The third preseason game is usually considered the throwaway game, and it generally was. The Vikings compiled five penalties for 24 yards in the first quarter and only 41 yards of offense (25 coming on one pass to Randy Moss).
Still, the Vikings did accomplish some things in their final preseason game Friday night, including a 20-7 win to cap a perfect preseason. What they wanted to achieve included getting off to a fast start, both on offense and defense, seeing how Patrick Chukwurah would do as a starter at strongside linebacker, determining which players to keep and which to scrap among those on the cutdown edge and — most importantly — avoid injuries.
The Vikings defense got off to a good start despite penalties, but the offense didn't. In fact, the first-team offense was sluggish nearly the whole time it was in the game, much of it due to two big drops by wide receiver Randy Moss, one for a first down and another for a likely touchdown. Eventually the offense pulled together for a solid drive against much of the Dolphins' second team.
The defense remained solid the whole game — holding Miami to 1-for-9 on third-down attempts — and the offense produced enough in a 20-7 win in Miami that left the Vikings as the only undefeated NFC team in the preseason. The last time they did that was 1998, the year they went on to a 15-1 record despite consistent predictions of finishing fourth or fifth in their division.
Individually, Chukwurah performed admirably and may have won the starting job, at least in the short term. The bubble players will be determined Sunday at the latest as initial 53-man rosters are formed. And significant injuries were avoided.
In all, most of the missions were accomplished, including a win.
With Chukwurah and nose tackle Fred Robbins both getting a start on defense, the Vikings shut down the Miami first-team offense, not letting them past midfield, on the first two drives. The Vikings offense sputtered even worse than the Dolphins. But while the Dolphins pulled Jay Fiedler, their starting quarterback, and Lamar Smith, their starting running back, after two series, Dennis Green left his starters in on offense for all but the final drive of the first half.
Even so, the Dolphins drew first blood. After Culpepper and Moss had a miscommunication, Sam Madison intercepted a pass where Moss zigged and Culpepper was looking for the zag. Madison returned the ball all the way to the Vikings 26-yard line to set the table for QB Ray Lucas and RB Travis Minor.
Minor did most of the work, getting the ball to the 5-yard line on two rushes, but a key penalty called by replacement officials was still needed for the Dolphins to get into the end zone for their only score of the night. Facing third-and-goal on the 3-yard line, Lucas threw into the end zone. The ball was tipped by defensive end Lance Johnstone, but when safety Robert Griffith grabbed a receiver he was called for pass interference. The Vikings didn't challenge the call, setting the Dolphins up on the 1-yard, where Lucas ran it in on the next play for 7-0 lead with 14:09 left in the half.
The Vikings responded with a 10-play drive from the first-team offense, highlighted by a 22-yard scramble from Culpepper on third-and-10, improved upon by a late hit call. From there, Byron Chamberlain got the ball to the 1-yard line with a 16-yard reception. After a false start, Moss finished the drive with a 6-yard fade for a touchdown with 10 minutes left in the first half.
The defense continued to play well with a mix of starters and second-line players, eventually allowing the Vikings offense to take over on the Dolphins 48-yard line. With second-stringers at the skill positions and starters on the offensive line, Todd Bouman drove the Vikings into field goal range. Gary Anderson capped the first-half scoring and gave the Vikings a 10-7 lead with a 36-yard field goal to end the half.
The teams exchanged four punts before either team had a shot at putting points on the board in the second half. The Vikings finally had a chance after a 10-play drive, highlighted by an 11-yard run by Doug Chapman and a 25-yard slashing run by Moe Williams, but Gary Anderson left a 43-yard field goal attempt wide right with 3:47 to play in the third quarter.
The defense remained strong against the likes of newly signed Cade McNown, and the Vikings got a big play late in the third quarter when Nate Jacquet produced a long punt return for the second time in as many games — this time a 52-yarder to set up the offense on the 30-yard line. After Williams picked up a first down, the offense sputtered, but this time Anderson was true with another 43-yard field goal with 3 seconds left in the third quarter to give the Vikings a 13-7 lead.
On the Dolphins' next offensive play, safety Don Morgan got his second interception of the preseason on a tipped McNown pass and the offense took over on their own 41-yard line. An 11-play drive saw only two passes, as Williams and Chapman both found holes up and down Miami's banged-up defensive line. Chapman capped the 59-yard drive with a 1-yard dive over the pile to make it 20-7 with 8:29 left in the game.
It was the last score of the preseason, as Minnesota's defense stifled the Miami running game and the Vikings offense was content to keep the clock running by handing off to James Wofford.
At 4-0 and answering a number of intriguing questions, the preseason can't be considered anything but successful. Still, with the toughest regular-season schedule in the league, this team will likely have proving to do over the course of the next 17 weeks.
Preseason Perfection, 20-7
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