The 49ers host the Minnesota Vikings in a matchup that the nation will get to watch on Sunday Night Football. Although this is normally a dress rehearsal game for the first string, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh often takes a different approach to player rotation in the preseason. We've seen some starters getting decent snap counts, and others going one series and out each game. Who knows what to expect from the 49ers.
As for the Vikings? Well, we had a chance to chat with Eric from Daily Norseman, and he had a chance to discuss all things Vikings. If you missed it, I answered a few questions for him as well over at DN.
Niners Nation: Any idea on expected snaps for your starters on Sunday? Also, which starters are expected to sit because of injuries?
Daily Norseman: It's the third preseason game so of course we'll see more of the starters than any other preseason game. Leslie Frazier hasn't specified exactly how long the starting units will play but I'm guessing that it will be at least the entire first half. Frazier has paid more attention to snap counts and the number of drives thus far in the preseason so the exact amount of time may very depending on the flow of the game. Frazier also hinted that certain players that haven't started yet will get looks with the first team here and there.
The Vikings are relatively healthy heading into the game; you should see nearly all of the starters on Sunday. The only starter that is definitely out is Pro Bowl fullback Jerome Felton, who had an emergency appendectomy. Wide receiver Jarius Wright suffered a concussion against the Bills so he may be held out on Sunday. Matt Kalil was banged up in the Buffalo game last week but he is already back at practice. Rookie defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd hasn't been running with the starters very much yet, but he had minor knee surgery and likely won't play the rest of the preseason. Other than that we should see the full Vikings squad in San Francisco.
NN: What's up with Christian Ponder? He made some important plays in last season's upset of the 49ers. He can make plays, but there appears to be a fair amount of criticism surrounding him. How do Vikings fans view him heading into his third season.
DN: Ponder? He barely ever comes up as a topic of debate over at Daily Norseman.
Crap, I forgot that it's kind of difficult to type something that's meant to be dripping with sarcasm. "What's up with Christian Ponder?" is the million dollar question for the Vikings this year. There are three main camps when it comes to Ponder for Vikings fans:
- Those that have a lot of faith in Ponder. They point to the similarity of Ponder's numbers to Eli Manning's the first two seasons of their careers. They see him making improvements and point to how much better he played over the last four must-win games of the 2012 regular season. They say that this is the best receiving corps he has had since he arrived in Minnesota--it's no longer Percy Harvin and a bunch of bodies. They acknowledge that he's not in the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks yet, but with #28 in the backfield he doesn't need to be for the Vikings to win.
- Those that are already out on Ponder. They point to how many times Ponder finished with under 200 yards passing last season (9) and how many times he finished under one hundred yards passing (3). They think that without Adrian Peterson to hand off to and 8-man boxes in front of him that those stats would be even worse. They believe he's way too inconsistent to ever become a competent starting quarterback. They think that Ponder's lack of field vision causes him to miss wide open receivers, which forces unnecessary throwaways and passes into coverage. They think that having Ponder at quarterback is wasting AP's prime and that Matt Cassel will have to take over by the time we're halfway through the season.
- Those that are somewhere in between the two extremes. They see promise from Ponder but realize that he needs to make some big improvements in 2013 if the Vikings hope to make it back to the playoffs.
Personally I'm in the third group. I think Ponder has the skills and personnel necessary to succeed this year. I also realize that he needs to be MUCH more consistent and mature as a decision maker. In my mind this season is make-or-break for Christian Ponder. After the dust settles on the 2013 season we'll definitively know whether the Vikings have their quarterback of the future or if they'll have to go back to the drawing board yet again.
NN: The Vikings defense seemed relatively middle of the pack last season. Not bad, but not great. How is the defense shaping up this season?
DN: The defense still has some question marks but it looks like they could be better overall this year. The front four is definitely the team's strength in talent and depth. Jared Allen is still great. Brian Robison and Everson Griffen are both lesser known but extremely talented defensive ends. Kevin Williams is on the tail end of his career but consistently makes an impact every time he takes the field. Fred Evans has been making a lot of strides in camp this year and will probably replace Letroy Guion in the starting lineup. The aforementioned Floyd really stood out in his first two preseason games and will compete for first team reps when he comes back in a couple weeks.
