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Vikings Vs. Buccaneers Final Thoughts

EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings made it to Week 1 relatively healthy.

It's been six weeks since the Vikings reported to training camp. After four joint practices and three preseason games, Minnesota enters Sunday's matchup versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at U.S. Bank Stadium with an encouraging injury report.

On Friday, Head Coach Kevin O'Connell said only edge rusher Marcus Davenport will carry an injury designation for Sunday. Davenport is questionable with an ankle injury. O'Connell added that right tackle Brian O'Neill is ready to play despite suffering an Achilles injury in Week 17 last year.

"I just asked him walking off the field, how he's feeling. He said, 'Great, couldn't be more ready to go.' So, I'm excited to see him back out there with the guys, doing his thing," O'Connell said. "Going back to almost April or May, what our plan of attack was with him, systematically attacking it every step away, [and] making sure we were smart early on in training camp. [Then] building up his reps throughout the joint practices, and then solidify how he's feeling both mentally and physically going into this game."

View photos of U.S. Bank Stadium transformed into Vikings Classic ahead of the 2023 season opener.

There will also be several Vikings players making their NFL regular season debuts. Rookies like Jordan Addison, Mekhi Blackmon, and Ivan Pace, Jr., could make their regular-season premiers at U.S. Bank Stadium. O'Connell said he'll lean on the team's veteran leadership to guide young Vikings players and ensure they are ready.

"That extra element of those leadership guys stepping in, and just putting their arm around all of those guys, and let them know what's important," O'Connell said, "and that they're more than ready based on the work they put in."

Six Points: Memorable Week 1 quotes

Offensive coordinator Wes Phillips on guard Blake Brandel

"He's a large man inside. And you like to have those big, kind of rectangular guards. You love those rectangle guys. He's certainly one of those guys, and he loves ball. He's had a really good camp."

Quarterback Kirk Cousins on enjoying the challenge

"It's very important for me to just stay in the present, embrace the process and enjoy fighting to win even more than just chasing the win. And kind of enjoy the challenge. And when you enjoy the challenge, then through the ups and downs that are inevitable through an NFL season or an NFL career, you're able to sort of enjoy every day, cherish every day and get better every day. My perspective will be to just enjoy the fight. Enjoy the challenge that it is every week."

O'Connell on supporting Cousins

"I fully support him not only as our captain and starting quarterback, but he knows my feeling toward him and those feelings were the same last year before we ever played just knowing my history with him. All he has done since day one has really just enhanced who I believe Kirk Cousins is as a quarterback, a leader and just a man amongst our locker room."

Special Teams Coordinator Matt Daniels on safety Josh Metellus' speech to the team

"He just kind of talked about the adversity that he went through. For him to start his career off like that, be released, end up on the practice squad, find a way out to the football field, kind of find his niche from a special teams standpoint, the unbelievable year he had on ST, as well as stepping in when Harrison was out, contributing and having an impact there, I tell the group all the time, if you just do the work, the money will come.

General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah on Metellus' contract extension

"You can feel when somebody's teammates really love them, really appreciate them and really want to follow them into battle, and he's one of those guys. He's everything that the Minnesota Vikings are about, and I think people are really going to appreciate that more this season."

Rookie receiver Jordan Addison on his Week 1 responsibilities

"He will take a lot of attention. So, all I got to do is make sure I win my 1-on-1 and catch the ball. I just want to accomplish my goals that I set for myself. I don't want to put no stats or any numbers out there. I've got goals that I set for myself for each week. So, this week, I want to make sure I handle that. And then just make sure I'm making successful plays for my teammates."

Matchup that Matters: Vikings interior offensive line vs. defensive tackle Vita Vea

The Vikings interior has been tested plenty over the calendar year.

Last season, games against the Eagles, Commanders, Giants, and Jets pitted guards Ezra Cleveland and Ed Ingram and center Garrett Bradbury against opposing defensive tackles who finished inside the top 10 of ESPN's pass-rush win rate metric.

The Buccaneers pose a similar interior threat. Defensive tackle Vita Vea is listed at 6-foot-4 and weighs 350 pounds. The former Pro Bowler is a force inside. Tampa Bay deploys Vea as a 0 or 1 technique, meaning he lines up over the center or between the center and a guard.

"They want a big nose who can push the pocket," Phillips said of Tampa Bay's defensive philosophy. "There are times with protection calls where you can adjust with some of those things and get some help, but they do try to isolate him in the middle. And he's a force inside."

