Typically, there are matchups that are critical to the outcome of games that feature some of the top stars on the Vikings and their opponents. Such battles during the season will include Adrian Peterson, Matt Kalil, Percy Harvin, Christian Ponder, Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Chad Greenway and Antoine Winfield. However, in the first preseason game, all of those guys will be on the sidelines watching the game play out and the reserves who are looking for backup/special teams roles will be deciding who wins and who loses between the Vikings and the San Francisco 49ers.
Perhaps nowhere are the question marks so pronounced as they are at linebacker, where the Vikings linebackers and running back LaMichael James will be this week's key matchup.
The 49ers already have one of the NFL's best rushing games, led by Frank Gore and the free agent addition of Brandon Jacobs, but both are entering their eighth NFL season – which typically is when NFL running backs close in on "hitting the wall." Realizing that, the 49ers used their second-round draft pick on Oregon running back LaMichael James. James led the NCAA in rushing last year and is a slashing, hard-charging, downhill runner who hits the hole hard and gets past the first line of defense consistently. It will be up to the Vikings linebackers to stuff the running lanes James will be looking to get through, but who will be the second line of Vikings defense is very much up in the air.
The starters seem set – Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson on the outside and Jasper Brinkley in the middle – but the backups come into the preseason with many more questions than answers.
Everson Griffen has the best chance of making an impact after showing flashes of ability last year as both a pass-rushing defensive end and an outside linebacker prospect. He and six-year vet Marvin Mitchell are battling for the backup spot behind Henderson and both are adjusting to the new scheme of defensive coordinator Alan Williams.
On the strongside, Larry Dean played in all 16 games last year, but was primarily a special teams player. He is in a battle with former CFL standout Solomon Elimimian. Both are hoping to make the roster, but the Vikings may need to get much more than special teams production out of them and James will provide a preseason test for them.
In the middle, Brinkley is the starter now that the Vikings allowed E.J. Henderson to continue his playing career elsewhere, but his injury history is troubling. If he should go down, the Vikings will have to depend on either third-year man Tyrone McKenzie or rookie Audie Cole – neither of whom has any real game experience.
Friday's game is going to be a proving ground for a lot of players – more than 40 percent of them won't survive the final roster cutdown. With the 49ers wanting to get an extended look at James as both a runner and receiver, it will be the job of the Vikings linebackers to keep him in check and prevent him from making a big first impression. At the same time, the backup roles haven't been written in pen yet, so the Vikings' backup linebackers won't just be fighting for the top reserve roles, many of them will be competing for precious roster spots that may be limited to just three or four beyond the three starters.
Both teams will be looking to set a standard by which they can build on as the preseason progresses and the anticipation of the regular season gains momentum. James in particular will likely be under the preseason microscope, making his ongoing battle with the Vikings' backup linebackers this week's matchup to watch.
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.
Key matchup: James vs. the backup LBs
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