The Minnesota Vikings had a 7-0 lead and finished the first half of Friday night’s preseason opener in Cincinnati with a 10-7 lead, but suffice to say there is plenty of work left and head coach Mike Zimmer knows it.
Teddy Bridgewater looked hesitant on the first drive, taking one sack and being pressured on two incompletions – mistakes by both the quarterback and his offensive line – before Bridgewater settled in for two deep passes, including a 49-yard strike to Charles Johnson.
But Zimmer’s pride (and if he finds joy) is with the defense, and it wasn’t good to start.
“There was several third-and-1s we didn’t run the ball good enough or defend the run good enough in those situations,” Zimmer said. “… So there were some good things, but we’ve got a long way to go. We’re not ready to go where we need to yet.”
The win might have taken some edge off, but when Zimmer was interviewed during halftime of the FOX-9 broadcast, he clearly wasn’t happy, despite a 10-7 lead.
“We were pretty awful,” he told sideline analyst Greg Coleman. “There were a lot of things I didn’t recognize out there.”
At one point, the Bengals had outgained the Vikings 133 yards to one, and had eight first downs without the Vikings gaining one. The final stats were closer, but when it was mostly players that are expected to make the 53-man roster playing in the first half, it wasn’t always pretty for the Vikings, despite leading throughout the game.
The offense didn’t gain a rushing first down in the first half, a sign that the offensive line isn’t where it needs to be yet. The Bengals gained 12 first downs in the first 30 minutes, including five on the ground, a sign that the Minnesota run defense isn’t where it has to be by the start of the regular season.
The defense drew the sternest words from Zimmer after the game.
“Not good enough. Soft in the running game. Poor on third-and-1 situations,” Zimmer said. “Not good enough. Soft with the linebackers.”
The Vikings were without 14 players, including five expected starters – RB Adrian Peterson, RG Brandon Fusco, CB Terence Newman, LB Eric Kendricks and DT Sharrif Floyd. But the Bengals didn’t give action to 12 players, including T Andrew Whitworth, TE Tyler Eifert and LB Vontaze Burfict.
But even without Burfict, the Bengals were able to apply pressure early.
On his first play, Bridgewater ran a bootleg and was pressured before getting a 3-yard completion to MyCole Pruitt. Bridgewater was sacked by Geno Atkins on his second play and pressured again on his third play when it appeared he held onto the ball too long instead of checking it quickly to an open Jerick McKinnon (Carlos Dunlap eventually hit Bridgewater and he couldn’t connect with Kyle Rudolph).
“I think they played better,” Zimmer said of the offensive line in their second series. “(The Bengals) were blitzing almost every snap. The first play of the game they blitzed. They blitzed a lot. Sometimes those things are going to happen.”
Eventually, the blitzes could be a good thing for the Vikings. Blitzes and communication on stunts gave the 2015 offensive line fits at times, so there should be an in-depth film session in the coming days to try to correct the early errors there.
Defensively, without Newman, Trae Waynes got plenty of action at cornerback – with mixed results. At times he had solid coverage, like a deep pass that he nearly intercepted while diving for it. At other times, there was too much cushion.
“I thought he did some good things. I was a little disappointed – he just covers the ball on takeoff and then he lines up about 9 yards deep and they catch that short stop route on him and it’s third-and-1,” Zimmer said. “If balls are going to be caught on you, they need to be contested. That one wasn’t as good as what we’d prefer.
“A lot of this is a learning experience for a lot of these guys.”
Zimmer said cornerbacks don’t get leeway on how far off they are allowed to play, the indication being that Waynes was giving too much cushion at the snap during off coverage.
Special teams weren’t immune from the mistakes, either.
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Although Jeff Locke generally had a good night punting the ball, his longest punt (61 yards) was actually the worst of the night because he drove it too far for the coverage to get there on time. The result? A few missed tackles and an 80-yard return for a touchdown.
“We kicked it too far, number one. We don’t want to kick it 65 yards. So that wasn’t a good punt,” Zimmer said. “I know everybody thinks it’s a great punt, but it wasn’t. And then we missed a bunch of tackles. The first guy got – it was close to being kind of hit in the back – and then we missed a bunch of tackles.”
Certainly it wasn’t all bad, and Zimmer knows it. He pointed out some of the positives – Bridgewater sharp on the deep passes, the offensive line getting better after a bad first series, Blair Walsh hitting a 51-yard field and Locke having four punts inside the 20-yard line without a touchback – but Zimmer chases perfection and will be detailed on the corrections.
“There was a lot of good situation football tonight,” he said, adding: “There was a lot of things that happened tonight that will be good to teach off of.”