EAGAN (FOX 9) - The time has finally come that the Minnesota Vikings get to see a different jersey across the line of scrimmage.
The Vikings practiced Wednesday afternoon in shells and shorts, then depart for New Orleans to take on the Saints in their first preseason game Friday night. After all the walkthroughs, team drills and late game situations, it’s finally time to apply it in an actual game.
The game doesn’t actually count for anything, but it’s a chance for players to get live reps against an opponent. For the rookies, it's their unofficial NFL debut.
“I’m just looking forward to playing a game. We’ve been going against each other for about three weeks now with camp. Now it’s time to play somebody else and show what we’re capable of doing,” rookie tight end Irv Smith Jr. said Wednesday morning.
In the past, Mike Zimmer has brought in other teams to practice against the Vikings to give his team a different look. Last year, the Jacksonville Jaguars worked out with the Vikings ahead of the second preseason game for both teams.
This year, it’s a different story. Zimmer is focused on his team, and building a unity and chemistry among his players. He’s not doing a lot of game planning for the Saints, he just wants his team to play football.
“Sometimes it’s just fun to go out and play, not worry too much about the opponent. You just line up and go play football,” Zimmer said.
It’s also a chance to for the Vikings to see a few familiar faces. Former Vikings Teddy Bridgewater, Latavius Murray, Nick Easton and Minnesota native Marcus Sherels are now with the Saints. It’ll be the first time the Vikings will have faced Bridgewater as an opponent. He’ll likely get plenty of snaps as starter Drew Brees either won’t play at all, or won’t get more than one series.
“I love all those guys. They were great, great Vikings for us and now they’re good players. Hope they’re not good Friday night,” Zimmer said.
Bridgewater played in five games last season backing up Brees, going 14-of-23 passing for 118 yards and one touchdown. Friday night will come nearly three years after Bridgewater suffered a catastrophic left knee injury during a practice at Winter Park.
Aug. 30, 2016, is a day that Vikings veterans, Zimmer and fans will never forget. Bridgewater had to be taken to a hospital by ambulance after his left leg gave out, and the remainder of practice was canceled as players were too distraught to continue. It was later revealed on a drop back pass, something routine for quarterbacks, he dislocated his knee, tore his ACL and suffered other structural damage.
The big unknown was if he would ever play again.
“For him to be able to come back from the type of injury that he had and still be playing in the NFL, our statistics when the injury happened was a pretty bleak outlook for him. That’s the kind of kid he is,” Zimmer said. “He’ll try and stick it to us just like we’re going to stick it to him.”
Zimmer spoke with Saints coach Sean Payton Wednesday morning. Bridgewater is the same guy he’s always been, is doing well and has no restrictions.
Friday night also serves as the Vikings’ first chance to put their new-look offense on display. With Kevin Stefanski in charge and Gary Kubiak in the mentor role, the Vikings look to establish the run this year after finishing 30th in the NFL in rushing last season.
They’ve also got two of the best receivers in the NFL in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, and weapons at tight end in Kyle Rudolph and Smith. Kirk Cousins has a plethora of options to get the ball down field, if the offensive line can keep him upright.
“We’re looking forward to these guys playing. They are out here on the practice field and there’s coaches out there helping them get lined up, so we’re looking forward to being in a game setting where they get to go out and play,” Stefanski said.
It’s preseason, so the score and the end result don’t mean anything. At the same time, it’s a chance for players to get live game action. It’s a chance for the coaches to see if what they’ve been teaching will work.
It’s the clichéd chance to learn, get better and fix mistakes.
“They’ve been beating each other up for a while now and going in pads every day. It’s just a reminder that if we’re not getting better, we’re getting worse,” Zimmer said.