Vikings

Hill Manages, Defense Damages Titans in Season-Opening Win

The Minnesota Vikings used a 25-0 run in the second half to get by the Tennessee Titans after a woeful first 30 minutes that had fans questioning everything about the construction of the team. The playcalling was stale, the defense was leaky and the kicker couldn’t find the uprights. Fortunately, there was a second half, and with it came some encouraging signs as the Vikings produced two defensive touchdowns, controlled the ball more on offense and got four Blair Walsh field goals (and also a missed extra point).

Let’s begin with the quarterback situation. We suspected as of Friday that 36-year-old Shaun Hill would get the start based on leaks that emerged in the media, which turned out to be accurate. Hill, indeed, started the game and delivered an even performance that improved as the game went on. After a somewhat rocky first quarter, where Hill nearly threw a bad interception, he found a rhythm with an unexpected up-tempo offense that you wouldn’t expect with an old quarterback. Hill drove the ball into the red zone in the second quarter, only to be hijacked by some conservative play calls that led to a missed field goal attempt. He also looked poised at the end of the first half with 41 seconds on the clock, only to run out of time and watch Blair Walsh shank a difficult field goal from 56 yards.

Hill was able to carry that personal momentum into the second half with some very decisive throws that helped level the time of possession and drive the Vikings for more field goal attempts. Against a superior team, Hill will be expected to finish these drives – and he arguably missed throws to Stefon Diggs and Charles Johnson that could have been touchdowns – but against the Titans, it was enough. Hill was collected in the pocket, didn’t take a sack and only had to run for his life on one notable occasion where he cut back so, um, aggressively that he may have tweaked his ankle.

Hill got six total pass catchers involved, but he relied most heavily on Stefon Diggs, Kyle Rudolph and Adam Thielen. He began the fourth quarter with a 3rd and 15 conversion to Thielen that contributed to a field goal drive. He also hit Stefon Diggs for 33 yards on a fade route down the left sideline to convert another fourth-quarter third down. For reference, his 236 yards were better than 11 Teddy Bridgewater outputs last season, though head coach Mike Zimmer wouldn’t ensure that Hill will start next Sunday versus Green Bay.

Hill didn’t kill the Vikings, which is exactly what they needed and Zimmer wanted. While the veteran may not provide enough big-play potential to be a sustainable option at quarterback, his steady presence was impressive for a guy with two seasons of rust accumulated since his last start. He seemed to see the field well, made mostly good decisions and was accurate on intermediate throws. His day will at least create a discussion over whether Sam Bradford should start next week, even if he has a better understanding of the playbook.

Turnovers turn the tide

Trailing by four with Tennessee driving in the third quarter, Everson Griffen applied pressure on Marcus Mariota, who lofted a poor throw for Harry Douglas that was intercepted by Eric Kendricks and returned to the house. It set into motion a series of three Titans turnovers in four possessions, and the Vikings would’ve had a fourth turnover in the second half if not for a senseless Griffen late hit.

Danielle Hunter was the beneficiary of one of those turnovers as he scooped and scored a botched exchange for a 24-yard touchdown. Andrew Sendejo also recovered another fumble shortly after.

It was a tale of two halves for the defense, which bent throughout the first half and surrendered a touchdown just before halftime. The second half was obviously much better, partly because Tennessee was forced to play from behind for most of it and had to abandon the run game that was moderately successful before halftime. Demarco Murray and Derrick Henry bruised the Vikings early on and were especially effective in the passing game, averaging 16 yards a reception. But Mariota struggled to find anybody except his running backs and outstanding rookie Tajae Sharpe, who looked the part. Andre Johnson, meanwhile, looked like he was well past his prime.

It wasn’t all rosy for the Vikings secondary. Cornerback Trae Waynes struggled defensively in place of the injured Xavier Rhodes, allowed a lot of yards underneath and had a tough time winning contested catch situations. Anthony Barr was non-descript. So were the Vikings defensive tackles, but it’s not always fair to expect splash plays from interior defensive linemen.

Both safeties played well, save for a couple minor mistakes, especially Tennessee native Harrison Smith, who was second on the team in tackles with eight, many of them in the run game. He had one very impressive tackle for loss and should have had an interception that was nullified by a Griffen late-hit penalty.

If not for the two defensive scores, however, one might wonder if we’d be talking about a Minnesota victory. Kendricks and Hunter – two very promising second-year players – made a pair of game-changing plays to take advantage of a flustered Mariota. A 3-0 win in the take-give will mask pedestrian quarterback play any day of the week, which is a formula the Vikings may need to utilize more than once this season.

Walsh…

His role in this game was as important as anyone’s considering he accounted for 13 Vikings points, but he also left seven more out of the field with a pair of field goal misses and a pushed extra point. Walsh shouldn’t be blamed too much for missing a 56-yard field goal at the end of the half, but the way that he missed it with a dramatic hook to the left was concerning.

Walsh missed a 37-yard field goal in the first half and a 33-yard extra point in the second half that could have haunted the Vikings had the game been closer at the finish. All told, it was the second regular season game where Walsh missed three total kicks – the only other time was Week 15 of 2014 against Detroit.

It was far from the bounce back Walsh had hoped for following his devastating miss in last year’s playoff game. The kicker showed some signs of frustration after the game.


We’ll see if Walsh rebounds once the Vikings play a game indoors. For the second straight season, Minnesota has reason to be nervous about the erratic Walsh.

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