CINCINNATI – The first three plays in Friday night’s 17-16 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in the preseason opener were not encouraging for a revamped Vikings offense, specifically an offensive line still being shuffled every day.
Teddy Bridgewater was sacked once, hit hard on the next play and had to stiff-arm a defensive tackle to avoid another sack.
Hey, at least that three-and-out provided Bridgewater with some safety on the Vikings sideline and gave the first-string offense a chance to regroup.
When they walked back onto the field at Paul Brown Stadium a quarter later for their second drive, Bridgewater got good enough protection to lead the Vikings on a 96-yard scoring drive against mostly Bengals backups. The impressive surge was capped off by an accurate 49-yard deep ball to wideout Charles Johnson for a touchdown.
That encouraging second drive would be it for the offensive starters, and it gave hope that the coaching changes, offseason additions and scheme tweaks might lead to an improved unit for the defending NFC North champs.
“We were able to accomplish some things on that drive,” Bridgewater said. “It was good to get a nice drive like that and get the momentum going.”
The performance of the Vikings defense was what irked coach Mike Zimmer.
The Bengals got the ball first and used a no-huddle offense to quickly move into Vikings territory. But Cincinnati’s Mike Nugent missed a 48-yard field goal.
After Zimmer yanked six established defensive starters, the Vikings allowed the Bengals to convert three times on third-and-1 on their second drive. Finally, on fourth-and-1, the defense got a stop to hold the Bengals scoreless on a 22-play drive that lasted more than 12 minutes.
Zimmer later called his defense’s first-half performance “pretty awful” and said that some of his defenders played “soft” Friday night. He used a few other four-letter words while letting his defense have it on the sideline after that second drive.
“How we just played isn’t what we know we’re capable of doing,” Vikings defensive tackle Tom Johnson said. “He is definitely going to keep us in the mindset of ‘we’re not there yet.’ ”
The defensive line had dominated a sweaty pair of joint practices with the Bengals on Wednesday and Thursday. The new-look Vikings offensive line, meanwhile, was uneven in those two practices. And their first series on Friday night was especially troubling, given that no quarterback was pressured more frequently last season than Bridgewater.
On the Vikings’ very first play, Bridgewater rolled to his right and avoided a sack by stiff-arming defensive tackle Geno Atkins to the ground.
One play later, defensive end Michael Johnson got a step on left tackle Matt Kalil, forcing Bridgewater to climb the pocket. Atkins was waiting to sack him.
Bridgewater was hit again on third down, this time by defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who blew by Andre Smith, his former Bengals teammate.
After a long stay on the sidelines because Zimmer’s defense could not get the Bengals’ backups off the field, Bridgewater and the first-team offense got another shot and went 96 yards in 10 plays to take a 7-0 lead.
The touchdown came on that beautiful deep ball by Bridgewater to Johnson.
In two weeks of training camp, Bridgewater showed improvement in the deep passing game, which was perhaps his biggest weakness in his first two NFL seasons. And it has carried over into the preseason, when opponents can actually tackle him.
Bridgewater would not have gotten a chance to attempt that throw to Johnson, though, had running back Jerick McKinnon not turned a would-be safety into a 10-yard gain and had wide receiver Adam Thielen not made an impressive catch over the middle on a third-down play. Improved blocking by the offensive line was an important factor, too.
Still, despite the starters finishing the night on a high note, tight end Kyle Rudolph, a Cincinnati native, was still stewing after the game about that opening three-and-out.
“Yeah, we moved the ball against their twos. That’s great,” Rudolph said. “But we need to be better than that on offense.”
A 51-yard field goal from Blair Walsh, set up by top pick Laquon Treadwell’s first unofficial catch in purple, gave the Vikings a 10-7 lead at halftime. A patient 10-yard touchdown run by rookie C.J. Ham put the Vikings up 17-7 late in the third quarter.
In the final five minutes of the game, Cincinnati pulled with a point after a field goal and an 80-yard punt return for a touchdown by Alex Erickson. But tight coverage from rookie cornerback Tre Roberson thwarted the ensuing two-point attempt and rookie safety Jayron Kearse’s interception sealed a 17-16 Vikings victory.
“It was good to be able to win the ballgame,” Zimmer said, adding, “We’ve got a long way to go. We’re not ready to go where we need to yet.”
Matt Vensel covers the Vikings for the Star Tribune.