Joint Practices Breathe New Life Into Routine, Uncover More About Players

Mike Remmers catches up with former teammate Andrew Norwell. Photo Credit: Arif Hasan

Joint practices have invigorated both teams.

With the routine of practicing against your own teammates wearing thin, coaches and reporters have found a new form of repetition – “intensity.” Some version of this word was used five times in pressers yesterday, and by the end, it was easy to become somewhat disillusioned with the concept.

The tedium of the intensity narrative was dispelled by the very practices they described – loud voices, vibrant uniforms and a buzzing atmosphere gave new life to practices that had become perfunctory.

The undercurrent of energy that ran throughout the practices also made it difficult to keep track of everything going on. As the Jaguars offense took the snap and attempted to execute against the Vikings defense, their counterparts on the next field were breaking huddles and ready to start their play.

Turn your head to the left – interception.

Snap quickly to the right – touchdown.

Observers weren’t the only ones who had to adjust to the pace of the new practice format. Players who had become comfortable with what they recognized in the Vikings’ techniques and schemes had to adjust to new players, tendencies and strategies.

The starting quarterbacks for both teams struggled as a result. While both Blake Bortles and Kirk Cousins have had pretty good training camps against their respective defenses, both ended up having their own restrictive responses to new looks. Bortles ended up staying about as aggressive as he usually does, but threw a lot more interceptions or near-interceptions.

In at least five instances in red zone drills, Bortles threw a ball that hit both hands of a defender; once for Terence Newman, once for Anthony Barr, once for Xavier Rhodes and twice for Harrison Smith. Unfortunately, only Newman came away with the ball in those opportunities.

Cousins’ response was to move away from the deep ball that he had only recently become comfortable with against the Vikings defense. There were a lot of screens and checkdowns outside of the red zone period, with every pass short of the sticks to convert.

Part of this is in response to the structure of the Jaguars defense, which is primarily a Cover-3 defense that emphasizes preventing deep passes. Cousins himself said that his checkdowns were a result of the defense he went up against, saying “we found out yesterday, there’s probably a greater number of checkdowns, of settling for a completion as opposed to getting a home run because of the nature of their defense.”

Practicing against a new defense allows him to adjust the gameplan to the specifics of each team. He said, “There are subtle differences in the defenses in terms of being more of a match coverage team, being more of a zone drop team with your eyes on the quarterback, and then what that does to my progressions and my reads and who ends up getting the ball.”

That’s not just true in the passing game, either.

“Even just making certain checks in the run game based on their fronts,” he said, “and understanding that this is a different look than our defense would give us so some of the runs that would be really good for us against our defense aren’t as good against their defense.”

With that said, Cousins did decline open receivers who found holes in Jacksonville’s zones between the safety and underneath defenders, instead choosing running backs in the flats.

Those checkdowns were certainly frustrating to watch in the open-field sessions, but at least Cousins remained aggressive in red zone drills, where he did a good job leveraging arm strength and ball placement to create exclusive opportunities for wide receivers. For players like Laquon Treadwell, that mean balls high in the air for him to contest, while players like Kendall Wright, it meant passes on his leading hip, where only he could get it.

The Vikings offense scored more than a few touchdowns in red zone drills.

The wide receiver/defensive back one-on-ones for the Vikings defense were largely successful. There were a lot of great reps for the two competing nickel corners, Mackensie Alexander and Mike Hughes. Alexander seemingly took the greatest number of snaps, and won reps against Rashad Greene, Wynn and split two reps against Lee. Hughes looked great against Jaydon Mickens and split reps against Wynn.

In red zone play, Hughes stood out with an excellent play over D.J. Chark to deny a touchdown and Mackensie Alexander didn’t make any clear mistakes. The second day of practices saw Hughes get beat once or twice, but for the most part, the two nickel corners locked things down.

As for the clear starters – Rhodes and Trae Waynes – the first day of practices wasn’t spectacular, but they didn’t make many mistakes either. Rhodes will be upset that he dropped the interception in the red zone, but he should also be happy with his tight coverage on the second day of every receiver he went up against. He lost a rep in the red zone on the first day, but for the most part looked every bit the corner Vikings fans expect him to be.

