Vikings

Excruciating Preseason Game Presages Mixed Individual Performances For Vikings Depth

Source: NFL Game Pass

An unusual start to the game from Minnesota, Teddy Bridgewater racked up no touchdowns or interceptions because he didn’t take the field. For that, here’s a guest recap from Maggie Schultz, who emailed me this quick recap of the game:

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She also wanted to link this video, presumably because she appears at 1:10.

Also, a game occurred.


Offense

With Shaun Hill to lead the first team, the decision to keep Teddy Bridgewater away from the teeth of the Seattle defense may have been wise, if only because he would have been spared the bumps and bruises of a punishing pass rush. It certainly wasn’t a disciplinary reason, and Bridgewater confirmed during the game in an interview with Ben Leber that it wasn’t because of injury.

And yes, it’s difficult to imagine that Teddy Bridgewater would be held out for disciplinary reasons, but the question made sense to ask if only because the Vikings were being extremely tight-lipped about their reasoning. There aren’t a lot of other reasons to think of other than strategic, so if he had just said that at the beginning, it would be easier to drop.

Eventually, a few people alluded to the idea that Zimmer wanted to see how the offense would function under Hill, which makes sense—Hill’s performance in training camp was alarming enough for most of the writers covering it to openly wonder if he could remain as a number two quarterback.

While he did well against the second team in Cincinnati, seeing if the aged former Rams-49ers-Vikings-etc. quarterback could do it against a legitimate first team defense would give the Vikings the information they need to move forward with regards to the number two spot.

Regardless, the pressure on Hill—from a pass-rush perspective, anyway—was pretty extraordinary.

Again, this will be more about initial impressions than a conclusive review of the game—some of which will be sure to change after going over the broadcast footage again, extensively. As an example, I was lukewarm last week on Shamar Stephen and upon rewatching decided he had an extraordinary game. These things happen and take the below reviews with a grain of salt.

While Matt Kalil didn’t necessarily do as poorly as I would have expected, though he wasn’t clean. Once again, he worries me because though the results of his play are often alright (like in the previous game), he seems so often on the edge of making a big mistake that it seems inevitable once the regular season starts. This was the feeling I had about T.J. Clemmings after the Hall of Fame game, and it’s one I got about Kalil during the Cincinnati game.

Still, it was Andre Smith who was the most worrisome among the offensive linemen, surrendering several pressures and knockdowns. John Sullivan and Alex Boone didn’t impress either.

One interesting note is that the pressure didn’t land home with Shaun Hill as often as it probably should have not necessarily because Hill got rid of the ball quickly—he in fact had issue with that several times—but because the offense employed more three-step and five-step drops than we’re used to seeing, generally using seven-step drop plays on play-action passes.

That, along with a healthy dose of shotgun, protected Shaun Hill enough for him to lob some passes to Kyle Rudolph and Adam Thielen, both of whom could be said to have good games in ways that were unexpected, in a Freaky Friday sort of way. Rudolph won through his ability to create space as a route-runner and Thielen won through an ability to win the ball in the air against contested coverage. It was pretty fun to watch.

And “lob” is perhaps the best term for it, because Hill showed no ball velocity on his throws. Early on, this was fine—the Seattle defenders either couldn’t close quickly enough, couldn’t do much against Hill’s ball placement or could not compete with the contested catch ability of the receivers.

Shaun Hill Lob

After that first drive, he was erratic and his ball velocity problems presented themselves in obvious ways, including a poor pass on an out-route that was nearly intercepted.

That’s an unusual thing to say about a receiver corps that in the past few years has been notoriously poor at contested catches, but Thielen, Rudolph and even Diggs found a way to make it work in tight spaces.

For the most part, it seemed like those three played well. MyCole Pruitt didn’t do badly either, which has to help after he was so suspect in special teams work last week. It’s not so much that Pruitt is on the bubble and needs special teams work, but if he’s going to be a liability as a tackler and in kick protection, he may as well produce from scrimmage.

