Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from www.purplePTSD writer and editor of purplePTSD and VikingsTerritory, Joe Oberle.
Training camp drones on into its third week, but there is a jump in the players’ step at TCO Performance Center because the first preseason is coming on Saturday. The Vikings head to Denver to take on the Broncos at Mile High Stadium, and the biggest story line, perhaps, is that the Vikings will face their 2017 quarterback Case Keenum across the line of scrimmage.
As most football fans are aware by now, the first preseason game features very little from the starting units on either team. Even though the Vikings have a new offensive coordinator, a new offense and a new starting quarterback, it is unlikely that Kirk Cousins and crew won’t get much more than the first series. But that won’t keep Cousins from making the most of it.
“Training camp can drag on—we’re on our about 11th or 12th practice and by now you are ready for a change of scenery and to play against a different defense,” Cousins said. “It’s important to get out there and have a good taste in our mouths, leaving the game. And when you only get a handful of snaps, if you don’t start fast, you don’t finish strong. You have to come out the gates ready to go or otherwise your opportunities are gone and you don’t really have time to ease in.”
The opposing starting quarterback, Keenum, is someone the Vikings are a little more familiar with. He started 14 games for the Vikings in 2017, led them to a record of 13-3 in the regular season and took them to the NFC title game. It’s a situation of, “Case, we hardly knew ya,” since he was a Viking for only season, but Keenum made an impression in his short time in Minnesota.
“Case was a phenomenal teammate, leader,” Smith said. “I am happy that things are going well for him. It will be different playing against him with, kind of, live bullets, but it’s what we do. You know somebody on every team we play—you train with them, you played in college with them, you played in the pros with them. That’s the nature of the league. It doesn’t limit how competitive you are, it actually ramps it up a bit more.”
Cousins, as well, has seen Keenum play in this league, and while he won’t face him on the field, he knows everybody is paying attention to the quarterback changes between these two teams.
“Anytime you win 13 games and a playoff game, you are doing an outstanding job as a quarterback,” Cousins said. “I’ve watched Case going back to his games in Houston, watching him run Coach [Gary] Kubiak’s offense, watching him in L.A., and then here, he’s just a winner. You don’t do that at multiple stops unless you’ve got something to you that say you’re special, you’re an elite quarterback.”
But it’s a preseason game, and “KC” and “CK” will get limited snaps. Even though Trevor Siemian might be a better story line, going back to where he was the starting quarterback in 2017, this game is about the backups trying to make the team and Siemian is pretty solidified as Cousins’ backup.
“I can’t say enough good things about our quarterback room and Trevor as a player and a person,” Cousins said. “When you’ve started that many games and been in the fire, that’s a huge asset to have in our room. Just as a guy, I love his demeanor—laid back, go with the flow, calm. It’s just good for me to have him there, and I look forward to working with him all year.”
More interesting to keep an eye on, perhaps, is the play of the Vikings offensive line. Many of the starters won’t see action and not because of the one series done aspect of the first game. This past week in Eagan has been a tough one for the Vikings offensive front. Center Pat Elflein is not back from 2017 injury, right guard Mike Remmers has been out a week with an injured foot and left guard Nick Easton, who had been taking over at center for Elflein, is seeking a second opinion on a back and neck injury that has put the entire line in question.
“It is a challenge. I’ve played with a depleted offensive line a little bit last year and it’s certainly not preferred,” Cousins said. “Much of the offensive line play is like quarterback where you have players who down the road you know are going to be good players, but they may not be there yet, and so it takes time, it takes reps. It takes these preseason games. We’ve got to throw them in the fire and get them work so that they can take those next steps. I see it as a great challenge for me as a quarterback.”
It will be worth watching how much the “starters” (which will likely be Riley Reiff at left tackle, Tom Compton at left guard, Cornelius Edison at center, Danny Isidora at right guard and Rashod Hill at right tackle) will play. Three of these players are backups and will have to share some of the second string duty in the game on Saturday. Since Edison is the third team center coming into camp, you may see a lot of him against the Broncos.
“I think when you’re missing a bunch of starters, you have to protect your guys. We will know very early how we’re holding up up front,” offensive coordinator John DeFilippo said. “I anticipate us holding up really, really good because we’re playing a darn good defensive line out here and holding up pretty good. I’m really proud of how our young guys have stepped up up front. It hasn’t been perfect. Sometimes it’s not 100 percent fundamentally sound. It turns into a little bit of a street fight.”
On the defensive side, the first series will be interesting to see how Keenum handles playing against the number one defense from last season with, as Smith puts it, “live bullets.” Will the Vikings sack him and actually take him to the ground? Will someone get to pick him off (what a celebration that would be)? And will they get Keenum on the move early? What they should do is make him go three and out and end his night before it began.
More importantly, it will be interesting to watch if Eric Wilson can keep up the play of his solid training camp. We will want to watch the younger cornerbacks (Mike Hughes and Holton “Hears A” Hill)get their chance to outshine the older ones (Marcus Sherels and Terence Newman).
Watching rookies in their first live game action is warranted, also. As Cousins said in his press conference, the Vikings offense knows the Vikings defense, so it becomes more difficult to play against someone who knows what is coming. Therefore, we can watch the rookies in Purple to see if they know their assignments or are struggling to assimilate at this level.
How does Tyler Conklin do at blocking when he gets in the game? Which running backup running back is making a case for the third string after Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray? And that old place kicker battle will certainly be on display in the mile-high altitude of Denver—can Daniel Carlson handle the bright lights or does the veteran Kai Forbath win the day?
So, while this game has plenty of personnel story lines, ultimately, it’s about earning a job or keeping your position on the team. Even the veterans like Smith know what’s on the line Saturday. Don’t expect him to be holding back.
“If you don’t bring it all every day, they’re going to find someone else,” Smith said.