The casual fan will tell you that preseason football doesn’t matter. A head coach will say it’s a critical juncture in the formation of a 53-man roster. The third-string running back will say it’s his time to prove he belongs in the NFL.
Opinions may vary among different audiences, but one fact holds true; the preseason marks the start of professional football, and with that, a chance to analyze the Minnesota Vikings for the first time since January 2016.
Minnesota’s humble 17-16 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals last Friday left much to be desired. Head coach Mike Zimmer won’t be happy with his team’s sloppy play, especially that of the first-team offense and defense. Still, there are signs of a contender in-the-making, with pieces in place at every level to enjoy another strong season in 2016.
After each win — and unfortunately, each loss — I’ll break down key aspects of the game that led to a victory or Sunday defeat. This morning, I’ll dive into the Vikings’ film against the Bengals, which reveals Minnesota’s slow growth up to this point of the offseason.
The Vikings ran the ball 51 percent of the time last season, making Minnesota the third-most run-heavy team in the NFL. With Adrian Peterson in the backfield and a shaky offensive line protecting the quarterback, controlling the clock on the ground made the most sense for the Vikings in 2015. But to reach new heights, offensive coordinator Norv Turner understands that different paths can lead to the same destination.
Those paths, or players, give Turner an opportunity to open the playbook and funnel touches away from Peterson. The first name that comes to mind is Jerick McKinnon, who started in place of Peterson on Friday and added some much-needed balance to Minnesota’s offensive attack.
For a team that relied so heavily on the run last season, Friday’s exhibition was a breath of fresh air. The Vikings started the game with three passes, conjuring memories of last year’s ugly season opener against the 49ers. Cincinnati’s defensive line abused the Vikings and hit Teddy Bridgewater on every snap. But Turner didn’t flinch, sending his first-team offense back onto the field for a second series and a chance at redemption.
Backed up on their own goal line, the Vikings opened the second drive with a clever mix of runs and short passes. Turner switched personnel groupings and formations to keep the Bengals’ second-team defense guessing, and it worked. The 10-play, 96-yard drive ate nearly seven minutes off the clock and revealed just how balanced the Vikings can be offensively.
Over the course of the drive, Turner called five passes and five rushing plays. Bridgewater was especially efficient, converting three third downs through the air. While McKinnon didn’t carve through Cincinnati’s defense, he flashed on a run out of the end zone and was on the receiving end of two Bridgewater passes.
“The good thing about that drive, we got to work different situations,” Bridgewater said, per Vikings.com. “We got to work some coming-out plays, a coming-out package, and we had some big third downs. That’s what kind of gets those drives going. You convert third down on a backed-up situation, and you kind of get the momentum, get your rhythm, and the guys did a great job of just executing.”
Peterson’s absence likely contributed to Minnesota’s newfound balance —27 passes and 25 rushing plays on the night — and it should remain that way through the preseason. It’s something that would benefit the Vikings long-term, but it’s also an unknown until Peterson takes the field in Week 1.
A Literal Passing ‘Attack’
No one would have called the Vikings’ passing game an “attack” last year, but on Friday, it showed signs of life. From Bridgewater’s improved deep ball to the play of the backup quarterbacks, the Vikings found some success through the air. Most encouraging, though, was Bridgewater’s aggressiveness in throwing into tight windows.
Here, a third-and-seven situation midway through the second quarter, Bridgewater hits Adam Thielen down the field for a 22-yard gain. Last year, Bridgewater may have thrown to either of his crossers — Matt Asiata or Stefon Diggs. But with a collapsing pocket and a shrinking window, Bridgewater finds the top of his drop and releases the football. His placement his perfect, too; high and away from the closing safety.
A throw to either crosser would be troubling. It’d elicit labels like “Check-Down Passer” and complaints of throwing “in front of the sticks.” It would have launched Bridgewater’s offseason progress out the window. And against a second-team defense, Bridgewater should take every opportunity to challenge the coverage.
Fortunately for the Vikings, he does, and does so with accuracy and decisiveness. The play is more indicative of Bridgewater’s skills than it is the lackluster play of the defense. Regardless of who’s on the field, it’s a tight-window throw in the weakest area of Bridgewater’s game — 20+ yards from the line of scrimmage.
Now is the time to take such risks, and it’s an encouraging sign for Minnesota’s offense that Bridgewater is willing to push the ball into uncomfortable situations.
Speaking of pushing the ball, Bridgewater struggled doing just that last season. He had his moments, like in the preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys, but couldn’t consistently hit his targets down the field. Mike Wallace was partially to blame, but Bridgewater’s sidearm release and erratic footwork led to far too many missed connections.
The word out of Mankato this offseason is that Bridgewater’s deep ball is fixed. And on Friday night, he gave fans a preview of his new downfield abilities. This throw has been analyzed and broken down to death, but it’s important to note how natural Bridgewater looks. The 50-yard connection looks easy for Bridgewater, who’s been dogged by arm strength questions since he entered the league.
Here, he hits Charles Johnson in stride, with absolutely zero chance of an overthrow or an incompletion. The football lands perfectly in Johnson’s hands and the receiver walks into the end zone for a touchdown. There are shades of the odd, sidearm flick, but the ball definitively jumps out of Bridgewater’s hand and cuts through the air. Throws like this just didn’t happen in 2015, and again, it’s encouraging to see Bridgewater get out of his comfort zone.
The final pass is a bonus for two reasons; it highlights Laquon Treadwell’s status as a “gamer” and exemplifies the aggressiveness of Minnesota’s quarterbacks on Friday night.
