Fourth preseason games don't mean much to the frontline players, and it was blatantly apparent that translated to the coaching staff's view of playing their starters in Vikings' 31-24 win Thursday night over the Denver Broncos. Of the 22 starters, 20 of them didn't play.
But there was another NFL axiom that proved true Thursday – turnovers can be the great equalizer.
Denver outgained Minnesota 437 to 245 yards, had 355 yards passing to Minnesota's 112 yards and gained an average of 7.4 yards per pass play compared to the Vikings' 5.3. But with three fumbles lost and an interception, the Broncos weren't able to keep pace.
The Vikings scored seven or more points in each quarter and after gaining the lead in the second quarter never lost it. Denver kept most of its starters on the field for the first two drives and took an early 7-0 lead, but a Tim Tebow-led offense proved to be a turnover-prone one for the Broncos.
Despite a lackluster offensive performance from the Vikings, those turnovers and a sometimes stout defense were enough to give them the win.
The Vikings' second-team defense shut down Denver's offense on its first drive thanks to Marcus Sherels' 11-yard sack on a blitz, but the Broncos had more success on its second series. It started with a heavy dose of Correll Buckhalter, whose 15-yard reception started the chains moving. Orton completed each of his next third-down passes, including a 16-yarder to Brandon Lloyd on third-and-14. When Asher Allen was called for pass interference at the 4-yard line, it took LenDale White two tries to plunge into the end zone for a 7-0 Broncos lead with 6:08 to play in the first quarter.
With the offense struggling, the defense turned opportunistic. Rookie QB Tebow fumbled his first snap of the game, Erin Henderson scooped it up and ran 35 yards for a touchdown and a tie game.
The defense took advantage of Tebow on his second drive as well. After completing one pass to former Minnesota Gopher Eric Decker for a first down, Tyrell Johnson caught Tebow's second pass down the seam and returned it 41 yards to the Broncos 24-yard line.
Albert Young picked up 17 yards on his first four touches, but eventually the Vikings had to settle for a 27-yard field goal from Ryan Longwell for a 10-7 lead at the start of the second quarter.
After allowing a 36-yard completion on Denver's ensuing drive, on the next play DeAndre Wright hit TE Marquez Branson following a completion and popped the ball loose with Everson Griffen recovering.
This time, the offense didn't turn it into points, but the previous fumble recovery did give them the advantage in the battle for field position, which would pay dividends quickly. With the ball backed up to the Broncos 6-yard line, Lance Ball got the call and Colt Anderson's hard hit jarred the ball loose. Again, it was Henderson taking advantage with the recovery. Three Young runs later, the Vikings had a 17-7 lead with 6:42 to play in the half, a score that held up until halftime thanks to a fourth-down stand by the Minnesota defense.
After going 9-for-10 in the first half, Tebow continued to connect on his passes in the third quarter. On third-and-2, he found Matthew Willis for 15 yards. Three plays later, Tebow lofted a pass over CB Sherels and into the arms of Willis for a 39-yard touchdown to draw within three points, 17-14.
With Joe Webb taking over at quarterback, the Vikings answered and Webb provided the key play of the drive, scrambling 41 yards down the right sideline on third-and-5. Once inside the red zone, Darius Reynaud gained 12 yards on two carries, but Ian Johnson finished the drive with a 4-yard TD run for a 24-14 Vikings lead.
On the next possession, the Webb magic became muddied. He was late on a pass to Javon Walker in the right flat and Alphonso Smith intercepted it and returned it 51 yards. He would have had an easy touchdown, but Webb showed his speed and tracked Smith down at the 6-yard line. It proved to be a big tackle – or as big as the fourth preseason game will allow – since the defense stacked up Bruce Hall on two straight runs from the 1-yard line to turn the ball over to the Vikings on downs.
After a three-and-out and series from Webb, Brady Quinn and Eric Decker started the Broncos moving again. Decker caught four straight passes for a combined 47 yards and the Broncos were in the red zone. On second down, Quinn connected with Alric Arnett in the back of the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown to close the Vikings lead to 24-21 with 12:01 to play.
Webb answered with another big play, this one through the air. After picking up one first down with a 9-yard pass to Johnson, Webb went long for Javon Walker. When Smith fell down in coverage, it turned into an easy 63-yard touchdown for Walker and a 31-21 lead.
The Broncos answered with a field goal drive and had one last opportunity to tie the game when Reynaud fumbled a first-down run with just over two minutes to play, but one final fourth-down stand for the Vikings avoided overtime and gave them the 31-24 win and a 3-1 preseason record.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
Turnovers, defense help Vikings in 31-24 win
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