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Minnesota Vikings: Five Things to Watch in Third Preseason Game

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COMMENTARY | The third and most important preseason game is already upon us as the Minnesota Vikings head to San Francisco to take on the 49ers.

Generally, the third preseason game provides a glimpse into how the starting offense and defense will look come Week 1 of the regular season.

The Vikings' coaching staff has already made a semi-controversial decision, confirming Adrian Peterson will see some action against the 49ers. The decision has drawn some backfire from the media, as well as fans, thinking it is pointless to put the league MVP at risk of injury in a dress-rehearsal game.

Needless to say, here are five things to watch in the Vikings' third preseason game:

Christian Ponder

The play of quarterback Christian Ponder has been shaky at best. He started the first preseason game with a bullet to wide receiver Jerome Simpson, but a slight inaccuracy his next attempt was tipped by Simpson, landing in the hands of a Texans defender.

Through the first two preseason games, Ponder has completed just six of his 13 passes (46%) for a measly 68 yards and an interception. No need to panic yet, but Ponder will have to show signs of life against the 49ers. He will also have a weapon in the backfield he hasn't had the first two preseason games as Adrian Peterson is expected to play, a move that should help take pressure off the third-year quarterback from Florida State.

The key for the Vikings' offense will be to maintain consistency and improve on timing routes, something the Vikings have failed to do in the first two preseason games. The starters are projected to play at least the first half, and that should allow the offense to get into a rhythm.

Punt Returner

This Minnesota Vikings currently have three players gunning for the punt return duties. Marcus Sherels, who will be out Sunday as he attends his father's funeral, is in a heated battle with Bobby Felder. Although he is on the outside looking in, don't count out Stephen Burton, who will likely get some punt return action against the 49ers.

Ball security, as well as making smart return decisions, will all help determine who wins the job. Felder or Burton will likely have to win the job as Sherels is still the featured punt returner.

Special Teams

Pro Bowl kicker Blair Wash had an up and down training camp in Mankato, Minnesota, missing multiple chip shots in various practices. But he showed plenty of upside, nailing a 60-yard field goal during the Vikings' night practice. Ready to avoid a sophomore slump, Walsh is not looking back at last year.

"I don't want to look back at last season," Walsh recently told me. "I want to be reliable for our team."

Walsh was 2-for-2 in the Vikings' first preseason game against the Texans. His first miss of the preseason came in Week 2 against the Buffalo Bills on a 49-yard attempt. The only change from last season to this season will be his holder, converting from veteran Chris Kluwe to rookie Jeff Locke.

Rookie kicker Jeff Locke, the Vikings' fifth-round selection out of UCLA, is the Vikings' highest drafted punter in team history. Through the first two preseason games, Locke has 12 punts, averaging 44.9 yards, with a long of 61 yards. All eyes will be on the left-footed punter from UCLA every time he punts.

First-Round Rookies

The Minnesota Vikings had another eventful draft this year, highlighted by three first-round draft picks. Xavier Rhodes will be seeing action in just his second game this preseason after missing the Vikings' opener due to a lingering hamstring suffered at training camp. He will be trying to prove that he deserves to be a Week 1 starter alongside veteran corner Chris Cook. Frazier admitted Rhodes had an up-and-down game against the Bills.

Cordarrelle Patterson, the 29th overall pick in the 2013 draft, will move up on the depth chart to replace the injured Jarius Wright (concussion). He will have a chance to prove his value against one of the NFL's elite defenses. Look for him to continue to improve his route running and work on his chemistry with quarterback Christian Ponder. Patterson will look to flash for the Vikings on kickoff returns in the third preseason game.

Defensive Line Depth

A crazy week for the Vikings' defensive line took a twist with Christian Ballard leaving the team for personal reasons. Additionally, rookie Sharrif Floyd had a minor operation on his knee and will miss the rest of preseason.

The Vikings have a number of defensive linemen on the bubble of making the roster, and it appears a defensive line roster spot just opened with the absence of Ballard.

Dennis Parsons is a Minnesota-area sportswriter covering the Minnesota Vikings for Vikings Central. He previously covered all Minnesota professional sports teams for Minnesota Sports News Nightly. You can email him at dennisparsons8@gmail.com or follow him on twitter @Parsons_VC.

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