Eagan - It all becomes real on Sunday as the Minnesota Vikings host the Atlanta Falcons at U.S. Bank Stadium.
A team that missed the NFC Playoffs for the third time in the last five seasons will play in front of a packed house, and everything that transpired last season will be forgotten for at least a few hours. A new-look offense under the leadership of Kevin Stefanski, Gary Kubiak and $84 million quarterback Kirk Cousins will get its first real look after limited time for the first team in the preseason.
Dating back to the end of last season, it’s nine months of build-up for the first of 16 regular season games. The hope is there’s more to come after.
“I’ve had eight opening days in the NFL, yet for me I still have that excited, anxious, butterfly feeling as if I’m doing it for the first time. I don’t think that’s ever going to leave,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said Thursday.
More than 60,000 football fans will descend on downtown Minneapolis, most donning their Viking purple. It’s hard not to be excited about that after good crowds for two relatively meaningless preseason games.
“We’re just excited to go out there and play football. You have a five-week Training Camp, you have this awkward kind of week in between preseason and regular season, we’re just excited to get back out there and play football,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said.
They’re also excited to see what their new-look offense will look like in a meaningful situation.
The Vikings have made it known their goal is to get back to running the football. They had the top rushing offense in the NFL in the preseason. It’s largely the same group that finished 30th in the league in rushing last season.
What’s new this year? A healthy Dalvin Cook, first-round pick Garrett Bradbury at center under Cousins and Pat Elflein moving to left guard. Cook got all of two snaps in the preseason, and took the second 85 yards for a touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals. He wasn’t touched until he was 15 yards down field, and said after that game Rudolph and Mike Boone made the blocks to spring him free.
Cook has played just 15 games the last two seasons after tearing his ACL his rookie year, then injuring his hamstring last season.
“I’m really excited to see Dalvin out there on Sunday. He’s a kid that works really hard and he’s worked his tail off to get back from injury, so now he’s feeling healthy. He’s rearing to go,” offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski said.
Cook said after Thursday’s practice despite only two preseason carries, he’s ready to go on Sunday. He knows his body, and practicing daily has him ready for the season.
“I’m definitely excited, just excited to show everybody what we’ve been working on. Just to put this thing together and get this thing rolling,” Cook said.
It’s Stefanski’s job to put together a scheme that gives Cousins time to find weapons down field as well as create holes in the run game. The preseason offered glimpses into the potential the offense has, while other struggles indicated consistency is still a work in progress.
Cousins and the first-team offense took the first series at New Orleans 76 yards in eight plays for a touchdown to rookie Alexander Mattison, the No. 2 running back behind Cook. Cousins even showed the ability to scramble for a first down.
In Week 2, Cousins was 6-of-8 for 68 yards. Then, the uncertainty came. Week 3 against the Cardinals, he was 3-of-13 for 35 yards and a 39.6 rating. It could’ve been even worse if not for a 29-yard completion to Stefon Diggs near the end of the first half.
Cousins said after, “I’ve got to play a lot better or it’s going to be a long season.”
The Vikings’ 168 rushing yards per game in the preseason led the NFL. They were second in total offense at 392.5 yards per game. Yet they really won’t know what they have as an offense until they put it together against a defense that hasn’t seen the plays or scheme yet.
“You go into that first week, you really don’t know what to expect from your team. I think that’s kind of the exciting thing. We’re excited to get out there and play against someone else,” Thielen said. “Preseason doesn’t really show you team football, just because you don’t have a whole lot of possessions in the preseason.”