MINNEAPOLIS -- Lost in the discussion over the Minnesota Vikings' retooled offense -- with its slimmed-down tight end, recently-installed starting quarterback and more aggressive passing game -- is the fact the unit has been operating to this point without its most important piece. While the Vikings have played three preseason games, moving the ball effectively with their starting offense, running back Adrian Peterson has watched from the sidelines, biding his time until the stakes are high enough to merit the physical toll contact will take on his 29-year-old body.

[+] EnlargePeterson
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsThe Vikings want to get Adrian Peterson to the edge more often this season.
When the Vikings finally pull Peterson out of the garage on Sept. 7 in St. Louis, they'll be inserting him in an offense that will ask the 2012 NFL MVP to handle some different tasks from the ones he's typically performed. The Vikings' desire to use Peterson in the passing game has been well-documented, and will probably be the most profound change for him this season, but there also will be a subtle change in the ways they use him when he's carrying the ball.

Peterson has done most of his work between the tackles in recent years, often putting together some of his biggest plays on zone runs that gave the running back a chance to read the defense and cut back against the grain if he saw an opportunity. In 2012, Peterson gained 1,536 of his 2,097 yards inside the tackles, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Some of that production came on power runs, but cutback opportunities off zone blocking have always been a major part of Peterson's game. The Vikings' new offense will still have those plays, but it will have a heavier dose of power running looks, including some outside runs like they've shown in the preseason with guard Charlie Johnson pulling around the right side of the line. On those plays, Peterson will have to display enough patience to let his blockers get set up and follow them to a predetermined point of attack. The Vikings have had some of those runs in their playbook in the past; they'll have more of them this year.

"There's some lateral parts to the run game," running backs coach Kirby Wilson said. "It's a little bit different read for him -- his eyes are probably at a different spot and location than they have been in the past. Any time you're running lateral, there's a degree of patience that comes with it. I think that will help grow his game; he's already got a tremendous package of things he does really well. I think this will just add to it."

The Vikings want to get Peterson on the edge of the field more often, both to maximize his explosiveness and reduce the pounding on his body, and that will inherently put the running back in some new situations. He'll run out of shotgun sets and multiple-receiver formations more often. He'll have to be better in pass protection to stay on the field on third downs, and he'll have to be more reliable catching the ball. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Peterson has dropped 5.5 percent of the passes targeted for him over the last three seasons; that rate is still better than some prominent running backs with similar numbers of targets, like Marshawn Lynch and Darren McFadden, but is far higher than the 3.1 percent drop rate from two of the league's best dual-threat backs (Chicago's Matt Forte and Baltimore's Ray Rice).

It's all a significant change for a running back who, for his extraordinary talent, has been more of a specialist than a generalist during his first seven seasons. But Peterson has embraced the offense, saying the scheme is what he's been waiting for his whole career, and added on Tuesday that Turner has been " trying to pretty much get me into any type of situation he can in this offense to put the ball in the running back's hands."

Said Wilson: "He's had good days, but there are some days where he's been spectacular in those areas. I'm excited to see what the new and improved Adrian Peterson is going to look like when the opener starts. I think this whole team is excited about what he could bring as a dual-threat player."
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- For players already assured of their role on a football team, fourth preseason games are typically things to be avoided, or at best endured, in the name of staying healthy before the start of the regular season. The Minnesota Vikings won't keep all their starters from getting some work on Thursday night against the Tennessee Titans, but they will hold a handful of prominent players out with minor injuries.

First-round pick Anthony Barr has a minor sprained ankle, coach Mike Zimmer said, and won't play on Thursday. Neither will right tackle Phil Loadholt, who bruised his ankle last Saturday against Kansas City, or defensive tackle Linval Joseph, who still expects to be ready for the start of the regular season after getting hit in the left calf with a bullet on Aug. 9.