The linebacking corps is probably the biggest question mark for the Vikings defense. (Just like it is for the Niners! OK maybe not.) Chad Greenway is an absolute tackling machine on the strong side--he's solid. We're not worried about him. After that it's a little messy. Erin Henderson has moved to middle linebacker for the first time in his career. He has looked good so far but switching to a new position usually has its wrinkles to iron out. Injuries have really slowed the progress of Desmond Bishop. He was signed from Green Bay to be the third starting linebacker but he can't seem to stay healthy, which was a big reason why the Packers let him go. If Bishop can't go, Marvin Mitchell seems to be the leader to take over on the weak side. He's solid but definitely isn't on the level of players like NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis.
The secondary could be the most improved unit on the team even after the departure of Antoine Winfield. First round pick Xavier Rhodes has all the skills and size to be an effective starting NFL corner, although he's definitely still learning. Chris Cook finally seems to have his head on straight and it looks like it's having a positive effect on his play. Second year corner Josh Robinson has looked solid on the outside and as a nickel corner. Harrison Smith was a pleasant surprise at safety as a rookie and looks even better heading into his second year. Jamarca Sanford might be one of the most improved players on the defense; he has put a lot of distance between himself and Mistral Raymond for the other starting safety spot.
With all the youth and moving parts, I don't think the Vikings will have a top-tier defense but they should be a little better on that side of the ball in 2013.
NN: The Vikings surprised folks last season with their playoff run. What are Vikings fans expectations this year?
DN: Vikings fans' expectations for the team seem to be all over the map this year. Unsurprisingly, the level of optimism regarding the team is closely tied to people's opinions of Christian Ponder. Those that think Ponder will improve usually have a rosier outlook on the season; those that think Ponder isn't the answer believe that the team is going to take a big step back in the standings.
I'm a Vikings homer through and through, but I think the Vikes will have a tough time sneaking back into the postseason in 2013. Their schedule looks a lot tougher this year, especially the last half of the season. Six of the Vikings' last ten games are against 2012 playoff teams; four of those six games are on the road. Then again, with NFL parity that fact could mean nothing this year.
This team could go anywhere between 5-11 and 11-5 depending on three big factors: Ponder's play, the team's overall health, and how their numerous younger players step up in bigger roles. Probably in that order. As of right now I think an up-and-down 7-9 or 8-8 season is in the Vikings' future. I hope I'm just as wrong as I was last season when I thought they'd go about 6-10.
NN: What are some of the key position battles you are tracking. Are there any big names that could potentially find themselves looking for work in two weeks? Are there any surprise rookies potentially in the mix?
DN: The punt returner/backup cornerback battle between Bobby Felder and Marcus Sherels has been really intriguing because it looks like the loser probably won't make the final roster. Sherels is the incumbent returner but Felder has probably had the better preseason.
Greg Jennings, Jerome Simpson, and Wright are currently at the top of the WR depth chart but rookie Cordarrelle Patterson is already making a strong case to shake up that order. If Simpson struggles like he did last season I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Patterson takes away his snaps. The bottom of the wide receiver depth chart has been heated as well. Stephen Burton has really been making a case for himself which means that converted quarterback Joe Webb could have a tough time making the final 53.
Backup running back/fullback has been a logjam as well. Adrian Peterson and Jerome Felton are the no-doubt starters and Toby Gerhart will get most of the carries when AP needs a spell. After that it's wide open. Zach Line of Peter King's MMQB fame is battling with Matt Asiata and Bradley Randle for what is likely only one roster spot.
I already touched on a couple of the battles for defensive starting spots. I think Evans deserves the starting spot over Guion at defensive tackle. The WLB battle should get more attention on Sunday since it looks like Bishop will get more snaps. If Bishop struggles, I wouldn't be that shocked if he doesn't make the roster at all.