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Where: Mall of America Field at H.H.H. Metrodome, Minneapolis, Minnesota
A pair of NFL rushing champions might be relegated to little more than glorified cheerleaders (for entirely different reasons) Sunday when the Jacksonville Jaguars visit the Minnesota Vikings. Jaguars first-year coach Mike Mularkey will have the services of Maurice Jones-Drew at his disposal after the 2011 rushing champion “got on the train” and ended his messy 38-day holdout Sunday without a new contract. Due to his lengthy absence, Jones-Drew will reportedly see action mostly on third down with Rashad Jennings doing the heavy lifting.
Meanwhile, Minnesota is listing four-time Pro Bowler Adrian Peterson, who is ahead of schedule in his recovery from torn anterior and medial collateral ligaments, as a game-time decision. The uncertainty surrounding both star running backs means there’s more pressure on second-year quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert (Jacksonville) and Christian Ponder.
ABOUT THE JAGUARS (2011: 5-11): Mularkey, who was brought in to replace Jack Del Rio after a 5-11 season, is a run-first former offensive coordinator. He has to be thrilled with the return of Jones-Drew, who ran for 1,606 yards and eight scores despite routinely facing eight- and nine-man boxes (the Jaguars were last in passing at 136.2 ypg). Jones-Drew held out in the hope that new owner Shad Khan would rip up the five-year, $31 million deal he signed in 2009, but he relented after his strategy was largely ignored. As for Gabbert, the former first-round pick seems to have made strides after a horrendous rookie season in which he seemed skittish in the pocket. The additions of standout rookie WR Justin Blackmon and free agent Laurent Robinson should help him improve on his atrocious 50.8 completion rate. The Jaguars’ defense was one of the lone bright spots last season (313.0 ypg – sixth).
ABOUT THE VIKINGS (2011: 3-13): Minnesota’s nightmare 2011 season took a turn for the worse when Peterson went down on Christmas Eve. The 2008 rushing champion ran for 973 yards and 12 TDs before missing the final four games. He has been targeting a Week 1 return since being injured and just recently began absorbing contact in practice, but Toby Gerhart will receive the bulk of the carries. The offensive line should be able to open more holes thanks to the presence of No. 4 overall pick Matt Kalil. The selection of Kalil filled an obvious need after Minnesota gave up the fifth-most sacks last season (49). While Ponder took a beating in 2011, he also showed promise, setting a franchise rookie record with 381 yards in Week 13 versus Denver. Ponder will throw to electrifying WR Percy Harvin, who had career bests of 87 catches and 967 yards last season. On the defensive side, CB Chris Carr was signed as a free agent to help a unit that ranked 26th against the pass (251.2 ypg) in 2011.
1. Since being drafted in 2007, Peterson leads the league in rushing (6,752) and rushing touchdowns (64).
2. ”I’m in a good place. I did something I felt was right, and I’m always going to feel right” – Jones-Drew, on his lengthy and unsuccessful holdout, which could end up costing him a reported $1.2 million in fines.
3. Khan raised eyebrows this offseason when he told Jones-Drew through reporters, “The train is leaving the station. Run, get it.”