For most teams in the NFL, the fourth and final preseason game involves their starters playing very few snaps, even they even see the field. This shouldn’t be any different for the Minnesota Vikings when they travel to Tennessee to take on the Titans on Thursday at 7 PM CT. Most of the starters will probably watch from the sidelines, letting the 2nd and 3rd string players get most of the reps in the most “meaningless” preseason game of them all.
However, as Norv Turner put it beautifully on Tuesday, “[the last preseason game is] probably the most important preseason game there is because these young guys get a chance to go play and get to show what they’ve been working on.”
Despite being seen as a throwaway game, the last preseason game is actually significant; as it gives young players like Jerick McKinnon, Anthony Barr, Teddy Bridgewater, and Shamar Stephen more playing time to prepare for the regular season. It also allows the coaches to get a closer look at them, giving them a better idea of how far along these young players are with the offensive and defensive schemes.
Head coach Mike Zimmer hasn’t given too much insight on how much time his players will be playing, so I’m going to make an educated guess.
Out of the presumed starters, the only guys I can see playing even a full series are Matt Khalil, Anthony Barr, and some of the secondary. I can’t imagine any high profile players seeing the field, like Chad Greenway, Cordarrelle Patterson, Adrian Peterson, or Kyle Rudolph.
Teddy Bridgewater hasn’t been named the starter for the game on Thursday, but I think he will start the game and possibly play into the 2nd quarter. From there, Christian Ponder will finish the game and hopefully showcase his talents for any teams vying for a trade (St. Louis.)
This time for Teddy Bridgewater will be crucial; it could be the last time he see’s the field this season– unless Cassel is injured or under performs and Bridgewater is thrust into the starting job. Bridgewater will have to make the most of this time, and Norv Turner should open up the offense for the young rookie to really see what he needs to work on and what he’s perfected through the preseason.
The battle for the starting strong safety spot is still undecided, and it looks like the battle could continue until a few days before the season opener at St. Louis. All of the safeties fighting for this starting spot– Chris Crocker, Mistral Raymond, Andrew Sendejo, and Robert Blanton— should see the field on Thursday in an attempt to get one last look at all of them before the coaching staff makes it’s decision.
EDIT: Mistral Raymond cleared waivers and was placed on injured reserve on Wednesday.
Two other players to watch are Jarius Wright and Jerome Simpson. It’s not clear yet which one will be the 3rd wide receiver option behind Greg Jennings and Patterson, but this game could be the deciding factor.
After two seasons with the Vikings and very limited success, I’m ready to give up on Simpson, and move onto a younger, more talented Jarius Wright. Although Wright is only 5’10, he can play on the outside and in the slot. He’s very quick in and out of his breaks, and has above average hands. With some extended playing time this week, he could very well make his case for the 3rd wide receiver.
Matt Khalil has continued to struggle this preseason, getting completely man-handled in pass protection by Tamba Hali last weekend against Kansas City, so I would really like to see him play a series or two. Hopefully, this playing time against some possible 2nd string Titan defensive linemen can give the young left tackle some confidence going into the regular season.
Anthony Barr should see the field quite a bit against the Titans as well. My hope is that the Vikings allow him to pass rush a bit more this Thursday. According to Pro Football Focus, Barr only rushed the passer 10 times against Kansas City, as opposed to dropping back into coverage 19 times. In total, Barr has only pass rushed on 14 snaps the entire preseason. That might be intentional, to get Barr used to playing in coverage, but I would really like to see Barr’s tremendous athleticism put to use in getting after the quarterback.
Again, the biggest hope in this game is that both teams leave without injuries. But this game is also very crucial to the guys not normally in the starting lineup, getting their last chance to shine before the regular season starts.
EDIT: There are quite a few players that won’t be playing on Thursday. Mike Zimmer announced that Anthony Barr will sit out with a “minor sprained ankle”. Phil Loadholt will be held out on Thursday with an ankle injury he suffered on Saturday against the Chiefs. Rodney Smith could be out of the lineup after injuring his back and neck during the onside recover against Kansas City. A few players that didn’t play against the Chiefs will again miss Thursday, including Gerald Hodges, Michael Mauti, Brandon Watts, Jabari Price.