During the two-minute warning of the first half Sunday night, Minnesota Vikings fans started doing the wave.
That’s how bad it was for the first two quarters of Minnesota’s most important preseason game as the San Francisco 49ers dominated both sides of the ball and took a 14-0 lead into halftime.
Never mind that a wildly-entertaining second half ensued with 49 combined points and a game-winning two-point conversion scramble by Taylor Heinicke with no time on the clock. The starters — and their coach — are treating this 32-31 win as if it’s a loss.
“We didn’t play well defensively, gave up big plays, had too many mistakes, and then offensively we started out the game with two negative plays, and it kind of kept going from there,” said head coach Mike Zimmer. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
It took until the first half’s final minute for the Vikings to enter 49ers territory, and even then it ended badly as Sam Bradford connected with Adam Thielen on a 28-yard pass inside the 10-yard line, but the clock ran out before the Vikings could spike the football.
None of the preceding offensive efforts were particularly pretty either.
The Vikings’ five earlier drives resulted in five punts and zero points, including a game-opening series that began with a five-yard loss on a short pass to Dalvin Cook and a botched exchange that resulted in a fumble and sack. By halftime, Bradford had been sacked three times, Stefon Diggs dropped two would-be first down passes, and even a dazzling Bradford flip to Latavius Murray was wiped out due to an illegal touching penalty.
Bradford was lifted after two quarters, giving him 12 total preseason drives in three games and just three points to show for them.
“I think what we need to do is figure out exactly what we need to be working on and put our concentration on that,” said Zimmer of the offense, “We’ve been doing a lot of installs and working on different concepts and different things, so now it’s time to get back to what we do good.”
The protection issues are the Vikings’ most pressing concern after struggling all of last season to keep Bradford upright. With Riley Reiff making his first preseason appearance after a back injury, Sunday was the first time the team got to see its probable starting left tackle on the field.
It was the right side of the line, however, that struggled most.
On Minnesota’s second drive, right tackle Mike Remmers got crossed up with tight end David Morgan II on a blocking assignment that led to a takedown of Bradford. Two plays later, Remmers backpedaled into Bradford while being pushed back into the pocket for another sack.
“If we come in at halftime next week and we’re doing the same thing then it becomes a concern,” said left guard Alex Boone, speaking as if the starting linemen intend on playing in Thursday’s final preseason game.
Similar to a season ago, Bradford was conservative but accurate, completing 17-of-21 passes for 134 yards, an average of 6.4 yards per attempt. His yardage should have increased, but Diggs missed a pair of catches in the open field that would have gone for double-digit gains.
Fans, though, may spend all week debating whether they are more concerned about the offense or defense, the latter of which surrendered consecutive touchdowns on the 49ers’ first two drives.
Brian Hoyer, the new San Francisco starting quarterback, looked the part, going 8-of-8 for 128 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter alone. He then threw a second touchdown pass on the first play of the second quarter, giving San Francisco a 14-0 lead.
Both Hoyer touchdowns exploited coverage lapses by the Vikings.
His first touchdown strike caught Xavier Rhodes without safety help as Marquise Goodwin burned him over the middle for a 46-yard touchdown. “My eyes were in the backfield on a deep post, and I wasn’t playing my man,” said Rhodes.
The second quarter connection came on a 3rd and 4 with Harrison Smith playing near the line of scrimmage, then following Carlos Hyde in coverage. Hyde beat Smith and had a clear path to the end zone from 24 yards out.
“Giving up points that easy, starting off games like that, it’s not a winning formula,” said Smith.
Thanks to second-half heroics from Jerick McKinnon, Case Keenum, Rodney Adams and a collection of others, the Vikings did, eventually, win the game, but they are losing when it counts most.
Sunday’s offensive goose egg and lackluster defense should be enough to give fans pause heading into the regular season opener, just 15 days away.
“The margin for error in this league is very slim,” said Everson Griffen, “and if you start off slow like that it’s hard to bounce back.”