A thrilling, victorious finish to the Minnesota Vikings’ third preseason game was not enough to negate the disappointing showing from the starting units Sunday night against the San Francisco 49ers.
I have some good news, I have some bad news and I have some worse news.
The good news is that the Minnesota Vikings won in spectacular fashion.
The bad news is that the win doesn’t really mean much.
The worse news is that the starting units got obliterated by the San Francisco 49ers in the first half.
Minnesota escaped with 32-31 last-second win on Sunday night in front of a national television audience, no thanks to the starting units. Quarterbacks Case Keenum and Taylor Heinicke led a heroic comeback effort (with the help of a Jerick McKinnon kickoff return touchdown) to make up for a gruesome first half showing.
Heinicke led the game-winning drive that ended with a Terrell Newby one-yard touchdown as time expired and an epic two-point conversion scramble.
— NFL (@NFL) August 28, 2017
With that, let’s get into the main takeaways from Sunday night’s “dress rehearsal.”
Starting Units Struggle
Not that this is groundbreaking news, but Minnesota’s first-team offense and defense struggled mightily in front of a national television audience.
Discombobulated was the name of the game offensively. The offensive line struggled to protect quarterback Sam Bradford. Specifically, Mike Remmers’ woes as a pass protector continued, getting beat and incorrectly identifying stunts.
Additionally, all of Bradford’s weaknesses were brought to the spotlight. He took multiple sacks after failing to step up into a pocket that was created. His checkdown-happy tendencies were also on display at an extreme level, settling for short passes often when targets further downfield had created separation.
Bradford did save his performance with a few strikes toward the end of the first half, but some poor clock management on the team’s final drive resulted in zero first half points.
Throughout the preseason, the first-team offense led by Bradford trotted onto the field for 12 possessions (assuming they won’t suit up for the fourth preseason game). It netted three points and lots and lots of punts.
Preseason mistakes are fine and generally nothing to worry about in the grand scheme. However, the players making the mistakes is cause for concern. It wasn’t guys battling for a starting spot or battling for playing time. It was Stefon Diggs dropping two wide open passes that would have gained first downs. It was Eric Kendricks biting way too hard on a play action fake. It was Harrison Smith getting toasted for two long touchdowns up the seam.
Will this carry into the regular season? I don’t expect it. But there’s reason for concern.
Hunter, Cook, Thielen Play Well
While both starting units struggled, there were a few bright spots believe it or not. Dalvin Cook wasn’t given much room to work with, but he churned out yardage that most running backs wouldn’t have. He also displayed his improvement in pass protection, throwing a couple of really solid blocks and picking up blitzes like a seasoned veteran.
Danielle Hunter battled 6’8″, 355-pound tackle Trent Brown in the first half and won most battles. Hunter’s pass rushing prowess has earned the most headlines, but it’s his play against the run that was on display tonight. He can be relied on to set the edge on every single rush attempt to his side.
Adam Thielen looked like WR1 in this game. He made himself available both on the quick-hitting routes and down the field, adjusting his route when Bradford improvised and moved out of the pocket.
Slot Cornerback Remains a Concern
Captain Munnerlyn is a small football player, but he left massive shoes to fill on the Vikings defense.
Mackensie Alexander was the presumed favorite to fill that role and has received all first-team reps throughout training camp and preseason. His performance in that role has left much to be desired. He looked lost on several occasions against Seattle last week, and he was toasted with regularity again this week.
Slot cornerback is the easiest position for offenses to exploit. Quick-twitched receivers that get off the line of scrimmage quickly can obliterate the slot and execute a short passing scheme efficiently. Alexander’s performance thus far is a serious concern and it presents an easy way for offenses to attack the Mike Zimmer defense.
Defending Screens Still an Issue
The kryptonite to the Vikings defense the past few years has been defending screens. For whatever reason, the group of cerebral and athletic playmakers Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman has put together has struggled to consistently identify and stop screens.
Sunday night was no different. Some 49ers running back I have never heard of scampered 87 yards on a screen for a touchdown and 17 yards on another. Some ugly tackling angles were taken on both plays and just like that, 104 yards of offense was surrendered.
Kick Return Battle Complete?
Jerick McKinnon was Minnesota’s lead kickoff return man throughout the entire game. And while he only got one kick that wasn’t through the end zone, Jet took advantage. He blazed 108 yards for a touchdown, leaving the 49ers special teams unit and Rodney Adams in the dust.
— NFL (@NFL) August 28, 2017
It appears as if McKinnon has locked up the kick return battle. And that begs the question — if Adams is not the kickoff return man, does he make the roster? Adams has been used almost exclusively for gadget plays on offense while Stacy Coley has displayed much better fundamentals.
Adams’ statistical production tells part of the story, but the whole story is that he is the seventh-best receiver on the Vikings roster.
- Riley Reiff held up nicely at left tackle before a minor injury removed him from the game.
- Willie Beavers had a strong night, as weird as that may be to read. He showed serious power in the run game, particularly on the Terrell Newby touchdown as time expired.
- Tashawn Bower didn’t register the flashy plays he did in the first two preseason games, but he was effective against the run and continued to apply pressure.
- Stacy Coley will make the 53-man roster. I’ve said it since he was drafted.
- The backup quarterbacks (Case Keenum and Taylor Heinicke) were excellent. Both were poised, showed good pocket movement and leadership with second- and third-team units.
- Jaleel Johnson did not receive any snaps with the first team, which was disappointing to many. He added to his case as a rotational guy in the interior by getting a solid push much of the night.
- The Vikings did win this game, but the main story is the starting unit on both sides getting drilled by a weak 49ers team. Preseason success or failure doesn’t generally translate to the regular season, but it’s nonetheless discouraging to see this from the first teams.
For more rapid reaction analysis, check out Ep. 99 of the About the Labor podcast HERE.