Linebackers Gerald Hodges (ankle), Michael Mauti (f00t) and Brandon Watts (leg), cornerback Jabari Price (arm) and safety Jamarca Sanford (quadriceps) are all expected to sit out on Thursday, and wide receiver Rodney Smith could also miss the game after hurting his back and neck recovering an onside kick last Saturday.

Zimmer didn't rule out the idea of playing quarterback Matt Cassel, though he said there's a "good chance" rookie Teddy Bridgewater will start the game. "If he does start the game, it's good for us to see how he takes the beginning of a game," Zimmer said.

Quarterback Christian Ponder will also play on Thursday, Zimmer said, after sitting out the Vikings' last two preseason games.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- At this time last year, Christian Ponder's preseason was over. He was firmly entrenched as the Vikings' starting quarterback headed into the beginning of the regular season, and as such, he was preparing to sit out the team's final exhibition game against the Tennessee Titans.

Of course, it's all turned around this year. Ponder is the third-string quarterback, behind the veteran the Vikings initially signed to back him up and the player they drafted in the first round as their new QB of the future. He hasn't played in the Vikings' last two preseason games, and though coach Mike Zimmer has hinted the Vikings will keep three quarterbacks, Ponder would be on the roster as an afterthought, not a centerpiece.

Ponder
Ponder
This Thursday, as the Vikings wrap up their preseason schedule against Tennessee, the stage figures to be Ponder's. He'll likely see a healthy share of the playing time against the Titans, and if he does so, he'd effectively get his first significant chunk of work since last Dec. 1, when a concussion knocked him out of a game against the Chicago Bears and Matt Cassel claimed a starting job he still hasn't given back.

Thursday could be the last significant playing time Ponder sees in a Vikings uniform, though he says he's not asking for a trade to speed up his exit from Minnesota.

"That's up to our GM," he said. "I'm not going in and saying anything to him right now in terms of that. Whatever happens is going to happen. If I go to the GM and ask for a trade, that doesn't mean the other team wants me. It's really up to everyone else."

Even if he's in Minnesota all season, Ponder will be a free agent at the end of the year, and will in all likelihood be looking for work elsewhere. He said he's not treating Thursday as an audition for other teams, even though it could be his final chance to put something on video before he hits free agency.

The Vikings have said they've seen improvement in Ponder's play, though it remains to be seen whether any of that will come to light in a game after Thursday night. If the Titans game is indeed Ponder's only concentrated chunk of playing time this season, it'll serve as a bizarre footnote to a dizzying turn of events for the quarterback in Minnesota.

"It's definitely a little different," he said. "This week, the first-team offense will be running scout team and everything, and taking it easy. It's completely different. Honestly, I'm excited to just get out there and play. Getting more reps in practice makes this week fun, and I'm looking forward to getting some action in the game. I'm learning so much from watching Matt and Teddy [Bridgewater], and listening to [quarterbacks coach] Scott [Turner] and [offensive coordinator] Norv [Turner]. I really feel like I have a great understanding of what we're doing, and my confidence is high right now."
[+] EnlargeJoseph
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallVikings defensive tackle Linval Joseph said he learned a lot from his involvement in an August shooting: "I feel like I have a lot more to accomplish with my job, and just in my life. I'm just glad I have the opportunity to do that."

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Wearing a sleeve on his left calf, Minnesota defensive tackle Linval Joseph said he'll be ready to play in the Vikings' regular-season opener after he was hit by a stray bullet in a Minneapolis nightclub on Aug. 9.

"I thank God for it being a clean wound -- straight in, straight out," Joseph said Tuesday.

Joseph was one of nine people shot in the 400 Soundbar nightclub that morning, after he and several teammates had gone there following the Vikings' first preseason game. He was released from Hennepin County Medical Center later that day, and was back with the Vikings at training camp the same weekend.

Joseph, though, did some harder running on the team's practice field for the first time Monday, and while he said he won't play in the Vikings' final preseason game Thursday, he expects to be on the field in St. Louis against the Rams on Sept. 7.


