Quarterback Taylor Heinicke led the Vikings to an improbable 32-31 win over San Francisco, but it wasn't before the first-team units struggled. Daniel House provides his early takeaways from the final dress rehearsal of the preseason.
Updated: August 28, 2017, 12:30am
By: Daniel House
By: Daniel House
Despite a sluggish performance by the Vikings’ starters, quarterback Taylor Heinicke led the Vikings on a 14-play, 63-yard drive, capped by a dramatic two-point conversion, to seal a 32-31 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.
You play to win the game, but the overall performance left avid football fans worried about the first-team units. The Vikings’ offensive starters finished the preseason with ten punts and a field goal. They were unable to reach the end zone and lacked rhythm for the majority of the exhibition season. Two sacks, several passes short of the first down marker, and five punts Sunday night, didn’t leave much room for encouragement. The team may install different packages for the regular season, but the starting offense was still unable to complete a significant drive in three games.
On the other side of the ball, Minnesota’s performance on defense was uncharacteristic. Safety Harrison Smith bit hard on a play action look and was unable to help over the top as cornerback Xavier Rhodes passed off his man. The end result was a 46-yard passing touchdown. Smith also lost when he was isolated in man coverage. In addition, the linebackers had a few communication issues when covering passes in the flat. Overall, the team had many mental mistakes when trying to handle a well-executed misdirection and play-action game. There are certainly plenty of adjustments that must be made before regular season play begins, especially on offense.
Jerick McKinnon shows off his versatility
Running back Jerick McKinnon showed how unique his skill-set can be when he’s utilized in different ways. He beautifully changed direction to pop off a 17-yard run and added an 11-yard reception off a designed route. McKinnon needs to be used in different ways to garner his athleticism. He is a tough matchup when he’s placed on linebackers and can create plays after the catch because of his elusiveness. In addition to his performance as a running back, McKinnon likely solidified himself as the starting kickoff returner. He burst through an open lane and took a kickoff the distance for a 108-yard score. The team was searching for a dynamic weapon in the return game and McKinnon has definitely shown he can fill that role. Perhaps the coaches will use him creatively on offense, too.
Treadwell and Murray make their preseason debuts
Laquon Treadwell hauled in three catches for 36 yards and ran with the first-team offense in three-wide receiver sets. He returned after missing extensive time with an injury. During his long catch of the night, Treadwell settled into the soft spot of coverage to snatch a 19-yard pass. He looked very comfortable running routes and worked exclusively with the starting unit. Treadwell will continue to grow with more experience and appears to be poised for an extensive role in the season opener against New Orleans.
Running back Latavius Murray also made his Vikings debut, hauling in an 8-yard reception and making a strong cut in the second level. He carried the ball twice for six yards, moving the chains in a short yardage situation. More importantly, he executed his pass protection assignment on the edge to spark Treadwell’s 19-yard reception.
The tight end battle
Rookie tight end Bucky Hodges made a sweet adjustment to haul in a 13-yard pass, turning up the field to notch a first down. Hodges was standing up and running routes more in this game, which is a better use of his athleticism and length. He played almost exclusively in this role at Virginia Tech and was open on a few occasions Sunday night. When he is inline, he still has consistency issues as a run blocker and pass protection. His competition (if the Vikings keep three tights), Kyle Carter, snatched a 16-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. He made the tough contested grab with a linebacker draped all over his back. Hodges has shown his potential as a pass catcher and flashed improved fundamentals as a run blocker in training camp. In a tight end room that could use more depth, Carter made a strong case to hold a roster spot.
Mental mistakes plague the defense, Gedeon starts again
The Vikings really struggled when they played base defense. There were several blown coverage assignments by the linebackers, but the defense was relatively solid against the run. Shamar Stephen played three-technique defensive tackle and burst down the line of scrimmage to tally a run stop. Stephen performed better in this game and caused pressure inside to open up lanes for linebackers to get downhill. Ben Gedeon got another start at weakside linebacker, but didn’t see extended action. He posted just one tackle and squared up in the gap to make a physical stop. Gedeon did appear to lose in zone coverage once, but the receiver dropped the pass. Edmond Robinson struggled to fight through blocks in the running game and isn’t very physical. On the surface, he appeared to have another below average night. The other candidate for the weakside linebacker job, Emmanuel Lamur, left the game with a concussion.
In the secondary, Antone Exum Jr. made an impressive run stop in the box, delivered a big hit across the middle, and added an interception. He has put together a strong training camp and preseason as he competes in a secondary that needs depth. He looks more comfortable covering the deep half of the field and has been making physical plays against the run, which is his forte. On a few occasions, Trae Waynes was exploited across the middle, however, he used his closing speed to knock away a deep pass. It was slightly underthrown, but Waynes got his hand on the ball. Waynes is generally in position to make plays, but struggles to consistently make plays on the ball.
First-team offensive line struggles
The offensive line is obviously one of the most integral areas that must improve for this team to be successful. Sunday night was a discouraging performance. Mike Remmers was beaten twice for sacks, one of which was due to a poor read on the defensive end. There also may have been a small miscommunication between tight end David Morgan and Remmers on the blocking assignment. Left guard Alex Boone also appeared to struggle and fanned on at least two blocks. Overall, the Vikings’ first-team unit performed poorly, but Remmers and Boone stood out the most as major problems. Center Nick Easton started, but Pat Elflein again rotated into the role. Mike Zimmer has indicated he wants to get a starter named soon and Easton getting the nod in this game may be a positive sign for him. It will be worth looking at the tape again, but the offensive line will need to develop more consistency if the Vikings want to get their offense back on track in 2017.