EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. The Minnesota Vikings are tied atop the NFC North after splitting the first two games of the season, but a sense of urgency crept into Winter Park this week with the team preparing for Sunday's game against the 2-0 San Francisco 49ers.
Losing a close, perhaps winnable game, at Indianapolis last week caused some of Minnesota's veterans to speak up this week. The Vikings don't want to let another season slip away before it's too late, beginning with a very tough game against San Francisco this week.Here are five things to watch as Minnesota hosts the 49ers, a favorite in the NFC for the Super Bowl, this weekend:
1. What will be San Francisco's "Randy Ratio?"
Now with the 49ers, receiver Randy Moss makes his return to the Metrodome, the first time playing for someone other than the Vikings. Moss ushered in a transformation in the Metrodome and for a new generation of Minnesota fans when he arrived on the scene as the Vikings' first-round draft pick in 1998 and instantly became the league's most dangerous receiver. He said this week he's excited to play in the Metrodome and expects to hear some boos and cheers.Minnesota said its preparing for a motivated Moss that can still be a threat down the field. But Moss is down the pecking order in San Francisco's offense. The 49ers are a run-first team with Frank Gore and is leading receiving-wise by tight end Vernon Davis and receiver Michael Crabtree. The Vikings can't let Moss run free Sunday, knowing he's going to try and excite the Metrodome crowd. But will Moss just be a high-profile decoy.
2. Can Adrian Peterson give San Francisco's run defense a true test?The 49ers led the league in run-defense last season and are sixth through two games this year. But as Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson noted, they haven't faced a team as committed to the run as the Vikings yet this season. San Francisco beat Green Bay and Detroit the first two weeks, teams that aren't worried about establishing the run. Minnesota knows it must get Peterson and backup Toby Gerhart going to bolster its offense.So, it will be strength against strength on Sunday, though Peterson was taken out of Sunday's game against the Colts because the Vikings got between by two touchdowns in the second half. After his breakout surprise performance in Week 1, Peterson was held to just 60 yards last week and a 3.8-yard average. Sunday won't just be San Francisco's first true test against a running team. It will be Peterson's toughest opponent to this date in his return from knee surgery. If it's not standout All-Pro defensive lineman Justin Smith, the 49ers also have standout linebackers Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman to slow Peterson.
3. Can a depleted linebacker corps and the young secondary slow Davis?Starting weakside linebacker Erin Henderson has been ruled out of Sunday's game for the Vikings. Minnesota's leading tackler, Henderson was responsible for Indianapolis receiver Reggie Wayne's touchdown last week when he didn't get deep enough in coverage, but it's overshadowed his otherwise strong play this season. Without Henderson, the Vikings will start Marvin Mitchell in the base defense and Jasper Brinkley, known most as a run-defender, will play in the nickel defense and be responsible for the deep drops in the middle of the defense.Davis has turned into an elite tight end and will stress Minnesota's defense in the middle of the field. Moss and Crabtree could draw extra attention on the outside meaning the Vikings will have to decide where to use young safeties Harrison Smith and Mistral Raymond. Minnesota has struggled to defense tight ends over the past year and Davis will be a challenge Sunday.
4. Is this the week for Jared Allen's first sack?Only once last season did Allen go two games without a sack as he racked up 22 for the season. There were only three games total where he was stopped for no sacks. But this season he has been unable to finish off sometimes good pressure and get the quarterback to the ground. In fact, backup lineman Everson Griffen has the only sack from the defensive line all season. Allen feels he's missed about three sacks; one in the first game because of an offsides penalty, two last week while trying to strip the ball.This week, Allen will be going against San Francisco's Joe Staley, a second-team All-Pro last year. When Allen's at the top of his game, there are few tackles who can handle the big defensive end individually. The 49ers could look to give Staley some help, but they trust quarterback Alex Smith's blindside protector. Staley has turned into one of the top tackles in the game and started every game last season. If Allen's going to notch his first sack and keep from going three straight games without one for the first time since October 2010, it's not going to be easy. The Vikings need Allen, and his linemates, to get pressure on Smith, and get him to the ground.
5. Has the defense learned its late-game lesson?If Minnesota can keep things close for a third-straight week, the spotlight will fall on the late-game defense. The Vikings' first two games have come down to the final minute. The first week, Minnesota had the late chance and put the game into overtime. Last week, the Colts had the pivotal possession to kick a game-winning field goal.Minnesota's defense has allowed 18 points on three opponents' possessions in the final two minutes of a half. Jacksonville and Indianapolis each had drives in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter to take a lead. The Vikings' pass defense needs to figure out how to make a game-saving play when the opportunities are there. Maybe the urgency the veterans have been preaching will come through in another chance at late-game and end-of-half defense.
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