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MINNEAPOLIS -- On Aug. 12, Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said tight end Chase Ford was "about 10 days away" from returning from a broken foot. The coach wasn't far off; Ford was activated from the physically unable to perform list on Monday and also took part in his first practice since minicamp.

Now, the trick is to see how much progress Ford can make in the next few days. It seems likely the Vikings would put him on their final 53-man roster if he's healthy, but he'll probably have to prove that between now and the final round of cuts this weekend. He'll presumably play on Thursday night in the Vikings' preseason finale against Tennessee, and since it'll be the only preseason action Ford will get, it'll double as his final chance to make an impression.

"We’ve got to see him on the field, but from the rehab reports that we’ve been getting, he can do everything," Zimmer said. "We’ll have to see what kind of condition he is in, his recall for the plays. He’s been out here and watching but that doesn’t mean that he knows the plays and being able to execute them and what kind of blocking he does. These next 13 days (between Monday and the Vikings' regular season opener) will be important for him."

Ford, who caught five passes for 43 yards in the Vikings' season finale and hauled in a 37-yard pass from Matt Cassel last Dec. 15 against Philadelphia, looked like he could be a decent receiver over the middle. He probably won't get much, if any, time to work with Cassel on Thursday night, but other than Kyle Rudolph, he might be the most viable pass-catching option among the Vikings' tight ends. Assuming he can show he's healthy, it would seem there's a spot available for Ford to claim.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Just before coach Mike Zimmer named Matt Cassel the Minnesota Vikings' starting quarterback on Monday, the team held a press conference of a different sort: the Vikings announced they've partnered with the NFL Foundation on a $50,000 grant to provide certified athletic trainers for the 13 public schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The $50,000 initiative will put athletic trainers from TRIA Orthopaedic Center in all 13 schools, helping to ensure proper care is given to football players at those schools. The grant will also employ the Vikings' car service to provide rides for athletes and a guardian that might not otherwise be able to get to a doctor's appointment. In total, Vikings athletic trainer Eric Sugarman said, the program will cover 600 kids who play football in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

"I think that’s a really big deal," Sugarman said. "We are not only going to cover varsity football games -- we are going to cover JV games, ninth grade games, we are going to cover preseason practices and practices during the season. (It's) care that these kids have never had. We hope that this is care that they are going to expect to get and it will be very beneficial. Nearly 50 percent of high schools in our country do not have a fulltime certified athletic trainer. This is a very, very big task and a very important thing that we are doing."

We've heard plenty from the NFL about its commitment to player safety and the work being done at the youth level, through the NFL-sponsored USA Football and its Heads-Up program, to reduce head trauma in the game. Programs like the one the Vikings announced on Monday, then, are important steps to making sure there's some action behind all the talk. As Sugarman pointed out, having an athletic trainer on site is key to diagnosing concussions and enforcing proper return-to-play steps. The Vikings were in a good position to make it happen, thanks to Vikings vice chairman Lenny Wilf's place on the NFL Foundation board, but if other teams are able to enact similar plans in their communities, it'd go a long way toward putting some muscle into the league's safety efforts.

"Football in our country, football in our communities, the health and safety of players is a paramount and this is what this is all about," Sugarman said. "As an athletic trainer at heart -- you guys know I pound my chest over this; I’m very proud to be an athletic trainer. I’m more than thrilled to be one of the first teams to stand up here and have acted on this grant initiative and to be able to make this happen for the kids in our community that want to play this great sport known as football."
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- With Matt Cassel being named the Minnesota Vikings' starting quarterback, it would seem the team is down to two undecided starting spots -- or perhaps one that's undecided and one that just hasn't been announced yet.

Coach Mike Zimmer said he still wants to see more from the Vikings' safeties in the preseason finale on Thursday night before making a decision on the starter next to Harrison Smith. Of the players fighting for that spot, Robert Blanton got the most work in his first game back from a hamstring injury, playing 34 snaps against the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday night. Andrew Sendejo saw 29 snaps, followed by Kurt Coleman (20) and Chris Crocker (10).

