NFL Preview - Jacksonville (0-0) at Minnesota (0-0)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - A month ago, they had neither. Now, they have both.
When the ball is kicked off to begin Sunday's Week 1 game between the
Jacksonville and Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings at the Metrodome, the matchup's
most recognizable running backs - Jaguars veteran Maurice Jones-Drew and
Vikings standout Adrian Peterson - will be in uniform and ready to go.
But how much they'll go is still a question.
Jones-Drew returned to the fold just days ago after a 38-day contract holdout
that included input from the team's owner and the initial breathless gasps
that he'd imminently be traded. Meanwhile, Peterson sustained a serious knee
injury - a torn ACL and MCL - in a 2011 game on Christmas Eve and appears to
have fulfilled his promise to be available for Minnesota's opener.
"Despite what everyone else had to say, that was my vision," said Peterson, a
four-time Pro Bowler with a league-best 6,752 rushing yards since he arrived
in 2007. "I knew it was going to be a journey, a path, to get closer to that
vision, and I'm closer. I see it. It's closer now. It was far away in the
beginning, but I've been working hard and just moving forward."
In reality, Peterson remains a game-time decision. If he either can't go or is
limited, former Stanford workhorse Toby Gerhart would be featured.
"With Toby, we can run our offense even if Adrian isn't in there," Vikings
head coach Leslie Frazier said. "We feel like we don't have to change any of
our plays. We're very confident and comfortable with Toby being our lead back
if that's the case. The same runs that Adrian would have would be the same
runs that Toby would have."
Jaguars head coach Mike Mularkey, in his first NFL head coaching job since a
two-year stint with Buffalo from 2004-05, has given similar quotes about
backup Rashad Jennings, who'll spell Jones-Drew if he's unavailable.
Jennings gained 209 yards in the preseason while Jones-Drew skipped out on
offseason workouts and training camp in a failed bid to prompt renegotiation.
"I have to kind of get acclimated to the offense," Jones-Drew admitted. "I
have to show them the work to get my job back. That's all it is. No one has
ever given me anything in my whole life. This is just something that I've been
used to. I like it. The competition is going to be great. I have a lot to
catch up on and get back to my old self."
The run game will be a valuable stress reliever for Jaguars second-year
quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who struggled mightily in spots as a rookie after
he was drafted 10th overall in the 2011 draft and thrown almost immediately
into the mix ahead of former starter David Garrard.
Two new receivers arrive as his helpers, including free agent Laurent Robinson
and 2012 No. 5 overall pick Justin Blackmon.
"I think our guys want to see where we're at," Mularkey said. "We did some
good things in the preseason. We just want to see if we can do that for four
quarters. I think this will be a good test up there in this environment. I
think it's going to be good for us to see where we're at."
Also entering his second year is Minnesota signal-caller Christian Ponder,
also a 2011 first-round pick who threw for 13 touchdowns with 13 interceptions
as a rookie starter in a season in which the Vikings slumped to a 3-13 finish.
"We're putting that pressure on ourselves that we want to do a lot better than
3-13," Ponder said. "We want to make the playoffs. We want to be competitive
in the NFC North."
Hurting Ponder's chances are a dearth of No. 2 receiver threats behind top
target Percy Harvin at the start of the season, as Jerome Simpson will miss
the first three games on suspension after a felony drug conviction. Not to
mention, the rest of the division includes heavyweights Green Bay, Chicago and
"In most people's eyes, we're just not talented enough, not as good, not as
experienced," Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway said. "It's going to be
exciting, because I think we're going to be a lot better than what people
think we are, and I think that we have a chance."
Vikings lead 3-1
Streak: Vikings have won last two meetings
Last Meeting: Vikings 30, Jaguars 12 (Nov. 23, 2008)
Last Meeting at Site: Vikings 27, Jaguars 16 (Nov. 28, 2004)
Jaguars HC Mike Mularkey vs. Vikings: 0-0
Vikings HC Leslie Frazier vs. Jaguars: 0-0
Mularkey vs. Frazier Head-to-Head: First Meeting
Notes: Jacksonville is 1-2 all-time as the visitor in this series, having also
dropped a 50-10 decision at the Metrodome in 1998 and scoring a 33-3 win there
in 2001 in addition to its 2004 result. Mularkey spent the first six seasons
of a nine-year NFL career as a tight end with the Vikings from 1983-88.
