Inside Slant

The Sports Xchange

September 05, 2018 at 1:08 am.

Vikings ready with Cousins at QB

As the Minnesota Vikings open the 2018 season at home against the San Francisco 49ers, there’s only one goal in sight: getting to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1976 season.

The offseason has been geared to taking another step after Minnesota lost to eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game last season. It’s the reason why the Vikings made the biggest move of the offseason in signing quarterback Kirk Cousins to a three-year, $84 million contract. Minnesota had the league’s top defense last year in terms of fewest yards and points allowed and is hoping Cousins is the final piece to the offense.

It’s a leap for both team and quarterback. Cousins has started one playoff game in his career despite throwing for at least 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns each of the past three years as a starter. The Vikings went all-in at the game’s most important position after piecing through the past several seasons. Journeyman Case Keenum entered after Sam Bradford’s injury last year and nearly got the team to its fifth Super Bowl. The “miracle” win against the Saints was followed by the 38-7 drubbing by Philadelphia a week later.

The loss stung and provided plenty of motivation for Minnesota coming back this season. The Vikings return 10 starters from their No. 1 defense. They signed former first-round pick and one-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson to take Tom Johnson’s spot next to Linval Joseph on the inside of a talented defensive line with ends Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter.

The league’s leading defense will try to stop San Francisco’s budding offense with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Garoppolo went 5-0 as a starter for the 49ers last season after the midseason trade from New England, throwing for an average of 308.4 yards per game to go with six touchdowns and five interceptions. Minnesota was second in the league in pass defense last season, limiting opponents to 192.4 yards per game.

Cousins has plenty to work with on the offensive side. Adam Thielen had 1,276 yards receiving in a breakout year and Stefon Diggs was on the receiving end of Keenum’s “miracle” throw against the Saints. Diggs had 849 yards receiving and eight touchdowns in 14 games. Two-time Pro Bowl tight end Kyle Rudolph returns after catching eight touchdown passes last season.

Dalvin Cook is back after a knee injury ended his promising rookie season after just four games. Cook was held back in the preseason – two carries for one yard in one series of action – but has looked quick and declared himself ready for San Francisco. Cook’s return gives the Vikings the 1-2 punch at running back that they desire with Latavius Murray, who had 842 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in Minnesota last season, coming on late from his own injury in Cook’s absence.

Cousins and the first-team offense are still coming together under new coordinator John DeFilippo. Previous offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur left to be the head coach of the New York Giants and Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer went to the team that knocked him out of the playoffs last season for a replacement. DeFilippo was the Eagles’ quarterbacks coach.

Cousins, DeFilippo and the offense started the preseason with a dazzling first drive against Denver and then showed the transition still needs some work in the following two games. Cousins finished the preseason 24 of 40 for 236 yards passing. He averaged 5.9 yards per pass attempt and had one touchdown. He didn’t throw an interception and was sacked once.

The biggest question – besides Cousins’ ability to take the Vikings to the next level – is the offensive line. If there’s one spot that can derail Minnesota’s “Super” dreams it’s the group that has given them much trouble the past few years and dealt with injury after injury. Health is already a concern. Center Pat Elflein started 14 games as a rookie last year but didn’t play in the preseason or practice throughout as he makes his way back from offseason shoulder and ankle injuries. Nick Easton, the starting left guard and backup center, is out for the season after undergoing surgery to repair a bulging disk in his neck.

Riley Reiff is the anchor at left tackle and the Vikings made the decision early to turn to Mike Remmers at guard and Rashod Hill at tackle on the right side. Elflein has been activated from the physically unable to perform list but isn’t expected to play in Week 1 against the 49ers. Minnesota traded for interior offensive lineman Brett Jones from the New York Giants last week. Jones started 13 games at center and guard for New York last season and could be snapping to Cousins against San Francisco with less than two weeks of practice. Tom Compton, who played with Cousins in Washington, has been the first-team left guard throughout training camp and the preseason.

Of course, the 49ers’ soft spot is on the defensive side. They were 24th in the league last season in fewest yards allowed. The 23.9 points per game they surrendered were tied for 22nd in the NFL. As such, San Francisco’s biggest move in the offseason was signing cornerback Richard Sherman after he was released by Seattle. The 49ers then made six of their nine draft picks for the defense, but the highest pick was linebacker Fred Warner in the third round. None of the defensive rookies are expected to start, while first-round tackle Mike McGlinchey will help protect Garoppolo.

SERIES HISTORY: 42nd regular-season meeting. Vikings lead series, 21-19-1. San Francisco won the last meeting between these two teams with a 20-3 win in the regular-season opener in 2015. Mike Zimmer’s second season was opening with promise before the surprise loss on the road to the 49ers. Minnesota might hold the advantage in the regular season, but it hasn’t gone well in the postseason. The Vikings have lost four of the five playoff matchups between the two teams, including most recently after the 1997 season.