If not for a fourth-quarter surge by the Vikings offense, it might’ve been hard to identify four positives from a game where both teams stayed in the single digits until midway through the fourth quarter.
But the Vikings came back to collect a 20-9 win and secure their third straight win to begin the preseason. That said, Vikings fans –and their coach — might have more concerns coming out of Saturday’s performance than they had going in.
Let’s take a look at the ups and downs of preseason game no. 3.
Dalvin Cook to the house
Dalvin Cook’s playing status had largely been kept a secret this preseason. Held out of the first two games for precautionary reasons, according to Mike Zimmer, Cook debuted Saturday and delivered the highlight of the game despite playing on only two series. Cook only touched the ball twice. His first carry went for three yards up the middle.
His second tout went the distance.
On another well-executed one-cut-and-go zone running play, Cook hit his gap, evading DL Rodney Gunter and split between Cardinals defensive backs before outrunning the rest of the defense with a slight stumble along the way. That would be his final action of the game. Zimmer had seen enough.
“Really I just wanted him to go in there a little bit today and get tackled and feel good,” said Zimmer, “and on one play he never did get tackled.”
It was the second rushing play of 60 yards or more this preseason. Mike Boone, who scored a touchdown later in Saturday’s game, had a 64-yard scurry in the first preseason contest.
“As a running back you only get in the secondary so many times,” said Cook, “so you’ve got to take advantage of those moments.”
Bisi Johnson stands out
The Vikings have been yearning for a young receiver to step up and grab a roster spot. While Chad Beebe has been the de facto WR3 for several weeks, Bisi Johnson could be gaining on him. The rookie out of Oregon State made three catches for 52 yards, not including a spectacular effort on a 2-point conversion that is still up for debate.
Officials ruled Johnson’s attempt to tap both feet down in the corner of the end zone to be incomplete, and replays weren’t conclusive enough to overturn.
Nonetheless, Johnson’s emergence in two of the three preseason games exceeds anything the rest of the receiving crew has put on tape. Zimmer said he was pleased with Johnson’s performance, even though the rookie made one error.
“I think he’s continued to do a good job,” Zimmer said. “I know that he had one mistake, I can’t remember what it was exactly right now, but he gets in there and makes plays and catches the ball and typically runs the right routes — he ran one wrong route today.”
Beebe, widely thought to be the third wide receiver, finished the game with zero catches on three targets and one drop. Johnson should see significant action in Thursday’s preseason finale at Buffalo — a chance to bolster his campaign for the job.
“I try to take advantage of every opportunity that I get because I am not going to get many,” Johnson said. “Any time I am on the field, I am going to try to make a play. I did that in the second half, but I needed to pick it up in the first half.”
Sloter delivers again
The consistency with which Kyle Sloter continues to play in the preseason will only add fuel to the fan movement that the third-string quarterback should get a promotion.
Just as he did last Sunday, Sloter led two touchdown drives, bringing Minnesota back from a 9-7 fourth-quarter deficit to win comfortably. They weren’t cheap drives either. Sloter marched the Vikings 80 and 86 yards, respectively, chewing clock and converting on third and fourth downs. He capped his performance with a fourth-down bootleg to Khari Blasingame that the fullback ran in for his third touchdown of the preseason.
“Every time he’s come in a game he does well,” said Zimmer. “He makes plays, gets the team going. I think he’s done a good job in the preseason.”
This comes on the heels of Zimmer being critical of Sloter. The head coach said last week that Sloter needed to improve at reading defenses, making proper audible calls and being aware of the play clock. But Sloter’s third straight preseason game outplaying Sean Mannion — and his 10:0 touchdown to interception ratio in his preseason career — are hard to ignore.
Jayron Kearse stays splashy
Safety Jayron Kearse got the start Saturday as Harrison Smith was held out with an infected cut. Kearse continued to be one of the most noticeable Vikings on the defensive side of the ball as he registered two tackles and two pass breakups. Like Johnson, he also had a potentially big play wiped out. Kearse made a clear recovery on a David Johnson fumble that he might’ve returned for a touchdown had the whistle not blown. Though replays seemed to show Johnson lost the ball before the ground, the call stood.
But after making three tackles for loss in last Sunday’s win, Kearse has put together two superb outings in six days that solidify him as a key utility player on this Vikings’ team.