At running back, Jerick McKinnon did pretty well—though wasn’t given room to run early as the offensive line got pushed back by an impressive Seattle front seven. He was able to improvise on his touchdown run and displayed impressive power on the run beforehand. McKinnon even showed as a pass protector, effectively winning the reps he took there that I saw.

Serious work needed to be done from a run-blocking perspective. On one play, Joe Berger ran into Kalil on a power run, and that led to Zach Line taking on the wrong blocker (poorly), which freed up a Seattle defender to take McKinnon down in the backfield despite impressive frontside work from David Morgan.

That wasn’t the only run where there were footwork problems or confusion in assignment. Zach Line later took Matt Kalil out of a play by running the wrong way—even though he started off doing the right thing by pulling to block the backside player.

Alex Boone had some excellent plays in the run game as well as some poor plays. After his dominant performance in training camp, it’s obvious he can do well even against the best, but some kinks need to be worked out.

John Sullivan, too, was at issue. He had some miscues in the passing game, but the real concern was how much push Seattle gained against him when run blocking.

Photo Credit: Luke Inman
Photo Credit: Luke Inman

Line, when he was on his assignment, still had issues swallowing up defenders and clearing the way, and the fullback position may continue to be a problem—as it has been ever since the Vikings saw fit to let go of Jerome Felton.

Though not with the first team, I should note Laquon Treadwell’s performance here. Treadwell will be pushing for a spot with the first team all year, and consistently shows up with the first team in red zone situations, so he’ll be one to monitor.

Though not tested in an ideal situation, it’s true that he was drafted to perform in tight spaces with tougher assignments than a typical receiver. He did not live up that draft billing on those snaps. While it’s true that he got mugged on at least one of those reception attempts, that’s going to happen in the NFL, and it’s his job to outperform even when at the back end of unfair contact.

Among the backups, it’s notable that fourth-round pick Willie Beavers—who had been with the second team for most of camp—was demoted to the third team in favor of Isame Faciane, who had an excellent game last week. As a converted defensive tackle, the odds for Faciane were long, but he continued to look good.

Along with him was center Nick Easton, who may have been the best player in the game. When celebrated former Alabama defensive tackle Jarran Reed was lined up against anyone not named Easton, he feasted. Against Easton, he had significantly more problems (though it should be noted, laid a devasting quarterback hit given up by Easton at one point—aside from the one that was late).

I didn’t not much about guard Zac Kerin’s game other than to see a very good double-team with him and Easton to create a generous amount of running room for running back C.J. Ham.

As for the backup tackles, it was a mess.

Tackle Depth

That’s not really atypical of their games that night, either. T.J. Clemmings and Jeremiah Sirles did a poor job keeping the pocket clean and Joel Stave suffered for it.

Also at issue, of course, was Willie Beavers. Playing against a lower-tier slate didn’t do him many favors as he continued to give up pressure in the passing game and fail to generate push as a run blocker.

I don’t recall seeing Austin Shepherd, Sean Hickey or Carter Bykowski on the field at any point, as Faciane, Clemmings and Sirles stayed with third unit while the rest of the second team rested. That’s a shame to me because I think Shepherd has a lot more to show than Beavers or Sirles.

As for how C.J. Ham did behind that makeshift offensive line, the returns are extremely positive. He did a good job navigating tight spaces, generating burst at the hole and accelerating when he needed to. Jhurell Pressley was impressive in the four-minute drill, but just like training camp, it seemed like he was too unwilling to stick it up the middle and wanted to bounce outside a little too often. He did end up taking one run up the middle as designed, but for the most part seemed to shy away from it.

IMG_1110

It worked then, but I have doubts about it working with first-team players all around him.

Though I only briefly mentioned David Morgan, it should be said that overall he had a nice game, and I think in my quick look at him during the game he did a better job this week than last week, where I thought he was a bit average and his performance overrated.

