As the Vikings open their 2011 preseason schedule tonight, they do so against a near-mirror image franchise in the Tennessee Titans. Both have a new head coach and new offensive coordinator that are trying to install a new offense in a compressed period of time since the end of the lockout.
Both head coaches were assistants on the staff of the deposed coach and have their own ideas about the talent on their respective rosters, but each is installing a new offensive scheme. Both drafted a rookie quarterback in the first round – amid speculation that both teams "reached" to make the pick. Both teams brought in a veteran quarterback from the outside to help with the transition from the old to the new with their new franchise QB. And both have offenses that go through the best running backs in the league … or so it's supposed to be.
Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson are each entering critical portions of their rookie contracts. Peterson, who signed an incentive-laden deal that he has more than lived up to, has a cap number of almost $12.8 million and is scheduled to earn just over $10.7 million in base salary this year. The problem with Johnson is that, as second-round pick in 2008, despite leading all running backs in rushing yards and yards from scrimmage since joining the league, he signed a rookie deal of five years, $12 million. While the Titans added a $1 million bonus to his 2010 salary, he has held out in hopes of being the highest-paid running back in NFL history (at least until Peterson signs a new contract).
The team and Johnson have been an impasse – Johnson saying he won't report until he has a new deal and the team saying it will fulfill his request but it won't negotiate until he reports. As a result, he won't be in the mix Saturday night, although, like Peterson, he likely would have only played a series or maybe two if he had been in camp since the lockout ended.
The Titans aren't going to have the familiar look of recent years, even in the cameo appearances by their starters. The team cut QB Vince Young and Kerry Collins retired, leaving No. 8 overall pick Jake Locker as the first-string QB throughout the spring and early summer. However, once the lockout was lifted, one of the first moves the Titans made was to sign veteran Matt Hasselbeck, who spent a decade at the helm of the Seattle Seahawks. He is expected to bridge the gap between Locker and whenever the rookie is deemed ready by head coach Mike Munchak. Hasselbeck has struggled adjusting to a new offense – he has spent his entire career playing in a West Coast offense – and should give way to Locker in the first quarter, giving Titans fans their first extended look at their version of the franchise QB.
When Hasselbeck and Locker are on the field, they will not only be without Johnson as a big-play safety valve to keep defenses honest, but they will also be without big-play receiver Kenny Britt, who has been sidelined with a hamstring injury. For an offense that ranked 27th in the league in total offense last year, not having their top two game-breakers could be a devastating blow for an offense being installed that counts heavily on both of them.
A player to keep an eye on for tonight's game is tight end Jared Cook. A third-year pro who spent the last two years as backup behind Bo Scaife, Cook is expected to be a huge part of the Titans offense this season, which will test new starting LB Erin Henderson, who will likely be picked on until he proves himself capable of making big plays on defense. Cook has drawn some comparisons to Jermichael Finley of the Packers and has many of the same big-play attributes. Given a chance to showcase himself late in the season when the Titans were out of playoff contention, he emerged as a playmaker. The Vikings will have their hands full with Cook regardless and, seeing as he is expected to see time with both the first- and second-team offense, he could be on the field more than most starters.
The Vikings will be in need of creating more of a consistent pass rush than they did last year, but the Titans O-line may create a lot of problems in that regard. While not a well-known group, they are returning all five starters and all have four or more years experience, but none with more than seven. There is a possibility this group could be kept intact for years to come, barring injury, and the new-look defensive front of the Vikings will face a formidable challenge.
Just as there have been contentious contract issues on offense with the Titans, the same is true of the defense. Cortland Finnegan has earned a reputation as one of the most physical cornerbacks in the league, but he walked out of camp briefly in protest of the team not keeping its promise to re-work his contract, and, like Johnson, he has far out-performed his contract. He returned to camp after making his point, but it would seem the bitterness remains.
The Titans need as many happy campers as they can find on defense, because, like the Vikings on offense, they have a new-look defense – even from what was expected in April after the lockout was in its second month. For years, the Titans had a history of developing dominant defensive linemen only to lose them in free agency – Jevon Kearse, Albert Haynesworth and, most recently, Jason Babin. Many thought the Titans would do what was necessary to re-sign Babin, but, when the bidding got crazy-high, the Titans backed off. Much like how the surgery to Sidney Rice had a domino effect on the Vikings receiver corps, the loss of Babin and DT Tony Brown has created a jumbled mess on the Tennessee line. DT Jason Jones has been shifted to the outside and both DT spots will have new starters – Shaun Smith and Sen'Derrick Marks. This will be a good early test for a Vikings offensive line that struggled mightily against power rushers in the interior last season.
A defensive Titan to keep an eye on is OLB Akeem Ayers. A first-round talent who slipped into the second round of April's draft, Ayers is the kind of playmaker the Vikings got from Chad Greenway in the 2006 draft. He will be put out on the field early and expected to make a big contribution and is worth watching to see if he shines or struggles at the next level.
All of the Vikings quarterbacks may have trouble with the passing game because the new strength of the Tennessee defense is in its secondary. Aside from Finnegan, the Titans boast talent and depth. They suffered a blow with the loss of nickel back Ryan Mouton – one of several players to suffer a season-ending Achilles injury in the early days of practice, but replaced him with former Viking Frank Walker, who will be competing for a nickel back position. Few teams are as strong at safety as the Titans, where they have Michael Griffin, Chris Hope and recently signed Jordan Babineaux as a three-headed monster. They will be critical for a pass defense that ranked 29th in the league last year.
When you look at the Titans, you saw striking similarities to where their franchise is headed and where the Vikings are looking to go. What preseason opener will start proving is which team has more depth, because this game won't be decided by the starters. While it may be hard to watch late in the game with so many players being shuffled in and out for a series or two each, both teams will leave the game with a better handle on how much they will depend on their starting 11 on both sides of the ball.
For a pair of teams that entered the 2010 season with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations, both enter 2011 with a clean slate in hopes of erasing the memory of their respective 2010 disasters. There won't be a lot of questions answered as to how the teams will fare in 2011 when the regular season begins, but this will help determine who won't be on the team, which is the primary objective of the first two games of the preseason.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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