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NFL Preview - Jacksonville (0-0) at Minnesota (0-0)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - A month ago, they had neither. Now, they have both.
When the ball is kicked off to begin Sunday's Week 1 game between the Jacksonville and Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings at the Metrodome, the matchup's most recognizable running backs - Jaguars veteran Maurice Jones-Drew and Vikings standout Adrian Peterson - will be in uniform and ready to go.
But how much they'll go is still a question.
Jones-Drew returned to the fold just days ago after a 38-day contract holdout that included input from the team's owner and the initial breathless gasps that he'd imminently be traded. Meanwhile, Peterson sustained a serious knee injury - a torn ACL and MCL - in a 2011 game on Christmas Eve and appears to have fulfilled his promise to be available for Minnesota's opener.
"Despite what everyone else had to say, that was my vision," said Peterson, a four-time Pro Bowler with a league-best 6,752 rushing yards since he arrived in 2007. "I knew it was going to be a journey, a path, to get closer to that vision, and I'm closer. I see it. It's closer now. It was far away in the beginning, but I've been working hard and just moving forward."
In reality, Peterson remains a game-time decision. If he either can't go or is limited, former Stanford workhorse Toby Gerhart would be featured.
"With Toby, we can run our offense even if Adrian isn't in there," Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier said. "We feel like we don't have to change any of our plays. We're very confident and comfortable with Toby being our lead back if that's the case. The same runs that Adrian would have would be the same runs that Toby would have."
Jaguars head coach Mike Mularkey, in his first NFL head coaching job since a two-year stint with Buffalo from 2004-05, has given similar quotes about backup Rashad Jennings, who'll spell Jones-Drew if he's unavailable.
Jennings gained 209 yards in the preseason while Jones-Drew skipped out on offseason workouts and training camp in a failed bid to prompt renegotiation.
"I have to kind of get acclimated to the offense," Jones-Drew admitted. "I have to show them the work to get my job back. That's all it is. No one has ever given me anything in my whole life. This is just something that I've been used to. I like it. The competition is going to be great. I have a lot to catch up on and get back to my old self."
The run game will be a valuable stress reliever for Jaguars second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who struggled mightily in spots as a rookie after he was drafted 10th overall in the 2011 draft and thrown almost immediately into the mix ahead of former starter David Garrard.
Two new receivers arrive as his helpers, including free agent Laurent Robinson and 2012 No. 5 overall pick Justin Blackmon.
"I think our guys want to see where we're at," Mularkey said. "We did some good things in the preseason. We just want to see if we can do that for four quarters. I think this will be a good test up there in this environment. I think it's going to be good for us to see where we're at."
Also entering his second year is Minnesota signal-caller Christian Ponder, also a 2011 first-round pick who threw for 13 touchdowns with 13 interceptions as a rookie starter in a season in which the Vikings slumped to a 3-13 finish.
"We're putting that pressure on ourselves that we want to do a lot better than 3-13," Ponder said. "We want to make the playoffs. We want to be competitive in the NFC North."
Hurting Ponder's chances are a dearth of No. 2 receiver threats behind top target Percy Harvin at the start of the season, as Jerome Simpson will miss the first three games on suspension after a felony drug conviction. Not to mention, the rest of the division includes heavyweights Green Bay, Chicago and Detroit.
"In most people's eyes, we're just not talented enough, not as good, not as experienced," Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway said. "It's going to be exciting, because I think we're going to be a lot better than what people think we are, and I think that we have a chance."
Vikings lead 3-1
Streak: Vikings have won last two meetings Last Meeting: Vikings 30, Jaguars 12 (Nov. 23, 2008) Last Meeting at Site: Vikings 27, Jaguars 16 (Nov. 28, 2004)
Jaguars HC Mike Mularkey vs. Vikings: 0-0 Vikings HC Leslie Frazier vs. Jaguars: 0-0 Mularkey vs. Frazier Head-to-Head: First Meeting
Notes: Jacksonville is 1-2 all-time as the visitor in this series, having also dropped a 50-10 decision at the Metrodome in 1998 and scoring a 33-3 win there in 2001 in addition to its 2004 result. Mularkey spent the first six seasons of a nine-year NFL career as a tight end with the Vikings from 1983-88.
