It has seemed like an eternity since the Minnesota Vikings played a meaningful game, but as they start their week of preparation for the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night, they’re starting to ramp up the intensity and hit the next phase of the season.
Much of the talk has been about the improvement of the Vikings defense, the return of Adrian Peterson and the next step in the maturation of Teddy Bridgewater. But offensive coordinator Norv Turner was commenting on a couple of other players who haven’t been mentioned much by the national media but could be two critical component pieces in the Vikings offense – Joe Berger and Charles Johnson.
Both have flown under the radar, but once the bullets start flying for real on Monday night, both of them could be front and center in the Vikings offense.
With center John Sullivan having been shut down with back spasms over the last three weeks, Berger, a versatile swingman who can play center or guard, has been taking all the reps at center. The hope is that Sullivan will be good to go Monday, but Turner was quick to praise the job that Berger has done and that, if needed, the Vikings will be fine whether Sully goes or not.
“Joe has had an outstanding camp,” Turner said. “He’s played guard. He’s played center. He’s kind of a leader of that group right now while we’re getting Sully ready to go. He’s a valuable guy to us, that’s why we wanted to have him back (in free agency). I think he will do well if he has to go.”
With the loss of Phil Loadholt, the injury to Sullivan and the shifting of Brandon Fusco from right guard to left guard, for a second straight year the Vikings offensive line finds itself in flux.
Last year, the problems didn’t happen until the season was underway. This time around, the changes have come during the heat of summer, not the cool-down of autumn.
Despite the unrest on the offensive line, Turner insists that the offense isn’t being scaled back as the new-look line gets its feet under itself.
“There are no limitations,” Turner said. “We’re asking a lot of those guys. I think we’ve gotten better, a lot better on the left side. Those guys are veteran guys. They’re comfortable with each other. I think we’re improved on our left side. We’re making progress every day on the right side. Obviously, we have a position change guy ( Mike Harris) and a young guy ( T.J. Clemmings), but they’ve responded. We did a good job of protecting the quarterback in the preseason, we need to continue to do that and be able to run the ball.”
Like Berger, another under-discussed Viking has been wide receiver Charles Johnson. Clearly, Johnson made an impression on Turner when both were in Cleveland. He had his professional coming-out party late last season when he supplanted Cordarrelle Patterson in the offense.
Asked about the role he anticipates for Johnson, Turner said that, given the ability he showed late last season, Johnson could be an impact player in the offense.
“He’s a bigger person than people realize,” Turner said. “He’s 218 pounds. He’s a long-arm guy. He’s got great reach. I thought he played really well the second half of the season. I think he’s improved a great deal over that, just being comfortable with what we’re doing and he can run. All of the things you can say about guys, defensive backs feel speed and when a guy can run, he changes the way they defend him.”
With a lot of the focus in the passing game being thrown in the direction of Mike Wallace, Johnson hasn’t received the attention Turner thinks he deserves and, with his size and ability, Turner sees Johnson as an underrated factor that could make the Vikings offense click at a higher level than it did in his first season as offensive coordinator.
“Because he is a lean guy and he doesn’t look as big as he is,” Turner said. “I know some people have described him as not being a physical guy going to the ball, but I think he does that and I think he’s done it better in this camp than he did a year ago. He’s got a long reach. He made that play in the preseason in the Raider game where he reached out and caught the ball in the back of the end zone. He’s made a number of catches out here that when the ball is thrown you think there is no way he can get to it, and he reaches out and gets it one-handed or gets two hands on it. He does have a good catch radius.”
For players like Berger and Johnson, the regular season opener could be a coming out party, but, as it has been for months, much of the attention will be centered on Peterson, Bridgewater, Wallace and Kyle Rudolph forming the big-play nucleus of the offense. Turner thinks that attention is deserved because, to date, their contributions have been theoretical since the offense hasn’t seen them all together on the field at the same time.
That’s all going to change Monday when the first-teamers are on the field to stay. It’s been almost a year since Peterson was on the field and, with Bridgewater and the other weapons the Vikings have, Turner can’t wait to get the season started and let the offense start carrying its end of the weight in an attempt to get the Vikings back to the playoffs.
“Starting in April when we started Phase One, these guys have worked as hard as any group I’ve been around and Coach (Mike) Zimmer has pushed them extremely hard,” Turner said. “We always tell them, you do all of this stuff from April to when you get going in September for 16 weekends. … But to get started on Monday Night Football and get rolling, I think everyone is anxious to get going, including me. We want to be an offense that gives your team a chance to win. Sometimes that means wide open and you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. Sometimes it means just being smart and executing your offense.”