“Coming in, as a rookie, you have to fight for a roster spot, and you start to question yourself when you are making mistakes because you are already at the bottom of the depth chart,” Kearse said. “Right now, I am playing with the most confidence I have played with, and it’s showing on the field.”
First-team offense woeful
Now for the negatives. And there were plenty of them. Kirk Cousins, whose former NFL-playing uncle passed away Saturday morning, failed to put together a drive longer than six plays — and if not for Cook’s 85-yard run, probably wouldn’t have generated a point.
Cousins went 3 for 13 with 35 yards and two sacks. Twenty-nine of his 35 yards were compiled on one pass play to Stefon Diggs, who Cousins badly missed deep on the game’s first drive.
“If I play the way I did today, it’s going to be a long year,” Cousins said. “We’ve got to be a lot better. Thankfully I know we can be. We have been better. We have a lot of good on tape as well, and that needs to come out.”
Cousins’ preseason likely ends with him going 13 for 25 with 168 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. He was sacked for the first time Saturday and was hurried on several other throws. Chad Beebe and Stefon Diggs also dropped catchable passes.
“I think he can play a lot better than that,” Zimmer said curtly.
The quarterback said this week that he liked the third preseason game because it would give him a chance to respond if he started slowly. Cousins was given six drives to gather momentum, but his final effort in a two-minute drill left Kaare Vedvik with a 43-yard field goal that Vedvik missed.
“Time will tell,” said Cousins when asked if this was a necessary wake-up call. “We’ve got a long story to write here for the season. This will be ancient history as we get deep into the season.”
Not only was Cousins sacked for the first time this preseason, it was the first sack of any Vikings quarterback. Mannion was taken down once, as well, for a third sack on the day.
While Zimmer has been complimentary of the offensive line’s improvement this preseason, it’s been evident in practice that the defensive line has been reaching the quarterback on a regular basis. Pat Elflein’s struggles have been a more specific trend, and the left guard was beaten Saturday for the sack on Mannion. Kyle Rudolph appeared to be at fault on another, while miscommunication between Garrett Bradbury and Josh Kline looked to cause the third.
Cousins, however, took responsibility for the negative plays.
“At the end of the day, I can get rid of the football. That’s as simple as it is. You can always as a quarterback throw it out of bounds, find an eligible and throw it over his head so it’s in the direction of him, or even try to skate out and start a new play. I can certainly avoid those.”
Kaare Vedvik struggles
Sound the alarm on the Vikings’ kicking situation.
Newcomer Kaare Vedvik had only missed one kick in his preseason career heading into Saturday’s game. He missed from 43 and 54 yards against the Cardinals — one to the left and one to the right — throwing the most important special teams position into a state of flux.
Vedvik could still be the team’s punter if the Vikings are too concerned with his kicking. But Zimmer said the situation is more unclear than ever now that punter Matt Wile and kicker Dan Bailey have stepped up their game amidst the competition.
“Since we brought Vedvik in Wile’s been punting good and Bailey’s been kicking good,” said Zimmer. “Then Vedvik goes in there and misses field goals, so I’m at a loss on that.”
It’s deja vu for the Vikings, who watched rookie Daniel Carlson show cracks in the preseason before his meltdown in Week 2 of the regular season. Bailey may be a safer option, but he had a rocky start to training camp while the longsnapper and holder positions were undetermined.
Zimmer said his concern level is “high” regarding Vedvik. The former Ravens kicker will need to bounce back quickly after the first real on-field adversity of his NFL career.
“I’m not truly aware of how I’m perceived from the outside end,” Vedvik said. “I kind of keep my eyes on the practice field and on what I do. Everything else is outside noise that you’re not supposed to read into.”
The Vikings defense didn’t allow an offensive touchdown for the second straight game, but the first team again bent against the Arizona starters. Unestablished receiver Damiere Byrd made two catches for 51 yards against Xavier Rhodes, and Trae Waynes got burned on a back-shoulder pass to KeeSean Johnson.
The Vikings as a team allowed seven third-down conversions in 17 tries.
“We got beat on one deep ball, but we didn’t play it right,” Zimmer said. “But we allowed third down conversions, and that was disappointing. You know, we don’t gameplan for these [games], and we’re running very vanilla stuff, but that’s not the point. The point is if your job is to cover a guy, cover him. It’s simple. I think we had two back-shoulder fades thrown at us on third down maybe.”