Joel Stave is who he is. There were some impressive throws, as there always are, and some baffling ones. The baffling ones seem to take precedence when it comes to Stave, and throwing into the wrong area code is a common problem for him.

One specific issue that came up even with his more impressive throws was the fact that he consistently throws late. Sometimes, at Wisconsin, this wasn’t an issue as his arm strength made up for it. But even in the preseason, it’s showing problems. Receivers who were open earlier are now in contested territory and the timing of the offense is off, so that even if the receiver gets the ball, there’s no room for after-catch yardage.

Generally speaking, I think the Vikings can be happy with their skill players, which includes an impressive 12-yard screen for Cordarrelle Patterson, but less than happy with their backup quarterback options and the offensive line in general. That’s not new news, but adding confidence to a receiver corps that was fairly criticized last season is well worth it.


Defense

What can I say about the defensive line that I haven’t said all week already? The front four is very good, and even if they aren’t the best front four in the NFL, they are probably not far from it. And the Vikings two-deep on the line is very likely the best in the NFL—and I would be surprised if there were much competition for that admittedly arbitrary title.

Everson Griffen was incredible, and logged more than a few pressures against the Seahawks. Though their offensive line is famously bad, it’s notable that Griffen was able to take advantage of it and corral a sack as well as push Wilson into another one. Though the Seahawks later clarified that the sacks were on Wilson more than the offensive line, I don’t think this takes away from Griffen’s performance.

Though the Vikings had issues stopping the run against Seattle’s first team offense, I think that Griffen is largely immune to this criticism (though again, this is something I think could easily be changed after another pass at the footage).

Linval Joseph also had a fantastic game, swallowing blockers, splitting double-teams, impacting the run game and even sacking Wilson. This is the kind of thing that Joseph did for much of the season last year that deserved Pro Bowl recognition.

With just Joseph and Griffen performing like this, the defensive line is already pretty good, but Robison did a fine job in run contain outside of one notable play and Sharrif Floyd was held out of the game again because of injury. With Floyd healthy, it’s a tough defensive line to beat.

Linval Joseph Tired

That said, with Floyd out, Tom Johnson had significant run with the ones and was spectacular in pass rush and awful in run support. Johnson was blown off the ball several times in that first excruciating drive, and it wasn’t until Shamar Stephen was subbed in on third and short that the Vikings demonstrated solid run defense.

Stephen, in fact, immediately made himself known with a stop behind the line of scrimmage on 4th and 1.

The final sack of the game belongs to Justin Trattou, and throughout the game, Trattou aggressively rushed the passer and created pressure against the second and third Seattle offensive line, affecting the passes of Boykin and Heap both in obvious ways. Trattou’s aggressiveness as a pass-rusher led to wide rushing lanes and though it wasn’t an issue in this game was occasionally exploited last week—though Trattou was perhaps the most effective pass rusher last week as well, so it may have been worth it then, like it was worth it last night.

Danielle Hunter, common to both the first and second team rotations, didn’t get as much play with the ones in this game as he will in the season, but still performed well above expectations as he generated pass-rush pressure and an influence in the run game.

Hunter certainly closed down on Trevone Boykin and Russell Wilson a number of times and even though Hunter didn’t log a sack, his pressure had a noticeable impact on the passing capabilities of both players.

Players like Hunter and McKinnon are always interesting case studies as raw athletic players don’t always show up as athletic on the field, and while Hunter didn’t seem as athletic as the ever-present Everson Griffen, his and McKinnon’s explosive ability were both on display.

Unfortunately, the issues Tom Johnson had in the run game paired poorly with the linebackers’ performances. While I didn’t note anything positive or negative about Chad Greenway, Anthony Barr and Audie Cole had their share of missteps and both carried responsibility for what happened against the first team defense in run defense.

