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Super Bowl contenders? Watch the Vikings' line of scrimmage for key clues

People will ask, “So what do you look for when you’re standing there baking in the sun on the sidelines at training camp?”

Good question. And it’s gotten better as the NFL has dialed down the number of practices, the amount of contact — Adrian Peterson will barely be grazed by an extended fingernail until opening day — and all other forms of practicing that closely resembles live NFL action

Practice is about getting all the minds to the point where all the bodies will react instinctively and cohesively once the reins are dropped. But  the line of scrimmage is still a place where one can watch battles and be guaranteed of gleaning some worthwhile information from training camp. Granted, it would be noteworthy if the quarterback went 0-for-20 on the day, but, generally, it’s tough for me to get a whole lot out of watching a quarterback when he’s wearing a red don’t-touch-me-or-you’re-in-big-trouble jersey.

Years ago, Mike Tice came over to a few reporters and told us to stand exactly even with the line of scrimmage and note the general direction it moved once the big fellas starting pushing and shoving. That advice seems particularly relevant and useful for this year’s Vikings training camp.

Two years ago, coach Mike Zimmer’s No. 1 priority was the defensive line. A lot of work from the coaches, scouts and General Manager Rick Spielman turned that unit into the deepest and best overall unit on the team, I think. That’s why I wrote today about the defensive line and why I think the key to the team’s first Super Bowl appearance in 40 years rests on the same unit that was the guiding heartbeat of the Vikings’ four Super Bowls.

I’ll look at Bridgewater’s right arm. But when the pads go on in a couple days, I’ll be looking at Linval Joseph’s big right toe.

As linebacker Anthony Barr told me yesterday, “Linval makes All-Pro if he doesn’t hurt that big toe last year.” He’s right. But Joseph did suffer the turf toe injury and miss four of the last five games while the run defense finished 17th.

For this team to take the next step, the run defense has to improve. Defensive line coach Andre Patterson said it needs to be top 10. For that to happen, Joseph needs to return to form. That’s what I’ll be looking for. He sets the defense. If the run defense improves, there are more third-and-longs, more three-and-outs and more possession time for the offense. If the run defense fails, the Vikings fall behind, get out of whack and put too much pressure on the offense.

I also will be watching the line of scrimmage to see how the offensive line — this year’s No. 1 rebuilding priority — performs against one of the top defensive lines in the league. Don’t underestimate how much this can help the revamped offensive line improve.

“Coach Zimmer sets up practice so it’s very competitive,” offensive coordinator Norv Turner said Thursday. “That’s when you’re at your best, when you have great competition. You’re working your butt off to keep from getting embarrassed.”

That’s where my eyes will be focused a lot in the next week or so.

Zimmer maintains a focus on the offense as Vikings begin workouts

Vikings players ended a six-week vacation Thursday by reporting for work. In the short walk from a players-only parking lot to the Mankato dorms, they heard from an assortment of fans, media and ushers before officially punching the time card.

After move-in, physicals and conditioning tests, a longer trek awaited them across campus, where Mike Zimmer led a team meeting on the eve of his third training camp as Vikings head coach.

A to-do list was unraveled for a defense that allowed the fifth-fewest points per game last season. Standards are high.

“We’ve got to get better at playing the run,” Zimmer said Thursday. “We’ve got to create more turnovers. The quarterback rating against us has been too high. So, we have to do a better job at contesting balls and ball disruption.” 

Zimmer has spearheaded an overhaul of the 32nd-ranked Vikings defense he inherited just 30 months ago. And the longtime defensive coordinator still intends on calling plays, which makes him one of a few NFL head coaches to do so.

Though as the defense takes shape, Zimmer has turned his attention to where it’s needed most — the offense. He decided to make a change at offensive line coach in January. Zimmer filled two vacancies on his staff with former head coaches, Tony Sparano and Pat Shurmur, to add different approaches and ideas.

His personal assessment this offseason included reviews of every Adrian Peterson run from 2015 out of various personnel groups to examine what was effective and what wasn’t.

“I’m never going to get too far away from the defense,” Zimmer said. “But I did spend a fair amount of time this offseason — this summer — looking at a lot of offensive cutups. And some of the things I see, just a different set of eyes and talking to the coaches about these things.” 

Multiple paths were taken to improve the offense, including assistant coaching moves as well as top resources in the draft and free agency. Knowing third-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was under duress as much as anyone last season should only further Zimmer’s pragmatism, which held steadfast even as the team announced his own contract extension before camp.

“The expectation level is much higher,” Zimmer said. “I get that, but the expectation isn’t any higher for me than what it was the first year, second year or what it is this year. I think this team understands hard work. I think they understand the things we have to do to get there. And there are so many good teams in this league. People are saying we’re not even in the top half of the NFC.” 

You’re still hearing doubters?

“Oh yes, lots,” Zimmer said. “I have and I’ll mention it [Thursday night] in the meeting.” 

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