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Vikings vs. Rams preview

9/3/2014
USA TODAY Sports

The St. Louis Rams and Minnesota Vikings enter Sunday’s regular-season opener coming off disappointing 2013 seasons in which quarterback stability was not a strong suit for either side.

In St. Louis, the Rams have already changed quarterbacks because of the season-ending knee injury to starter Sam Bradford. In Minnesota, many expect it to be a matter of time before the Vikings make the change to rookie Teddy Bridgewater for reasons beyond health.

Both teams reside in tough divisions where wins will be difficult to come by. Both are in serious need of a Week 1 victory.

ESPN Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Vikings reporter Ben Goessling discuss this week’s matchup.

Nick Wagoner: There might be some in the Rams' locker room still having nightmares about Adrian Peterson's last visit to the Edward Jones Dome. Clearly, it all starts with him, but how has he looked in camp and in what ways should we expect to see him used differently in the Vikings' new offense?

Ben Goessling: He's going to be a much bigger part of the passing game than he's been in recent years, or possibly any point in his career. We didn't see Peterson in a preseason game, but the Vikings have been happy with his progress during training camp, saying he looks like a natural pass-catcher and has shown a good understanding of what will be asked of him. If he's going to be on the field in passing situations, of course, he'll be asked to be a bigger factor in pass protection, which hasn't been one of his strong suits. But the Vikings are excited about the chance to get him the ball in space more often and match him up on defensive backs who might have a harder time bringing him down than linemen and linebackers. They are also hoping the change in strategy leads to fewer hits on Peterson and will help prolong his productivity past the age of 29.

Speaking of players who might be causing nightmares for opponents, what kind of a challenge is Matt Kalil in for with Robert Quinn? He handled him well the last time they met, but how has Quinn progressed in the past two years, and how has he looked under Gregg Williams?

Wagoner: Kalil is in for one of the most difficult challenges he’ll face in this league. Quinn had 19 sacks and seven forced fumbles last year, but there are those at Rams Park who believe he’s only scratched the surface of his potential. Quinn has freakish athleticism, which allows him to bend and contort his body in ways most tackles never see while maintaining his speed. He is able to win around the edge more often than not, but he’s also developed better hand usage and counters over the past couple of years under the guidance of defensive line coach Mike Waufle. With Williams leading the defense, the Rams want to be more aggressive in all areas, which means he can dial up blitzes, but Williams has never had a front four like this one. That should allow him to get plenty of heat on the quarterback without having to call those blitzes as much. It should make the Rams more multiple and allow Williams to do some unique things with Quinn and his line mates.

While we’re on the topic of defense, I’ve long admired the work of new Vikings coach Mike Zimmer. What is he bringing to the table on that side of the ball, and what are some strengths and weaknesses the Rams' offense will contend with on Sunday?

Goessling: Zimmer is bringing a more aggressive defense to the Vikings than anything we’ve seen in the past seven years under the team’s old Cover 2 scheme. The Vikings won’t be blitzing on every down, by any means -- Zimmer actually hasn’t been that heavy of a blitzer as a defensive coordinator -- but when they do, they’ll bring pressure from a number of different spots. They’ll move rookie linebacker Anthony Barr around and occasionally send defensive backs after the quarterback. Zimmer’s scheme is predicated on every player knowing how his assignment affects the rest of the defense -- he had a film room built with stadium seating so the entire unit could watch film together -- and his defenses typically don’t make many mistakes. How all that will work for the Vikings in Year 1, though, I’m not sure. They’re still young in the secondary, where they’re counting on Xavier Rhodes taking the next step as a cover corner in his second year, and any time they’re facing multiple-receiver sets, their cornerback depth will be tested.

Will Shaun Hill be able to stress the Vikings' defense on Sunday, though? What do you expect from the veteran in his first shot at replacing Bradford?

Wagoner: I think Hill is a solid, steady hand, but he’s obviously limited in what he can do when it comes to stressing a defense. The good news is the Rams won’t be asking him to do too much outside of his comfort zone. This was always going to be a run-first offense, even with Bradford, and nothing has changed in that regard. Jeff Fisher insists the Rams won’t scale back the offense for Hill, though that remains to be seen. Instead, they’ll ask him to manage the game, not turn the ball over and take advantage of opportunities in play-action. Hill doesn’t have the strongest arm, so it will be interesting to see if he can push the ball down the field when the Rams do ask him to throw. And the last time Hill played, he had Calvin Johnson to go up and get it. He doesn’t have anything remotely close to Johnson here.

Neither of these teams is exactly working with Peyton Manning under center. Matt Cassel is getting the call for the Vikings. What does he bring to the table, and do you believe going with him over Bridgewater is the right move? How long before Bridgewater takes over?

Goessling: I think it was the right move, for now. There’s a lot of confidence in Cassel from the Vikings’ offensive starters, many of whom are veterans who want to win now, and having Cassel allows the Vikings to be patient with Bridgewater. Zimmer talked about that Wednesday morning, saying the Vikings have effectively had Cassel installed as their starter since the start of training camp, and that they won’t change their minds after the first interception. I do think we’ll see Bridgewater at some point this season, but that’s based on a belief the Vikings won’t be in the thick of the playoff race at the end of the year. If they are, it probably would be because Cassel helped get them there. In any case, I think he’ll have the job as long as he’s effective. There’s no need to rush Bridgewater.

The Vikings and Rams both took multidimensional receivers in the 2013 draft in Tavon Austin and Cordarrelle Patterson. The Vikings have big plans for Patterson in Year 2, with Norv Turner taking over as the offensive coordinator. How do the Rams plan to use Austin, and will his role on special teams decrease at all if he’s a bigger part of the offense?

Wagoner: Well, I think it’s safe to say Austin doesn’t project to produce as much as Patterson entering their second seasons, and that’s enough to anger some Rams fans who felt the team gave up a lot to get Austin when it could have stayed where it was and drafted Patterson. But Austin still figures to play a prominent role in the offense. The Rams moved him around a lot during the preseason and training camp, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him lining up outside, in the slot and even in the backfield. He did all of those things last year, but the Rams could stand to mix up those looks even further this year. He’s going to play plenty and will continue to be the team’s primary punt returner, though it appears he’s ceded the kick return job for now. The Rams and Austin showed some flashes of his potential late in the year before his season ended early because of an ankle injury. They’re hoping they can build on that this year, though it remains to be seen that they can.