With lowered expectations, Vikings look forward to new season

By Nick Leyh

With the Twins’ dismal season not ending fast enough, a Minnesota sports fan looking for some faint light in the darkness can now turn to the Vikings. However, the Vikings still have plenty of questions to answer throughout the course of this season, questions that will determine whether this season stands as a stepping-stone on the way to a playoff caliber team or a continuation of the losing trend started in 2010 with their 6-10 record. Offensively, running back Adrian Peterson’s return on Sunday (9/9) was a big relief, as he rushed for 84 yards and two touchdowns in the Vikings’ 26-23 overtime victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Whether Peterson will hold up is one of the key issues this team must face. Second year quarterback Christian Ponder and company must also find a way to improve from last year’s 28th ranked passing offense. Ponder showed glimpses of his potential in games against the Panthers and the Falcons last year where he had passer ratings of over a 100. However, those signs were marred by bad decisions that led to four games with multiple interceptions. On Sunday, Ponder went 20-27 for 270 yards and no interceptions, but the stats hide a slow first half where the offense was completely ineffective. A good first start, but it is critical that Ponder continues to make good reads and minimize turnovers this season. Ponder does have more to work with this year. Percy Harvin looks to be one of Ponder’s main targets, since the do-it-all receiver was 6th in the NFL in receptions in the last 10 games of last season, and that was with him in the game for just over 50 percent of the offensive snaps. Offseason addition Jerome Simpson showed his speed and athleticism in the preseason, notably when he hurdled over Bills free safety Jarius Byrd. Simpson, however, will sit out for three games due to a suspension, but he offers a deep-threat for Ponder later on. Kyle Rudolph is another weapon in Ponder’s arsenal this year. At 6’6” and 258 pounds, he is the Vikings’ tallest receiver. His hands were measured to be almost a foot long (10.75 inches) and has an arm span of over 80 inches. Not only does Rudolph give Ponder a big target, he demonstrated his sure hands last year against Denver, catching a ball with his fingertips while leaping over a Broncos defender. Also, don’t forget that O-line will be strengthened by first-round draft pick Matt Kalil (who blocked an extremely significant extra point last Sunday). With Jerome Simpson providing a deep threat, and Harvin and Rudolph making plays inside, Adrian Peterson will hopefully see the run game open up some. On defense, the Vikings’ major issue is the secondary, which doesn’t look much better than last year’s after witnessing Chris Cook get burned on a touchdown on Sunday that almost cost them the game. Minnesota was next to last in points allowed last year, with an average of 28.1 points given up. Antoine Winfield was injured, but at 36 it is not clear how he will hold up during the season. However, first-round draft pick Harrison Smith has looked impressive this offseason and played well on Sunday, as well as Mistral Raymond at times, recalling the Week Two preseason game against the Bills when the defense held Buffalo to only six yards in the first quarter. We can’t forget Raymond’s performance against the San Francisco in Week 1 of the preseason, when he took some bad angles, none more obvious than the one against Brandon Jacobs on a 23-yard run. Although there is definitely the possibility the Smith-Raymond duo plays like they did against the Buffalo, I am skeptical that there will be anything but minor improvements. Up front, the Vikings look to be strong again. Jared Allen is coming off a 22-sack season and Jasper Brinkley is returning after missing all of last year with a hip injury. The Vikings were sixth overall in yards per carry, and with Brian Robison and Kevin Williams returning to the line and the return of linebacker Chad Greenway, the run game defense looks solid. Consequently, the Vikings have to answer two major questions this season: can Christian Ponder continue his development as a quarterback, especially in making good reads and limiting his interceptions? Can the secondary provide good coverage and make necessary tackles? Even if the answers to these questions are in the affirmative, Minnesota fans have to face the facts. The NFC is incredibly strong, with Green Bay and Detroit coming off playoff appearances. Chicago looks to be improved with the return of quarterback Jay Cutler from injury and the addition of star wide receiver Brandon Marshall. Minnesota does have an early favorable schedule opening with their game against Jacksonville and then a matchup against a rebuilding Indianapolis Colts with first round draft pick Andrew Luck. In addition, they face the Redskins, a team that the Vikings have a good track record against (3-1) and have winnable games against the Titans and the Rams. I see this Vikings team going 5-11, but probably failing to win a conference game this year. If we see improvement in offensive production and in the secondary, that is enough for me to consider this season a “winning” one, regardless of the team’s overall record. refresh –>