The Vikings entered a new era Friday night, with Mike Zimmer pacing the sidelines at TCF Bank Stadium, the team’s temporary home for the next two years, and rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater making his preseason debut.
Zimmer’s first game as an NFL head coach — albeit an exhibition — went in the history books as a 10-6 Vikings victory over the Oakland Raiders. But more important, Zimmer saw positive performances from both his starting offense and starting defense against a Raiders team that seems more likely to challenge for the first pick in the 2015 draft than for a playoff spot.
“It’s important that the guys that go out there first, whoever they end up being, that we set the tempo,” Zimmer said. “It’s pretty much goods on goods. And with us not scrimmaging against each other [in training camp], it’s kind of a good gauge of where we’re at.”
Starting quarterback Matt Cassel was sharp early, the starting defense gave up little ground and the Vikings jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter.
Wearing a dark gray polo and slacks and coaching with a defensive play sheet tucked under one of his crossed arms, Zimmer — the longtime NFL defensive coordinator hired in large part to overhaul the league’s 31st-ranked defense — was unimpressed with what he saw from his defensive starters, even though they turned up the heat on third down to force the Raiders into a pair of penalty-aided three-and-outs on their first two drives.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said. “I mean, we challenged them. We were all right. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
The first-team offense was efficient and Cassel played well during his only drive, completing a pair of passes to wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and another to tight end Kyle Rudolph, who was knocked out of bounds at the 1-yard line. Running back Matt Asiata plunged into the end zone on the next play to give the Vikings a 7-0 lead.
“I thought he did a great job,” Zimmer said of Cassel, who was 5-for-6 for 62 yards. “He made a couple of big throws, I believe, on third down. He played like a veteran.”
Bridgewater, meanwhile, looked like a rookie after he replaced Cassel with 6:22 left in the first quarter, entering the game to a loud applause from the announced 51,712 fans inside the University of Minnesota’s stadium.
Bridgewater’s most impressive throw was his first. He rolled right to hit wide receiver Greg Jennings at the right sideline for a 21-yard gain, but the play was negated by an illegal-formation penalty. After the play, the TCF crowd chanted “Teddy! Teddy! Teddy!” for the 32nd overall pick.
But Bridgewater, who led the Vikings to a field goal on his only drive throwing behind the first-team offensive line, was erratic the rest of the way and his indecision led to him getting stripped in the pocket once and sacked on two other plays, though one was wiped off the score sheet after a defensive holding penalty on the Raiders.
“I feel like it went pretty good,” Bridgewater said. “There were some missed opportunities, but I’ll be able to come back next week and play more aggressive.
Bridgewater had completed six of his 13 attempts for just 49 yards when third-string quarterback Christian Ponder replaced him with 7:47 left in the third quarter.
“He made a great throw on the bootleg the first play he was in there and we had six men on the line of scrimmage,” Zimmer said. “And there were a couple of times in the game where he didn’t act like a veteran. Things happened that he hadn’t seen before. So those are all great experiences for him. …. I think Teddy’s going to be a great player.”
The team’s top pick in May’s draft, Anthony Barr, was one of several other Vikings rookies to play significant roles in their preseason debuts. Barr had a sack, running back Jerick McKinnon rushed for 45 yards on 12 carries and nose tackle Shamar Stephen tied for the team lead with five tackles.
Much of the crowd stuck around until halftime, presumably to take in a beautiful night at the spruced-up new TCF Bank Stadium and to get an extended glimpse of their new coach and, hopefully, their future franchise quarterback in Bridgewater.
While it is dangerous to draw sweeping conclusions about one quarter of the first game of the preseason, it is safe to say that before the fans trickled out to the Green Line or their parking spots, Zimmer’s starters made sure they left the stadium with a positive first impression.
“I enjoyed being at the University of Minnesota here and hopefully we’ll continue to give them some good football to watch,” Zimmer said.