It's difficult to make any assumptions about a pecking order from those numbers, other than that the Vikings are still trying to see as much of their safeties as possible; Crocker, with whom Zimmer might be more familiar than any player on the roster, started the game but came out for Blanton early. It probably does mean, though, that safety Jamarca Sanford -- who injured his quadriceps on a special teams play on Saturday and didn't practice Monday -- is missing out on valuable chances to make an impression.

"It’s like everything when there are a bunch of guys fighting for a spot; the more you can do to get on evaluation, the better it is," Zimmer said. "We don’t just evaluate on the games. Now the games are a big part of it, because we’re playing against somebody else. Can they carry what we’re teaching them in practice to the game? But we evaluate all of these guys every single day."

Zimmer said he has "a pretty good idea" on what he'll do at middle linebacker, where Jasper Brinkley and Audie Cole are still fighting for the starting spot, but likely won't announce a decision until after Thursday's game.

The players involved in the process, though, know they can't think too much about where they stand.

"If you do that, you're going to end up on a sitcom and a reality show," Coleman said. "It's a whirlwind if you try to wrap your mind around that. You've got to control one thing, and that's getting better, fitting in this defense and really perfecting your craft. When it's my turn to go out and get a rep, I've got to put out the best product."
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Three months before the Minnesota Vikings drafted Teddy Bridgewater, they had constructed a climate in which Bridgewater -- or any young quarterback -- should be able to develop without the pressure of immediate expectations.

The Vikings committed more cash to veteran Matt Cassel when he opted out of his 2014 deal, giving him a two-year, $10 million contract that effectively set him up as the bridge to the team's next young QB. They had hired offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who had Troy Aikman, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers in the nascent stages of their careers. They even had Christian Ponder, the former first-round pick who could serve -- at least for a year -- as an emergency option in case Cassel got injured and the Vikings weren't ready to put a rookie on the field.

[+] EnlargeMatt Cassel, Teddy Bridgewater
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltBy starting Matt Cassel over Teddy Bridgewater, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has given his rookie more time to develop.
All of the levers were in place to ensure a healthy environment for Bridgewater to develop. The only question: Would the Vikings pull the right ones?

Based on how new coach Mike Zimmer and Turner handled the first three months of Bridgewater's career in Minnesota, the answer appears to be yes. Zimmer named Cassel the starting quarterback Monday for the beginning of the regular season, rewarding the veteran for playing well enough to keep the job after he'd called Cassel the team's No. 1 QB on the first day of training camp.

Zimmer said at the time the designation didn't mean anything, but in a subtle way, it did: It set up a system in which Bridgewater would have to outplay Cassel to get the job, removed whatever temptation there might have been to play the rookie right away and sent a message to an offense filled with veterans -- 29-year-old running back Adrian Peterson among them -- that immediate success wouldn't take a backseat to development.

"The team has a lot of confidence in him," Zimmer said of Cassel. "They feel good about his veteran leadership and presence. I had to think about the whole football team; it wasn’t just about the quarterbacks. I’ve said this before: It’s not always the best player at that position -- and I’m not saying Matt’s not -- but any position, it’s how everything works together and at this stage in where we are at right now, I feel like that’s the best thing to do."

How this coaching staff handles Bridgewater will play a major role in Zimmer's longevity with the Vikings probably more than how the team fares this season. The decision Zimmer announced on Monday -- and the one his actions had been pointing toward for weeks -- worked on two fronts: It curried favor with players weary of quarterback instability after last season, and it provided more time for Bridgewater to learn in a forgiving environment.

Cassel will be asked to solve a tough St. Louis Rams defense on the road in Week 1, and could possibly have to trade scoring drives with Tom Brady and Brees the next two weeks. That's a daunting task for a rookie, and by assigning it to Cassel, the Vikings can retain some control over the setting in which Bridgewater eventually debuts.

