Head coach Mike Zimmer will make his regular-season debut for the Minnesota Vikings as they open the 2014 NFL season against the Sam Bradford-less Rams.
Minnesota, which finished 5-10-1 in 2013, figures to sport a much-improved defense now that the defensive-minded Zimmer has taken over the mentoring duties from Tampa-2 acolyte Leslie Frazier. The real issue with the Vikings, however, remains the game's most important position.
The franchise was set back years by 2011 draft bust Christian Ponder. For now, veteran Matt Cassel is the placeholder for rookie first-round pick Teddy Bridgewater, an intriguing prospect who struggled in the pre-draft process but has drawn rave reviews from Minny offensive coordinator Norv Turner during the preseason.
Bridgewater, who was once considered a top-five-level prospect, was taken with the 32nd overall pick, and the Louisville product is probably the most polished and NFL-ready signal caller from this year's draft class. However, despite stellar play in the preseason, Bridgewater will remain behind Cassel, who performed even better as Minnesota finished a perfect 4-0 in practice games.
"Matt had a great preseason," Zimmer said. "He didn't do anything to lose the job. Teddy played very, very well too and I just felt like at this particular time it was best for us to continue on. I think the team has real good report and confidence with Matt. He did everything right in the preseason. I expect Matt to have a good year."
Cassel will have some significant weapons to work with, including All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson, as well veteran receiver Greg Jennings and emerging stars like second-year receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and lengthy tight end Kyle Rudolph.
On defense Minnesota re-built its front four (re-signing promising pass rusher Everson Griffen and inking ascending nose tackle Linval Joseph, along with underrated swingman Corey Wootton), and addressed cornerback as well (snaring slot star Captain Munnerlyn) from the Panthers in free agency.
In St. Louis this figured to be the make-or-break year for Bradford, who was attempting to return from a torn ACL in his left knee suffered in Week 7 of last season.
A second ACL injury in the same knee suffered against Cleveland in the preseason short-circuited any hopes that the former No. 1 overall pick would be turning the corner on his star-crossed career in 2014.
"We lost our starting quarterback, but for Sam personally, it's devastating," Rams head coach Jeff Fisher said. "The news was devastating to him as you can appreciate. Anyone that's gone through that procedure and the rehab understands, and to have it happen again within the calendar year is very, very difficult."
Veteran Shaun Hill, who started his NFL career in Minnesota as an undrafted college free agent out of Maryland, is now the Rams' starting quarterback despite the fact the 34-year-old hasn't started an NFL game since the 2010 season when he was in Detroit.
"Life of a backup, you might not go in for a few years, but you have to stay ready," Hill said. "This is not anything new, it's not anything different. I keep the same mindset I've always had."
The mindset should be playing game manager and riding Fisher's defense which figures to have one of the best fronts in the league.
"I feel really good," Fisher said. "We're ready to play. We've got a young team once again, but we've got a team that has a lot of confidence in itself - and our starting quarterback as well."
The Vikings and Rams have played 42 times overall with Minnesota holding a 24-16-2 series record.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Vikings have a chance to pull off a New Orleans-like turnaround on defense. The Saints had an historically bad stop unit under Steve Spagnuolo in 2012 and became a top-five group under the tutelage of the aggressive Rob Ryan last year.
Unlike the former Vikings chief, Frazier, Zimmer is no slave to a scheme. He's the kind of coach that evaluates the talent he has on hand and develops a game plan around it.
This week the veteran coach understands Hill doesn't have the arm talent to stretch the field, giving St. Louis little big-play ability outside the numbers, meaning Zimmer will likely be urging his defensive backs to jump the underneath routes and press the action.
"I think Shaun is an excellent quarterback," Zimmer said. "I thought he was one of the better backups going into the season as far as guys that we're going. But, my philosophy has always been every one of these quarterbacks are in the NFL because they've won a lot of games in their careers."
For Minnesota, it's all about stopping the Rams pass rush, specifically Robert Quinn, who might be the best pure QB chaser in all of football.
"(Rams defensive coordinator) Gregg Williams has always been a great defensive coordinator and he gives you a lot of looks," Zimmer said. "Obviously, their defensive line is excellent. He puts a lot of pressure on the offensive side of the football and I assume that he'll continue to do that."
It will start with Peterson and the running game. The Vikings' superstar rushed for 212 yards and a touchdown the last time these two teams matched up back on Dec. 16, 2012, a 36-22 Vikings win. Peterson is coming off an injury- plagued 2013 season, though, amassing a still stellar 1,266 yards but that number was the second-fewest of his brilliant career.
"It's very important to me to make sure that I'm doing the small things, keeping my body healthy and making sure I make it through the entire season," Peterson said. "I feel pretty good about our chances. I feel like we have all the pieces."
One of the major reasons the Vikings had a poor year in 2013 was due to the play of left tackle Matt Kalil, who followed up a really good rookie season with a disappointing sophomore campaign. Kalil played injured, though, and the Vikings are hoping he can bounce back, although early returns in the preseason were not all that promising.
Zimmer will have the Vikings playing 21st century defense for the first time and the limited Hill doesn't have enough bullets in his right arm to combat what the Vikings' new coach will be throwing at him.
"It's very exciting. I'm excited to watch this football team go out and perform and see where we're at," Zimmer said. "We've worked real hard this off season. I know everybody's making this about me, but it's really more about us and how we've gone about our business this offseason."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Vikings 23, Rams 16