BY THE NUMBERS
2011 Offensive Team Rankings
Jacksonville: 32nd overall (259.3 ypg), 12th rushing (123.1 ypg), 32nd passing (136.2 ypg), 29th scoring (15.2 ppg)
Minnesota: 18th overall (329.7 ypg), 4th rushing (144.9 ypg), 28th passing (184.8 ypg), 19th scoring (21.3 ppg)
2011 Defensive Team Rankings
Jacksonville: 6th overall (313.0 ypg), 9th rushing (104.2 ypg), 8th passing (208.8 ypg), 11th scoring (20.6 ppg)
Minnesota: 21st overall (358.2 ypg), 11th rushing (107.0 ypg), 26th passing (251.2 ypg), 31st scoring (28.1 ppg)
2011 Turnover Margin
Jacksonville: +5 (28 takeaways, 23 giveaways) Minnesota: -3 (23 takeaways, 26 giveaways)
2011 Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (offense)
Jacksonville: 48.6 percent (35 possessions, 17 TD, 11 FG) -- 21st overall Minnesota: 56.6 percent (53 possessions, 30 TD, 14 FG) -- 9th overall
2011 Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (defense)
Jacksonville: 55.8 percent (43 possessions, 24 TD, 13 FG) -- 23rd overall Minnesota: 51.8 percent (56 possessions, 29 TD, 21 FG) -- 14th overall
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
Back from a protracted contract holdout, Jones-Drew resumes his role as the top offensive weapon in the Jacksonville arsenal after amassing a career-best 1,606 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on a career-high 343 carries last season. While his timing may be off, the lengthy absence from preseason contact might be a good remedy for a guy who's carried 954 times in 46 games over the last three seasons. He'll start out the year behind the 27-year-old Jennings, who did not play last season due to a knee injury after gaining 661 yards in 28 games between 2009-10. Any success by the run game will be a boon for Gabbert, who was only intermittently solid over 14 starts as a rookie after the Jaguars made him the 10th pick in the 2011 draft. The Missouri product completed just 50.8 percent of his 413 pass attempts for 2,214 yards, 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while posting a 65.4 quarterback rating. His primary target for 2012 is the rookie Blackmon, a 6-foot-1, 210-pound physical receiver out of Oklahoma State. Robinson starts on the other side and enters his sixth NFL season after compiling career highs of 54 catches and 11 touchdowns in 14 games with Dallas last year. The starting tight end is Marcedes Lewis, a 6-6, 272-pound force whose 2011 output of 39 catches for 460 yards and no touchdowns was down dramatically from 58 catches, 700 yards and 10 scores in 2010.
Lewis will need to wear his blocking cleats as well to help left tackle Eugene Monroe stave off Vikings end Jared Allen (66 tackles, 22 sacks), one of the premier pass rushers in the league. Monroe surrendered 9 1/2 sacks in 15 games last season. Also figuring to pressure the young Gabbert is tackle Kevin Williams (38 tackles, 5 sacks), whose 54 1/2 sacks since 2003 are the most by any league interior player over that span. Jasper Brinkley returns from a season-long hip injury to replace departed middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, who wasn't re-signed in the offseason. Alongside him is Pro Bowler Greenway, who made 154 tackles and had two sacks last season. In the backfield are corners Chris Cook (20 tackles) and Antoine Winfield (40 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), who missed much of last season with either off-field problems (Cook) or injuries (Winfield).
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
The main question for the Vikings is how much Peterson will be used and how effective he'll be in his first live action since his devastating knee injury. The Vikings do have a capable understudy in Gerhart, who rushed for 531 yards and averaged 6.8 yards per carry on 109 attempts last season. Peterson fell just short of reaching quadruple digits on the ground, finishing at 970 yards and 12 touchdowns on 208 carries over 12 games. Either or both runners will be called upon to take the heat off second-year quarterback Ponder (13 TD, 13 INT), who beat out veteran Donovan McNabb midway through his rookie season and wound up with 1,853 passing yards and a 70.1 rating in 291 attempts. At the receiver spots, veteran Michael Jenkins is back after making 38 catches and three touchdowns in his first year in Minnesota. He starts opposite the speedy Harvin until Simpson returns from his suspension in Week 4. Harvin had 87 catches for 967 yards and six scores in 2011.
For the Jaguars, linebacker is the premier position on defense and the crew is led by middle man Paul Posluszny, who topped the team in tackles (119) last season and will play a huge role against the Vikings' runners. Also, strongside backer Daryl Smith (107 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT) set a single- season franchise record with 15 tackles for loss in 2011 and has a string of five straight seasons with 100-plus tackles.
Though both teams are pocked with question marks, the Vikings are home and probably worthy of their four-point favorite status. Even if Peterson's return from injury and Jones-Drew's rustiness cancel each other out, it appears that Ponder is closer to ready for primetime and the availability of Harvin gives him an advantage Gabbert simply doesn't have. Allen figures to wreak at least intermittent havoc as well, which will probably cause at least one crucial - and decisive - mistake.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Vikings 17, Jaguars 10
09/06 15:12:28 ET