After watching practices and preseason games that often fail to reveal the deeper nuances of a team’s true plan of attack, getting to watch the Minnesota Vikings in Week 1 gave a more authentic glimpse at some of their intentions for the season.
Minnesota’s 24-16 victory over the San Francisco 49ers answered several questions and raised several more. Let’s take a look at what this game taught us as we move into regular-season football.
Talk of More Defensive Rotations Wasn’t a Joke
Throughout OTAs there were subtle hints that the Vikings were going to show different personnel groups on defense: Everson Griffen hinting he could use more rest, Mike Zimmer suggesting he might put extra defensive backs on the field, the Vikings bringing in George Iloka in late August.
By the end of Sunday’s game, the Vikings had pulled off a full line change of their defensive line, used Eric Wilson as a third-down linebacker, utilized Jayron Kearse as a third safety and inserted rookie Holton Hill at corner after Trae Waynes departed with a knee injury.
Regarding their wholesale substitutions on the defensive line, Zimmer said after the game that he didn’t like having all four subbed out at once but wants to continue rotating. All eight active defensive linemen saw meaningful reps in the game, which makes sense after most of the second-stringers had great preseasons.
“The coaches, they trust in the younger guys to go out there and get the job done,” said Griffen.
The Vikings were scrambling in the secondary, however, as they entered the game without Mackensie Alexander and quickly lost Waynes to a knee injury, which didn’t seem serious. “There were a lot of moving parts on the back end,” Zimmer said.
Kearse played in front of both Marcus Sherels or Iloka, getting nickel reps while Mike Hughes moved to the outside corner position. It was something the Vikings had worked on during the week.
“He’s big and rangy,” Zimmer said of Kearse. “I know he tipped one ball on a blitz one time. He’s tall and he’s quick. He’s really improved a lot from his rookie year to now … of understanding concepts in the defense.”
Hill played somewhat sparingly after getting picked on early, but it again represented a show of faith from Zimmer in his young defensive backs. The Vikings had a number of lapses in coverage but bore down when it mattered, holding the 49ers to 1-of-4 success in the red zone. “Having Sendejo and Smith out there helps with communication and talking to those [young] guys,” Zimmer said.
Dalvin Cook is Back to His Old Workload
Nobody knew exactly how much Dalvin Cook was going to touch the football coming in.
The final answer: 22 times.
Cook was relatively inefficient in the run game with 16 carries for 40 yards, fumbling the ball on his best carry of the day, but he made up for it with six catches for 55 yards.
“He did a great job today helping us in the pass game,” said quarterback Kirk Cousins. “I told him many times, I said, “I’m going to continue to throw you the ball, whether you like it or not, because first of all, it’s a good thing when the ball is in your hands, and second of all, you’re the guy who is open.”
The former second-round pick only got two carries in the preseason and was coming off a torn ACL in his left knee, but Cook got over 50 snaps in the game and looked like his old self – maybe even better – when he got the ball in space on Sunday.
“That’s the special part, that’s the fun part,” said Cook. “You get matchups out of that that you want. I’m happy to be catching the football.”
The Vikings Trust Mike Hughes
Hughes stole the show with a Pick 6 in his first-ever regular season game.
Zimmer was pleased with his performance, though not blinded by the big highlight.
Despite Hughes game-changing touchdown that gave the Vikings a 17-3 lead, Zimmer still wants to see more from Central Florida product, who was thrown into the corner spot when Waynes got hurt despite only practicing in the nickel during the week.
Still, for Zimmer to trust a rookie on the outside instead of his other reserve Marcus Sherels – who might have more familiarity with Zimmer’s concepts – was telling.
“For these young guys, they have to be on point with everything that we’re doing,” Zimmer said. “He had some unsure things going on today that we’ll get corrected, and I think he’ll be better for it.”
Hughes also laid a hit in the end zone to break up a pass that could’ve been a San Francisco touchdown. He finished the day with three tackles and three passes defended.
“The little rookie getting there and getting his feet wet,” said Sendejo. “Jumping right in and getting a pick six.”
Kirk Cousins Actually has Some Chemistry with Adam Thielen
We wrote on this site on Friday how Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo believed that preseason chemistry was important in carrying over to the regular season. Cousins and Adam Thielen didn’t have great preseason chemistry, but they connected for over 100 yards of offense on Sunday nonetheless.
Thielen was targeted 12 times, made six grabs and tallied 102 yards. All six of his catches went for first downs.
Cousins thought he could’ve had an even bigger day.
“There was a circus route that he ran that was just past his reach,” he recounted. “There an inside fade that was left a little short. There was a couple receiver screens we could have checked into to get to him that I regret not checking to.”
Minnesota’s top receiver last year also took his share of the responsibility.
“I wish I would’ve made a couple more of those bang-bang plays for him,” Thielen said.
The Offensive Line is Still a Work in Progress
The Vikings offensive line let Cousins get sacked three times and hit three more. And the rushing attack produced just 3.6 yards per carry.
It wasn’t a pristine debut for the makeshift line that hopes to get Pat Elflein back next week, but it did just enough to allow for Cousins to pass for 244 yards. Minnesota played its best in the middle of the game, amassing 226 yards in the second and third quarters.
Brett Jones started at center in place of Elflein and held his ground, which impressed the head coach.
“For a center to come in 10 days ago and start this ballgame, I thought it was pretty impressive,” said Zimmer. “There’s some things we have to get better at. We’re going to clean it up.”