With minicamp and the organized team activities closing Thursday before about a five-week break for the Minnesota Vikings, head coach Mike Zimmer continued to emphasize improvement in areas the Vikings struggled last year.
In assessing the 2016 season, Zimmer saw what could have been. The Vikings finished 8-8 after a 5-0 start. In losing eight of their final 11 games, four of those losses were by six points or fewer. Two of those losses came in back-to-back primetime nationally televised games – a 16-13 loss to the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving and a 17-15 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on a Thursday night game.
Those shortcomings have helped spawn an emphasis on situational football in spring practices.
“We spent an awful lot of time inside the 5-yard line, team inside the red zone, third downs in the red zone and all of these things were an emphasis that we had this spring,” Zimmer said. “I look at the stats and you convert a third down in the red zone you usually get seven points on either side of the ball, right? Whereas, obviously if you don’t get third downs, you kick field goals. There was a lot of points that was given up there.
“We spent a lot of time on that, like I said, end-of-the-game situations where it’s about learning how to play the game, so people understand at the end of the game this is what we’re going to do. We had a good one yesterday. So, today was the end of a first half, you know, things like that. We get out here and we run plays and we just run plays. We’re not playing the game and I think it’s important that we continue to learn to play the game so at the end of the game everything is nice and smooth, we know what’s going on. Obviously, things are going to happen that you’re not expecting. But maybe we’ll act a little bit different and win some more games.”
What Zimmer had reaffirmed was that many games, and thereby a season, can be defined by either blown opportunities, especially those late in games.
That’s one of the reasons that Zimmer has placed such great emphasis on special situations in the four weeks of practices that just ended Thursday morning.
OTAs and minicamp can help set the foundation for offensive and defensive schemes and be used as a starting point in assessing roster battles. The Vikings did use their 13 practices over the last four weeks for that purpose, but Zimmer also added plenty of special situations he feels will get them, and him, ready for game situations.
“I think the red zone work was great. It’s something that we really emphasized throughout OTAs and minicamp. We spent a lot of time down there,” QB Sam Bradford said. “It’s obviously, for the offense and the defense, it’s a critical part of the game. For us, our mentality is we want to score touchdowns. It’s an area that, going back and looking at last year, we’ve got to be better. We’ve got to be more efficient. When we get down there, we’ve got to score touchdowns and can’t settle for field goals.
“I think trying some new concepts, some things that we did well last year and trying to find a balance and maybe add a few new plays down there, I think it’s been great for us to spend the extra time.”
But the game-management periods of practice weren’t just instructive for the offense. As good as it was overall, the defense only ranked 15th in the NFL last year in the red zone, allowing touchdowns on 24 of 44 trips there for the opponent.
On Thursday, the Vikings spent additional time working inside the 5-yard line. The offense and defense traded successes.
CB Terence Newman started the session by batting away a pass intended for Stefon Diggs, but a short time later Laquon Treadwell showed his athleticism and potential by adjusting and extending for a touchdown from Bradford. Diggs later had a touchdown from the arm of Taylor Heinicke. Jarius Wright also found the end zone with Newman in pursuit of him.
The Vikings have plenty to work on once training camp commences, but game management situations will likely be a heavy emphasis there, too.
MINICAMP FINALE NOTES
- RB Latavius Murray continued to watch from the sidelines, as he has all offseason after having ankle surgery in March. The hope is that he will be ready for the start of camp. “I think he’s going to be ready to go; I don’t know. It’s one of those deals where it just depends on how far his rehab comes at that time,” Zimmer said. “I believe that he will be, but it may be a couple days. It’s not going to be long-term deal, I don’t believe, from what I've been told.”
- Also missing from action were DT Sharrif Floyd (leg), S Antone Exum (knee) and OL T.J. Clemmings (unknown) and Rashod Hill.
- Punter Taylor Symmank had a terrific day. He boomed four punts that were all in the 65-yard range. Ryan Quigley, also competing for the punting spot, had most of his punts drop down somewhere in the 40- to 45-yard range.
- Rodney Adams and Adam Thielen continued to get work as punt returners.
- Rookie Pat Elflein got some limited reps as the first-team center, but Nick Easton is getting the majority of that work. At one point, Elflein was the center, Easton was the left guard and Joe Berger was the right guard. The Vikings have given left guard Alex Boone some plays off during the last few weeks.
- DE Stephen Weatherly blew through the attempted block of Willie Beavers for a touch sack during full-team work.
- Kentrell Brothers, working mostly as a middle linebacker, had a nice pass breakup on a Heinicke throw intended for TE Kyle Carter.
- WR Michael Floyd had a 20-yard reception, then was held up in the end zone a few plays later by CB Tre Roberson, who drew the flag.