Much of the focus the last few days rightfully has centered on the Cleveland Browns trading 2012 first-round pick Trent Richardson.
The other side of the ball, however, may be the biggest factor in the Minnesota Vikings’ home opener Sunday against the Browns.
While the Vikings have NFL MVP Adrian Peterson in the backfield, they won’t have Pro Bowl FB Jerome Felton or TE/H-back Rhett Ellison (knee), who didn’t practice again on Friday and has been ruled out for Sunday’s game. Add to that the Browns have one of the best run defenses in the league. They are averaging only 59.4 yards per game surrendered, tied for fourth, and are allowing only 12.5 points per game, 12th in the league.
The Browns are giving up a league-best 2.0 yards per rushing attempt.
“Their front seven is good and their safeties are good tacklers. It’s a very sound Ray Horton defense,” said Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, referencing the Browns’ defensive coordinator.
Musgrave has played against Horton defenses before and knows how good they can be. Last year with the Arizona Cardinals, Horton’s defense ranked in the top five in interceptions, takeaways, first downs allowed, third-down efficiency and passing yards. Last year, the Vikings beat Arizona 21-14.
The Browns lost their season opener to the Miami Dolphins, but Cleveland allowed only 20 yards rushing on 23 carries, the second-fewest rushing yards allowed in Browns history.
The Vikings will be trying to counter that without two of their best lead blockers for Peterson. Felton is entering the final week of his three-game suspension for substance abuse, and Ellison didn’t practiced all week because of a knee injury suffered Sunday against the Chicago Bears.
That would leave undrafted rookie Zach Line, a converted running back who spent most of his career at SMU carrying or catching ball rather than blocking, getting elevate snaps.
“He’s done a good job in these last two games. His snaps will probably go up a little bit because of Rhett’s absence,” Frazier said Thursday. “But we’ve got some other ways we can get some things done. We’ll see what happens with Rhett.”
Frazier said on Friday that TE John Carlson should also see some time in a lead-blocking role, but there is another option, especially in goal-line situations.
Nose tackle Letroy Guion was catching passes after Friday’s practice and has been used previously as a lead blocker in goal-line situations. He estimated he has had about 10 snaps as a fullback with the Vikings and has surprisingly quick feet, but that hasn’t happened in at least a couple years.
“I’ll play wherever they tell me to play. Right now, I’m playing defense. If they need me (at fullback), they need me,” he said.
In addition to playing defense in high school, Guion played fullback, tight end and even some slot receiver at about 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds, he said.
”They would motion me and I would crack back and all kinds of crazy stuff,” he said of his duties as a receiver.
“I was a blocker mostly. When I caught passes, it was mostly at the tight or fullback position.”
The Vikings at least have the benefit of an offensive line that played better in Week 2 at Chicago than it did in the opener at Detroit.
Musgrave said he is “relieved and excited” with the way the offensive line played, but the Browns will present a different challenge. While Detroit may have one of the best front fours the Vikings will see, Cleveland has a solid front seven with their 3-4 defense.
“Me and the offensive line, we definitely take this is as a challenge for us,” Peterson said. “Those guys are pretty good up front, pretty stout. The first line has some fast guys. We pride ourselves on being able to establish the run game so it will be a good challenge for us. I’m excited for it.”
WR Greg Jennings wasn’t at Friday’s practice because of a personal matter but is expected to play Sunday.
S Jamarca Sanford wasn’t fined for unnecessary roughness for a hit on Bears RB Matt Forte that was penalized. Sanford said the officials thought Forte was down or that Sanford led with his helmet, but film review showed neither was the case.
Bears CB Charles Tillman was fined $15,750 for a horse-collar tackle on Jennings.
Besides Ellison being declared out, all other Vikings were listed as probable on Friday’s injury report: DT Fred Evans (shoulder), LB Erin Henderson (heel), S Harrison Smith (shoulder), C John Sullivan (knee), DT Kevin Williams (knee), G Brandon Fusco (shoulder), T Phil Loadholt (knee), S Mistral Raymond (shoulder) and Jennings (personal reasons). Only Sullivan and William were limited in Friday’s practice.
For the Bears, QB Brandon Weeden (thumb) and LB Quentin Groves (ankle) are out. OL Shawn Lauvao (ankle) is doubtful and DL Ahtyba Rubin (calf) is questionable. DL Desmond Bryant (wrist) and DB T.J. Ward (shoulder) are probable.
The Vikings have Jared Allen, but the Browns have the player with the longest active sack streak in the NFL. DE Desmond Bryant had a half sack last week to extend his streak to six straight games with a sack, dating back to the end of his 2012 season with the Oakland Raiders.
After first-round pick Barkevious Mingo made his NFL debut for the Browns last week, recording a sack and nearly intercepting a pass from his linebacker position, Cleveland is getting back a playmaker on offense, too. WR Josh Gordon returns from his two-game suspension and will make his 2013 debut against the Vikings. Last year, Gordon had 50 catches for 805 yards and five touchdowns, placing him in the top five for all three categories among rookies last year.
The Browns re-signed WR Tori Gurley to their practice squad this week. He made his NFL regular-season debut last week with the Browns but was released to make room for Gordon. Gurley has been waived by eight NFL teams since 2011, including the Vikings.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.