The Jacksonville Jaguars will open up their 2012 regular season tomorrow with a trip to the "Twin Cities", as they take on the Minnesota Vikings.
Both teams feature two All-Pro running backs, in Maurice Jones-Drew and Adrian Peterson respectively, who each have question marks regarding the amount of time they will actually see the field on Sunday. Peterson is coming off a near completely blown knee at the end of the 2011 season, and will be seeing his first action since the injury should he play. Meanwhile, Jones-Drew practiced with the Jaguars for the first time this week, after ending an off-season long hold out that cost him OTAs, mini-camp, training camp, and the entire pre-season.
That's the big national story of the day for these two teams, but this match up is not without it's other intriguing story lines. With that said, here are three things to watch tomorrow for both the Jaguars and Vikings, as they kick off the 2012 season.
For the Jaguars:
1. Stay Schemin'
While the Jaguars offense showed a revamped look in the preseason, with above average success, the play calling was still pretty vanilla as coaches almost never show the whole playbook in games that don't count. So we should finally see the polished shiny new offense that Mike Mularkey, Bob Bratkowski, and the rest of the offensive coaches have pieced together, starting Sunday. It will be interesting to see just how much more "spread"-like the offense will look, considering it showed signs of being much more wide open than in years past, based on what little plays we did see called. On the flip side of the ball, Mel Tucker's defense had nearly a similar look to the defensive production of the 2011 preseason this summer, which was sloppy at best. I expect that to turn around, much as it did in '11, starting tomorrow. Tucker, much like his offensive counterparts, is known for showing very little if anything in terms of regular season looks in the preseason, so I anticipate a much more efficient and flawless performance out of a defense that is expected to do big things this season, after finishing 6th overall in '11.
2. He Went to Jared's
Perhaps the most important match up of the game, will be Jaguars left tackle Eugene Monroe against the Vikings All-Everything sack machine, Jared Allen. Monroe is entering a season in which many who follow the team closely, including yours truly, believe he is just at the cusp of being among the elite left tackles in the game. It doesn't get any bigger of a challenge for Monroe to start proving that theory correct, than the NFL's leading sack master in Allen. His 22 sacks in 2011 threatened Michael Strahan's single-season sack record, and watching the guy play, it's simply amazing what he does to tackles and eventually quarterbacks, when he's lined up in the game. For the offense, and Blaine Gabbert specifically, to have any consistent success on Sunday, Monroe must contain Allen, by any means necessary. Otherwise, it's simply not going to be a good week to be a Jaguars fan come Monday.
3. Defenseless Cox
The Jaguars will likely play without their best corner on Sunday, as Derek Cox continues to rehab back from a hamstring injury sustained in the opening preseason game. In his absence, veteran Will Middleton will start in his stead, along with Aaron Ross, who'll be making his official debut as a Jaguar. Rashean Mathis, the Jaguars all-time interceptions leader who himself will be playing in his first regular season game since tearing an ACL in '11, will play a likely limited role as the nickel back once they go into passing situations. This doesn't bode terribly well for the Jags, especially facing a team with the likes of Percy Harvin. That said, if they can somehow hold up against Harvin, they should be able to sustain themselves in the secondary, as the Vikings receiving corps leaves a lot to be desired outside of #12.
For the Vikings:
1. Lord, Have Percy
As mentioned above, while the offense in Minnesota begins and ends with Adrian Peterson when healthy, the other vital piece of the Vikings offensive puzzle is former Florida Gator star wide receiver, Percy Harvin. The four year vet finished the 2011 season with a bang, scoring a touchdown in five of the Vikings last seven games, a span that also saw him rack up 50 receptions for 581 yards, and averaging 11.6 yards per catch. Against a somewhat depleted secondary, Harvin will no doubt be licking his chops to get fed the ball as much as possible, and quarterback Christian Ponder would almost certainly like to oblige. Harvin is also as dangerous a return man as there is in the league. Though his return attempts diminished some as his snaps increased in '11, Harvin has returned a kick for a touchdown, in each one of his three seasons in the league, including one that went 104 yards last season. After a somewhat shoddy effort by the special teams group this preseason, it may behoove the Jaguars to do everything they can to keep the ball out of #12's hands on Sunday.
2. Kalil'ing Them Softly
While the Jaguars left tackle faces off against one of the biggest challenges in his young career, on the Vikings side another young left tackle will be making his NFL debut, as highly touted first round pick Matt Kalil starts his first game. The USC standout who, while never confused for Tony Boselli or Anthony Munoz, had a great career at Southern Cal, gets his first taste of regular season action against another highly drafted rookie in Jaguars second round pick, Andre Branch. Ironically, much like Monroe for the Jags, Kalil is being counted on to keep the Vikings second year quarterback upright enough to allow him to begin to show he can make the offense productive, and warrant the first round pick used on him following a less than stellar rookie season. (Sound familiar?) While Branch flashed the signs of becoming a dominant pass rusher in the preseason, he's still a rookie playing in his first meaningful game, and as the fourth overall pick in April's draft, the Vikings and their fans will be expecting Kalil to handle Branch and any other lineman across from him, rather easily.
3. Paper Routes
Despite the presence of Jared Allen, and his 22 sacks, perhaps the biggest issue facing the Vikings coming into this season is improving a defense that finished '11 ranked 31st overall. Nowhere is that need more apparent, than in the secondary, which far too often last year resembled the likes of the 2009-10 Jaguars. The team drafted former Notre Dame stand out, Harrison Smith in the back end of the first round this past April to try and help patch up a unit that was so bad, it allowed Tim Tebow to go 10/15 for 202 yards and pass for touchdowns of 20 and 40 yards, respectively. Minnesota does get back veteran corner Antoine Winfield to help, after missing 11 games last year to injury. While Winfield brings solid skills and veteran play to the secondary, he's never been much of a "ball hawk" throughout his career, and tallied only 2 interceptions in '10 when fully healthy. Vikings fans are no doubt awaiting with bated breath, to see if the added help pays dividends. They'll get a good opening test, as Jacksonville debuts rookie sensation Justin Blackmon and free agent Laurent Robinson, who finished the regular season in '11 with over 900 yards and 11 touchdowns, while with the Dallas Cowboys, along with slot receiver Mike Thomas, who had a very productive preseason upon returning to his best position as the third option in the pass offense.