NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Titans open the regular season on Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings.
The Titans are coming off a 3-13 season in 2015, but they've made significant changes to the roster in the past eight months. The Vikings won the NFC North last season with a record of 11-5. They lost a heartbreaker to the Seahawks, 10-9, in the playoffs when kicker Blair Walsh missed a 27-yard field goal with 22 seconds left.
This week, I caught up with Matt Vensel, who is in his third year covering the Vikings for the Star Tribune. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mattvensel.
Wyatt:** Hey Matt. I appreciate you doing this. Man, that was a tough loss for the Vikings in the playoffs. How long did it take the team and the city to get over it?
Vensel: It was a hard one to get over for sure, just given how they lost. I think the Vikings were maybe overachievers last year. I thought they were a good team, and I thought they were going to make the playoffs, but I didn't think they were going to win the division and beat the Packers to do it. I don't know if they would have been able to go all the way, and the fans will never know because Blair Walsh missed that field goal. I just think the stunning way they lost, it was tough. Granted, Vikings fans have endured a lot of tough losses, but this was definitely top 2, top 3 all time. I don't know if some people have gotten over it yet, but the thing with the Vikings is their window is just now opening. I know the Sam Bradford move is kind of a "win now" type move, but this team with all the young talent they have, the Vikings look like they could be contenders for a while. They'll get some chances to mend those broken hearts in the next few years if everything goes right.
Wyatt: The Vikings were dealt some really bad luck just over a week ago when they lost starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to a season-ending knee injury. How has the team reacted?
Vensel: It's been a whirlwind for them, and obviously for us covering the team, too. Bridegwater looked really good in training camp, and he had a great preseason. He really ended it on a high note in the third preseason game against the Chargers, and then two days later he has a fluke, non-contact injury and is out for the season. You could tell right away these guys knew, 'OK, our Super Bowl hopes are in serious jeopardy.' Yes, one of their friends and leaders was down, but it was also blow to the team when he went down and was there on the field. But four days later they made the bold trade to get Bradford. I have said it reinvigorated them. I don't know if Bradford is as good a quarterback as Teddy Bridgewater, and he has to get up to speed quickly. But at least bringing in a guy like that, a former No.1 overall pick, kind of reopens the door for them to potentially win a Super Bowl. Players talked about how it gave them a boost of confidence, too, knowing the front office feels they are that close that they went out and made a bold move like this.
Wyatt:** Bradford presumably was brought aboard to be the team's starting quarterback, but for now it sounds like Shaun Hill is in the mix as well. Who do you think will start on Sunday against the Titans, and is there a chance they might both play?
Vensel: I don't think they're going to split (reps), but I am not sure who it is going to be (as the starter) right now. The initial plan when they made the trade on Saturday was to stick with Hill, because he knew the offense. I think the Vikings maybe learned a lesson when they brought in Josh Freeman in 2013 and played him after 1 ½ weeks of having him around, and they just got creamed against the Giants on national television. And that's really the last we've seen of Josh Freeman. I think they learned lesson there about rushing. I think Sam has a better head on his shoulders than Josh did at that point in his career. I think their initial plan was to ride it out with Hill, but I think it is kind of enticing, too, where you have this guy and you see him throw, and if he is able to pick up the plays and concepts quickly, there might be a temptation to play him. I am sure the team knows they get a competitive advantage by not saying who it is, and that is why they are going to take it down to the wire. But I do think at this point, on Wednesday, I don't think they know which way they are going to go. But as of the weekend they were leaning on going with Hill, but as we saw this weekend a lot can change in a few days.
Wyatt:** What are the strengths of the Vikings heading into the regular season?
Vensel: I think it's their defense, and their running game. Their defense, they don't have that one superstar, a J.J. Watt or a Von Miller type right now. But they have a ton of really good players. Harrison Smith is one of the best safeties in the league, linebacker Anthony Barr made the Pro Bowl as an alternate in his second season, and he's a do-it-all guy like Smith in Mike Zimmer's scheme. Everson Griffen really had a great camp and he had double-digit sacks the last two seasons. I can go down the list of young players – Xavier Rhodes, Sharrif Floyd, Eric Kendricks. The Vikings have a bunch of really good young players and I think they are bringing back something like 97 percent of the defensive snaps from last year. So this is a deep, young athletic group. So I think if there is a superstar of the group it is (head coach) Mike Zimmer. He is one of the best defensive minds in the league, and they still haven't given him a ton of weapons to work with. So defense is the No.1 strength, and there is no reason to think it can't be a top 3, top 5 unit this year if those young guys take a step forward. Running back Adrian Peterson is still going strong at 31. So the Vikings have pieces around Sam Bradford he isn't going to have to do everything once they put him in the lineup, whether it is this week or the following Sunday against Green Bay. They aren't going to ask him to do it all because they have that strong defense and they have Adrian, an All-Pro, in the backfield behind him.
Wyatt: OK, so what are the biggest question marks for the Vikings heading into the season?
Vensel:* *Without a doubt the biggest one is the offensive line. Two days after that crushing Seattle loss, Mike Zimmer basically put everybody on watch. No quarterback was pressured more frequently last season that Teddy Bridgewater, according to Pro Football Focus, and Adrian was often hit in the backfield or at the line of scrimmage. It was remarkable he was able to lead the league in rushing despite the fact a lot of runs went nowhere. They went out and brought in Tony Sparano as offensive line coach to light a fire under these guys. And they signed Alex Boone, formerly of the 49ers, and he's going to start at left guard. They moved Brandon Fusco back to right guard, and brought in Andre Smith, formerly of the Bengals to play right tackle. So they have been shuffling guys in and out throughout camp, and finally in the last week they've settled on their starting five and we'll see how quickly they can come together. But that is without a doubt is the "X factor" for this team, because they played poorly last season and have been a disappointment the past two or three years now, so maybe some of these new guys can breathe some life into the group and they can finally become a quality offensive line.
Wyatt: OK, last thing here. The Vikings signed long-time Titans safety Michael Griffin after he was released from his deal earlier this offseason. I noticed Griffin didn't make the team over the weekend. Was that a surprise? Why didn't Griffin make it?
Vensel:* *It wasn't really a surprise. He didn't really distinguish himself at all during the preseason or in camp, and they ended up putting him on Injured Reserve because of a back injury, but I don't think he would have made the team regardless. Once he was unable to kind of win the starting job next to Harrison Smith, it didn't really make sense to keep him around, especially at his salary, especially since they had a couple of young safeties they like. He wasn't able to beat out Andrew Sendejo, and they decided not to keep him. I don't think his back injury was a major deal, I just think it was performance based. We'll see if he stays on injured reserve or they give him a settlement and we end up seeing him play somewhere else this year.
Hey Matt. Appreciate your time once again. See you in Nashville this weekend.
TitansOnline.com looks back at the all-time series between the Tennessee Titans and Minnesota Vikings. (AP Photos)