Facing fourth-and-three, Turner leaves his offense on the field for a chance to keep the drive alive. Personally, I was shocked, as the Vikings rarely took such chances in 2015. Back to reality, though; this is the preseason, where failures have little-to-no impact on the team’s long-term outlook.
Lined up in man-to-man coverage, Treadwell is the clear No. 1 target in this situation. He runs a quick slant and third-string quarterback Joel Stave hits him just beyond the yard marker. The throw is low, but that doesn’t matter to Treadwell, who plucks it from the air and nearly breaks the tackle for a long gain.
Treadwell was impressive on Friday, totaling four catches and 41 yards on the night. His route running, physicality, and soft hands were all on display, especially in this crucial situation. If he and Johnson can continue to make such plays a reality, the Vikings will have a whole new identity on offense this season.
Waynes’ World is Slowing Down
The NFL doesn’t slow down for rookies. Quite the contrary, actually; the NFL moves much faster than any NCAA program in the country. Second-year cornerback Trae Waynes experienced that in 2015, when he struggled to adapt to the rules and the speed of the professional game.
With Terence Newman injured and not in Cincinnati, Waynes had a chance to show just how far he’s come since his disastrous preseason debut last year. He’d made some progress late in 2015, but remained behind Newman on the depth chart. His performance on Friday, especially in the first quarter, revealed a player who’s very close to taking over at left cornerback.
Straight-line speed has always been Waynes’s greatest strength. He was the fastest cornerback at the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine and thrives in bump-and-run coverage down the field. Here (though not pictured), Waynes lines up in press coverage against rookie wide receiver Tyler Boyd. At the snap, he runs step-for-step with Boyd, blanketing the receiver down the field and forcing him into the sideline.
By forcing Boyd to hug the sideline, Waynes gives himself an immediate advantage. He’s in better position than Boyd and practically runs the route for him. When the ball finally arrives, Waynes is where Boyd should be; streaking down the sideline, not straddled against the white paint. Though he doesn’t haul in the interception, Waynes displays all the traits that made him a first round selection; awareness, closing speed, ball skills, and a knack for man-to-man coverage.
Lined up against one of the game’s best receivers in A.J. Green, Waynes didn’t flinch. In a critical third down situation, he once again sets up in man-to-man coverage. At the snap, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton immediately looks Green’s way, tipping where he’s going with the football. Waynes recognizes the intent and positions himself beautifully for the ensuing route.
At the top of Green’s break, Waynes chops his feet, planting and exploding forward to come hip-to-hip with the receiver. This allows Waynes to cut off Green with a little physicality and step in front of the slant. He does just that, benefiting from a poor throw by Dalton. Again, Waynes doesn’t record the interception, but he’s in position to do so against one of the league’s elite receivers.
Although Newman is back at practice and in his starting spot, Waynes showed up positively on film and earned consideration for more playing time at some point this season. He says he feels more comfortable in Zimmer’s defense, and that was clear on Friday night.
Zimmer’s Wish is Defense’s Command
“That’s one of Coach Zimmer’s messages to the defense: ‘Create more turnovers,’” Bridgewater said earlier this month, per Sam Ekstrom. “Those guys are definitely trying to create turnovers, disrupt passing lanes and be physical on the outside with the wide receivers.”
The Vikings did just that in their first preseason game, forcing one turnover-on-downs and another two interceptions. Last season, the team ranked 19th with 22 forced turnovers, and it’s a statistic Zimmer wants to improve in his third season at the helm.
Friday night was an impressive start, with the aforementioned physicality wreaking havoc on the Bengals’ offense. Rookies and free agent additions helped make it happen, with Kentrell Brothers, Mackensie Alexander, and Jayron Kearse standing above the rest.
On fourth-and-one and backed up on their own goal line, the Vikings needed a stop. The first-team offense had sputtered, leading to an extended drive from the Bengals that nearly resulted in a touchdown. Here, Brothers makes the stop, thanks in large part to push up front from Tom Johnson and Danielle Hunter.
Brothers does his part, though, shedding a block to step up in the hole and execute a perfect form tackle. He stops the running back square at the line of scrimmage, resulting in a crucial turnover-on-downs. This play sprung the offense’s 96-yard touchdown drive and put the Vikings ahead for good.
Two rookies combine for yet another turnover. This time, it’s undrafted free agent linebacker Jake Ganus and second round cornerback Alexander. Zimmer’s linebackers dominate Cincinnati’s crossing wide receivers, disrupting their routes and giving the quarterback nowhere to throw. Ganus helps his case for the team here, batting an ill-timed ball into the air and creating opportunities for the rest of the defense.
Alexander, for all the talk of his lack of interceptions, shows off excellent reaction time to haul in the football. He locates the tipped ball, bats it up, and snags the interception before it hits the ground. His diving effort is even more impressive given the fact that he’s hit as he makes the catch. Everything works together beautifully here, from Zach Moore’s pass rush on the outside to Ganus’s aggressive play over the middle and Alexander’s surprising ball skills. The elements combine as drawn up in the playbook, resulting in a win for the defense.
The first preseason game is in the books, with plenty for the Vikings to improve before Week 1. Waynes wasn’t perfect, the offensive line needs to be more consistent, and Minnesota’s run defense was lackluster early. But in victory, it’s the positives that stand above the negativity, and on Friday, those positives helped the Vikings secure their first win of 2016.
“What Went Right” and “What Went Wrong” are recurring posts that will appear every Tuesday following regular season games. Preseason editions will not follow the same schedule, but will also appear on Vikings Territory after games.