When a team is coming off a 2-14 season with a head coach whose wasn’t fired, they tend to take the preseason pretty seriously – even the final preseason game. In a night when the Vikings were benching almost all of their starters and even some of their key backups, Tennessee Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt opted to start his first-team offense and defense and it proved to be the difference in a coaching philosophy and perhaps the difference in the outcome of the preseason finale.
Looking to get No. 2 overall pick Marcus Mariota some work at quarterback, he wasted little time in shredding the Vikings’ backup defense. On the first offensive play of the game, he completed a 15-yard pass to tight end @Delanie Walker. Two plays later, facing third-and-5, he saw a coverage breakdown and connected with wide receiver Harry Douglas on a crossing route that was sprung for a 59-yard touchdown, giving Tennessee a 7-0 lead just 1:32 into the game.
The Vikings didn’t share Whisenhunt’s philosophy of playing his starters. Teddy Bridgewater wasn’t even in pads. Backup QB Shaun Hill was dressed for the game, but merely as an emergency backup in the event No. 3 quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who started the game, was injured.
The Vikings’ opening drive looked eerily similar to that of the Titans. On the first play of the drive, Heinicke completed a 16-yard slant to Stefon Diggsfor a first down. Two plays later, facing a third-and-4, Heinicke threw a short pass to Diggs, who, as he stretched for a first down, was stripped of the ball by cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson and recovered by safety Michael Griffin.
The play was a simple case of a rookie looking to do too much, exposing the ball and having veteran players take advantage of it. There is a time and place to attempt to gain additional yardage by sticking the ball out and pulling it back in to maximize forward progress. But in the NFL, defenders are always looking to strip the ball once they know a player is going down and Wreh-Wilson and Griffin combined to make Diggs pay for the mistake.
With his night over, Mariota gave way to second-string quarterback Zach Mettenberger, but it was starting running back Bishop Sankey that would take advantage of the Vikings’ backup front line on a drive that started on the Minnesota 20-yard line. Sankey carried six straight times, including a conversion on a fourth-and-2 play from the 12-yard line, picking up 17 yards on six carries before Mettenberger threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Rico Richardson, giving the Titans a 14-0 lead midway through the first quarter that they would never relinquish.
One of the reasons for optimism for the Vikings to be a playoff contender this season is that their first-team offense and defense have been efficient and left the game with leads in most of their preseason action. Whether head coach Mike Zimmer was satisfied with that performance or simply didn’t want to risk any more additional injuries, he opted not to play his starters on both sides of the ball, while Tennessee did.
While the Vikings rebounded from the early deficit and had a chance to tie or win the game in the final minutes, it was a 14-point advantage that was set up and executed by the Tennessee starters that created an early edge that turned out to be the turning point of the game.