The Vikings had no trouble beating the Cardinals and the Jets, two teams with a combined 5-11 record, using a lot of backups because of several injured starters.
The injury report Thursday still lists linebacker Anthony Barr, guard Tom Compton, running back Dalvin Cook, wide receiver Stefon Diggs, nose tackle Linval Joseph, tackle Riley Reiff, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Andrew Sendejo as being limited or not participating in practice.
How many of those players suit up Sunday against the Lions, and in future weeks against tough competition, remains to be seen.
And while backups such as linebacker Eric Wilson, cornerback Holton Hill and tackle Brian O’Neill played well against the Jets and Cardinals, the team was less crisp in a 30-20 loss to the Saints.
In talking about those reserves, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said: “Most times, they are talented guys. I’d like to say it’s a lot of other reasons, but they’re talented guys. That’s why they’re on the team. I think they get an awful lot of help from the veteran guys.”
Let’s face the facts, you aren’t going to replace Pro Bowl players such as Barr and Rhodes and veterans such as Reiff and Compton for an extended period of time and have the same success.
Zimmer said Barr spent much of the Saints game talking with the backup linebackers, and Rhodes was constantly working with Hill, an undrafted rookie free agent who played all 53 defensive snaps against New Orleans.
The Vikings are going to need most of those veterans back soon if they’re going to win the NFC North. One already back and playing well is center Pat Elflein (offseason shoulder and ankle surgeries), who drew a holding penalty against the Saints but also opened some big holes for running back Latavius Murray.
Yes, Zimmer is remaining positive, saying he told the team after the Saints loss that they are close to where they need to be competitively.
“Unfortunately, we had a couple turnovers. Basically that cost us the football game,” Zimmer said. “But there are a lot of good things to build on. We’ll continue to get better.
“The last few weeks during practice, I watched this team go out there and do the [necessary] things. I feel like we are starting to become a pretty good football team.”
Fleck heading home
For Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck, Saturday’s contest against the Illini will be a homecoming of sorts. The Aurora, Ill., native played his college ball at Northern Illinois.
“I have played in Champaign, Illinois, I have been a head coach in Champaign, Illinois, when we were at Western Michigan,” Fleck said. “I used to camp as a high school athlete at [former Illini coach] Ron Turner’s football camp. I have been to Champaign a lot.”
In his final season at Western Michigan, Fleck showed his team was fully capable of winning on the road against Big Ten opponents.
The Broncos won 22-21 at Northwestern to open the season, then defeated the Illini 34-10 in Champaign to move to 3-0. They went on to win 13 in a row before a 24-16 loss to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl. Fleck was named Gophers coach a few days later.
Last year, Fleck got his first Big Ten victory by defeating Illinois 24-17 at TCF Bank Stadium. But so far, he has been unable to win a conference road game. That could change Saturday, with the Gophers nine-point favorites.
“Nothing like going back home,” Fleck said.
Illinois has been adjusting to staff shake-ups. Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson resigned Monday and coach Lovie Smith announced he would be taking over defensive play-calling.
But Fleck said he still sees a dangerous team as he looks for his first back-to-back Big Ten victories in his second year with the Gophers.
“They have a quarterback [AJ Bush Jr.] that can run all over the place,” he said. “They have wideouts that can make plays. They’ve got a running back [Reggie Corbin] who reminds me of a Rodney Smith-type back. They have a defense that I think plays incredibly hard, secondary is talented, they tackle well at the linebacker position, and up front, they play really aggressive.
“Some of the guys we actually played against when we were at Western Michigan. … They continue to get older and get better.”
When Kevin Love told the Timberwolves he wanted to be traded in the spring of 2014, then-President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders remained patient for months in trying to make the right deal.
It eventually happened, when the Cavaliers landed LeBron James and, in an effort to win immediately, traded No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Wiggins as part of a deal for Love.
Now Wolves boss Tom Thibodeau and General Manager Scott Layden might be playing a similar waiting game after star guard Jimmy Butler demanded a trade before the season started.
Looking at the Houston Rockets — the most rumored trade partner when it comes to Butler — you have to wonder if they’ll get more desperate for a deal because their season is going miserably.
Star guard James Harden has been out for nearly a week because of a hamstring strain. Carmelo Anthony, the former All-Star and Olympic gold medal winner, is a shell of his former self. The Rockets are 1-5, the second-worst record in the Western Conference.
Wolves owner Glen Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune, said when the season started, he wanted Layden to handle any potential Butler trade while Thibodeau focused on coaching.
But maybe Thibodeau and Layden still are seeing a way the Wolves can start winning and convince Butler that this team can has potential.
Consider the Wolves’ 128-125 victory over a good Utah team Wednesday night, with Butler and starting point guard Jeff Teague sitting out.
Derrick Rose went off for 50 points, Karl-Anthony Towns had 28 points, 16 rebounds, four assists and two blocks, Wiggins had 19 points, six rebounds and two steals and rookie guard Josh Okogie continued his strong play of late. One of the best Wolves victories in recent memory might be just the kind of thing that shows Butler this team is deeper and more dangerous than any potential trade destination.
Butler’s solid early-season play and the Rockets’ terrible start can only help the Wolves’ trade position.
Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. on Monday and Friday and at 9:30 a.m. on Sundays. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org