They've been in a position to do that all along, with a sturdy (but not irreplaceable) veteran and an offensive coordinator who has done this before. All the Vikings needed was a rookie coach who would be pragmatic enough to manage it correctly, and it appears that's what Zimmer has done.
The Minnesota Vikings cut 14 players on Monday morning, trimming their roster to 76 players. They'll have one more cut to make before Tuesday's 4 p.m. ET deadline, at which all teams must be down to 75 players.

Most significant move: The Vikings signed former San Diego Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Derek Cox to help with their depth at that position, and Cox -- who'd excelled in systems where he'd been able to play press coverage -- seemed like a good fit for the Vikings' defense. Despite a couple interceptions in training camp, he never was able to elevate himself on the team's depth chart, and his release creates more room for young cornerbacks such as Jabari Price to make the team.

Clarity at cornerback: With Cox and Robert Steeples among the players the Vikings released, the team is down to eight cornerbacks on the roster, and it's conceivable as many as six of those players could make the final roster. Xavier Rhodes and Captain Munnerlyn are safe, Marcus Sherels would seem almost assured of a roster spot, as well, and three of the remaining five players (Josh Robinson, Jabari Price and Kendall James) were Vikings draft picks. If one of those players gets bumped, it could be James, who hasn't shown much in camp and could get beat out by Shaun Prater, who had an interception in Saturday's game.

Vikings' cuts: The Vikings released 13 players -- S Brandan Bishop, T Pierce Burton, CB Cox, WRs Andy Cruse, Kamar Jorden and Erik Lora, T Kevin Murphy, DT Kheeston Randall, DEs Tyler Scott and Jake Snyder, TE Kory Sperry, CB Robert Steeples and WR Ty Walker -- and waived S Mistral Raymond with an injury designation.
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer named Matt Cassel as his starter for the beginning of the regular season, saying the quarterback has earned the confidence of his teammates and played well enough to maintain his hold on the No. 1 job.

Zimmer told Vikings players in a team meeting Monday morning that Cassel would be the starter over rookie Teddy Bridgewater, who had played well in the preseason and directed a game-winning touchdown drive Aug. 16 against the Cardinals.

But Cassel has received the majority of the first-team work, playing nearly three full quarters in the Vikings' third preseason game in Kansas City on Saturday night. His installation as the starting quarterback seemed inevitable for several weeks; Zimmer made it official Monday.

"At this stage and where we're at right now, that's the best thing to do," Zimmer said. "I told Teddy this morning that I'm so happy he's here with us. We like everything that he's done. It wasn't anything that Teddy did or didn't do. Teddy will be, still, in my estimation, a great player for this franchise for years to come."

Cassel, who has completed 26 of 39 passes for 367 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in the preseason, started six games for the Vikings last season, including their final four, and signed a new two-year, $10 million deal after opting out of his original 2014 contract in February.

Now he's in line to get an opening-day start for the first time in two years.


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MNF moments, No. 14: Dorsett runs for 99

August, 25, 2014
Aug 25
9:30
AM ET
Tony DorsettAP Images/Jim Mone
To celebrate the 45th season of "Monday Night Football," a panel of ESPN.com contributors has selected the 45 most memorable moments in MNF history. Follow along as we reveal one per day and count down to this season's MNF debut.

No. 14: Vikings 31, Cowboys 27 | Jan. 3, 1983


In the final regular-season game of the strike-shortened 1982 season, Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett scored the only 99-yard rushing touchdown in NFL history.

And he did it on a play where the Cowboys had only 10 players on the field against the Minnesota Vikings.

Dorsett's teammate, fullback Ron Springs, misunderstood the play call and ran off the field prior to the snap. Dorsett took the handoff from the Cowboys' own 1-yard line and ran straight up the middle. As he cut to the right, he avoided a tackle at his own 15 and went untouched for another 60 yards.