Vea is a problem against the run and in pass protection. Since 2020, when Vea is on the field, running backs average just 0.8 yards before contact per carry. That number jumps to 1.4 yards when he is not in the game.

The best interior defensive linemen command double teams. Offensively, game plans start with first identifying defensive fronts and then formulating a scheme to block the most dangerous defenders. Vea's name (or No. 50) is likely circled on a whiteboard somewhere inside Twin Cities Orthopedic Performance Center.

"He is a circle, a very powerful circle," Phillips said. "They do a great job. And Todd Bowles has always looked for his defenses [to have] those very large fronts, and a lot of its five on the line type stuff where you are getting some of the matchups on the center."

According to Pro Football Focus, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins was pressured via an interior rush 54 times in games versus the Eagles, Commanders, Giants (twice), and Jets. But Minnesota purposely spent two joint practices against the Titans (who feature All-Pro defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons).

Those days were long and intense but could prove valuable on Sunday against Vea as the Vikings debut Year 2 of its offense under O'Connell and Phillips.

"I think the combination of several different things. Run and pass, mixed with play action and all those types of things, just to keep guys like that off balance," Phillips said. "Because if it does become you know, just a straight dropback game, and he's knowing that it's pass, it can be difficult."

Milestones Approaching

Harrison Smith is scheduled to play in his 160th regular-season game, which will tie No. 22 with Alan Page, Matt Blair and Bobby Bryant for 22nd in franchise history.

Kirk Cousins needs two touchdown passes to tie Hall of Famer Dan Fouts (254) at 22nd all-time.

Justin Jefferson enters his fourth season with 4,825 career receiving yards and can become the fastest player to 5,000. Sunday will be Jefferson's 51st career game. Odell Beckham, Jr., currently has the record, reaching 5,000 career yards in his 54th game.

"Fan-ally" Friday

Note: In addition to the Monday Morning Mailbag, we are adding fans questions and our answers as a new segment for within Final Thoughts. In a nod to "Finally Friday," we're calling this "Fan-ally Friday." Please help the conversations continue with your thoughts on the upcoming game or anything that needed a follow-up after the Monday Morning Mailbag is published. I'll probably keep responses here a little bit shorter than you might be accustomed to seeing in the MMM. Thanks, Craig!

The defense will be better. Many of the players have position versatility. Goodbye, Vanilla. Hello, Rocky Road. We will bring it.

— Gerald Goblirsch

After Gerald's email was sent earlier in the week, Flores was asked if it was difficult to stay patient and "Vanilla."

He politely countered that characterization before saying, "I think the things we did in the preseason we worked on, we practiced. I think once you step out on the football field, it's about defeating blocks and tackling and 1-on-1s, and there were some instances where we did that in the preseason and some instances where we didn't."

"Obviously we'll get a little bit more exotic," Flores added. "I wouldn't say it will be that much more exotic, but we're still trying to fine-tune the plan, and we're excited about playing in front of our fans. That's something I'm certainly excited about. Even in the preseason it was loud in there, and I'd imagine it will be very loud in there on Sunday, and hopefully we give them something … to be louder about. So, I'm excited about that."

I do believe Gerald is correct with the position versatility, and I do believe Flores will seek to capitalize on that. I'm excited to see his plan unfold each week, and interested in seeing if the Vikings can effectively communicate through the high level of noise.

The release of Alan Ali from the practice squad got me to thinking — who would handle center duties if (God forbid) something were to happen to Garrett Bradbury and Austin Schlottmann?

— David Moore

David's question takes us back to Week 17 last year. Bradbury was sidelined and inactive during his recovery, so Schlottmann started at Green Bay. But he was injured early during the game and replaced by Chris Reed. Reed is currently on the Reserve/Non-Football Injury list while he recovers. There hasn't been a clear timeline on Reed. Activating him would require a roster move elsewhere on the 53-man.

So, after Bradbury and Schlottmann, the Vikings could possibly turn to Blake Brandel, who has handled some snaps during previous offseasons and has shown the versatility required for reserve offensive linemen. If the team decided it didn't have a solution for as long as the absence of Bradbury and Schlottmann were predicted to last, it could comb through free agents.

The Vikings currently have three offensive linemen on their practice squad with Henry Byrd, Hakeem Adeniji and Tyrese Robinson.

