Saturday night’s game against the Dallas Cowboys will be the last we see of most, if not all, of the Vikings starters until the season opener in San Francisco.
Once their work is done at AT&T Stadium, the Vikings will put valuable players such as quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and safety Harrison Smith in bubble wrap and pack them away in a safe place to ensure they don’t join the NFL’s growing ranks of IR-bound stars.
So of course the Vikings want the final preseason appearance for their starting units to go smoothly with no one breaking a leg, so to speak. But one should probably avoid calling the penultimate preseason game a “dress rehearsal” around Norv Turner.
“I know people use that term, and I always wondered what it meant,” the offensive coordinator said.
While NFL teams typically treat their next-to-last preseason game differently than they do all of the others, the Vikings say they plan to approach Saturday night’s game similarly to the ones that preceded it. The starters might not make it to halftime, draft picks and other notable youngsters will see plenty of snaps and the Vikings have done minimal game-planning for the Cowboys.
That’s not to say coach Mike Zimmer doesn’t think the Vikings will benefit from going up against the Cowboys at this point in the preseason. After all, the Cowboys are the reigning NFC East champions, and they boast plenty of talent across the board, including arguably the NFL’s best offensive line.
“I think it’s great that we’re playing a team that’s very, very talented because it gives me a better understanding of our team and where we’re at,” Zimmer said. “You always look at different matchups, anyway, whoever we’re playing. There will be some good matchups this week that we’ll have to contend with.”
Zimmer’s first-team defense allowed its first touchdown of the preseason last weekend against the Oakland Raiders. But beyond a leaky run defense that so far has been reminiscent of last year’s unit, the Vikings have been pretty stingy defensively.
But they have yet to face an offense that has the skill of quarterback Tony Romo and a physical offensive line led by left tackle Tyron Smith, who is expected to make his preseason debut Saturday.
“It’ll be a good test,” Zimmer said. “They’re a very, very good offensive football team.”
While the starting lineup appears to be set for the Vikings offense, there are still theoretically starting spots up for grabs on defense.
Safety Robert Blanton has been with the first team throughout training camp and the preseason, but Zimmer hasn’t declared that competition over.
Middle linebacker is wide open, with Gerald Hodges making the first start there in his life Saturday after Audie Cole and rookie Eric Kendricks got cracks in the three previous games.
Led by Bridgewater, the Vikings offense will look to maintain its rhythm from the past three weeks. Bridgewater completed 78.6 percent of his throws in the preseason as the starting offense scored two touchdowns and 16 points in just over two quarters of action.
“We haven’t proven ourselves yet,” Bridgewater said. “It’s still the preseason, and we can’t sit here and say that we’re the best team in the league. We have a long way to go.”
For the players on the back half of the roster, Saturday’s game in Arlington could be their last chance to make an impression on the coaching staff. NFL teams must cut their rosters from 90 players down to 75 by Tuesday afternoon.
“We’ll start thinking about it more Sunday after the game because of the possibility of injuries,” Zimmer said. “There’s other reasons too. We’ve got to play another game, make sure we’ve got enough people at each position and things like that.”
The Vikings wrap up their preseason against the Tennessee Titans on Thursday. But Bridgewater and most of the team’s other starters will be in street clothes for that one, so this is their last chance to go up against another team until Week 1.
But whether you want to call this game a dress rehearsal or not, the Vikings have made it clear that they are saving the good stuff for the performances that count.
“It’s nowhere near what you’d actually do on opening day or on the fifth game of the season or the second time you play a team in your division,” Turner said. “We’re working on ourselves.”