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Final Thoughts: Vikings Moving into a New Era Under Head Coach Kevin O'Connell

EAGAN, Minn. — The wait is over. The NFL season is finally here.

With that comes a lot of anticipation and excitement, elements that can be easily found in the Minnesota Vikings organization.

Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell begins his inaugural season at the helm on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium against the Green Bay Packers, and he knows the importance of a strong start.

"Yeah, I'm just excited for it. This isn't just any other game – it is my first game as a head coach, against a divisional rival. I'm well aware of the importance of this football game for our team," O'Connell said. "I think this 17-game season, looking at it, what's out in front of our team, it's important that we get off to a good start, we want to play the right way, but we know we're playing a really good football team that we're going to see again later in the year.

"We've gotta be focused on really looking at the details, the small things," O'Connell added. "The things that we can control. How many times we can snap the ball with all 11 doing their job. And from what I've seen from our team and my expectation for our team, I expect things to go well."

The Vikings have plenty of firepower on offense, something that Offensive Coordinator Wes Phillips is hoping to take full advantage of come Sunday.

"I think everyone was ready to really start narrowing down a plan and start scheming, and really trying to game plan for a specific defense," Phillips said. "All your installs are in – basically your whole playbook is open."

On defense, Minnesota has plentiful veteran leadership, even if the Vikings are poised to have six different starters.

The Vikings special teams unit will also look to make an impact with kicker Greg Joseph and kickoff returner Kene Nwangwu back for their second seasons with the Vikings.

A new Vikings season kicks off at 3:25 p.m. (CT) Sunday.

Here is what Sam Thiel, Lindsey Young and Craig Peters of will be watching in Sunday's season opener:

How does Kirk Cousins handle the new offense with no preseason? | By @RealDealThiel23

For most of the Vikings starters as skill positions, including quarterback Kirk Cousins, Sunday's contest will be their first game action since January.

Whether or not the strategy will work remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: Cousins will be prepared under the new leadership of O'Connell and Phillips.

Cousins has spent the entire offseason, training camp and preseason building up reps and learning the new offense.

"You feel like you own it, but you know that more time on task is only going to make you better," Cousins said. "You start to learn where all the bones are buried and you get better and better as times goes on, so I'll just keep – every day I go out there for a walk-through, for a practice, for a game, just keep getting better and better with owning the material."

Cousins, who was recently named one of eight captains, threw for 4,221 yards and 33 touchdowns last season. It was the second straight season that he recorded more than 4,200 yards and 30 touchdowns and third in the past four years.

Since the start of training camp, Phillips said the biggest change he's seen from Cousins has been the continued improvement with mastering the offensive scheme.

"There's certain concepts that any quarterback has experience with if they've played as much as he has, and there was some carryover and those types of things, but then there were some new wrinkles that we had with our system, that early on, he just needed more reps at," Phillips said. "He needed to see it, he needed to understand the way we were coaching it and the way we're reading some of these plays and how the footwork tied into that. We feel really good about his progression and like he's going to play really well."

Phillips added against Green Bay's talented secondary, Cousins will have to know when to be aggressive versus staying conservative. Cousins had 32 plays of 20-plus yards at U.S. Bank Stadium in 2021.

"I think being aggressive kind of ties hopefully to our influence as well on the plays we're calling," Phillips said. "If you're calling plays where there are shots available and you get it dialed up at the right time against the right coverages, we want him to let it rip, but the quarterback has also got to make us right sometimes.

"You're not always going to call the perfect play or get the deep shot that you maybe called and you've got to check it down and put the ball in play and keep us on track," Phillips added. "He's always done a really nice job of protecting the football, and that's something we obviously all value."

How will Vikings offensive line fare against Packers front? | By @LindseyMNSports

O'Connell and Phillips may be new to the NFC North division, but they're quite aware of the threat a Green Bay defense poses.

The Packers front seven returns mainly intact from last season, with the addition of a 2022 first-round pick. Minnesota's offensive line will start its regular season with a tall task in the trenches, being asked to handle Dean Lowry, Kenny Clark and Jarran Reed.

Adding sizzle to the beef up front will be outside linebackers Preston Smith and Rashan Gary. In the Vikings previous meeting with the Packers (Jan. 2), Smith and Gary each notched a sack of Sean Mannion and combined for five quarterback hits. The Packers are turning to that duo after the departure of Vikings outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith.

"Smith is a guy that I was with in Washington. He's really progressed and become a really good pass rusher," Phillips told media members Thursday. "Rashan Gary has really come along when he got to play last year, when Za'Darius [Smith] was out, and he got all those reps. He's a force on the edge. Kenny Clark's an excellent rusher, and he can play the run, as well."

Phillips said Packers Defensive Coordinator Joe Barry excels at "putting them in good positions to make plays."

That also applies to Quay Walker, the former Georgia standout whom Green Bay tabbed with the 22nd overall pick this spring. Though there can be some benefits to playing a rookie, Phillips noted, facing a first-year player presents its own set of unique challenges.

"I think anytime you're playing a rookie who's that talented, you're going to see some things where you really love it, and I'm sure there's going to be some things that he just hasn't seen yet, just with experience, that he'll continue to improve," Phillips said. "But he's a great athlete, he can run and hit, he's physical – and he can cover, as well. Not a lot of weaknesses as far as the athlete.

"We're just going to have to see, as well, what kind of player he's truly gonna be," Phillips said. "But we expect both of those linebackers to be really good players inside. De'Vondre Campbell's been a really good player. [He] was All-Pro last year."

The Vikings plan to start left tackle Christian Darrisaw, left guard Ezra Cleveland, center Garrett Bradbury, right guard Ed Ingram and right tackle Brian O'Neill. Ingram, a second-round pick this spring, won the competition and will join the returnees from last season.

If there's one thing certain about Sunday, it's that Minnesota's offense will have a good test to start the 2022 campaign.

Will defense have enough discipline and disguise to top Rodgers/LaFleur? | By @pcraigers

Joke intros for 500, please.

A chess master, poker shark and four-time NFL MVP walk into U.S. Bank Stadium.

Who is Aaron Rodgers?


Much of the Jeopardy! guest host's success has hinged on mastering the games within football games.

Sure, Rodgers has been able to lean on plenty of athletic talent, but it seems as if it would bore him to rely on athletic feats.

Therefore, the QB has become smitten with getting defenses to show their hands before the snap or earning free plays with his effective hard count.

Patrick Peterson, who is heading into his 12th season, described what the Vikings must do.

"All 11 guys have to be on the same page. We understand that Aaron has had 16,000-plus snaps in this league, so there's not much he hasn't seen," Peterson said. "We have to make sure we're making it difficult for him post-snap, making him figure out what we're in after the snap.

"We can't have him knowing what we're in before he gets the ball in his hands," Peterson added. "That's going to be a challenge for us to disguise as much as we can, but also, we don't want to get caught because he's a master of hard counts, he's a master of the play clock. These are the games that Aaron likes to play to try to get us to show our hand, so we have to be disciplined and make sure that we're all dialed in."

Peterson noted Rodgers' posture can change and make defenders feel a false urgency as the play clock nears zero "trying to get guys to think that he's in a rush, but technically he's not in a rush."

"I think it just comes down to us being calm, cool and collected, you know, as a unit, throughout the four quarters of that football game," Peterson said. "The biggest thing for us is not allowing big plays. Not allowing big plays, being very sound in situational football, getting off the field on third down and not giving up points in the red zone. I know that sounds like a menu full, but I think if we can get those things done, it'll put us in a good position of winning the ball game."