Chip Scoggins is a Star Tribune sports columnist. He previously covered the Minnesota Vikings for four years, starting in 2008. In addition, he covered college football for five years. Chip has been with the Star Tribune since January 2000. He can be followed on twitter at @chipscoggins.Find Chip on Facebook.
The Vikings are only a few days from their season opener in St. Louis, thankfully, because we're tired of preseason football. Finally, it's time for real games.
Here are a few things that we're particularly interested to see as the Mike Zimmer era begins:
This obvious, of course.
Zimmer went 4-0 in the preseason, but this will be his first official game as a head coach. We'll start to get a sense for how Zimmer will handle clock management and other in-game situations in those pressure situations.
Zimmer rehearsed his decision-making in simulated scenarios with General Manager Rick Spielman during training camp. Now he gets to do it for real.
The Vikings wisely held Adrian Peterson out of preseason games to keep him fresh, so this will be our first glimpse of Peterson in Norv Turner's offense. I'm curious to see No. 1, how Peterson looks physically after dealing with a number of injuries last season and being a year older, and No. 2, how Turner uses him in the offense.
Peterson has averaged 19.7 carries per game in his career. Will his workload stay close to that average? Will Turner use him more as a receiver? Peterson caught a career-high 43 passes in 2009.
Peterson loves this offense and its potential. A passing game that includes Cordarrelle Patterson, Kyle Rudolph and Greg Jennings should take some of the pressure off him.
The Rams present a tough test right off the bat for left tackle Matt Kalil and right tackle Phil Loadholt. Kalil primarily will face All-Pro defensive end Robert Quinn, while Loadholt draws Chris Long on the other side.
Led by Quinn's 19 sacks last season, that pair combined for 27.5 sacks in 2013, the best mark by a tandem.
Kalil and Loadholt need to hold up in pass protection to allow Matt Cassel time to get the ball down field. Turner likely will give his tackles some help with tight ends or running backs. But the Vikings' tackles have to handle themselves one-on-one against Quinn and Long for the offense to function effectively.
Kalil struggled at times last season after his fantastic rookie season. He also dealt with a knee injury. This matchup with Quinn will provide a good barometer to show where Kalil is at entering his third season.
One of the biggest issues with the Vikings defense last season was third down. They finished 30th in third-down defense, allowing opposing offenses to convert 44 percent of the time.
They just couldn't get off the field, which sucked the life out of the entire team, not just the defense.
Offenses picked apart their secondary, but third-down defense has to be a collective effort.
Zimmer's defensive scheme is more aggressive than the Tampa 2, so maybe that will help the Vikings be more succesful in those situations. That's a major area that they must fix in order to become an improved defense.
By the way, the Rams were one of the league's worst teams in third-down offense last season.
Every Tuesday I’ll post notes and short takes as the Gophers begin preparation for their next opponent. Here are a few things that caught my eye in the Gophers season-opener against Eastern Illinois:
Everyone plays fast
Eastern Illinois came out in no-huddle and ran 96 plays on offense. Jerry Kill said Tuesday that the Gophers will face seven teams that utilize a no-huddle offense this season.
Hurry-up offense has become the latest trend in college football. Teams run no-huddle and attempt to snap the ball as fast as possible to wear down defenses and maximize the number of plays per game.
That tempo puts stress on defenses in terms of conditioning and being able to substitute.
Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said he’s never had his defense huddle after plays so that mitigates tempo offenses to some degree.
In terms of substitutions, Claeys said that becomes tricky if the offense keeps the same personnel on the field or if a ball carrier goes out of bounds.
“The biggest thing is when they don't change personnel and go right to the line, it's hard to substitute people in for situations,” he said. “Basically whatever you have out there, you have to play with, unless the ball goes out of bounds next to your boundary.
