One of the most difficult aspects of a season-opening game is that many times the personnel that a team had the previous season is greatly altered. Compounding that is when a team opens the year against a team from the other conference that they only play once every four years.
As the Minnesota Vikings began preparation for Sunday’s regular-season opener with the Tennessee Titans, the defense is trying to make the most of the minimal game film – a staple of game preparation – that they have on the current edition of the Titans.
They’ve never played against second-year quarterback Marcus Mariota. They’ve never seen their new running back tandem of DeMarco Murray, who was acquired via trade in the offseason, and Derrick Henry, the Heisman Trophy-winning rookie drafted in the second round.
How different are things? The last time the Vikings played Tennessee – a 30-7 blowout win – Matt Hasselbeck was their quarterback, Chris Johnson was their running back and a highlighted matchup was Kevin Williams going up against former teammate Steve Hutchinson. In NFL terms, it was a lifetime ago.
Because of that lack of familiarity, the preparation period this week is centered more on the Vikings defense doing what has made it one of the better units in the league – staying true to what head coach Mike Zimmer preaches and not dwelling on what tricks might be up the sleeve of the Titans new-look offense.
“We have to focus on us right now, because we don’t know them like we know teams we play every year,” defensive tackle Tom Johnson said. “Everybody right now is trying to feel out what they’re trying to do and trying to execute. Coach Zim is just trying to focus on us being aggressive and physical. We’re going to go out to try to execute our game plan and do what we do best.”
Zimmer is a coach that can never be accused of not being fully prepared for an opponent, but even he concedes that the familiarity with a non-conference opponent with a much different coaching staff and new personnel isn’t an ideal way to open a season.
“It’s not as good as you would have in Week 6 or 7, but first games are always – especially with basically new staffs – they’re always a little bit concerning because what you’ve seen on tape may not necessarily be what you see in the game,” Zimmer said.
The unfamiliarity the Vikings have with the Titans is forcing the team to do some speculation when they’re installing a game plan to frustrate and shut down Mariota and the Tennessee offense.
They have some film to go off of with Mariota, who started 12 games last year, but the running game looks to be completely different. Antonio Andrews led the Titans in rushing last year with just 520 yards on 143 carries. Mariota was second on the team in rushing and three other running backs – Bishop Sankey, Dexter McCluster and David Cobb – combined to rush 150 times, all of them with approximately 50 carries each. But none of those three players are even on the 2016 roster, so any keys that they could provide no longer matter in the preparation for Sunday.
Vikings safety Andrew Sendejo is looking for a mix-and-match approach – study the things you know about the Titans, but install a game plan that plays to the Vikings’ defensive strengths.
“It’s a challenge you always face when it’s early in the season and you’re playing a team you’re not very familiar with,” Sendejo said. “A lot can change from one year to the next, even with teams you know. You game plan for them, but you do it more on what you expect they’re going to do. They’re probably going to try to run the ball more and you always have to be aware of a guy like Mariota because he can extend plays and make plays running the ball. You can’t take too much away from preseason film other than the type of personnel they were using.”
Simply because the personnel has changed significantly from last year doesn’t mean that there isn’t a wealth of knowledge that can be gleaned from watching film from last season and the preseason.
Few players embrace the things that can be learned in studying game tape more than cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. There may only be a handful of keys that can be picked up from watching the Titans offense and what it did well or poorly last season and in cameo appearances during the preseason.
There is always something to be learned from those film sessions.
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“You definitely still have to watch film,” Munnerlyn said. “You watch film to get tendencies and the things they like to do so you can be ahead of the play sometimes. You can’t learn everything. Of the 60 plays, you try to pick up three or four things and try to jump on those things.”
When all is said and done Sunday, Tennessee is likely going to show the Vikings defense looks they haven’t seen on tape – whether from last year or in the preseason. But what they do have going for them is a tenacious D that gets after the opponent and tries to set the tone.
They’ve become comfortable in Zimmer’s defense and are confident that, if they stick to the basic tenets of what they’re being taught and asked to do from one play to the next, it doesn’t matter what the Titans are planning to throw at them.
“Our biggest thing right now is going out and all of us executing our technique and assignments, not so much what they’re looking to do,” defensive end Everson Griffen said. “I feel like if you go out and play your assignment and attack your guy and do everything your assignment calls for on that play, you can accomplish what you’re looking to do.”
Tennessee is going to be a team that may have a much different look later this season than it does now since the team is incorporating a new style of offense that is likely to be more run-based than the 25th-ranked rushing game last year that had its quarterback as its second-leading rusher with just 252 yards. But, for now, the Vikings are counting more on working on what they do well as opposed to combating what they think the Titans are going to emphasize.