The Cincinnati Bengals and Minnesota Vikings are getting ready for a rare matchup. It is so rare that this will be the first time that Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer will be making his first return to Cincinnati since he left the Bengals seven seasons ago. It seemed like a good idea to catch up with Eric Thompson from the Daily Norseman to get his perspective on a team Cincinnati fans rarely see up close.
Patrick Judis: The Vikings may have one of the best wide receiver combos in the NFL with Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. What can we expect to see out of them in 2021 and who is the possible third receiving option?
Eric Thompson: As far as the Vikings are concerned, it better be quite a bit. While Jefferson and Thielen are certainly one of the best 1-2 punches in the league and will certainly get the lion’s share of targets from Kirk Cousins this season, it remains to be seen who the third option will be in the passing attack. Kyle Rudolph is now in New York and Irv Smith Jr. is out for most or all of the season, leaving Tyler Conklin to lead a very thin tight end group. Conklin has been fairly proficient in very limited action over his first three seasons, but we’ll see how he does in his expanded role. The battle for third wide receiver is probably being led by KJ Osborn, who went from strictly special teams after being drafted in 2020 to one of the breakouts of the Vikings preseason. Rookie Ihmir Smith-Marsette has shown flashes, and veteran Dede Westbrook should also be in the mix now that he’s starting to get healthy. With so many unknowns elsewhere, expect a lot of balls to be thrown in Jefferson and Thielen’s direction, especially early in the season.
PJ: Bengals fans still look fondly back on when Mike Zimmer was Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator (some even still swear that he should’ve replaced Marvin Lewis). How are fans feeling in Minnesota about Zimmer?
ET: A couple of years ago, Zimmer could have probably run for Governor of Minnesota and won in a landslide. There are still lots of Zimmer supporters throughout the Vikings fan base—myself included—but his approval rating has definitely taken a hit recently. The constant revolving door at Offensive Coordinator throughout his tenure has been a point of consternation. His gruff, no-nonsense demeanor is endearing when the Vikings are winning, but his deflection of blame when things aren’t going as well has started to wear thin on some. Zimmer has had to overcome a mind-boggling amount of both personal and professional adversity since taking the reins in 2014; it’s pretty amazing that he has won as much as he has over the past seven years. But he does only have two playoff wins in his tenure, and both of those came on the last play of the game against the Saints. He may have to add to his postseason success in order to keep his job going forward.
PJ: The Vikings defense certainly has some big names on it. But are there any weaknesses you are worried about going into the 2021 season?
ET: Depth is certainly an issue in a couple of areas. It doesn’t appear that Anthony Barr will play much if at all on Sunday, which means you could see a lot of your old pal Nick Vigil instead. Eric Kendricks remains one of the best linebackers in the NFL, but after him and Barr, the cupboard is pretty bare at that position. Likewise at safety after Harrison Smith and Xavier Woods. If either of them miss time, the defense could take a significant step back. Thankfully, the defensive line was abysmal in 2020 has undergone a complete overhaul, highlighted by the return of all-world edge rusher Danielle Hunter. That’s one part of the defense I’m not too concerned about.
PJ: Who are a couple of players you think Bengals’ fans should know more about for Sunday?
ET: On offense, I’m hoping that you don’t hear right guard Oli Udoh’s name very much, because that means he’s doing his job. Udoh was a 2019 6th round pick that has played very sparingly over his first two seasons, but earned the starting gig, mercifully freeing Vikings fans from having to watch Dakota Dozier and Dru Samia attempt to play guard again. Nobody is expecting Udoh to be an All-Pro. But if he can simply avoid being the dumpster fire that his predecessors were, that will be a huge upgrade for the offense.
On defense, keep an eye out for D.J. Wonnum, who earned the starting gig opposite Hunter at defensive end over returning Vikings alumni Everson Griffen and Stephen Weatherly. Although Wonnum will certainly be part of a rotation, he’ll likely see a lot of one-on-one matchups with offenses being so wary of Hunter.
PJ: What is your prediction for the game?
ET: I already posted my score prediction in my preview article on Thursday, so I’ll stick with that—I’ll say 20-16 Vikings. I think this game might be a bit of a slog at times. Both teams have a lot of new pieces, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they had to work out some kinks in Week 1. Hopefully Zimmer’s revamped defense will do enough to stymie the Bengals in his Cincinnati homecoming.
Thanks again to Eric Thompson for taking the time out to answer our questions. You can check out more of his work and Vikings coverage ahead of Sunday’s game at the Daily Norseman.