Mike Zimmer is still trying to get rid of the bad memories after the Vikings' forgettable preseason-opening loss to the Broncos. But no matter how much more work he thinks the backups need to prepare for the regular season, the coach said he expects starters to play in Saturday's exhibition against the Colts.
If only to boost the team's spirits.
"We need to have a little success," Zimmer said after Thursday's practice. "We need to build a little confidence. That's why most of our guys will end up playing some."
There's no "set number of plays," according to Zimmer, that he wants to see from quarterback Kirk Cousins or defensive tackles Michael Pierce and Dalvin Tomlinson, but they'll play Saturday in what might be the starters' only game reps before the Sept. 12 season opener in Cincinnati.
The lineup likely won't include sidelined starters such as receiver Justin Jefferson (shoulder), left tackle Christian Darrisaw (groin), tight end Tyler Conklin (hamstring) or linebacker Anthony Barr (undisclosed). Some players, like Pierce and defensive end Danielle Hunter, will see game action for the first time in about 18 months. For how long is up to Zimmer's whim.
"Like I told the coaches, 'Just tell them to play until I tell them to get out,'" Zimmer said. "Just however I feel. Like, I was talking to Adam Thielen [on Thursday], and he said it's important that we go through the pregame routine: get pumped up to go, and all the structure of what we're going to go through for a game, as well. I probably should've had them do that last week."
Teams have recently been more inclined to bench starters in the preseason, limiting the injury risk while ceding tune-up reps. By not playing starters last week against Denver, Zimmer aligned with teams like the Rams, Chargers and 49ers, who also benched most of their key contributors in the exhibition openers.
The Colts are expected to play most of their starters Saturday against the Vikings, coach Frank Reich told Indianapolis reporters this week — although that won't include injured players such as quarterback Carson Wentz or guard Quenton Nelson.
"The reps are always valuable," Cousins said. "You always get better from playing. So, as long as you can protect yourself and be ready for Week 1, I think it's always helpful to get out there and get that experience. But everybody's going to handle it different."
Game reps are also valuable for the rest of a young Vikings team with few proven reserves, especially after those backups struggled against Denver. Coaches want to get more work for quarterbacks Kellen Mond and Jake Browning.
The depth chart also needs to be sorted out at positions like safety, linebacker, and the offensive and defensive lines. And there's only so much coaches can learn from practices, according to Zimmer.
"Practice is important, but you want to see it on Sunday," Zimmer said. "The backup defensive players went against [Denver's] first group, except for the left tackle, really the whole day, but these guys might have to play. If somebody gets injured, they might have to play. This week is going to be important for a lot of those guys."