Monday, August 10, 2015

Notebook: Vikings knock off Steelers 14-3 in Hall of Fame Game

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The Vikings opened the preseason with a 14-3 win against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Hall of Fame game. Daniel House analyzes the game and provides the five observations he noted from his trip to Canton, OH. 

Updated: August 10th, 2015 7:00pm

By: Daniel House

The Vikings opened the preseason on a national stage as they squared off against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2015 Hall of Fame game. With 22,364 fans on hand, Vikings fans were significantly outnumbered by many Steelers fans who made the 2-hour drive. Many Steelers starters didn’t play, but the Vikings first-team groups played one series each. Minnesota’s defense started the game with a three-and-out and most starters exited the game at that point. Last night, the defense experimented with Trae Waynes on the outside and Terrance Newman in the slot during the nickel package.The offense hit the field and went on a ten play 51-yard drive that ended with a turnover on downs on 4th-and-1 from the Pittsburgh ten-yard line.

Teddy Bridgewater finished the night 5-for-6 with 44 yards and moved very well in the pocket. His lone incompletion was the only blemish from his performance in the opening preseason game. Bridgewater under threw wide receiver Mike Wallace, who was wide-open in the red zone. The first-team offensive line handled pressure well and it seemed as if they kept the pocket relatively clean for the short portion of time they were on the field. Early in the game, the second team offensive line was getting beaten frequently — specifically Tyrus Thompson. After a set of two series on the field, all of them settled into their roles.

The Steelers struck first with a 36-yard Shaun Suisham field goal, but those were the only points Pittsburgh could muster. Steelers quarterback Landry Jones played the entire game and certainly had some underwhelming moments in extended action. During the drive following the field goal, Mike Kafka connected with MyCole Pruitt for a 34-yard touchdown. Pruitt and Cordarrelle Patterson crossed on their routes, causing the safety to bite, which freed Pruitt for a wide-open path to the end zone. Later in the second half, Stefon Diggs flashed his abilities as a punt returner. He made several nifty moves and returned a punt 62 yards to the 1-yard line. Joe Banyard plunged in from one yard out and that was all the scoring the Vikings needed to knock off the Steelers 14-3. There were certainly sloppy moments, but some young players provided some room for optimism in the first preseason game.

Here are five quick observations from last night’s win over the Pittsburgh Steelers:

The rookies are getting experience

The rookies played an extended amount of minutes in last night’s game against the Steelers. The advantage of having an extra preseason game is to give younger players more reps. Defensive end Danielle Hunter played in 94% of snaps and Trae Waynes also saw 82% of the work at cornerback. Both of these players need to play against live competition and they each showed growing pains last night. Hunter wasn’t doing much off the edge and Waynes was called for pass interference and holding too much last night. However, it wasn’t just Waynes, many of the young quarterbacks were getting too physical last night. Waynes is trying to adjust to playing a very difficult position in the NFL. That’s why the team signed Terrance Newman in the offseason — they didn’t want to rush Waynes. As for Hunter, he needs to play more games and realized last night that physical traits can’t be used as a crutch at this level.

Tight end MyCole Pruitt hauled in his first career touchdown pass on a 34-yard reception from quarterback Mike Kafka. Pruitt brought his smooth route running and translated it to live-action against opposing competition. He will be a major threat when he is used in two tight end sets with Kyle Rudolph. Finally, Stefon Diggs stole the show as a punt returner in the second half. After calling for a fair catch in his first attempt, he took full advantage of the second opportunity. Diggs made a couple swift cuts and broke up the sideline for a 62-yard return that nearly was a touchdown. He also had two catches for 14 yards in the passing game. He will be a big threat on offense and in the special teams aspect of the game. As a whole, it is important for the young players to see playing time in the preseason and they got an extra opportunity last night.

