It's just preseason. Repeat that four times, one for each game where the score doesn't matter as much the lessons being taken away from each contest.
The score that mattered was 14-7, the line when the starters for both teams left the game midway through the second quarter. The lessons learned were many more.
First, the Vikings offensive line, which was trying to regroup after the loss of Korey Stringer and facing one of the NFL's best defensive lines, if not the best. They get a passing grade, thanks a lot to quarterback Daunte Culpepper. Why? Because each time the line leaked a Saint, Culpepper found room to run for big yardage. Much of that was due to the Saints sending blitzes and leaving the second line of defense open for Culpepper.
Brad Badger and Chris Liwienski, each making their first starts as Vikings as the bookend tackles, both played adequately. The line has more work to do, but for now the news is good for the starters. The depth is still in question.
Culpepper looked as sharp as ever, finishing with 75 yards passing, a touchdown passing, 66 yards rushing and a touchdown rushing. The numbers should have been even better, but a few dropped passes from Randy Moss kept the score close.
So that brings us to Moss, who continued to baffle defenses with his speed and Vikings fans with his ability to drop a pass one play, then score on a bomb the next. Moss bobbled a sure touchdown pass in his chest until he was out of the end zone and dropped a crossing route in the middle, but he also hauled in a 60-yard bomb in stride for a touchdown.
The rest of the receivers showed the solid depth the team has at that position.
At running back, another huge question mark with the retirement of Robert Smith, the Vikings look to be in great shape. Doug Chapman got the start, but not much action with the first team. Michael Bennett could be every bit as good as Smith with quicker moves but unproven receiving ability. The prospects look very promising there, with Culpepper running the option with Bennett for one touchdown, then Bennett getting a 1-yard dive for a touchdown later in the second quarter and a 5-yard sprint to the corner for his second TD of the game.
While largely unproven, the options with Bennett are extremely intriguing with Chapman looking like a solid prospect as well.
The offense could be every bit as good as last year, maybe even 1998 level, if the first test against a very good Saints defense is representative of what is possible.
The defense looked eccentric -- on the first two series looking no better than last year, then getting a much better pass rush against a solid all-around Saints offensive line.
While bending on the first series, Fernando Smith put an end to the Saints drive in Vikings territory with the Vikings' first sack of the game. The defense then gave way on one Big Easy drive from the Saints to tie the game 7-7, but three sacks in the next two drives stifled the New Orleans offense. The Vikings got pressure from the outside with Lance Johnstone and the inside with rookie Shawn Worthen, who wrangled two sacks on the night.
Linebacker Craig Sauer pulled in the first interception of the game on the next series. It took seven series for the Saints to score their next touchdown late in the third quarter, an improvement for this Vikings defense that finished 24th in points yielded in the NFL last year.
In all, the defensive line looked better and deeper than last year, with Worthen making a case to be a starter by the time the regular season opens. The linebackers looked more disciplined. The secondary looked more aggressive on the corners, both in pass coverage and in run support.
The final analysis: The Vikings looked solid for the first preseason game, especially considering they have only practiced twice in pads without the benefit of a scrimmage.
The score was a win for the Vikings, the lessons learned about the team were promising and serious injuries weren't apart of the game. It was as good as could be expected under the circumstances.
Lesson I: Vikes Can Still Excite
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