said for an offensive line that is playing with confidence and a nasty attitude. Plus, this is a Titans defense that ranks just 27th in run defense (allowing 136.5 rushing yards per game), has allowed a NFL-high 10 drives of 5+ minutes and has generated just 6 sacks in 4 games.
5. Will Tennessee Have A Good “Plan For Percy?”
Percy Harvin has been the Vikings most dynamic weapon in 2012, as evidenced by the fact that he ranks 3rd in the NFL with 30 receptions on 38 targets and ranks 1st in the NFL with 698 combined yards (345 return yards, 299 receiving yards, 54 rushing yards). Last week against vs. Detroit, though, Harvin was held in check on offense (not on special teams, though, as Harvin tallied a 105-yard kickoff return TD). He had 3 receptions for 22 yards and 3 rushes for 12 yards. After the game, Vikings Head Coach Leslie Frazier acknowledged that the Lions had “a good plan for Percy.”
The NFL is often described as a “copy cat” league, so you can expect the Titans to take some notes from the Lions plan and apply that to their own strategy for handling Harvin. The Vikings offensive staff will also be hard at work this week on that topic, though, as they’ll surely find creative ways to get Harvin the ball. This will be an interesting chess match to watch unfold this week.
As good of a season as Harvin is having, don’t be surprised if he and the Vikings offensive coaches find a way to get the diminutive playmaker back on track.
6. Kenny Britt Expected Back
The Titans have been without arguably one of their most talented players for most of the season, but after sitting out last week’s game he’s expected to be ready to go for this Sunday. Britt was a 1st-round pick of Tennessee’s back in 2009 and he began his career with 84 receptions and 12 TDs in his first 28 games. That production, along with his size (6-3, 215 pounds) and speed combination, had many thinking he was a player on the rise.
A serious knee injury last season that cost him 13 games and then a suspension for Week 1 of this season has slowed his progress some. But he’ll try to get back on track this week against a Vikings secondary that has been vulnerable in the past, but steadily improving over the course of the season. The Vikings held Calvin Johnson to 5 catches for 54 yards last week, and they’ll be challenged again this week by another big, physical and fast receiver in Britt.
7. Can The Vikings Utilize Simpson Well Once Again?
The Vikings wasted no time incorporating Jerome Simpson back into the lineup last Sunday. Coming off a 3-game absence, Simpson returned against Detroit and immediately made an impact on the game. He came away from the game as the Vikings leading receiver with 4 receptions for 50 yards, and also drew a pair of pass interference penalties in the 1st half that both led to points. Simpson’s 27-yard reception on a crucial play late in the game was vital to the Vikings efforts, too, because it allowed for more time to run off the clock.
With another week of practice to devise plans and schemes, it will be fun to see how the Vikings use Simpson this week against a Titans pass defense that is yielding the NFL’s highest passer rating (118.3) and has also allowed 16 completions of 20+ yards.
8. Hutch Returns to Minnesota
Steve Hutchinson will make his return to Mall of America Field for the first time since leaving the Vikings this past offseason via free agency. Hutchinson was originally drafted by the Seattle Seahawks with a 1st-round pick in 2001, but signed with the Vikings as a free agent in 2005. In 6 seasons with the Vikings, Hutchinson played in 89 games and helped the Vikings advance to the playoffs twice (2008, 2009).
Now with the Titans, Hutchinson is once again blocking for an explosive RB in Johnson, and he’s also blocking for a young QB in Locker (although Locker may not play in this game).
Tags: Adrian Peterson, Blair Walsh, Jerome Simpson, Leslie Frazier, Percy Harvin
Posted in All, Mike Wobschall | 73 Comments »