Between now and Saturday at 3 p.m. Central, The Turk will come calling for at least 22 Vikings as NFL teams are required to be at or under the league-mandated roster of 53 players.
Rufus Alexander, a sixth-round draft choice for the Vikings last year, hopes he can repeat the organization's ticket-drive slogan and say, "You made the team." Alexander figures to get extended playing Thursday night.
"It feels great going into the Dallas game. I'm approaching that like any other game. Do my work, do what I'm supposed to do, limit my mistakes and go out there and perform," he said.
The release of Pope didn't necessarily clear the pathway for Alexander's spot – he's been working at the outside linebacker spots while Pope was a middle linebacker – but it should mean more playing time for Alexander and the other five backups, especially since head coach Brad Childress announced that the starters won't play Thursday.
"We felt like with the young guys that we do have, they're really coming along and we wanted to be able to take a better look at them this next ballgame," defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said when asked about the release of Pope. "… We felt like with the young guys that we have we are going to get the answers that we need in the backup roles."
With E.J. Henderson, Chad Greenway and Ben Leber in starting roles and Vinny Ciurciu a likely candidate to stick with the team because of his special-teams prowess, that probably leaves two or three spots for which Alexander, Erin Henderson, David Herron and J. Leman will battle.
So far, Alexander has seven tackles this preseason while Erin Henderson leads the team with 18. One of the obstacles standing in Alexander's way from securing a spot on the 53-man roster is a knee injury suffered last year that put him on injured reserve for the entire season.
"This is my second time hurting my knee. It's my other knee, so I feel like, hey, just go out there and work and do what I know how to do," Alexander said, admitting that he doesn't quite have all of his explosiveness back yet. "It takes a whole year to recover and get back on everything. I wouldn't say I have everything back, but it's just about there."
"We were concerned coming off that major knee surgery," Frazier said. "He's continued to improve and he's so close to being the Rufus that we remember from a year ago when he first signed with us. This will be a big game for him. He's had a little bit of trouble with an Achilles as well as coming back from the knee surgery, but he's done a lot of good things. What he does on special teams – along with Erin (Henderson), David Herron, those guys – they are fighting for that final roster spot along with J. Leman as well. So this will be a big game from those guys."
SPECIALIST SPOTS REMAIN
While every starting spot on offense and defense is spoken for so long as injuries don't creep their way into the equation, the same isn't true on special teams. Coordinator Paul Ferraro isn't without options in the return game – it's just that none of the possibilities have grabbed hold of the opportunity.
"I'd like it to be a little bit more secure in who exactly is going to be doing the punt returning, but I think we've made progress in some of the things we are doing," Ferraro said. "Maybe it hasn't shown up statistically, especially in the punt return game, but we've made progress up front in our blocking, both in kick return and punt return. I think we are in a good spot right now. We just have to settle on who's going to do it and we still have some options. So we just have to play it out this weekend and see how it goes."
Because the Vikings were interested in seeing how their rookies could do in the return game earlier in the preseason, they still aren't sure what some of their second- and third-year players will do if given enough opportunities in the punt return game.
"I know Aundrae Allison can do it. He's caught everything he's been asked to catch. We haven't given him a lot of opportunities from a blocking standpoint when he's been in there," Ferraro said. "Chuck Gordon did it all through college at a high-level, so I know Chuck can give us those repetitions, and we know what Bobby Wade and Bernard Berrian can do. So we have options. It's not like we don't have anyone. It's just we don't have a single guy right now that we can say will be taking all the reps. That's not a bad thing either though. We've got plenty of options and we're going to use them as we go."
Allison, who excelled as a kick returner last year but has competition from Maurice Hicks for that role, has had limited opportunities to return punts in the preseason. Those opportunities he has gotten haven't gone well – he has 3 yards total on four returns – but Ferraro pointed out that the blocking on those occasions hasn't been the best. Wade was sure-handed but uninspiring as a punt returner last year, calling for 11 fair catches in 27 attempts. And Bernard Berrian isn't likely to return too many punts early in the season if he is trying to keep his turf toe under control enough to be the team's No. 1 wide receiver. Meanwhile, Charles Gordon hasn't had a chance to show what he can do returning punts.
So, punt returns might be the most intriguing part of Thursday's game as the starters rest on offense and defense.
"Artis has always been a natural left-side guy. We tried to stick him on the right side, but that's where he's a natural. He's done a great job stepping in there at tackle and we haven't had to worry about him," said offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell.