Denver – On second down-and-14 after the lone blemish of the Vikings’ opening drive, tight end David Morgan made a key block that sprung Latavius Murray for a 20-yard gain out of a two-tight end set. Murray lined up behind fullback C.J. Ham on the next play, ripping off a 21-yard gain.
Two plays after that, Kirk Cousins threw a 28-yard strike to Stefon Diggs off play action. And on a third-and goal from the 1-yard line, Cousins drilled a quick slant to Diggs for a touchdown.
It’s debatable the extent to which the initial drive of the preseason should serve as a bellwether for a team’s offensive health. But in their eight-play, 85-yard march to kick off Saturday night’s preseason opener against the Denver Broncos, the Vikings offense flashed plenty of the qualities that are likely to be its best in 2018.
New coordinator John DeFilippo used five different personnel groups on the touchdown drive, which helped the Vikings build a 17-0 lead — they eventually won 42-28.
Cousins’ throws to Diggs displayed both his arm strength and touch. Murray carried four times for 43 yards, finding plenty of room on a couple of downhill runs, and the Vikings offensive line — without three projected starters in the middle — provided clean pockets for Cousins.
“I think when you look at the run game, I could not believe how many explosive runs we had,” Cousins said. “I thought they did a good job in protection, as well. It was efficient. A small sample size, but it was a good start.”
Things weren’t perfect — Cornelius Edison’s holding penalty wiped out Cousins’ second completion of the night to Murray — but in their first live action with Cousins and DeFilippo, the Vikings got the opening statement they were looking for.
“We ran the ball well,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “I thought the offensive line did a nice job coming off the ball. Latavius ran the ball well, and Kirk made some good throws.”
Roc Thomas, a rookie running back, might have been the offensive star of the night after the Vikings’ regulars came out, catching a 13-yard touchdown pass from Trevor Siemian on a wheel route and taking advantage of a block from Aviante Collins to break loose for a 78-yard score on a screen pass in the second quarter.
He posted 130 all-purpose yards in the first half, helping the Vikings build a 24-14 halftime lead over Denver.
Minnesota’s defense allowed only one Broncos first down in the first half — on Royce Freeman’s 23-yard touchdown run on third-and-3 in the second quarter — but Denver was able to score a second touchdown when Isaiah McKenzie, after hesitating for a moment, raced down the left sideline for a 78-yard punt return touchdown after the Vikings’ coverage unit got caught inside.
The Vikings had 269 yards in the first half, with Siemian going 11-for-17 for 165 yards, two touchdowns and an interception that came after his throw went off tight end Tyler Conklin’s hands.
Minnesota’s offensive starters mostly left the game after one series, with four linemen (Tom Compton, Edison, Danny Isidora and Rashod Hill) staying in the game for extra work with Siemian.
The Vikings’ defensive starters also mostly departed after the first series of the game, when they forced a three-and-out against the Broncos and former Vikings quarterback Case Keenum. He signed a two-year deal with Denver in March once it became clear the Vikings were focusing their free agent pursuit on Cousins.
Keenum stayed in for two series, going 1-for-4 for 5 yards. He told the Broncos’ TV broadcast he would have preferred to play another series.
“I definitely did; I’ll be honest,” he said. “I wanted one series with a [few] more plays [to] score a touchdown. This is a great test, one of the top defenses in the league last year, so we knew we had our work cut out for us.”
The game satisfied Zimmer in at least one way.
“Going against each other in practice, you get some animosity on both sides,” he said. “It was good to see that we were all on one team tonight.”