When the Vikings take the field against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday in their second regular season game at TCF Bank Stadium, the starting lineup will look much different than it did in the team's home opener just two weeks ago.
While at that point in time Adrian Peterson was already out of the lineup, he was the lone missing piece in what was an otherwise healthy group of players. It's quite a different story for the Vikings this week. Joining Peterson as starters who will not play on Sunday are QB Matt Cassel and RG Brandon Fusco. Other regulars whose statuses remain in question include TE Kyle Rudolph, LB Chad Greenway, and CB Josh Robinson, among several others who are on this week's injury report.
So who needs to step up their play for the Vikings to overcome this early-season injury-related adversity? Here are a few ideas…
QB Teddy BridgewaterReplacing: Matt Cassel
A broken foot has ended Cassel's season, opening the door for Bridgewater to make his first career start. Bridgewater handled himself well in his debut last week, and while he didn't guide the offense to a touchdown he did display poise and talent while helping to outscore New Orleans 9-7 once he entered the game. With last week's experience and a full week of practice under his belt by the time Sunday's game rolls around, expect Bridgewater to take another significant step forward in his young, budding career.
"I feel that we have a group of guys in the locker room that are pretty talented," Bridgewater said. "For me, it's not all about me. I don't have to do it by myself. There are ten other guys out on the field with me. We're expecting those guys to play well for us and (I'm) just excited to get back out there Sunday."
OL Vladimir DucasseReplacing: RG Brandon Fusco
Fusco left last Sunday's game in the second half, and Ducasse entered to finish the Vikings final 10 offensive plays. That's too small of a sample size to author a comprehensive judgment of how he fared, but there will be nothing small about Ducasse's responsibility if he's the one who gets the nod this Sunday. The Vikings are looking to hit their stride in the running game and the rookie quarterback can use all the time he can get. As of Thursday morning, the Vikings had not announced who would start in Fusco's place, but the unofficial depth chart list's Ducasse as the backup.
TEs Chase Ford, MarQueis GrayReplacing: TE Kyle Rudolph
Rhett Ellison is the next man up at tight end on the unofficial depth chart and he will likely see more snaps in games Rudolph doesn't play. But Ellison has a different role within the offense from Rudolph, so don't be surprised if Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner turns to Ford and Gray to fill the pass-catching responsibility that is normally Rudolph's. While Gray is likely a more reliable blocker and has more versatility in his skill set, Ford is an athletic pass-catcher who may be used to stretch the field vertically.
LB Gerald Hodges(Potentially) Replacing: LB Chad Greenway
Greenway is as tough as they come, having not missed a game since a knee injury ended his rookie season. Don't be surprised if the veteran linebacker, who is listed with hand and rib injuries, plays in this game. But also don't be surprised if a reserve is relied upon more than usual. If that is the case, Hodges may get the call. Hodges had 2.0 tackles for loss in last week's game, seeing more action than usual, and Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer has praised the second-year linebacker for his combination of size, speed and knack for being around the ball a lot. Hodges may get more opportunities to earn trust from his head coach on Sunday.
While the aforementioned players haven't been regular contributors for the Vikings in the past, there is no trepidation on the part of Zimmer as he prepares those players and the rest of the team to face a red-hot Atlanta Falcons group that is coming in on 10 days of rest. Furthermore, this is nothing Zimmer hasn't dealt with previously during his long-tenured NFL coaching career.
"Well it's always tough when you lose guys but this is 'next man up' theory," Zimmer said. "We go on and feel bad for them but we go on about what our business is.
"I never envisioned that but it's a part of football. Last year in Cincinnati we lost our best defensive tackle, our best corner, one of our best linebackers, a very good defensive end. Things happen in the NFL so this is a survival of the fittest game, it's always a marathon. The toughest teams always go on and I think we have good coaches here. We will continue to coach the guys that are playing as hard as we can and keep moving."