EAGAN, Minn. -- James Lofton knows a bit about star receiver combinations.
When Lofton played for Buffalo from 1989-92, lining up on the opposite side was Andre Reed. The Bills went to three Super Bowls during that period and Lofton and Reed both ended up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Lofton will serve as the CBS analyst for the Minnesota Vikings’ game Sunday against Tennessee at U.S. Bank Stadium. He offered some perspective on Minnesota (0-2) having broken up its star receiver combination of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen when Diggs was traded to Buffalo in March.
“(Diggs is) a guy who’s a little bit over 6 feet, 190, 195 pounds, but he plays like a bully when he’s crossing the middle because he’s going to come up with the ball,’’ said Lofton, who starred in the NFL from 1978-93, including a 1978-86 stint with Green Bay. “He’s going to fight for it and he’s going to be in position to win nine times out of 10, so that’s missed. But you can develop that in some of the younger players (the Vikings have).’’
Lofton pointed to rookie Justin Jefferson and second-year man Bisi Johnson as receivers who eventually could make up for the loss of Diggs, who has has 16 catches for an NFL-high 239 yards in the first two games. He especially likes Jefferson, who caught 111 passes for 1,540 yards last season for national champion LSU.
“That’s a phenomenal number,’’ Lofton said of Jefferson, who has five receptions for 70 yards in his first two NFL games. “I don’t care what level you’re playing at, and to score 18 touchdowns along with that. He’s obviously a guy that can get it done. I think that he will be targeted often in (Sunday’s) game.’’
To win, Lofton said the Vikings must establish the run with Dalvin Cook to open up the passing game. In last Sunday’s 28-11 loss at Indianapolis, Kirk Cousins completed just 11 of 26 passes for 113 yards and three interceptions and had a career-low passer rating of 15.9. But Lofton said there was plenty of blame to go around.
“The stat that I had is that Kirk Cousins in 56 drop backs was knocked down 10 times, and that’s 18 percent of the time,’’ Lofton said. “That’s a huge number, and if he’s knocked down 10 times, that means he’s probably harassed another 10 times or so. That certainly impacts how he is going to throw the ball.’’
Lofton, who arrived in the Twin Cities on Friday, will be joined on the broadcast by play-by-play announcer Andrew Catalon and sideline reporter A.J. Ross. The CBS team usually meets with coaches and some top players in person before the game, but the coronavirus pandemic has changed that. Instead, Zoom calls were set up Thursday with head coach Mike Zimmer, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, Cousins, safety Harrison Smith and linebacker Eric Kendricks.
In Week 1, Lofton was the analyst for the New York Jets at Buffalo game and in Week 2 he did Jacksonville at Tennessee. On Sunday, he will be on hand for a third straight game without fans.
“We did have eight fans in the stands last week,’’ Lofton said. “They were season-ticket holder winners. And in the first game, the only person in the stands was the Buffalo Bills mascot.’’
Lofton said he’s been so focused at games that sometimes he doesn’t notice there are no fans. But he then will realize it when he can hear players talking on the sidelines.
“We can hear it when they need to put a bar of soap in their mouth,’’ Lofton said with a laugh about some of the salty language.
Fields, Iloka elevated
The Vikings on Saturday levated safety George Iloka and cornerback Mark Fields II from the practice squad. Both will be active for today’s game.
The move on Fields was expected. A source had told the Pioneer Press on Thursday that Fields would be elevated due to injuries at cornerback. The Vikings on Sunday will be without Mike Hughes (neck) and Cameron Dantzler (rib).
Iloka, who played with the Vikings in 2018 and was not on an NFL roster in 2019, was signed Sept. 17 to the practice squad. After going through 1K weeks of practice, the Vikings deemed him ready to provide depth at safety behind starters Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris. Minnesota’s only other safety on the 53-man roster is rookie Josh Metellus.
Fields was elevated for the second straight game, although he didn’t play in last Sunday’s 28-11 loss at Indianapolis. Fields is in line to appear in his second NFL game. As a rookie, he played in the 2019 opener against Atlanta before spending the rest of the season on the practice squad.
A new NFL rule allows teams to elevate up to two players per game from the practice squad and return them to the squad without having to go through waivers. That only can be done twice a season on a player, so, if the Vikings want Fields for another game in 2020, they would need to sign him to the 53-man roster.
Hughes didn’t practice all week due to a neck injury suffered against the Colts. Dantzler hasn’t played or practiced since suffering a rib injury in the Sept. 13 opener against Green Bay.
Minnesota’s top two cornerbacks on Sunday will be Holton Hill and rookie Jeff Gladney. For the No. 3 spot, it could be Kris Boyd, but he’s listed as questionable due to a hamstring injury.
The Vikings also have on the roster rookie cornerback Harrison Hand, who was inactive for the first two games.
Tight end Irv Smith Jr. has become the first Vikings player to be fined by the NFL this season.
A source said Saturday that Smith was fined $7,752 for an illegal crackback block in the third quarter of last Sunday’s 28-11 loss at Indianapolis.