Preseason IV: Highlights, Lowlights And Notes

From a perfect passer to stars being held out to roster bubble players making an impact to injuries taking their toll … the final game of the preseason has some intrigue associated with it.

It was obvious from the start of Thursday's preseason finale between the Seahawks and Vikings that both head coaches just wanted to get through their last exhibition game of 2004.

After Vikings coach Mike Tice lost Michael Bennett and Bryant McKinnie to sprained knee ligaments in the third quarter of last week's game, he held out a number of starters on offense and defense, as did the Seahawks.

The Seahawks went without star running back Shaun Alexander and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.

On defense, Vikings nose tackle Steve Martin replaced Kevin Williams in the starting lineup, signaling Williams' value to the team. In the secondary, Brian Russell was the only usual starter to play, and he was pulled quickly. Rushen Jones and Rhett Nelson started at cornerback, with Willie Offord starting alongside Rusell. Deande Eiland replaced Russell at safety early on. The second and third lines of defense could have contributed to Trent Dilfer being able to go 17-for-20 for 211 yards in the first half with two touchdowns.

As for the Vikings offense, quarterback Daunte Culpepper led the Vikings on their opening touchdown drive before giving way to Gus Frerotte. Mewelde Moore, originally expected to be the fourth running back during the regular season, made the start, and Larry Ned, a roster bubble player quickly replaced him after the first drive as the workhorse.

Moe Williams, Randy Moss and Jim Kleinsasser, all expected to start the regular-season opener next Sunday against Dallas, did not play.

BIRK IN
Matt Birk, seeing his first action since having surgery during the opening week of training camp to repair a sports hernia, started the game and played two series in an effort to get a feeling for playing shape again.

PERFECT PASSER
Quarterback Daunte Culpepper's stint in Thursday's game was short, but it was no doubt productive.

In his only series, Culpepper was 5-for-5 passing for 92 yards and a touchdown, yielding his 158.3 passer rating. How's that for a preseason stamp of approval?

MIDWESTERN NUMBER 6?
All preseason long, the Vikings have had a heated battle for the sixth receiving spot. Iowa State product Lane Danielsen has been in the mix the whole time, with Minnesota's Aaron Hosack giving him early competition. About midway through the preseason, St. Cloud State alumnus Ben Nelson emerged, making Hosack expendable in Tuesday's roster cutdown to 65.

Another solid performance from Nelson in the preseason finale could earn him with the sixth spot after catching three passes for 37 yards. He would be used mainly in special teams coverages after spending some time on the practice squad last year. Either way, the loser in the Nelson-Danielsen battle is likely to end up on the eight-man practice squad.

THE OTHER NELSON
Cornerback Rhett Nelson was getting extensive playing time, as the Vikings held out Antoine Winfield and Ken Irvin, along with the recovering Brian Williams. Nelson had the appearance of being picked on during a pass-happy first half from Dilfer.

INTERCEPTION MAN
The Vikings' secondary secondary had its hands on a number of balls, as it stripped and jarred the ball loose from Seahawks receivers on a few of occasions.

Besides safety Willie Offord's fourth-quarter interception, the rest of the tipped passes fell incomplete. But big nose tackle Steve Martin set the pace, getting the first interception of the game on the Seahawks' opening drive. When E.J. Henderson tugged on Dilfer's arm as he released a pass, Martin came down with the fluttering ball and carried it off to the sidelines, apparently ready to put an interception in his trophy case — even if was a preseason interception. Hey, with Martin weighing 320 pounds, are you going to tell him it was just a preseason game?

FLAGS DOWN
Whether it was a function of the fourth preseason game, the increased emphasis on illegal contact in the defensive backfield or just a mix of players not used to playing with each other, the Vikings were penalized too often. In the first half, Minnesota had seven penalties. It finished with 11 penalties for 98 yards.

NED GETTING THE NOD?
The Vikings' offensive backfield has been thinned by injury (to Michael Bennett) and a pending suspension (to Onterrio Smith), so depth is critical.

Last year, probably no player got the hype of running back Larry Ned in training camp … and then he was released.

This year, Ned likely will make the team, at least until Smith comes back from suspension and Bennett returns from injury. Ned certainly got the long look in Seattle, getting 15 carries for 55 yards and catching three passes for 30 yards. Mewelde Moore started the game, but Ned relieved him in the second series and went into the fourth quarter carrying the ball.

Fumbling problems led to his release last year, and he fumbled once Thursday night, but he also had a productive, workmanlike evening that probably secured his spot on the 53-man roster early in the season.

COMEBACK KID COMES UP SHORT

The Vikings worked their starters and second-line players hard in their third preseason game last Friday against San Francisco. That meant Shaun Hill carried the clipboard.

But Thursday night in Seattle, Hill played the entire second half. The week off may have been a good thing for the Vikings' third-string QB. When he entered the game, Minnesota was trailing 14-7. He rallied them to two touchdowns in his first three drives after a rough first drive to open the second half.

By the time the third quarter was over, Hill had led the Vikings to a 21-17 lead. While he didn't win the game, he went 14-for-18 for 137 yards and a touchdown.

ANOTHER KNEE
Last week the Vikings lost Bryant McKinnie and Michael Bennett to knee sprains on the same play. This week they lost another offensive player. Richard Angulo limped to the sidelines in the third quarter with a sprained left knee. He will be evaluated Friday.

Angulo, if healthy, will open the season as the Vikings' No. 3 tight end. Rookies Jeff Dugan and Richard Owens are fighting for what will probably be a fourth roster spot reserved at the position.


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