The Vikings will return to U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday to face Seattle in their second preseason game. It’s their first game at home since a deflating 24-10 loss to Chicago in their final regular-season game last year ended their playoff chances.
That loss led to huge changes, and none will be more apparent than the Vikings’ revamped offense under coordinator Kevin Stefanski and assistant head coach Gary Kubiak.
One thing that has been said from Day 1 of minicamp was that the offense was going to focus heavily on tight end formations.
And that’s a big reason why the Vikings went out and spent $36 million on a four-year deal to bring back Kyle Rudolph and also used the No. 50 overall pick to draft Irv Smith Jr. out of Alabama in the second round.
The results showed in their first preseason game against New Orleans last week. The tight end group accounted for nine receptions and 123 yards as Rudolph caught two passes for 30 yards, Smith caught three passes for 21 yards, Tyler Conklin caught two passes for 56 yards, Cole Hikutini caught one pass for 12 yards and Brandon Dillon caught one pass for 4 yards.
That figures to be something to watch all season for the Purple.
“The best thing about our new offense is it really plays to the strengths of not only our offensive line but to all of our skill players, as well,” Rudolph said. “You know we’ll definitely be involved in the pass game and our role is as complete as I think it has ever been in terms of we’re called upon in run blocking, we’re called upon in pass protection, but we’re also called upon to make big plays in the pass game, as well.”
Smith, who saw his first NFL action against New Orleans, said so far the offense is really focusing on that group.
“In the New Orleans game we did a little bit and in practice just trying to work on it to tighten things up,” he said. “I feel like it can be a big key to our offense.”
Has Rudolph given him any tips yet this season?
“He has taught me a lot. He has been very influential to me,” Smith said. “I just try to get into his hip pocket and listen to everything that he can tell me, whether it’s stuff on the field, off the field, being a better pro.”
Super Bowl the only goal
Yes, the decision to bring back Rudolph was a smart one, and necessary if this team has Super Bowl aspirations.
Rudolph has already proven himself to be one of the greatest tight ends in team history — leading the club in career touchdowns by a tight end (41) and ranking second in receptions (386) and yards (3,787) behind Steve Jordan.
He said he has only one target for this season.
“My goal is to win a championship,” he said. “Something I haven’t done in this league, and that’s why I wanted to stay here. I believe in the culture that we have here, and we’re going to work each and every day to get better and hopefully we’re better in February.”
Signing his new long-term deal was a big step, he added, in focusing his attention on trying to do something this franchise has never accomplished.
Multiple offensive influences
So how does the longest-tenured offensive player on the team feel about the new offensive system and coaching staff?
“Coach Stefanski has been around a lot of play-callers, and I think one of the things he has done a really good job at is taking bits and pieces from each system that he has coached under,” Rudolph said. “And then you add the influence of Kubiak and I think we’re going to have a really good mix of what Coach Kubiak has done throughout his career and things Kevin has been under that he has had success with.”
One thing that stands out for Rudolph as he hunts a Super Bowl title is Kubiak’s familiarity in getting to that game — three times as a player with the Broncos and four times as a coach.
“A great coach, and he brings a championship mentality to our offense,” Rudolph said. “He has been around a lot of really good offenses and we’re happy to have him.”
Game planning for Cousins
Those coaches, and the tight ends, are going to work to make quarterback Kirk Cousins the best he can possibly be. Last season Rudolph had an immediate connection with the signal caller, posting his second-highest single-season totals in yards (634) and receptions (64).
The word is that the team will try to get Cousins more mobile this season and out of the pocket, which could make Rudolph even more important to the scheme. “We definitely want to move Kirk around,” Rudolph said.
Does he feel like the offense is on the right track at this point after finishing 19th in scoring offense and 20th in total offense in a down year last season?
“The attitude is we need to get back on the right track. Last year left a sour taste in our mouth,” he said. “We’re excited to get going and we’ve built each and every day in training camp. For us as an offense, we get the opportunity to practice against one of the best defenses in football every day. It is a great barometer for us.”
• After Sunday’s game at Texas, the Twins have just 12 games left against teams with a winning record, and they will be played in a row starting Sept. 3 at Boston for three games, followed by home series with Cleveland and Washington and then a series at Cleveland. Their remaining 26 games are all against Detroit, Kansas City and Chicago.
• On Sept. 8, the Vikings have their season opener at noon against the Falcons at U.S. Bank Stadium and the Twins face Cleveland at 1 p.m. at Target Field. You have to wonder if the Twins would consider moving their game time.
• One of the biggest decisions for P.J. Fleck is which of the five placekickers in camp will replace Emmit Carpenter, one of the best in school history. “Right now none of them have really run away with the job,” Fleck said. “They have made some, they have missed some. We have to get more consistent at that position.”
• The Gophers have a better chance of building a winning schedule this year than next year, when they play their first four games at home — including games against Iowa and BYU. They also have Michigan and Michigan State on the schedule, which they don’t have this year.
• Cousins is tied for 13th in the preseason odds to be named NFL MVP in 2019. Patrick Mahomes of Kansas City is the favorite.
• When the Vikings face the Falcons in the opener, former Gopher De’Vondre Campbell is slated to be a starting linebacker for Atlanta. Campbell has started 29 games over the past two seasons and recorded 88 tackles each year. The Falcons also signed former Gophers cornerback Jalen Myrick on Saturday.
• Olabisi Johnson, the Vikings’ seventh-round draft pick, caught an 18-yard touchdown from Sean Mannion in the second quarter of the win over the Saints. Johnson finished with two receptions for 35 yards. “It is definitely a big confidence boost, especially being a rookie and everything,” he said. “It’s something I needed.”