By Joseph Gunther
The Minnesota Vikings begin the Mike Zimmer era with a road game against the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome. The Vikings enter the 2014 season with low expectations. They have seen most national experts picking them to finish fourth in the NFC North. The Rams are expected to finish fourth in the very tough NFC West after Sam Bradford suffered a season-ending knee injury during the preseason.
Last season, the Rams finished with a 7-9 record and fourth place finish in the NFC West.
Rams on Offense
The Rams offense should not change from Bradford to Shaun Hill. Hill falls into the category of “great backup, bad starter.” He has not been able to be a starter, but the 34-year-old has not had the opportunity he now has this season.
The Rams offense will go through running back Zac Stacy. He became the featured back in the middle of last season and was a dominant fixture in the Rams backfield. If something happens to Stacy, the Rams can turn to rookie Tre Mason, who was a Heisman Trophy finalist last season from the University of Auburn.
The problem with the Rams offense is that there are no proven weapons in the passing game. There is potential in Kenny Britt, Tavon Austin, Brian Quick, Austin Pettis, Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks. They have had some very good games, but nothing consistent. At least a couple should have a big year this season.
The offensive line needs to be better, and it should be with healthy left tackle Jake Long and center Scott Wells. Both are Pro Bowl caliber veterans. The addition of No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson will help secure the left side of the offensive line.
Rams on Defense
The Rams have one of the best defenses in the game. There are stars at each level, especially in the front seven. Defensive end Robert Quinn is the star, and he is joined by fellow former first round draft picks Chris Long and Michael Brockers. This season’s second first round draft pick, Aaron Donald, will make his presence felt this season, but may begin the year as a backup defensive tackle.
At linebacker, the Rams return their two leading tacklers from last season: Alec Ogletree and James Laurinaitis. The two complement each other well; Ogletree is very fast and athletic while Laurinaitis is big and tough.
In the secondary, the Rams have one of the best cornerbacks in Janoris Jenkins. This is the weak unit of the defense, but is still very good.
Rams Players to Watch
Running back Zac Stacy. The second-year running back burst onto the scene during a five-point Week 8 loss to the Seattle Seahawks at home. In that game, he carried the ball 26 times and amassed 134 yards against the seventh-ranked run defense at season’s end. He went on to finish the season with four 100-yard games and nearly reached the 1,000-yard plateau, despite being the starter for nine games.
Defensive end Robert Quinn. The fourth-year defensive end broke out in 2013 with 19 sacks, which was half a sack behind Robert Mathis of the Indianapolis Colts. In each of his three seasons, he has upped his sack total from five as a rookie to 10.5 in 2012 to reaching last season’s total. In addition to his sacks, the 2011 first round draft pick forced seven fumbles and defended one pass. The matchup to watch throughout the game may be Vikings left offensive tackle Matt Kalil against Quinn.
This is a good opportunity for both teams to get off to a good start. The Rams should and will be favored, but the Vikings have mystery on their side. The Rams will not have game film to go off of when preparing for the matchup against Minnesota. Vikings new head coach Mike Zimmer, offensive coordinator Norv Turner and defensive coordinator George Edwards did not show much in the preseason beyond the basic plays in the playbook.
The Rams are at home and may have more talent on their roster, but Zimmer has a history of getting the most out of his players. It will be a good game with strong players meeting from both sides – the Vikings offense against the Rams defense.
If the Vikings can get a win, it will be a big boost before facing three playoff teams from last season in the next four games.
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Joseph Gunther is an avid fan of Minnesota sports, including football, hockey and baseball. He covered a wide variety of sports while attending Hastings College in Hastings, Neb. While at Hastings College, he was a part of the first collegiate media group to broadcast a national tournament via television, radio, internet and newspaper at the 2004 NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball Tournament. He grew up in the Twin Cities playing three years of varsity football in high school. Joseph is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. His work can be found on Examiner.com.