Dorsett nearly stepped out of bounds but was able stay in and used a stiff-arm to fend off Willie Teal for one final burst into the history books.
Examining the Minnesota Vikings' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (3)
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said last week he didn't think the Vikings would only carry two quarterbacks, effectively quashing the idea the Vikings could cut Ponder to free up a spot elsewhere. Ponder hasn't played in the last two preseason games, but could still have some value in an emergency if the Vikings aren't ready to put Bridgewater on the field and they need someone to fill in for an injured or ineffective Cassel.

RUNNING BACKS (4)

Asiata has played well during training camp and is listed ahead of McKinnon for the No. 2 running back spot behind Peterson at the moment. At the very least, both could have distinct roles behind Peterson, with Asiata as a downhill runner and McKinnon as a threat in the passing game.

WIDE RECEIVERS (6)

Vikings general manager Rick Spielman singled out Thielen -- who spent last season on the Vikings' practice squad -- as a player who had improved from last year during the Vikings' minicamp, and the Minnesota State product has been the darling of training camp so far. Undrafted free agent Kain Colter got an $8,000 signing bonus from the Vikings, but the 6-foot-5 Smith sneaks in ahead of him to give the group a bigger target; he showed on Saturday night what his size can do for him when he caught the game-winning touchdown from Bridgewater on a fade route.

TIGHT ENDS (3)

Ford was activated from the physically-unable-to-perform list on Monday morning, though he still has to show he's recovered from a broken foot in time to make the Vikings' 53-man roster. If he is still hurt, that could open the door for Allen Reisner, who caught a pair of touchdown passes from Bridgewater in goal-line situations on Saturday.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (8)

The Vikings seem set with their starting five from last season, which means Yankey will have to wait for a chance to push Johnson at left guard; everyone from Zimmer to offensive line coach Jeff Davidson seems to like the continuity the Vikings have enjoyed on the line. Richardson was not wearing a knee brace in the Vikings' second preseason game on Saturday night, and seems to be getting healthier after another player rolled up on his leg during training camp. If he's not healthy enough to be the Vikings' swing tackle, Mike Remmers or Kevin Murphy could win the last spot.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)

This might be the deepest position group on the Vikings' roster, and they could all play in Zimmer's defensive line rotation. Wootton and Crichton give the Vikings a pair of versatile backups who can play inside or outside, and Johnson and Evans figure to be the primary backups at three-technique and nose tackle, respectively. Johnson has also seen time as the three-technique tackle in the Vikings' nickel rush package. If there's one player on the roster who could compel the Vikings to make room somewhere else, it might be Stephen, the seventh-round pick who has impressed Vikings coaches throughout camp and has seen time at both the three-technique and nose tackle positions.

LINEBACKERS (6)

In Cincinnati, Zimmer had linebacking groups of just six and five players, respectively, after training camp the past two seasons. If the position is similarly staffed this season, it could mean the Vikings will cut seventh-round pick Brandon Watts. There are plenty of questions at the position overall -- none of the three spots in the Vikings' base defense is completely solidified -- but in Barr, Hodges, Mauti and Cole, the Vikings have some young talent to work with.

DEFENSIVE BACKS (11)

This position might have been the Vikings' biggest liability last season, and it remains possibly the most unsettled headed into the final week of the preseason. Price has been injured after a strong start to the preseason, and a quadriceps injury took Jamarca Sanford out of action again on Saturday. Sanford started the last two years for Leslie Frazier, but he's spent so little time on the field for Zimmer, it'd take someone in the front office vouching for him in order for the Vikings to keep him at this point. Short of that, the guess here is he gets cut.

SPECIALISTS (3)

The group returns unchanged from what the Vikings had on their roster last season. Locke punted better toward the end of the season, and has already put in some work getting to know the wind patterns at TCF Bank Stadium.
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings can breathe a little easier about the health of one of their key offensive linemen on Sunday.