Johnson and Trattou stand out on the D-Line

It’s almost unfair that Tom Johnson was in the game with the Steelers second and third team offensive lineman playing. He was dominating the line of scrimmage and sacked quarterback Landry Jones late in the game. Johnson also added a tackle for loss in run defense. He will play a pivotal role as an interior rotational pass rusher for this team. Justin Trattou is battling with young players to solidify his place on the Vikings roster. He certainly didn’t hurt his cause in last night’s game. Trattou defensed a pass early in the game and added two quarterback pressures. He is a player that quietly performed well in training camp and could slide his way onto the roster. With the first team, Linval Joseph stuffed the lone run play the first team witnessed for no gain. He looks much improved in training camp and plays like these will need to translate to regular season games.

Kendricks, Cole, and Peters getting it done

Rookie Eric Kendricks is another player that is gaining valuable experience in the preseason. Last night, he notched four tackles and nearly intercepted a tipped pass in the secondary. Kendricks showed just how instinctive he can be as a middle linebacker. He sniffed out a slant pass and stopped two running plays dead in their tracks. Not to mention, his blitzing ability is absolutely phenomenal. He shoots through the gaps while staying low and causing havoc. It’s hard to imagine how Barr and Kendricks would look together in the nickel package. Audie Cole is a preseason warrior. Every year, he seemingly puts together an excellent exhibition slate and finds his way onto the roster. He notched three tackles, including a forced fumble, and a tipped pass that fell into the arms of Steelers wide receiver Sammie Coates. His performance certainly won’t hurt his chances to be the starting 4-3 middle linebacker, but there is plenty of preseason football left. Brian Peters stormed onto the scene, corralling an interception and an excellent tackle as a run defender. Peters bolted from the opposite side of the field and wrapped up the Steeler running back at the line of scrimmage. Peters was seeing work with the second team special teams grouping and will need to show value in all facets of the game to land with this team.

Offensive Line allows just one sack, but some pressures

The first team offensive line didn’t have any issues and the pocket was relatively clean for Teddy Bridgewater. It was only one drive and the Steelers were missing many starters, but it still was an encouraging confidence boost for this group. For the most part, the Vikings offensive line didn’t perform bad in this game. However, there were moments this group looked very shaky. Early in the contest, Tyrus Thompson got handled three times and it forced the pocket to collapse. Carter Bykowski also struggled and two quarterback pressures were the result of his inability to handle an edge rush. T.J. Clemmings actually looked pretty good in this game. He is most impressive in the running game and was really laying some nice blocks in the second level. However, Clemmings’ footwork as a pass protector is still a work in progress and that was expected. Some of these younger offensive lineman need more experience in game action to learn the nuances of NFL pass rushes. As the game progressed, they looked better, but it will take time for them to get where they need to be.

Specialists struggle in the first preseason game

The Vikings had their share of problems with their specialists group last season. This off-season, the talk has been that Blair Walsh and Jeff Locke have been working hard to solve the issues. Walsh missed a 48-yard kick wide right, but made all of his 33-yard extra points. Jeff Locke didn’t look good punting the ball either. He shanked a 32-yard punt and boomed a 58-yard kick out of the end zone. These are the same types of inconsistencies that were an issue with this group of people last year. The long snapper position is a battle between Kevin McDermott and Cullen Loeffler and neither of them did too much to impress last night. McDermott snapped the ball low on Locke’s 32-yard punt, but it’s really hard to analyze long snapper performance. Much of the team’s assessment will be based upon comfort and familiarity with the punter, kicker, and holder.

Injury Report

Early indications are that the Vikings didn’t suffer any injuries last night, but more clarity will be provided tomorrow. Eight players didn’t travel with the team because of injuries: Gavin Lutman, Josh Robinson, Anthony Barr, Joe Berger, David Yankey, B.J. Dubose, Scott Crichton.

What’s Next?

The Vikings will travel back to Mankato for the final three practices of training camp (Tuesday-Thursday). The next preseason game is Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

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