Ahhhhhhh football, how we all missed thee. It is Week 1 of the 2016 NFL Season, and now we get to the good stuff!!! Today, the Minnesota Vikings open up their quest for glory as they travel to Tennessee to open the regular season against the Titans. This Titans squad is young yet vastly improved, and they will test Minnesota and their overall preseason preparations. \
Shaun Hill will start at quarterback, which means the running game and solid defense will be emphasized even more. Not to mention, the two-headed monster of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry on the ground will test the Vikings run defense. To be successful, the offense needs to set the tempo, and the defense needs to do everything they can to stop the run. The Titans have limited weapons in the passing game and if you can force them to throw their entire offensive identity changes. The keys for Minnesota are performing well on defense, establishing the running game, and limiting the amount of mistakes that are made across all units. Tennessee is a sneaky team and shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Stopping the Run
The Minnesota Vikings run defense was a leaky aspect of their defense in 2015. It is hard to analyze their growth in the preseason with extended absences from both Eric Kendricks and Sharrif Floyd. However, an improvement was an area of emphasis by the coaching staff this offseason. The Titans re-tooled their team and have built a new offensive identity. Tennessee’s offense will now be predicated on running the football. They added Derrick Henry in the draft and traded for veteran DeMarco Murray.
In the preseason, the Titans running game was moving the ball with ease. Henry rushed for 213 yards on 34 carries (6.26 yards per carry) in the preseason. Additionally, Murray tallied 19 carries for 153 yards in three total preseason games. It appears both Henry and Murray will be a one-two punch for most of the season. Not to mention, Tennessee also has the threat of second-year dual-threat quarterback Marcus Mariota. The Titans will do everything they can to run the ball effectively to set up the pass.
If the defense doesn’t stay home on a read option play, Marcus Mariota can cause trouble with his legs. He averaged 7.4 yards per attempt when he rushed outside of the pocket last year. Now, with an established running game, the threat only looms larger. Mariota has a good arm too and can be deadly when he extends plays. The Vikings can’t allow Tennessee to dictate the tempo of the game or it will be a long day in the home of country music.
Over the Hill?
According to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, quarterback Shaun Hill is going to start this game. With Sam Bradford having less than a week to prepare, it makes sense the team would prefer to start a player who has been in the system for almost two full years. The Vikings will establish their game plan with Adrian Peterson running the ball frequently. Shaun Hill will need to make good decisions and limit his overall amount of turnovers.
If Peterson can run the ball 25-30 times and McKinnon can add a few carries, Hill might only be asked to complete between 15-20 throws. If the Titans are smart, they will take away short throws that require minimal arm strength and will force Hill to make deep throws to the sideline. He frequently struggled with these passes throughout the preseason and training camp. Even with this latest report, it would not be surprising to hear Coach Zimmer made a last minute switch to Sam Bradford before kickoff. Zimmer likes to keep everyone on their toes, so we won’t truly know until #13 is on the field when the ball is kicked at noon on Sunday.
Running the ball well
With Shaun Hill starting at quarterback, the running game will be even more important in this game. Adrian Peterson will be making his 2016 regular season debut, and he will be heavily involved. The Vikings offense line has shown some growth as run blockers, but there is still some inconsistency within the unit. Hopefully, Norv Turner will blend Jerick McKinnon into the gameplan as well. His natural athleticism and skill-set should be used creatively not only on the ground but through the passing game.
If the coaches can find a better balance between Peterson and McKinnon, the Vikings could unleash an entirely new offensive wrinkle. The offensive line will be more cohesive, which will hopefully increase 3.0 yards per carry average from the preseason. Joe Berger is a great interior blocker, and Alex Boone is an animal in the second level.
Look for the Vikings to get in a rhythm early with a strong amount of inside runs. Winning the time of possession and opening up easier throws in the passing game will be the key to offensive success. The Titans defense allowed a high volume of yardage last season and the trend continued in the preseason.
Protection is pivotal
Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will bring a heavy amount of pressure, and the Vikings offensive line needs to be ready. After missing the third preseason game with a leg injury, Matt Kalil will be back and is looking to rebound after a disappointing 2015 campaign. The interior of the offensive line isn’t the major concern. Kalil and newcomer Andre Smith need to protect well off the edge, especially considering the limited mobility Shaun Hill has inside the pocket.
He is like a water buffalo when he is forced to run. The Titans will bring plenty of pressure in hopes of getting after Hill. Nonetheless, if they bring too much pressure at the wrong time, Adrian Peterson could go wild. With a heavy amount of run blitzes likely, Peterson will likely be forced to create some tough yardage.
Send the house
The Titans allowed the most sacks in the league last year (54), and teams beat up Marcus Mariota to the point he became injured. Tennessee added Michigan State product Jack Conklin as their new right tackle. They paired him with third-year left tackle Taylor Lewan. What’s more, the Titans signed Ben Jones away from the Texans and will start him at center this season.
Chance Warmack and Quinton Spain will return at the interior guard spots. It’s safe to say the Titans re-toooled their offensive line and it was only the preseason, but the unit looked much better. To test their growth, Mike Zimmer will send plenty of exotic blitzes with some heavy defensive fronts. Anthony Barr, Harrison Smith, and Eric Kendricks can stack the line of scrimmage and cause plenty of headaches. Mike Zimmer likes to sugar the ‘A’ gaps and he won’t shy away from it in this game.