As would be expected with the first preseason game of the season, the 17-16 win by the Minnesota Vikings over the Cincinnati Bengals wasn’t necessarily an artistic success, but a win is a win – especially when things could have been so much worse considering the start to the game.
The Bengals had a chance to bury the Vikings in a deep hole, yet, despite dominating the game like few teams can control the ball through the first 17½ minutes of the game, Cincinnati never led in the game despite some gaudy numbers put up early.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer wasn’t pleased with the way his defense played early because it allowed Cincinnati to completely control the tempo and flow of the game – which goes against everything Zimmer’s defense is predicated on.
“Not good enough,” Zimmer said when asked to assess his defense’s performance. “They were soft in the running game, poor on third-and-1 situations, soft with the linebackers – not good enough.”
The Vikings won the coin toss and, as is their habit, elected to defer – a decision that would leave their offense standing and watching for the better part of the next half hour as the game unfolded.
With the Bengals first-team offense prepared to play just one series, quarterback Andy Dalton looked to be in regular season form early. He came out throwing, completing four of five passes for 32 yards and never facing a third-down play until he was on the Vikings’ 30-yard line – converting three first downs on either first or second down.
The Bengals got as close as the Minnesota 30-yard line, but were stopped on a third-down pass to Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green, who was in tight coverage with Minnesota cornerback Trae Waynes. The Bengals appeared primed to kick a 48-yard field goal to score the game’s first points, but kicker Mike Nugent pushed it wide right and the game remained scoreless.
The Vikings offense did nothing on its opening drive, going three-and-out and holding the ball for just 1:39 of the game clock. They had to give the ball back to Cincinnati and what followed is the kind of drive that some never see – whether in the preseason, regular season or postseason.
With Dalton, Green and the majority of the Cincinnati starters done for the night after the opening drive, backup quarterback A.J. McCarron came on to lead a marathon drive that ate up the final 9:49 of the first quarter and the first 1:38 of the second quarter.
Starting from his own 7-yard line after being pinned back due to a holding penalty on the Vikings punt, the Bengals began a mammoth 22-play drive that took 12:27 off the clock.
What made the situation tortuous for the Vikings defense is that the Bengals were willing to pick up yardage in very small chunks. Just one of the 22 plays gained more than 9 yards and 11 of them gained 3 yards or less, but the Vikings continuously found themselves in bad down-and-distance situations.
Minnesota had numerous opportunities to get the defense off the field, but on four straight sets of downs, the Bengals found themselves facing third-and-1 situations. The Bengals didn’t do anything to cross up the Vikings – they ran on all four of the plays in question. None of the plays gained more than 3 yards, but all of them gained more than the needed yard.
With the ball near midfield, the Vikings defense had two more opportunities to get off the field, but McCarron completed a pair of passes to convert a third-and-5 and third-and-7 situation, which will clearly stick in Zimmer’s craw. Third-and-1 plays are less than a coin flip for a defense to stop. Third-and-5 or more is a different story.
However, after driving all the way to the Minnesota 3-yard line in their death march of a drive, the Bengals faced another third-and-5 situation and, when running back Cedric Peerman gained 4 yards, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis opted to go on fourth down – only to have the Peerman run stuffed by rookie Kentrell Brothers, with an assist from defensive end Danielle Hunter.
In what could have been a domination of the Vikings early on, despite running 33 offensive plays to just three by the Vikings and out-gaining Minnesota 133-1, when all was said and done, the score was still 0-0 and, on the ensuing drive, the Vikings would score on a 49-yard pass from Bridgewater to Charles Johnson that gave them a 7-0 lead. From that point on, the Vikings would never trail.
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While the team came away with a 17-16 win, Zimmer is likely going to be all over his defensive players this week in preparation for the Seattle Seahawks, because what the starters and primary backups showed Friday night in their brief appearances wasn’t what Zimmer wanted or expected from his team – despite coming away with a “W.”
“There were some good things, but we’ve got a long way to go,” Zimmer said of his team’s overall performance. “We’re not ready to go where we need to yet.”