If the third preseason game is to gauge the front-line starters in their most extensive stretch during the preseason, call Friday night's game between the Baltimore Ravens and Minnesota Vikings a near stalemate in a chess match of field position, capped with the occasional big play to turn the game.
Ultimately, the Vikings won the battle of first-teamers 10-0 in a first half on one particularly big play by the Minnesota defense. The first half began with the initial seven series of the game ending on punts or field goal attempts before Fred Smoot turned a 3-0 Vikings lead into 10-0 when he intercepted a Steve McNair pass and went 69 yards for a touchdown. From there, the second- and third-team offenses and defenses for Minnesota slowly extended that lead into a 30-7 final.
But the game was much closer most of the way than the final score would indicate, as the Ravens pulled within six points, 13-7, at the end of the third quarter, before an opportunistic Vikings defense pushed the lead even further in Minnesota's favor with more turnovers and another defensive touchdown.
The Vikings defense ended the game with two interceptions, two fumble recoveries and two touchdowns, including a 29-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown by deep backup defensive lineman Khreem Smith with 1:30 left in the game.
While the Vikings' Brad Johnson didn't throw a touchdown pass or lead his team on a touchdown drive, he left the game at halftime with a 10-0 thanks to – what else – managing the first half without an interception. Baltimore starter Steve McNair threw the only interception of the first half, leading to the Vikings' halftime lead in a game that started slowly for both teams but eventually built into a solid win for Minnesota.
On the first drive, Johnson started the offense with a 14-yard completion to Jim Kleinsasser, who was wide open in the middle of the field, followed one play later by a swing pass to Troy Williamson that he turned into an 18-yard gain when he ducked under a tackle that took his helmet off but didn't take him down. Once in Ravens territory, the drive stalled, but Ryan Longwell put up the first points of the contest with a 45-yard field goal.
The Vikings defense appeared to be on its way to stopping Baltimore with a three-and-out stand, but after a 2-yard gain on second-and-9 from the 27-yard line, Napoleon Harris was given a taunting penalty, allowing the Ravens to work to midfield but little more.
Again, the Vikings offense drove with mid-length gains, and, again, it was Kleinsasser getting it started with a 9-yard reception and, like the Ravens on their first drive, the Vikings were allowed to keep the chains moving thanks to a 15-yard penalty on Terrell Suggs for a blow to the head of Johnson as he released a third-and-1 incompletion. With new life, Johnson went to Travis Taylor for 11 yards on third-and-2 before going to Marcus Robinson. First Johnson tried a pass to the end zone to Robinson, who came down with one foot in bounds but the second one on the line, but Johnson went right back to him for a 7-yard pass and a third-down conversion. On the next third down pass, however, Taylor dropped one across the middle in traffic, leading to another Longwell attempt. This time, Longwell pushed a 40-yarder wide right.
The score remained 3-0 into the second quarter as the teams exchanged punts until midway through the second quarter. Baltimore received the ball with 10:05 left in the half and drove across midfield before Smoot stepped in front of a third-and-2 pass attempt to Mark Clayton. Smoot grabbed the ball just before it reached Clayton's hands and sailed down the Baltimore sideline for a 69-yard touchdown and a 10-0 Vikings lead with 4:50 left in the half.
Baltimore moved the ball across midfield again, thanks in part to a 19-yard pass interference penalty on Antoine Winfield early in the drive and two completions to tight end Todd Heap that totaled 16 yards. On the next play, Smoot left the game with a left shoulder injury, but Kenechi Udeze followed that up with a 6-yard sack, which backed up Baltimore just enough for Matt Stover to push a 46-yard field goal wide right with less than a minute left in the half.
With the second-team offenses and defenses in to start the second half, the exchange of punts continued until the end of the third quarter when wide receiver Clarence Moore helped lead a Ravens charge. On the fourth play of the drive, backup quarterback Kyle Boller hit Moore for 44 yards down the right sideline with Cedric Griffin in coverage, then went back to him one play later for a 16-yard leaping catch over Dovonte Edwards at the 2-yard line. After a 1-yard run by Cory Ross, Boller bootlegged to his right for a 1-yard touchdown to draw the Ravens within six points, 13-7, with 49 seconds left in the third quarter.
But the momentum would turn clearly in favor of the Vikings from that point forward.
After a series of three-and-outs, including Tarvaris Jackson's first duty of the night, the Vikings offense found some explosiveness despite being pinned on its own 11-yard line to start the drive. After two short runs by Wendell Mathis, Jackson scrambled 9 yards for a first down before finding Jason Carter behind his man down the right sideline. Jackson hit him in stride for a 77-yard touchdown and a 20-7 lead with 11:47 left in the game.
Following the lead of Smoot's opportunistic defense in the first half, linebacker Heath Farwell stripped Devard Darling of the ball after a reception on Baltimore's next drive and Ronyell Whitaker recovered. While the Vikings offense couldn't convert the turnover into points, it allowed them to pin the Ravens at their own 1-yard line after Whitaker slapped a punt on its way into the end zone back into play and Tony Beckham downed it.
While the Ravens drove for one first down behind third-string QB Brian St. Pierre, his second pass of the game went right into the waiting arms of safety Willie Offord, who returned the interception 17 yards to the 26-yard line.
J.T. O'Sullivan brought the Vikings to the 3-yard line, but an incompletion and a false start penalty forced Longwell back into action for a 23-yard field goal and a 23-7 lead with 2:48 to play in the fourth quarter.
On the ensuing series, the Vikings defense got to St. Pierre one last time. This time it was defensive end Ray Edwards sacking him from behind and jarring the ball loose. Defensive end Khreem Smith recovered and returned it 29 yards into the end zone for the final scoring in a 30-7 win.
The Vikings move to 2-1 in the preseason and travel to Dallas for a Thursday night preseason finale in which they hope to continue their defensive momentum and make one last impression before the final massive cuts of the preseason.
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