“I thought [defensive line coach Jeff Phelps] did a great job of that, making sure we didn't substitute D‑line when the ball went out of bounds on the other side. Last year we got caught with 12 people on the field a couple times. It's weird, you have to pay attention where the ball goes out of bounds and where it's at before you end up substituting people.”
I’ve written about the Gophers secondary and that position has received a lot of attention. To me, the secondary is the team’s strongest position group.
But I also came away from the opener particularly impressed with their top two linebackers, Damien Wilson and De’Vondre Campbell. Those two are fast and really run to the ball.
“Damien and De'Vondre can really run,” Jerry Kill said. “They're long. Damien was measured by the NFL scouts, measured by how long his arms are and they are longer than Ra’Shede’s arms. When you have length, you can keep people from blocking you and you tackle better.”
Learn to slide
I admire Mitch Leidner’s toughness and his willingness to take on defenders physically when he’s carrying the ball. That said, Leidner has to be smarter about trying to run over defenders this season
.The Gophers can’t afford to lose Leidner to injury. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said he wants to limit designed runs for Leidner and the coaching staff constantly encourages him to recognize when it’s best to slide or get out of bounds.
“When you see a quarterback run, maybe slide before contact, run out of bounds, not get an extra yard or two, I think that's something that isn't in his DNA,” Limegrover said. “You've got to really work with him constantly on that, a bigger picture. No one is going to think less of you if you don't gain that extra yard, but you don't get hit by three defenders as well. Those extra three or four yards are minuscule in relation to him being out on the field for the next play, series, game.”
It’s not easy to change a player’s mentality. I asked Leidner what he will do if he’s in open field this Saturday with a safety running at him. Try and run over him, or slide?
“You can get injured just as bad sliding as you can taking a hit,” he said. “If you get your pad level down and take it on like you were taught all the way growing up, you should be fine.”
Leap of faith
Tight end Maxx Williams loved the picture of himself jumping over an Eastern Illinois defender on a catch and run. He’s not sure he will try that again though.
“I got lucky,” said Williams, who said he had a 33-inch vertical leap last time he was tested.
Williams said he’d never tried that move at any level. His instincts took over when he saw the defender go low for a tackle.
“It was either [going to be], ‘Wow that worked out good for me. Or wow, that really hurt and I shouldn’t do that anymore,” Williams said.
MANKATO -- I spent the past two days at Vikings training camp after returning from vacation. Every NFL team talks with optimism in camp before actual games are played, and the Vikings are no different.
Here are my observations after watching practice and talking with players, coaches and team officials the past few days.
-- The No. 1 takeaway I got from offensive players and coaches is that Norv Turner's offense will be more versatile and less predictable than what we've seen from the Vikings in years. Adrian Peterson made headlines earlier this week when he admitted that the Vikings have been too predictable on offense in his career. Some of that stems from shaky quarterback play. But a handful of players told me that Turner's offense should keep defenses off-balance if they execute it properly.
-- I've thought all along that Matt Cassel was a slam dunk to start the season and that the Vikings didn't need to rush Teddy Bridgewater. Now, I won't be surprised if Bridgewater is the starter in Week 1. I don't know if it's 50-50 odds but this coaching staff clearly has confidence in Bridgewater and they don't sound opposed to starting him right away if he wins the job in camp and preseason games.
Bridgewater threw two interceptions in practice Thursday, but I like the fact that he's not hesitant when he drops back. He gets the ball out quickly and has good arm strength. He doesn't look overwhelmed running the first-team offense when he gets the opportunity.
The preseason games will be critical for both quarterbacks. Cassel won't just be handed the job. He has to win it and play well to keep it. This competition will be fun to watch unfold.
-- The coaching staff and front office love rookie linebacker Anthony Barr. The first thing that jumps out about Barr is his size. He is massive for a linebacker. Coach Mike Zimmer is moving Barr around in different spots, including using him as a defensive end in some packages. Barr's versatility gives the staff some flexibility in how they use him.
