The Vikings haven’t won a playoff game since the 2009 season and are coming off an 8-8 season in which they lost eight of their last 11 games.
But Mike Zimmer, beginning his fourth season as the Vikings coach, is optimistic heading into the season opener against the New Orleans Saints on Monday.
“Every year is a new year,” Zimmer said in an interview last week. “I have a lot of confidence in this football team. The way they work. The talent level that they have, and I think we’re going to go out and play good.”
The Vikings are coming off a 2-2 preseason, and their first test out of the gate is against a Saints team that features one of the game’s top quarterbacks in 38-year-old Drew Brees. Zimmer was asked if New Orleans will present a tough challenge to his defense.
“We didn’t play well in the preseason, so we’ve got to play a lot better in that area,” Zimmer said. “But you know we have the ability and talent. We just have to make sure we get it all on the same page and go to work. These guys are all talented guys. It’s not any different than it was a year ago.”
The Saints went 7-9 in 2016, but they ranked second in the NFL in scoring at 29.3 points per game. This year, they feature three talented running backs: 1,000-yard rusher Mark Ingram, rookie Alvin Kamara and former Vikings star Adrian Peterson.
“Their passing game is dynamic,” Zimmer said. “Brees is as good of a quarterback as there is. So, it’s going to be a very tough test for us defensively. Our whole defense is going to have to play well Monday night.”
Zimmer said the Vikings aren’t focused on stopping Peterson.
“This game is about the Vikings and Saints. It’s not about Adrian Peterson,” he said. “He was a great player. And, I’m sure he wants to come in and have a great game. … Their running attack is good. And it’s important that we don’t let them get going. We have to make them one-dimensional.”
New O-line to be tested
Maybe the biggest area of concern for the Vikings last season was the offensive line. Zimmer has confidence in the group, which will have four new starters, with only holdover, Joe Berger, playing a different position.
“These guys are all tough, battling guys,” Zimmer said. “All the way through, Riley Reiff and [Mike] Remmers and [Nick] Easton and [Pat] Elflein and Berger. They’re all going to be tough guys, physical guys. I think the fans are going to be surprised.”
Reiff and Remmers, the tackles, were signed as free agents. Zimmer has been impressed by both.
“They’re both the kind of temperaments that we like,” he said. “I think they’re going to help us quite a bit.
“Mike Remmers is an excellent run blocker. He’s quick. He’s got good hands. He’s a veteran player. He is working continually hard on his pass protection. Riley Reiff has done an outstanding job going against [Everson] Griffen every day [in practice]. Tough, physical. So I think it’s going to be a good pair.”
Elflein, a third-round pick, will start at center. Easton, who started five games at center for an injured Berger last season, will move to left guard. Zimmer is confident both can handle their positions.
“Elflein definitely can,” he said. “And one of the good things that’s happened is he’s got two centers playing next to him … Berger and Easton. The great thing about Pat is that he is a quick study. He and Easton are both physical, low to the center on the ground dives. They’re almost like wrestlers. They’re going to turn some guys off the ball and they’re going to finish blocks.
“Nick is a smart guy. He’s physical. Sometimes these linemen, when they come out of college, it takes them a while to grow up. He was in the weight room in the offseason. He’s bigger. He’s thicker. And, he’s got a nasty temperament. He’s a smart guy.”
Berger, who is beginning his 13th NFL season and seventh with the Vikings, has moved to right guard.
“He’s had a great camp. Very steady. Very smart,” Zimmer said. “Very knowledgeable about the offense, the things we’re doing. He’s older. He’s still got the physicality, the tools.”
Zimmer expects the Vikings offense to be better this season. “I have a lot of confidence in them,” he said. “I think we’re going to run the football better. I think there is some other things we do better in the passing game.”
Impressed by rookie LB
The Vikings defense brings back most of the players from 2016, but one change will be the retirement of longtime linebacker Chad Greenway. In his place, fourth-round pick Ben Gedeon is expected to start.
“Ben’s done a nice job,” Zimmer said. “He’s another tough guy. He’s smart. He’s worked really hard. A young guy that’s kept his mouth shut and worked. We’ll mix him in. We’ve got some guys that we’ll put in other packages, but he’s going to play some.”
With five of the Vikings’ first seven games at home, they will be looking to get off to a good start.
“But it’s a long season. There are a lot of teams that won early like we did last year and didn’t finish strong or teams that lost early and finished strong,” Zimmer said. “So we’re going to take each week at a time and tee it up, and play each week like it’s the most important week and see what happens at the end.”
• It’s looking more likely that Twins first baseman Joe Mauer, who is having a great comeback season if there ever was one, is going to win a Gold Glove. Tom Kelly, the former Twins manager who has worked for years teaching first base at spring training, said this of Mauer’s play: “Joe has been fabulous over there. He’s such a good athlete, and it just took him a little time. I thought he was good a couple years ago, but he’s really on top of it now.”
• Jaleel Johnson, the Vikings’ fourth-round pick out of Iowa, talked about what he learned from longtime Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz. “Honestly from freshman year to the day I left, Coach Ferentz has been one of those guys who helped me all throughout my career, whether it was school or whether it’s football or anything like that,” Johnson said. “He’s just one of those guys you can go to and talk to. If you’re ever having struggles outside of football and you want to clear your mind he can talk to you, or he has people he can send you to who do that kind of thing. Coach Ferentz is just one of those guys I respect.”
• Max Kepler is one of four German-born players currently in the major leagues. He said it was a bit of good luck that landed him with the Twins. “It’s not as big as it is over here, yet,” he said. “I’d say it’s overshadowed by soccer. But I had the right coaches around me, had great sources, and the right connections to the U.S. Thankfully I got over here soon enough to show what I had to offer.” The other German-born players are Philadelphia outfielder Aaron Altherr, Oakland catcher Bruce Maxwell and Washington pitcher Edwin Jackson, but they all played high school baseball in the United States, unlike Kepler.
• The Oregon State football roster includes two ex-Big Ten players: defensive tackle Craig Evans, who played at Michigan State as a freshman, and safety Austin Hudson, who began his career at Wisconsin, then spent two years at South Florida before reuniting with former Badgers coach Gary Andersen with the Beavers.
Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. email@example.com