Call it a dress rehearsal, call it the "ever-important" third preseason game, or call it a proving ground, Friday's game with the Seattle Seahawks has plenty on the line for many of the Minnesota Vikings 90-man roster.
The starters will be looking to establish a rhythm in their likely final action of the exhibition season. The backups will be trying to prove they belong -- and doing so against Seattle's top options -- before cuts are made later this month.
"I feel like this is our best chance at a dress rehearsal," quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "We’d really like to establish a rhythm and build some confidence, get some reps together and just get a flow going of converting third downs, playing well in the red zone, moving the football, having to mix the run and the pass. We need all that to make up ground and be ready to go for Week 1."
Here are five things to watch as Minnesota has its final home preseason game:
- How does Dalvin Cook look?
Reports say Cook, the second-year running back who had a promising rookie season ended due to an ACL injury, will likely make his return for his first game action since knee surgery. Cook has practiced without a brace on his knee for the entirety of training camp. He's looked quick and hasn't shown any hesitation. He'll get the chance for some work -- don't expect it to be much -- on Friday against Seattle.
Cook should team with Latavius Murray for a potent duo at running back this season, and Cook should see the majority of snaps once the regular season hits. Cook has said he doesn't think about the injury any longer and he pronounced himself ready to go, regardless of whether he plays in the preseason. He'll take that big step in his return when he gets the chance to see how he does against an opponent on Friday.
"Yeah, one hundred percent," Cook said recently. "I’m ready to go. Ball is ball, and when that ball rolls out, I’m going to go one hundred percent, I’m going to fly around, and I’m going to do me. Like I said before, my knee is ready to go, I’m ready to play, and it’s just football now."
Without Cook, the running game has been the most effective piece of Minnesota's offense.
"Two things; I really think the offensive line is coming off the football, but we’re not always perfect," offensive coordinator John DeFilippo said. "We’re down four starters so it’s not always perfect. But they’re playing fast and they’re playing physical. Number two, I think our backs are really hitting the hole and they do a really good job of [not letting] the first guy that makes contact make the tackle. I think the combination of them seeing the hole and our offensive line coming off fast is a reason why you’ve seen us run the football with some success here the first two weeks."
- How about Cousins and the first-team offense?
Cousins and the starters got one drive in the first preseason game and looked sharp. With more snaps in last week's game, they showed there is more work to be done. Cousins was 3-of-8 passing for just 12 yards and the first-team offense didn't reach the end zone against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Cousins overthrew Adam Thielen on one play, bounced a ball to Kyle Rudolph on another. In all, the line, Cousins and his receivers all looked out of sync.
This is not the same Seattle defense that Vikings' fans are used to. The Seahawks slipped to 15th in pass defense last season. Safety Earl Thomas is a holdout and cornerback Richard Sherman is now a 49er.
Cousins could answer a few questions about his adaption to Minnesota and DeFilippo, and the offense's readiness, heading into the regular season with a strong performance. The first-team offense is likely to see at least a full half of action.
" I think this next game will be a better indication," Cousins said. "But I think that’s my challenge in the past as well, in training camp, in preseason and OTAs is you just don’t really know truly where you are until you get up and play some games and get in live action for a few weeks. I am going to join the club there in not having a great answer for you. We have to go out and play and earn our way and prove it. "
- Which combinations will we see on the offensive line?
One reason the offense hasn't had much cohesiveness is the continued changes along the offensive line. Center Pat Elflein is still on the physically-unable-to-perform list and won't play Friday. He hasn't practiced at all during training camp. Starting left guard Nick Easton is out for the season after neck surgery.
Right guard Mike Remmers and right tackle Rashod Hill missed last week's game against Jacksonville. They returned to practice this week, but their participation on Friday is still to be determined. It would be a good sign if they're able to play at least on a limited basis.
Center Cornelius Edison has held his own playing for Elflein, but the changes have been constant. Aviante Collins has played left and right tackle, as well as guard. Danny Isidora has played both guard spots. Tom Compton is taking Easton's spot at left guard. Rookie Brian O'Neill is trying to get up to speed quickly at right tackle.
Add it up and there are plenty of unknowns along the offensive line and Friday could help sort through the options.
- Is Iloka ready to contribute already?
The defense has held up its end, for the most part, during the two preseason games. The backup defensive linemen, in particular, stood out last week against the Jaguars. There's a battle for the final few roster spots, but most of the players fighting for time have shown well for themselves.
The newest member is veteran safety George Iloka, who signed with the Vikings this week after surprisingly being cut by the Cincinnati Bengals. Iloka has history with coach Mike Zimmer from their days together in Cincinnati and said he knows about 80 percent of the plays already.
Iloka could be a quick study and help the defense immediately. He could provide an experienced backup at safety, help in big packages or on the goal line, or maybe even take a starting job away from Andrew Sendejo.
"We’ll let all of that work out in the next couple of weeks," Zimmer said. "I think it will help special teams, I think it will help some of our packages that we have."
How quick Iloka is up to speed could determine if he's a starter or an immediate contributor.
- It's your time.
With kicker Kai Forbath being released this week, the kicking job belongs to rookie Daniel Carlson. Carlson has looked steady through the first two preseason games, the biggest question for the fifth-round draft pick. Carlson has plenty of leg. The coaches wanted to see consistency from him.
He handled the pressure of a competition with the veteran Forbath. Now he will have to show he can handle the spotlight of big kicks when they matter. That won't come in a preseason game, but this will be the first game he has the kicking duties all to himself. With the history of kicker issues in Minnesota, Carlson can ease some anxiety with another strong game.