The first pre-season game is what it is--a cameo by the first team offense and defense, and an in-game audition for a slew of players fighting for down roster spots. It's also our first opportunity to see the new rookies, and how they perform under game conditions.
Yeah, that's over, in many respects. Another week of practice plus game film means the margin for error is now razor thin for some guys, and for those who are safe, it's time to perfect your craft. As the Vikings head towards their second pre-season game against the Cardinals, let's figure out what we should be looking for.
The QB battle: This is Matt Cassel's job to lose at this point. We talk about the ups and downs of Teddy Bridgewater a lot, but when you look at the body of work Cassel has done so far this year, it's been impeccable. His only drive against the Raiders saw him almost perfect throwing the ball (5/6, 62 yards), and it ended in the only touchdown of the game. He's provided a stability that only a 10 year veteran can bring, the team has rallied around him, and given the offense a much needed boost of confidence. Bridgewater's going to get more first team snaps against the Cardinals, but unless Cassel craters or Teddy skyrockets, Matt Cassel will be your starting quarterback. And I don't view that as a bad thing, at all.
Clarity at linebacker: It seems like the linebackers are starting to come into focus a bit. Chad Greenway, Jasper Brinkley, and first round pick Anthony Barr seem to be your first team unit, with Gerald Hodges, Audie Cole, and Michael Mauti your more than likely backups. Barr has steadily improved after a shaky beginning, and I'll be watching to see if he continues to improve from his first game.
Secondary issues: Outside of Captain Munnerlyn, Xavier Rhodes, and Harrison Smith, the secondary has a lot of roles that still need to be filled. Kurt Coleman started at strong safety opposite Smith in the first game, and had a good accounting of himself, picking off a pass. Robert Blanton and Chris Crocker are still very much in the mix here, so keep an eye on how this plays out, and who gets snaps where. I do think Coleman played himself into a roster spot though, which could leave Jamarca Sanford and/or Mistral Raymond on the outside looking in, depending on how many safeties they keep.
Special teams: Kind of lost in the excitement of the new home at TCF Bank Stadium and the debut of Anthony Barr and Teddy Bridgewater was the relative 'meh' that was the Vikings special teams, outside of Adam Thielen. The team has been planning the switch in venue and planning accordingly, but their debut was less than stellar. Jeff Locke punted eight times, with an average of only 38.9 yards. He had two punts inside the 20, but was generally unsuccessful in really flipping field position. Walsh was 1/2 on field goals, hitting a 30 yarder and missing from 53. His kickoffs didn't generally travel as far as they normally do, either, although the Raiders only returned one for 21 yards.
It's time to make a move: For guys on the fringe, if you're going to make a move towards the 53 man roster or practice squad, you're quickly running out of time. The first cutdown to 75 players isn't until the Tuesday after the third pre-season game (Aug 26th), but this is probably the last real chance most fringe guys will get to make an impression. With the third game the dress rehearsal for most teams, game reps will be at a premium, so if a guy is going to make a move, it almost has to be against the Cardinals. Other than safety, I'll be particularly interested in who plays in the nickel and dime sets behind Munnerlyn and Rhodes. Marcus Sherels seems a lock, with Josh Robinson and Jabari Price right there. That leaves guys like Derek Cox, Shaun Prater, and Robert Steeples jockeying for playing time and fighting for a pot, if any are even available.
Most importantly, however, the one thing we'd like to see more than anything are no injuries. As long as both teams come out of this relatively healthy and unscathed, it'll be a win for everyone.