A MRI on Phil Loadholt's ankle showed the right tackle suffered only a contusion, not a sprain, according to a league source. Loadholt briefly returned to the game after initially sustaining the injury in the first quarter of the Vikings' game against the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday night, and coach Mike Zimmer said after the game that team doctors didn't "believe it's anything real serious" after doing X-rays during the game.

It seems unlikely the Vikings will play Loadholt in their final preseason game on Thursday night against Tennessee, but the Vikings' starters weren't likely to see much playing time anyway. At this point, it seems the Vikings will have Loadholt -- one of the league's highest-paid right tackles and a major force in the Vikings' running game -- healthy and ready to go in the regular season opener on Sept. 7 in St. Louis.
MINNEAPOLIS -- It's probably wise to use some degree of filter when viewing the Minnesota Vikings' third preseason game as a facsimile of the real thing, given how skeptical coach Mike Zimmer was about the idea of the third game being a dress rehearsal for the regular season. But on a night where the Vikings played their starters well into the third quarter, we can glean a relatively solid impression of where the team is going with a few roster decisions.

We'll have a more complete overview of the Vikings' roster in our latest weekly roster projection on Monday, but for now, here are three takeaways from the Vikings' win over the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday night:

[+] EnlargeTom Johnson
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsTom Johnson appears to have carved out a role for himself as a rotational player on the Vikings' D-line
Tom Johnson appears to have a key role on the defensive line: The former New Orleans Saints defensive tackle wasn't a high-profile pickup when the Vikings signed him this spring, but his explosiveness looked like it could help the Vikings at 3-technique tackle (outside shade on right guard). Through three preseason games, Johnson has shown he'll fit on the Vikings' roster. He's seen regular playing time as an inside pass-rusher in the Vikings' nickel package, and had two half-sacks on Saturday night. He shared a sack with Anthony Barr in the Vikings' first preseason game, and had two quarterback hits against the Chiefs. Johnson played 32 snaps in the game -- two more than Sharrif Floyd -- and appears here to stay as a rotational player on the Vikings' line.

Special teams, not receiver, might cement Adam Thielen's spot: Zimmer is fond of saying, "The more you can do, the more valuable you are," and wide receiver Adam Thielen has taken that to heart in the preseason. He'd earned attention during the Vikings' offseason program and training camp as a receiver, but he's done more to make an impression on special teams in preseason games than he has as a wideout. He had three punt returns for 53 yards in the Vikings' preseason opener, also registering a tackle for a 4-yard loss in that game, and showed great patience on a 75-yard punt return on Saturday. The Vikings haven't gone much deeper than three receivers with their first-team offense -- it's even been hard for Jarius Wright to find a role -- and if the Vikings wind up keeping just five receivers, Thielen's utility might put him in over Rodney Smith, who's also had a solid preseason and still could make the roster, especially if Jerome Simpson is suspended. If it's a decision between those two, however, it's hard to see the Vikings letting Thielen go. "He just keeps fighting and fighting," Zimmer said of Thielen. "He's got a lot of heart, and obviously, I like guys with a lot of heart. He seems to get better and better, and he makes plays. That's important."

Middle linebacker is still up for grabs: The closest competition in the final week could be at safety -- where Robert Blanton and Chris Crocker look like the favorites over a cast of other veterans -- or the third cornerback spot, where Josh Robinson's injuries have left plenty of playing time for Marcus Sherels in a role that's essentially a starting job, given how much time a third cornerback is on the field. But the one we've got our eye on is the battle for the middle linebacker spot, where Jasper Brinkley and Audie Cole continue to battle. Brinkley started the game on Saturday, but he and Cole alternated series throughout the night, to the point where both were still playing into the fourth quarter with the Vikings' reserves. Cole got 33 snaps on Saturday, Brinkley got 27 and both players bring a different skill set; Brinkley is more forceful against the run, while Cole's size and instincts make him a better fit in pass coverage. Of any battle on the roster, this one might go down to the end of camp -- and even beyond, if the Vikings decide to tinker with their lineup during the season.

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