Back from a protracted contract holdout, Jones-Drew resumes his role as the
top offensive weapon in the Jacksonville arsenal after amassing a career-best
1,606 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on a career-high 343 carries last
season. While his timing may be off, the lengthy absence from preseason
contact might be a good remedy for a guy who's carried 954 times in 46 games
over the last three seasons. He'll start out the year behind the 27-year-old
Jennings, who did not play last season due to a knee injury after gaining 661
yards in 28 games between 2009-10. Any success by the run game will be a boon
for Gabbert, who was only intermittently solid over 14 starts as a rookie
after the Jaguars made him the 10th pick in the 2011 draft. The Missouri
product completed just 50.8 percent of his 413 pass attempts for 2,214 yards,
12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while posting a 65.4 quarterback rating.
His primary target for 2012 is the rookie Blackmon, a 6-foot-1, 210-pound
physical receiver out of Oklahoma State. Robinson starts on the other side and
enters his sixth NFL season after compiling career highs of 54 catches and 11
touchdowns in 14 games with Dallas last year. The starting tight end is
Marcedes Lewis, a 6-6, 272-pound force whose 2011 output of 39 catches for 460
yards and no touchdowns was down dramatically from 58 catches, 700 yards and
10 scores in 2010.
Lewis will need to wear his blocking cleats as well to help left tackle Eugene
Monroe stave off Vikings end Jared Allen (66 tackles, 22 sacks), one of the
premier pass rushers in the league. Monroe surrendered 9 1/2 sacks in 15 games
last season. Also figuring to pressure the young Gabbert is tackle Kevin
Williams (38 tackles, 5 sacks), whose 54 1/2 sacks since 2003 are the most by
any league interior player over that span. Jasper Brinkley returns from a
season-long hip injury to replace departed middle linebacker E.J. Henderson,
who wasn't re-signed in the offseason. Alongside him is Pro Bowler Greenway,
who made 154 tackles and had two sacks last season. In the backfield are
corners Chris Cook (20 tackles) and Antoine Winfield (40 tackles, 1 sack, 1
INT), who missed much of last season with either off-field problems (Cook) or
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
The main question for the Vikings is how much Peterson will be used and how
effective he'll be in his first live action since his devastating knee injury.
The Vikings do have a capable understudy in Gerhart, who rushed for 531 yards
and averaged 6.8 yards per carry on 109 attempts last season. Peterson fell
just short of reaching quadruple digits on the ground, finishing at 970 yards
and 12 touchdowns on 208 carries over 12 games. Either or both runners will be
called upon to take the heat off second-year quarterback Ponder (13 TD, 13
INT), who beat out veteran Donovan McNabb midway through his rookie season and
wound up with 1,853 passing yards and a 70.1 rating in 291 attempts. At the
receiver spots, veteran Michael Jenkins is back after making 38 catches and
three touchdowns in his first year in Minnesota. He starts opposite the speedy
Harvin until Simpson returns from his suspension in Week 4. Harvin had 87
catches for 967 yards and six scores in 2011.
For the Jaguars, linebacker is the premier position on defense and the crew is
led by middle man Paul Posluszny, who topped the team in tackles (119) last
season and will play a huge role against the Vikings' runners. Also,
strongside backer Daryl Smith (107 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT) set a single-
season franchise record with 15 tackles for loss in 2011 and has a string of
five straight seasons with 100-plus tackles.
Though both teams are pocked with question marks, the Vikings are home and
probably worthy of their four-point favorite status. Even if Peterson's return
from injury and Jones-Drew's rustiness cancel each other out, it appears that
Ponder is closer to ready for primetime and the availability of Harvin gives
him an advantage Gabbert simply doesn't have. Allen figures to wreak at least
intermittent havoc as well, which will probably cause at least one crucial -
and decisive - mistake.