Far bigger problems were Kentrell Brothers and Edmond Robinson, who both saw their share of gap misreads, missed tackles and poor take-on skills against blockers. Both linebackers had their opportunities to wrap up a running back in the hole and missed, and both linebackers were the victims of their own lane discipline issues.

In the secondary, Mackensie Alexander started off the game strong and then fell off. With a good pass deflection, a near-interception and tight coverage against Seattle’s first team, it looked like it was going to be a solid showing for the rookie, but as the game progressed, he seemed to lose focus—ending the game with a bad pass interference penalty as a result of mistiming a jump and following it by allowing a big reception.

Clemson teammate Jayron Kearse was in the same boat, and he looked beat by play-fakes, hurt his case as a starter with a missed tackle in the run game and generally didn’t look like he was in the right place most of the time.

IMG_1148

Jabari Price didn’t acquit himself well, though he does have a highlight touchdown pass deflection he can hang his hat on.

Luckily, it seemed as if all the starters performed well. Terence Newman had a highlight of his own with a deflected pass in coverage after excellent recovery and even though he let up a big play, should be credited with tight coverage overall. On the other side of the field, Xavier Rhodes seemed to do well before a hamstring injury took him out of the game, and Trae Waynes didn’t look at issue when replacing him.

Naturally, there weren’t any complaints about Harrison Smith, though the issue of who will play next to him is still an open question. Andrew Sendejo looked to make the strongest case, not just with a safety sack but with some solid play in the run game. At the other end of the spectrum was Antone Exum, who seemed to be the victim of several of his own mistakes throughout the game.

Michael Griffin had some run with the first team defense as well, though I’m not sure he made a case for his inclusion onto the roster all that well—though to his credit didn’t seem to make that strong of a case against it, either.

The biggest (and most relieving) play of the day has to go to Marcus Sherels, who undercut a curl route for a pick six after seeing some pressure on Trevone Boykin force an underthrown ball. It came at the perfect time as it not only prevented the spectre of preseason overtime from rearing its ugly head, but just after a mistake on his end to give up serious yardage on a pass interference penalty that for some reason is officially credited to running back Kevin Monangai.

Marcus Sherels Pick Six

Aside from those players, there’s also some depth along the defensive line that’s worth noting. Toby Johnson continued to flash like he did last week and is outpacing players like Travis Raciti and Claudelle Lewis, the latter of whom didn’t even play in the last game and might not have taken a snap in this one. With Johnson flashing and Scott Crichton sidelined with an injury, Johnson may have the best opportunity to take a practice squad spot away from other contenders.

Kenrick Ellis has not had a good training camp and didn’t show up well in the previous preseason game, but he had a fine game yesterday and probably can’t complain too much.

Stephen Weatherly was at issue as well and lost run contain on several plays. He generated pressure on occasion, including for Sherels’ memorable interception, but for the most part was a nonentity.


Special Teams

I think Jeff Locke’s game last week was poor, and the splits between his distance and hang time were awful, even without that 80-yard punt return from Alex Erickson to seal the deal. But at least in that game, he had a good pinned punt inside the 10 that gave the gunners time to arrive. In this game, he had multiple touchbacks and a shanked punt that looked pretty awful.

This isn’t great.

Blair Walsh made the 27-yarder, so that’s nice. He missed the 47-yarder, and that’s not nice. 47-yard field goals are difficult, and though kickers make them about 70 percent of the time it does not bother me too much when one doesn’t.

Troy Stoudermire continued to show chops as a returner. They may put him on the practice squad in order to prepare for not re-signing Cordarrelle Patterson at the end of the year, in case Patterson does not live up to the promise of his offseason praise.


Overall, it was a pretty boring game, but I think it was a positive showing from the first team once again with the offensive line excluded. I’m a little disappointed that Boone hasn’t shown well in the first two preseason games and this next, third game should be interesting.

There’s a lot of concern from a depth perspective at a lot of positions, but with Eric Kendricks coming off of injury soon, I’m a little less worried about the linebacker position than how well I might be after watching this game.

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