It has become customary that the third preseason game (the fourth for the Vikings and Steelers thanks to playing in the Hall of Fame game) is the closest teams get to fielding lineups that resemble what regular season games will look like. The third game is a dress rehearsal for the regular season.
The first-team players for most teams play the entire first half and often a series or two in the second half as a precursor to having them ready for the start of the regular season. Given that almost all starters are completely shut down for the fourth and final preseason game, if teams can make it through the third game without significant injuries, coaches can exhale as they prepare for the start of the regular season.
The Vikings may approach this weekend’s game against the Dallas Cowboys differently.
“I was trying to count up the number of plays that we’ve had in the preseason with most of the guys, so we’ve had some good work,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “I think it’s important that we go out and still get some good work, but everybody wants to game plan. We’ve never game-planned for a preseason. We’re just going to go out and play until I feel comfortable with how things are. I’m not approaching this one any different than last week.”
Getting to the mid-September opener has been a challenge already for a lot of teams. It can be argued that no division has already been hit as hard as the NFC North and we’re still 17 days away from when most teams start the season.
The Vikings suffered a significant blow when right tackle Phil Loadholt tore an Achilles tendon and was lost for the season. After spending most of the offseason rehabbing a torn pectoral muscle, the loss of arguably the Vikings’ best run blocker was a setback that altered their offensive line depth for 2015. With Loadholt gone, the team will have three new starters at three O-line positions than they had in Week 1 last season – Brandon Fusco is new to the left guard position, his right guard spot is being manned by Mike Harris and rookie T.J. Clemmings has stepped in right tackle for Loadholt.
For a position based on continuity, the Vikings are mixing and matching on the offensive line against their will. Yet, they are far from alone in the injury loss column. In fact, a pair of NFC North teams may have it worse.
The Packers sustained what may be the most significant injury of the preseason when Pro Bowl wide receiver Jordy Nelson suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament last weekend against Pittsburgh. Aside from Aaron Rodgers, it can be argued that Nelson was as valuable to Green Bay as any player on the roster. A big-play threat and security blanket for Rodgers, Nelson was a go-to target who, teamed with Randall Cobb, provided one of the game’s best 1-2 receiver punches.
Now, not only is Nelson gone, but defenses will be able to blanket Cobb and force Rodgers to develop new receiving stars on the fly. The Packers have a history of developing young receivers into talented players, but it is typically been by choice, not force. Without Nelson, the next man up mantra, in this case Davante Adams, takes on new meaning and new urgency.
The same is true in Chicago. The Bears had the seventh pick in April’s draft and had big plans for it, setting a chain of events in motion that culminated with the selection of speedy wide receiver Kevin White.
The Bears struggled last year, but were very productive in the passing game. Veteran Brandon Marshall was viewed as the primary wide receiver threat in the offense, but his status as the top receiver on the team was usurped by Alshon Jeffery last season. Rather than potentially having the volatile Marshall grousing about being the No. 2 wide receiver on the roster, the Bears traded him away to the Jets, opening up a critical starting spot for White.
However, a recurring shin injury required White to have surgery that, at a minimum, will have him out the first six games as he was placed on the Physically Unable to Perform list. The worst-case scenario is that White will miss the entire 2015 season, scrapping all the plans the Bears had to invigorate the passing offense with one of the most explosive young talents in the 2015 draft.
Wins and losses don’t count yet, but already the Vikings, Packers and Bears have lost starters that were viewed as being critical to the level of success they could achieve in 2015, forcing backups to step up to fill the void.
When the third preseason games start Friday and end Sunday, teams will be keeping their fingers crossed that no more of their key players will be lost to injuries in meaningless games. For those fighting for roster spots, the next two games will be vital for their NFL futures. For those who have already locked down starting spots, all coaches and general managers pray for is that they come out of Week 3 of the preseason unscathed so they can move forward to the regular season with their main men healthy and the team intact.
The Vikings, Packers and Bears have already lost star or key players that were integral to their 2015 plans. By the end of the weekend, all they and the other 29 NFL teams can hope for is that they don’t lose any more.