Waynes lost a couple of receivers in open-field drills but closed down on them quickly enough to prevent big plays, while his red zone performance saw him in position on every play, but losing contested catches. It’s difficult to knock him for that, given the technique he played with.

As for the rest of the cornerbacks on the roster, Newman can be proud of his interception – likely a pick-six in a game – but he was uneven throughout the practices. Holton Hill looked a lot better than he had throughout the previous week, where he struggled, and came away with a few impressive pass deflections. Marcus Sherels, as has been the story throughout camp for him, excelled.

It also seemed to be time for Horace Richardson to reassert himself. As someone consistently getting second-team reps, Richardson has faded away from the public conversation at the position. But in joint practices, he won his reps – including against Keelan Cole – and he looked even better in the open scrimmage on the second day. Craig James was very uneven, with some excellent plays peppered in with some mistakes, while Trevon Mathis was more down than up.

As for the Jaguars receivers, standouts included Shane Wynn – a 5-foot-6 receiver who nevertheless found a way to create space in red zone drills – Marqise Lee, who should have been targeted more often but lost control of the ball on occasion, Mickens and Cole. Chark didn’t look bad and Greene had his own set of plays that could make a highlight reel.

On the other side of the field — when there were two fields — I didn’t catch much from the Vikings receiving corps. Stefon Diggs did a great job getting open against A.J. Bouye and D.J. Hayden, but his biggest play of the second day was an offensive pass interference penalty – a call that seemed excessive at the time.

I didn’t catch much of the receivers besides some highlights from Cayleb Jones and some poor decisions by Cousins to lead Thielen into the teeth of the defense before a subsequent miscommunication between the two led to an incompletion. Wright did a good job in the two-minute situation on the second day while scoring in red zone drills on the first day.

Of the Jaguars cornerbacks to stand out in the two days of joint practices, it might be Hayden who did the most.

The second day, consisting mostly of play inside the field house because of weather conditions, restricted the practice reps that the players could take. A crowded room made for limited play.

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In the trenches, we saw Danielle Hunter take over defensively, while Cornelius Edison did a surprisingly good job for the offense. Ifeadi Odenigbo struggled more against the Jaguars second line than he did the Vikings’ second line, but after initially having problems, he started generating pressure and getting into the backfield. Both backup nose tackles ended up making plays in the run game, with David Parry once more grabbing a highlight play here or there.

I didn’t see much of the offensive line, but what little I saw had Brian O’Neill do well at the tackle spot, with only a couple of miscues, but struggle at the guard position. There’s not much I was able to see of Riley Reiff – who did false start several times over the two days – or the rest of the starting offensive line, though it’s notable that Tom Compton couldn’t sustain blocks at the second level.

At linebacker, Telvin Smith for the Jaguars was the most impressive of either group, though Eric Kendricks did make his share of plays. Both Barr and Myles Jack – similar players in a few respects – demonstrated range, but in a practice setting it’s always difficult to distinguish linebackers.

At safety, we saw some issues for Jayron Kearse and Tray Matthews, both of whom made mistakes in red zone drills that turned into touchdowns. At the other end of the spectrum was Jack Tocho, who turned his excellent late-game performance from the preseason game into momentum for practices. Tocho has had good plays all week since the Denver showing and it continued here against Jacksonville, perhaps making up for what could have been a disastrous outing early in the Denver game.

Tocho ended up with a few pass deflections over the course of the past two days, and that – along with better preseason play going forward – could give him the edge he needs to challenge for the 53-man roster.

As for the starting safeties, I didn’t catch much of Andrew Sendejo, but Smith had some difficulties in man coverage. That’s always been the last specific weakness in his scouting report, so it’s not a surprise that he needs to work on it. Nevertheless, given how often safeties split out wide in man coverage for the preseason and in training camp, it seems to be a priority.

All in all, the joint practices gave us an easier evaluation, new priorities and a lot more energy. Joint practices were the most hectic, difficult-to-keep-track-of part of camp, but they also injected a verve into the proceedings that the Vikings – or at least those covering the Vikings – sorely needed.

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