Vikings nose tackle Michael Pierce tried practicing Wednesday, but his injured elbow kept him out of practices Thursday and Friday, and he's been ruled out for Sunday against the Ravens.
Pierce warmed up with his teammates Friday morning before heading inside TCO Performance Center for rehab work. He won't get to play against his former team in Baltimore, where Pierce started 30 games over four seasons before signing a three-year, $27 million contract in Minnesota ahead of the 2020 season.
Pierce, who opted out of playing last season because of COVID-19 concerns, has played four games for the Vikings and will miss his fourth game of this season. Coach Mike Zimmer was asked Friday if Pierce suffered a setback with the injury initially suffered Sept. 30 in practice.
"Not really," Zimmer said. "He just wasn't quite ready."
Pierce is still considered week-to-week, according to Zimmer. Nose tackle Armon Watts is expected to start again. Linebacker Anthony Barr (knee) and cornerback Cameron Dantzler (ankle) are listed questionable. Co-defensive coordinator Adam Zimmer said Thursday he expects Dantzler to play, while Barr's knee has regressed to limiting him in practices again.
They'll miss Pierce against quarterback Lamar Jackson and the Ravens' seventh-ranked rushing attack. The defense settled against Dallas and eventually held Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott to 3.1 yards per carry, but their big reinforcement isn't arriving yet.
"[Pierce] is a big body in there who can take up a lot of blocks," Adam Zimmer said. "He does a nice job of letting Eric [Kendricks] flow freely and letting Anthony play the way he does. We've missed Mike. Now, James [Lynch] and Armon have done a nice job in there. They did a really good job [against Dallas] of stopping the run."
Safety Harrison Smith was a late-week addition to the injury report with a groin issue. He did not practice Friday, but he doesn't have a game day designation for Sunday, meaning he's expected to play.
For the Ravens, starting guard Patrick Mekari (ankle) and running back Latavius Murray (ankle) are listed as doubtful to play; nose tackle Brandon Williams (shoulder), and receivers Sammy Watkins (thigh) and ex-Gopher Rashod Bateman (groin) are questionable.
O'Neill's welcome-to-NFL moment
Ravens defensive end Calais Campbell was with Jacksonville when he gave right tackle Brian O'Neill a welcome-to-the-NFL moment, or two, in August 2018. O'Neill was a rookie second-round pick forced into the starting lineup earlier than planned because of an injury to Rashod Hill. After two rough outings against Campbell at joint practices in Eagan, O'Neill was not in the starting lineup for the preseason game.
"I remember that week specifically was really the first time I ever went against a first unit, because somebody had gotten banged up and I got called up," O'Neill said. "He was really like the first starter in the NFL that I ever went against in practice, and it was pretty humbling."
Campbell, the 6-8 pass rusher who is now 35 years old, is third on the Ravens with seven quarterback hits in seven games, while O'Neill is one of the league's top right tackles — and recently was paid like it.
"Hopefully, I've made a lot of improvements since then," O'Neill said.
Running back Dalvin Cook got 18 carries — his only touches — last week against Dallas, and that wasn't enough for the Vikings coaching staff. Cook has long been considered the centerpiece of the offense, and he finished with 78 rushing yards and zero receiving as Cowboys defenders swarmed the couple of screen attempts they tried his way.
Earlier in the week, Zimmer pointed to a stretch of seven straight passes, saying they needed to stick with the run more. Coordinator Klint Kubiak agreed this week.
"That's got to be part of our identity," Kubiak said. "Gotta give [Cook] more opportunities."
Dozier on COVID list
Guard Dakota Dozier became the second offensive lineman placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, joining center Garrett Bradbury, who was ruled out by the team this week after testing positive. Dozier has been following protocols for vaccinated players, meaning he, too, tested positive as vaccinated players aren't required to quarantine if close contacts.
With Bradbury and Dozier on the COVID list, the Vikings will be granted two additional elevations from the practice squad against the Ravens, in addition to the standard two weekly promotions. Defensive end Kenny Willekes will get one of those spots. Only further testing can determine whether any more players will test positive.
"We'll find out [Saturday]," Zimmer said. "[Or] Sunday, probably."