Matt Kalil was one of the last to leave a cramped visitors locker room at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Friday night. The Vikings left tackle was a bit slower than teammates in getting dressed and gathering his belongings.
But he wasn’t exactly brooding over a 20-16 preseason loss to the Bills. No one was.
In August, indifference meets shaky defeats before anxiety can. So the Vikings won’t fret long over an effort in Buffalo that was equal parts rusty and disjointed.
Still, the bumpy night started with Kalil looking like a traffic cone — for one play, anyway. It was an unusual sight, the Pro Bowl tackle making a misstep, then watching helplessly as Buffalo end Jerry Hughes knifed by and engulfed Christian Ponder for a 7-yard loss.
“Just a little game rust,” he said. “It’s all right. I just moved past it and kept going. It happens. The guy made a nice move. I took a bad set. And he beat me inside.”
What can you do?
Ponder was also in shrug mode during the postgame breakdown. Asked to detail what went wrong on John Sullivan’s hasty shotgun snap in the first quarter — a wild pitch that caused a 14-yard loss after the defense created a takeaway in Buffalo territory — Ponder labeled the error an unfortunate breakdown.
“It was hard to hear,” he said. “Unfortunately it was a miscommunication. Bad play.”
And not to be forgotten in the early struggles: the pass that hit tight end Kyle Rudolph in his massive hands but then fell incomplete.
Coach Leslie Frazier shrugged that mistake off, too — but winced a little.
“All of us know that in a regular-season game, those can cost you a ballgame,” Frazier said. “A third-down play to Kyle Rudolph to keep a drive going? You’re having a chance to continue a drive and score. So those are crucial moments. And I’ve got to believe we’ll get better from watching this tape.”
For the record, the games that really count begin three weeks from today when the Vikings open the regular season. Yet with that clock ticking, it’s still hard to tell whether the offense will truly turn a corner quickly enough to be ready for a demanding September schedule that includes trips to Detroit, Chicago and London.
Through two preseason games, the offense has been without Adrian Peterson and without detailed game-planning. And quite frankly, the Vikings have been without much offensive rhythm.
The starters have been on the field for six drives. Only one has lasted more than three plays or covered more than 15 yards.
Including defensive penalties, the starters have logged 27 snaps. Of those, there have been only four double-digit gains. Eleven other plays resulted in a loss (three), no gain (seven) or a turnover (one).
Still, in accordance with preseason logic, next weekend’s game in San Francisco should be a more telling measure of the offense’s growth. For the first time this preseason, the Vikings will spend a week back at Winter Park, a week in which they’ll finally study their opponent and implement a more detailed game plan.
To this point, that level of preparation hasn’t existed. And in Buffalo, against an exotic Bills defense, it showed. Missed blocks. Mental miscues. Shaky throws. The Vikings were also 1-for-9 converting third downs before halftime, a concern but not yet a crisis.
Of the 20 passing plays called for Ponder this preseason, 19 have come from the shotgun, an increased emphasis in the ongoing attempt to increase the quarterback’s comfort level. That figures to change some when Peterson re-enters the mix. But Ponder remains appreciative that Frazier and coordinator Bill Musgrave are adapting to his strengths.
Said Frazier: “When he had success for us last season, a lot of it happened when he was in the gun as well as some of the things we run in play action. So we want to play to his strong suits. And that’s one of them — putting him in the gun and letting him be able to see things.”
Ponder said he believes the 49ers game will allow him to see exactly where the offense is and where it needs to go.
Friday’s loss in Buffalo? Frustrating for sure. But far from disconcerting. Hence all those shrugs.
“We understand what preseason is like,” Ponder said. “If this was a game that counted, it would be tough. But this is more of a practice for us. We’re excited for next week. That’s going to be the more important test.”
Dan Wiederer • firstname.lastname@example.org