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Final Thoughts: Vikings Balance Excitement, Unknowns as Week 1 Awaits

EAGAN, Minn. — Welcome to Week 1, where the start of each NFL season is filled with excitement, optimism … and unknowns.

Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer begins his eighth season in charge Sunday in Cincinnati, where he was the defensive coordinator for six seasons before landing in Minnesota.

This is Zimmer's 28th season opener in the NFL. And while he knows the potential of his team, he also knows twists and turns await — both on Sunday and in the months ahead.

"Well, I hope I have a pretty good pulse on it right now," Zimmer said. "The thing is, you never know until you go out there and go against somebody else and you play.

"I like this team. I think we've got some really good talent and we've got good guys who work hard and they're competitive," Zimmer added. "So now we just have to go out there and prove it."

A pair of Vikings coordinators also acknowledged the unknowns that will come Sunday afternoon at Paul Brown Stadium.

"It's been that way for 19 years. And even when you were a college coach or high school coach, it's always the same," said Vikings Assistant Head Coach/Co-Defensive Coordinator/defensive line coach Andre Patterson. "You go into Week 1, and the nerves are a little bit different than the rest of the season because that's when you really get an idea of who you are.

"You think you have an idea, but you've been going against your own guys and seeing the plays your guys run … guys start to understand and know those plays because they see them over and over again. Now you go against someone else and it's for real," Patterson added. "You have a better idea of where you stand and who you are after Week 1. But you also understand it's a long haul and a marathon. No matter if you play great or play bad in Week 1, you still have to continue to improve because the season is very long."

Vikings Offensive Coordinator Klint Kubiak quipped: "There's way too much film to watch on the opponent so you can drive yourself crazy on the things that they could do. I think that's why it's so important that we stick with what we do well and distribute the ball to our best players."

The Vikings have revamped their defense this offseason and brought back a strong level of continuity on offense. Minnesota will also look for increased impact on special teams after that unit was subpar in 2020.

The NFL season — and all the highs and lows that come with it — begins Sunday at noon (CT) for the Vikings.

Here is what Eric Smith, Lindsey Young and Craig Peters of Vikings.com will be watching in Sunday's season opener:

How does the new-look OL fare? | By @Eric\_L\_Smith

It's another football season in Minnesota, which means another season in which the spotlight will focus on the Vikings offensive line.

The Vikings have certainly poured plenty of resources into that group, with five top-100 draft picks in the past four years, the highest total among all teams in that span.

Brian O'Neill, fresh off a multiyear contract extension and being named a captain, will anchor this group both on and off the field. Garrett Bradbury is back at center entering Year 3, while Ezra Cleveland is now a starter at left guard after nine starts at right guard as a rookie.

The line will feature two new starters in left tackle Rashod Hill, a veteran who has made 17 career starts in Purple. And right guard Olisaemeka Udoh will make his starting debut after switching from tackle to guard this offseason.

There are reinforcements for the future, too, as first-round tackle Christian Darrisaw and third-round guard Wyatt Davis could help out at some point in 2021. Darrisaw is working his way back from an injury, while Davis is getting his feet wet as a rookie.

For now though, the line will be a crucial piece of the offense, and counted upon to move bodies in the run game and keep Kirk Cousins clean in the pocket.

If this group can jell and thrive, that could go a long way in helping the Vikings make the postseason in 2021.

"We've got a great room, and this is the most excited I've been about an offensive line here," O'Neill said. "I think hopefully we'll be able to see the results, but we've got to go out and be able to prove it."

From the sideline to the booth | By @LindseyMNSports

Kubiak was able to feel out his new role as Minnesota's offensive coordinator during the preseason, which included testing his home-base location for game days.

Kubiak called plays from the Vikings sideline for the team's first two preseason games. For the third and final exhibition contest in Kansas City, Kubiak instead called plays from the upstairs booth.

Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer told reporters he suggested to Kubiak that the first-time play-caller try the all-22 view.

"Really what happened was, he felt like he wanted to be down there with the quarterback, but I didn't think he could see the game well enough, so I told him he needs to go upstairs," Zimmer said. "There's a lot of things that go on that you can't see down on the sideline. 'Are these corners sitting on routes? Can you double move them? Is the safety cheating down?'

"There's so many things that you can see if you are up in the box that you can't really see down on the sideline," Zimmer added. "I just felt like it would be better communication for him if he's up there – and he can still talk with the quarterback."

View photos of Vikings players from practice on Sept. 9 at the TCO Performance Center.

As it turns out, the latter location was the winner.

"I liked it up there. Definitely better sightlines, clearer communication," Kubiak said earlier this month.

"From doing them both, I like being up there, being able to see more," he added Thursday. "Having the whole-field perspective and a more quiet, calm environment."

Stuffing runs & staying on same page | By @pcraigers

On paper and in theory, the Vikings addressed aspects that troubled their defense in 2020.

Minnesota wanted to be stouter against the run and more experienced at cornerback.

The signing this offseason of defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson and the debut of nose tackle Michael Pierce after an opt-out should be quite a boost for a defense that ranked 27th in rushing yards allowed (2,151) and 24th in rushing touchdowns allowed (19) last year.

While seven of those scores allowed occurred at New Orleans after Minnesota's defense was completely ravaged by injuries, it is also fundamentally true that the Vikings have had successful seasons under Zimmer when they stop the run.

The even-year, odd-year alteration of playoff teams is a quirk; correlation, however, does exist with run defense.

Minnesota ranked third in rushing touchdowns allowed in 2015, ninth in 2017 and third in 2019. Trips to the postseason followed. The Vikings were 11th in 2014, third in 2016 and 15th in 2018 before last year's substandard showing.

Cincinnati may be more inclined to pass than run, so I'll be looking at yards allowed per carry when the Bengals do keep the ball on the ground. When they take to the air, I want to see how the rebuilt secondary with three new starters (plus the return of Mackensie Alexander at nickel) handles coverages and communication.

The Vikings have a combined 419 starts between first-team cornerbacks Patrick Peterson (154) and Bashaud Breeland (88) and first-team safeties Harrison Smith (129) and Xavier Woods (48). Only Breeland and Woods played any during the preseason, but Peterson said the Vikings have gotten plenty of experience during training camp.

"I think Coach did a great job kind of simulating those situations for us throughout training camp and giving us those camp situation moments," Peterson said. "Like playing half, doing a two-minute drill with no timeouts. Just seeing how we are able to operate under pressure. I feel being able to go through those simulations, I believe once the game comes it can come easy for us. Because if you practice how you want to play, you should have a damn good game. I think the sky's the limit for us. Now we have to go out and prove it."

Notable Number: 5

The Vikings are 5-2 in season openers under Zimmer over the past seven seasons, including a 2-1 record on the road. Here's a quick look at the season openers under Zimmer:

2014: 34-6 win on road (St. Louis)

2015: 20-3 loss on road (San Francisco)

2016: 25-16 win on road (Tennessee)

2017: 29-19 win at home (New Orleans)

2018: 24-16 win at home (San Francisco)

2019: 28-12 win at home (Atlanta)

2020: 43-34 loss at home (Green Bay)

Look back at photos over the course of time featuring games between the Vikings and the Bengals.

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