The Minnesota Vikings put in a lot of work this offseason, and now it’s time to see if any of it paid off.
On Sunday, the Vikings kick off their 2012 regular season against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
In their first home opener since 2007, the purple and gold will be hoping to notch a much-needed victory as they attempt to bounce back from a disastrous 3-13 showing in 2011.
Although there will be numerous points of interest as the Vikings venture into a season shrouded in uncertainty, one of the biggest focuses will be on whether or not former first-rounder Christian Ponder can take the next step in his maturation as an NFL quarterback.
The second-year passer showed vast improvement during the 2012 preseason after a rookie year marred by growing pains and poor pass blocking. This outing against the Jaguars will be his first opportunity to prove that the Vikings didn’t waste a high draft pick on the injury-prone gunslinger.
Speaking of poor pass protection… Sunday will mark the NFL regular season debut of the Vikings’ blindside blocker of the future, Matt Kalil. The No. 4 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Kalil brings the type of elite blocking that Minnesota needs.
Jacksonville don’t boast the best pass rush in the league, but this game will nonetheless be a huge gauge of what Kalil brings to the Vikings’ offensive line. The Jaguars will line up their second-round pick, defensive end Andre Branch, across from Kalil, so it’ll be a matchup worth watching.
Another player that’s sure to grab plenty of attention on game day is running back Adrian Peterson.
Eight months removed from a devastating knee injury, the All-Pro is pushing to play in Week 1. Coaches are hesitant to rush Peterson back into the lineup, but he’s already shown unbelievable progress in his recovery and could see limited action against the Jaguars.
Peterson is a game-time decision, but Toby Gerhart should still get the majority of the carries.
This game will also be the first opportunity for the Vikings to see what type of player – good or bad – that they missed out on in rookie wide receiver Justin Blackmon.
Blackmon was a serious consideration for the Vikings with their No. 3 – and eventual No. 4 – pick in April’s draft, but they opted to take Kalil. After a strong showing during the preseason, Blackmon will have his first chance to prove that he’s capable of making plays when it matters – against a completely-rebuilt secondary.
The aforementioned secondary will sink or swim on Sunday. Facing a sophomore quarterback in Blaine Gabbert who turned in an ugly rookie season, they’ll have the ability to bring him back down to Earth after a promising preseason. It’s also possible that the second-year passer could tear them to shreds with the help of Blackmon and the rest of the receiving corps.
With cornerbacks Chris Cook and Antoine Winfield healthy and rookie safety Harrison Smith looking to assert himself as a presence on the backend of the Vikings’ defense, it’ll be up to Minnesota to set the tone when defending the pass.
Even with Rashad Jennings getting the start at running back for the Jaguars, it’ll be an interesting test for the Vikings defensive front. They were victimized on the ground throughout 2011 and during the preseason, lacking a push and inability to fill holes.
Training camp holdout Maurice Jones-Drew is also expected to get some work as a third-down back, so this game will provide Minnesota with a gauge of how well the rushing defense has progressed since last season.
One final note: After falling half a sack short of the NFL single-season sack record in 2011, Vikings defensive end Jared Allen will be looking to get off to a quick start in the sack department against the Jaguars. Expect him to exploit Jacksonville left tackle Eugene Monroe early and often as he tries to keep pace with Dallas Cowboys’ DeMarcus Ware in the race to break Michael Strahan’s sack record.
It’s going to be a long season for the Vikings, who are stuck in arguably the NFL’s toughest division. Getting off to a quick start – a win against the Jaguars – will definitely help them gain some early-season momentum. And considering that the Vikings are 3-1 all-time against Jacksonville, the odds are in their favor.
My prediction: Vikings win 30-24