Cordarrelle Patterson (Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY)
The Vikings’ preseason finale didn’t tell many things about their starters, but the preseason in general gave us an idea on the strengths and question marks on the team.
The Tennessee Titans and Minnesota Vikings both enter the regular season relying on third-year quarterbacks to make significant improvements and justify the faith both teams have showed them early in their careers.
Jake Locker, who was taken eighth overall in the 2011 draft, was coming off an injury-plagued first full season as a starter for the Titans. Christian Ponder, who was drafted four spots later, has been wildly up and down in his first two years on the job.
The preseason was important for both young players to establish rhythm, chemistry and leadership going into what could be make-or-break years for them. Here’s a look at how they did, and four other things we know about each team following the preseason.
Five things we know about the Vikings:
PONDERING THE QB: Ponder is throwing to a revamped receiving corps and has had to do most of his work with newcomers Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson in practice. He played two plays in the opener — one completion and one interception — and was up and down in more extensive playing time in Games 2 and 3. He did not play in the preseason finale and enters the regular season with plenty of question marks.
INTRIGUING ROOKIE: Patterson has shown flashes of the ability that made the Vikings pay a big price to trade back in the first round and grab the WR out of Tennessee. He needs work on his route-running, but the athleticism, speed and versatility in the return game have the Vikings excited about his future.
SUSPECT SECONDARY: The Vikings let CB Antoine Winfield, a revered veteran in the locker room, go this summer, preferring to go with a youth movement in the secondary. But Chris Cook appears to be the only reliable, veteran cornerback they have at the moment, and he has struggled with injuries and off-the-field issues early in his career. The second unit was torched by Tennessee’s backup quarterbacks and receivers in the preseason finale.
DT DEPTH: Kevin Williams went down with a knee injury in the third preseason game, and coach Leslie Frazier is hopeful his six-time Pro Bowler will be ready for the opener. But there is a decent Chance Williams won’t be, and the Vikings have also had rookie Sharrif Floyd miss three weeks with a knee injury and Christian Ballard leave the team for personal reasons. So depth remains a concern in the middle.
WHO NEEDS PRESEASON? Adrian Peterson didn’t play a down of preseason ball last year while recovering from a torn ACL, and he followed that up with a 2,000-yard season and an MVP trophy. He only played a few snaps on one drive this preseason, but there’s no doubt he’ll be ready to roll on Sept. 8 against the Lions.
Five things we know about the Titans:
LOCKED IN: Titans coach Mike Munchak took the unusual approach of playing many of his offensive starters, including Locker, in the final preseason game. He wanted Locker to continue building on a solid preseason, and he did just that on an 18-play opening drive against the Vikings. For the preseason he completed 67 percent of his passes for 338 yards and one TD. “I feel really comfortable with this group,” Locker said. “I like what we’re doing offensively and I’ve got a lot of confidence in what we’re doing, so I’m excited.”
MCCARTHY MENDING: LB Colin McCarthy was a defensive captain last year, but he’s missed three weeks because of hamstring problems in the preseason. His action against the Vikings was his first this year, and he’s trying to ramp up to get ready to help the unit when it opens at Pittsburgh on Sept. 8. He led the Titans with six tackles in the game. “It felt great to get an opportunity during the preseason, when it doesn’t really count, to go out there and knock some of the cobwebs off,” he said.
MUNCHAK ON HOT SEAT: The Hall of Famer went 6-10 in his second season and knows that the clock is ticking. That may be why he wanted to play so many offensive players in the preseason finale. The urgency is high. “This is my opportunity, too,” Munchak said earlier this week. “Only so many guys get an opportunity to do what I’m doing. I appreciate it greatly to be in this spot. I don’t want to let people down, and I want to give it all I’ve got.”
CORNERBACK SHUFFLE: Jason McCourty is the starter at LCB. Alterraun Verner and Tommie Campbell have alternated starts on the right side. Defensive coordinator Jerry Gray said they could alternate starts between the two during the season depending on opponents. Verner struggled last week giving up a big completion to Julio Jones and was flagged twice for interference.
ZOOM ZOOM: Chris Johnson raced a cheetah as part of a cable television special in the offseason, and he hit the ground running in the preseason. After a bounce-back year in 2012, Johnson has looked primed for another big season with an impressive exhibition campaign. He rushed for 155 yards and a touchdown, averaging 7.8 yards per carry, in the preseason.
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