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Vikings' run game remains a 'work in progress,' Zimmer says

Attrition, though not as devastating as last year, has presented an early challenge to the Vikings’ plans of rolling out a retooled and improved offense.

There remains 2.5 weeks before the regular season opener, and kinks are still being worked out. There’s a chance all 11 starters won’t be on the field together until then. Guard Brandon Fusco returned to practice from an undisclosed injury this week and is expected to make his preseason debut Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium. Just as left tackle Matt Kalil, who has drawn praise from head coach Mike Zimmer this summer, has had to bow out of consecutive practices with an apparent leg injury. Starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is still easing a reported sore shoulder into action.

And it’s not clear whether Adrian Peterson will take his first exhibition carry in five years, which the Vikings haven’t ruled out. That’s been the longstanding problem with making preseason judgments on the offense, one routinely without its MVP in preparatory games. Though Zimmer still sees a work in progress, having pointed out improved pass protection while noting a need for more from the running game.

One area remaining under construction is the offensive line, where a starting center has yet to be established and first-year position coach Tony Sparano has asked players to embrace different techniques and new approaches in the scheme.

“I think we’re getting better at a lot of the things we’re working at,” Zimmer said Tuesday. “We’ve installed a lot of new stuff and we’re trying to get precise at that. In the game last week, there was a lot of — six out of seven guys would have the right thing and one guy would miss and mess up the play.”

There’s a small preseason sample of seven throws to judge Bridgewater’s progress. Though an assertiveness to push the ball down the field carried over from camp as he completed a 49-yard touchdown to an open Charles Johnson on Aug. 12 in Cincinnati.

Jerick McKinnon, who figures to see an increased role this season, has struggled through two games to find much space on the ground behind the Vikings starting offensive line. He’s gained 29 yards on 14 carries [2.1 per] in two exhibitions, including just 15 yards on nine carries last week in Seattle. There were signs of this last year, when McKinnon, who averages 4.9 yards per carry for his career, gained just 1.6 yards per on 25 attempts in Peterson’s place. That’s before Peterson led the league in carries and rushing yards, leaving some to wonder what he could’ve done behind a healthier line.

The 2016 version of the offensive line is healthier and has more potential, though it has yet to be settled. The only unsettled competition falls at center, where John Sullivan and Joe Berger have rotated days with the starters this week.Two starters are new in left guard Alex Boone and right tackle Andre Smith. They’ve also introduced a rookie blocking specialist in David Morgan at tight end.

“There was this one play where we had a nice hole and the tight end gets knocked into the tackle,” Zimmer said. “So it gets cut off. There was two times that the back missed the cut. There was two times where we blocked it the wrong way. It’s a work in progress, but there really is a lot of good things going on. Obviously we got to do better than two yards per carry, but it’s opening up some things in the passing game as well.”

The Vikings seek a more balanced approach after only three NFL offenses ran the ball more and nobody threw the ball less. Last year, the offense ranked third in yards per run (4.7) and 18th in yards per pass (7.1).

Bridgewater, Hill back to throwing at Vikings practice

Starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and veteran backup Shaun Hill both threw passes in individual and team drills during today’s practice.

Bridgewater was held out of part of an early practice period where the quarterbacks chucked deep balls. And he didn’t appear in team drills to attempt any passes that traveled more than 15 yards past the line and some of the shorter throws he made noticeably lacked a little velocity. But the fact that he is back to throwing passes is a good sign for the Vikings.

Bridgewater, who was held out of last Thursday’s preseason win over the Seahawks, did not throw a pass during either of the team’s practices over the weekend. He was suited up, though, and handed the ball off in some team drills. The Vikings moved a practice originally scheduled for Monday to today, in part because they needed to have enough quarterbacks.

Mike Zimmer would not say whether Bridgewater will play in either of the team’s two remaining preseason games. But he does not think it would be a big deal if Bridgewater is unable to play again during the preseason.

“He’s played an awful lot of games. It’s not like he’s a first-year rookie,” the coach said. “We’re going to continue to do what we think is best.”

Hill, meanwhile, did not appear to have any limitations after he did not participate at all in Saturday and Sunday’s practices. He completed a pair of deep balls to wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson in team drills today.

Teams are not obligated to issue injury reports during training camp, and after today’s practice, Zimmer defended his lack of transparency about the status of his starting quarterback after holding him out in Seattle.

“I told you guys when I first got here I would try and be as transparent and honest as I can and I will be. But there are certain things I’m not going to tell you,” Zimmer said without prompting. “If he had an issue with his shoulder then I’m going to make sure that I err on the side of caution. Because if I played him and he got hurt, you guys would be killing me in the press. I’m always going to protect the players. I’m going to do what I think is best for the organization and you’re going to have to respect that.”

The Vikings host their preseason home opener, their first game at U.S. Bank Stadium, on Sunday against the Chargers. We’ll see if Bridgewater progresses enough during the week to get some action in that game.

Behind Bridgewater and Hill, undrafted rookie Joel Stave has gotten plenty of work in the first two preseason games. The Vikings signed Brad Sorensen over the weekend for an extra arm. It is unclear if he will play Sunday.

Last year’s third-stringer Taylor Heinicke, is now out of the walking boot that he had been wearing after surgery to repair a tendon in his foot. But he remains on the non-football injury list for the foreseeable future.