-- I have no idea how the linebacker position will shake out. Chad Greenway is one starter and Barr presumably will win another spot. After that, who knows? Audie Cole made a nice play to intercept Bridgewater in a team period today. It's jumbled right now with Jasper Brinkley, Cole, Michael Mauti and Brandon Watts in the mix.
-- The secondary also has some uncertainty at safety beyond Harrison Smith. Robert Blanton had a nice start to camp but now he's hurt. Andrew Sendejo remains on the PUP. Mistral Raymond is getting his chance because of injuries, but he's struggled in the past. Jamarca Sanford is working with the backups. That second safety spot remains a big unknown right now.
-- Rookie running back Jerick McKinnon will find a role in Turner's offense. He is very fast and looks fluid as a receiver out of the backfield. He's a guy you just notice when he's on the field. I'm interested to see how Turner uses him as a complement to Adrian Peterson.
-- Everyone I talked to -- players, coaches and personnel officials -- believe Cordarrelle Patterson is ready to take a huge step as a receiver this season. Greg Jennings gushed about Patterson's potential and improvement from his rookie season.
That's it for now. I'll be at the Gophers first practice Friday and then back to Mankato on Monday.
The sad news of Bob McNamara's death Sunday night caused me to reflect on times I spent around Bob and what a genuinely nice and caring man he was to everyone in his presence. I didn't know him well, but he always treated me like a friend.
I started covering Gophers football in 2003 but actually met Bob a year early at a "Save Gopher Sports" fundraiser that he helped put together. Three non-revenue sports were in danger of being eliminated until Bob, and others, stepped forward to raise enough money to save them.
That was Bob McNamara in a nutshell.
You won't find a more passionate and loyal Gopher fan than McNamara. I'm guessing most big-time college programs have their own version of Bob McNamara, but I was always impressed by how deeply McNamara cared about the Gophers. It came through in every conversation I ever had with him.
Usually a few times a year, my editor Dennis Brackin and I would have lunch with Bob. Sometimes he'd invite a few of his friends. I got a kick out of hearing stories about their playing days and what Gophers football meant in this town back then.
A few years ago after Nebraska had joined the Big Ten, I interviewed Bob about the fact that he went 3-0 against Nebraska as a player. He joked that he liked to use that personal trivia on occasion.
"I'll see if I can make a bet, see if anyone will believe me," he said.
Another memory came during Tim Brewster's first season as football coach. I was still the beat writer, and Brewster allowed me to shadow him the week of the season opener.
One morning, I was in a meeting room with Brewster and his staff when an assistant knocked on the door at 7:30 a.m. He told Brewster that Bob McNamara was in his office.
McNamara had stopped by to discuss a fundraising idea for TCF Bank Stadium with Brewster and to wish him luck in his first game as Gophers coach.
That was Bob McNamara.
I picked against the Wild in Game 4 of this Western Conference semifinal and proved to be wrong.
I thought the Chicago Blackhawks would crank their game up a notch and put the Wild in a deep hole. That obviously didn't happen because the Wild responded with perhaps its best game of the postseason.
Tonight, the Wild faces its third elimination game of the playoffs in Game 6. The guess here is that the Wild remains perfect at home and forces a Game 7 in Chicago on Thursday night.
This has been a weird series in terms of its ebbs and flows. We really haven't seen the usual hatred and rough stuff normally found in a long, close series. These two teams have simply taken turns as the dominant team.
The Blackhawks assumed that role in Game 5 after a poor first period. The defending champions were booed off the ice and then took control in the second and third period to take a 3-2 series lead.
I'll pick the Wild tonight because they've been such a different team at home and they seem to thrive in these desperation situations.
The raucous crowd at Xcel Energy Center will likely play a meaningful role, too. The atmosphere inside the arena has been loud and intense throughout these playoffs and there's no question that has helped the Wild, which has outscored its opponents 16-5 in home games.
Neither team has lost at home in the playoffs and I think that trend continues tonight,