Our polarized world of "Kirk." Read a few "rating" predictions columns. Not much respect for No. 8 or the Vikings. Unfortunately, until he leads the Vikings to a Super Bowl win the pundits and fans will categorize him as a less-than-elite-tier NFL QB. I'm grateful for having a quality QB leading the Viking offense. Probably the most important position, but maybe we spend too much time worrying about the future? It's the next game that counts. Leave the worrying to the team management.

The obvious or may be oblivious. An elite college first-round QB does not translate into a high probability of a team even making it to the Super Bowl. Seems to be as many "busts" as successes. Then, there are the Brad Johnsons (9th round), [Tom] Bradys (6th round), Brett Favres (2nd round), [Kurt] Warners (undrafted), maybe the '22 draft selection of "Mr. Irrelevant(not)" [Brock Purdy].

Excited for the new season to start. Curious about the development, evolution of the Vikings D under Coach Flores. Will be happy if the Vikings win all their home games, win the NFC North, and beat the Eagles. Very happy if they win the NFC. Ecstatic if they win the Super Bowl.


— Noel in Bayfield, Wisconsin

Per NFL Media Research, since joining the Vikings in 2018, Cousins ranks third in the NFL in completion percentage (67.8), sixth in passing TD-int ratio (153-50) and sixth in passer rating (100.9), but his record as a starter (46-33-1) ranks 16th.

He's also thrown for at least 3,500 yards and 25 touchdowns in eight consecutive seasons, the longest active streak in the NFL and fifth longest all-time behind Peyton Manning (16), Drew Brees (11), Philip Rivers (11) and Tom Brady (10).

It's a reminder that consistent quarterback play is important and that production at the position can sometimes be masked a bit by the team's outcomes on the scoreboard. Eight times last season, Cousins led a game-winning drive to help the team finish 13-4. It seemed like he grew in the offense as the season progressed, and O'Connell and Phillips have a way of trying to play to Cousins' strengths.

Noel is quite correct that college outcomes don't always translate into professional success, but often the players drafted with the highest picks land in places where they won't receive the most help.

There's always numerous goals for teams, and protecting a home-field advantage as often as possible is a major step in the right direction, particularly when it's as good as U.S. Bank Stadium has been (and before that, the Metrodome, and before that, the Old Met).

Now that T.J. [Hockenson] has his contract extension, will he have a super breakout year, or will he be just mediocre?

— Steven Hinrichs

Um, I'm not sure how to define "super breakout year," but I will point out that Hockenson caught 60 passes after joining Minnesota, which ranked second in the NFL to Travis Kelce's 63 and was 19 more than Evan Ingram, who ranked third in the league from Weeks 9-18.

The 60 catches are the most in NFL history by a tight end in his first 10 games with a team.

I fully expect Hockenson to continue to be a key player in an offense that features multiple options and plays each snap with one football.

Good afternoon,

*With four very good tight ends, any chance that we could see a four-tight end package this season? Opposing defensive coordinators will need to spend a month game-planning to stop our wide receiver. A four-TE package will make heads explode!!! *


— Bill Dunn in Fairfield, Connecticut

It was really cool to see Nick Muse have the offseason and preseason that he turned in. That was a legit earning of a roster spot at a group where Vikings coaches have high opinions of (and expectations from) Hockenson, Josh Oliver and Johnny Mundt.

I never mind seeing a new wrinkle on offense, especially one that would allow for some great creativity and misdirection. The opportunity to have four tight ends active for a game might be affected by roster health and depth at other positions, but I also think the Vikings will be multiple in their attack on offense.

Will Kyle Rudolph be playing for the Vikings before he retires?

— Joe McGuire

The news hit this week that Rudolph is retiring from the NFL. We recently did an interview with him for some VEN content (please be on the lookout for this in a couple of weeks). It was great to see him back at the facility and wonderful to learn about his plans for the future.

I would like to see Ty Chandler next year. Develop a rookie, younger man. Spend your money on defense. Our offense is great, and Chandler can do the job. I just want to see the team move on and up. This will happen. They've got to go through the pains of a younger quarterback. I think it's the way to go. Cousins has done a great job, but we have to move on next year. Thank you.

— Carl Exsted in Gatesville, Texas (formerly of Glencoe, Minnesota)

I'm looking forward to seeing Chandler take his opportunities and run with them as he is in line to back up Alexander Mattison at running back and handle kickoff return duties while Kene Nwangwu is on Injured Reserve.

I'm also not at the point where I'm looking too far beyond this season. We wait a long time for the regular season to arrive, and I plan to enjoy it. All the best.