MINNEAPOLIS - It’s game week for the Minnesota Vikings. After a month of training camp, three preseason games and dealing with injuries and COVID-19 protocols, it’s time to see what the finished product looks like on the field.
Mike Zimmer is entering his eighth season as head coach, and even he doesn’t know yet what his roster will look like on Sunday as the Vikings face the Cincinnati Bengals. Most of his veteran starters either didn’t play at all, or played very little in the preseason. Justin Jefferson and Dalvin Cook didn’t play at all, Adam Thielen played one series and several defensive starters played limited snaps.
It simply wasn’t worth risking injury in a preseason game. Instead, Zimmer opted to have game-like scrimmages at TCO Performance Center, where the only thing they didn’t do was tackle.
"To me that’s the unknown, we’ve got to go out and prove that these guys deserve not to play in the preseason," Zimmer told reporters before Wednesday’s practice.
It’s a pivotal year for Zimmer, and General Manager Rick Spielman. The minimum expectation is to be a playoff team, which hasn’t happened enough as of late. If the Vikings don’t make the playoffs, the real possibility exists that there will be a coaching change and moves in the front office.
Team ownership hopes it doesn’t come to that point. There are no excuses in 2021. Fans will be back at full capacity in NFL stadiums, bringing back the atmosphere that was lacking in 2020 and players had the option to get vaccinated for COVID-19.
Now it’s a matter of staying healthy, and the Vikings have no choice but to avoid the 0-3 start they got off to last year.
"Come out of the gates with some energy. We’ve got fans this year, so go out and start fast. We’ve got to go out there and execute, start fast," running back Dalvin Cook said. It’s up to us as leaders to get this team going, be ready to play come Sunday.
VIKINGS GET PROMISING NEWS ON ANTHONY BARR, CHRISTIAN DARRISAW
The Vikings held their first workout ahead of Week 1 against the Bengals on Wednesday at TCO Performance Center, and the team had full participation for practice. That includes linebacker Anthony Barr, and offensive lineman Christian Darrisaw.
Barr had not practiced since Aug. 5, and was seen on many days in the weight room doing rehab during practice. He’s reportedly been dealing with a knee issue, and sported a sleeve on his right leg at walk-through on Wednesday. He participated in both individual and position drills.
After missing most of last season with a torn pec, Zimmer and the Vikings want their defensive leader and signal-caller back. But Zimmer wouldn’t commit to Barr playing Week 1.
"He’s going to get a little work done today. He feels really good today. How he feels tomorrow, the next day or the next day, I don’t know. He’s excited today, he feels really good, he’s had a good last week," Zimmer said. "We’re hopeful that he plays, I don’t know honestly."
It’s a bit of a different situation for Darrisaw. The team’s first round pick was expected to step in and start at left tackle, but he’s battled a core/groin issue all offseason that has required two procedures. Darrisaw was a limited participant Wednesday.
"I saw the headline that he’s back to practice, but he’s going to do individual, that’s it," Zimmer said.
It was a welcomed sight to have him back on the field after spending most of training camp watching with a cap on. In his absence, Rashod Hill is slated to start on Sunday.
Zimmer wasn’t ready to say Darrisaw will play on Sunday, even as a back-up.
On paper, the Vikings’ 2021 roster looks like a playoff team. The offense is loaded with talent, despite losing Irv Smith Jr. for the season. Zimmer and Spielman revamped the defense, which on Sunday could feature as many as eight new starters. Harrison Smith has help in the secondary, with Xavier Woods, Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland and Mackensie Alexander.
Danielle Hunter is back healthy, and has reinforcements with Michael Pierce, Dalvin Tomlinson, Sheldon Richardson and Everson Griffen, and D.J. Wonnum winning the other starting defensive end job.
"It’s time to turn it loose for four quarters," Pierce said.
What will it all look like? We’ll have an idea by Sunday afternoon.
"I think there’s some unknowns there. Just going out there and doing it, proving it from what we’ve seen in practice," Zimmer said.