If the impressive opening statement delivered by the Vikings’ offense in their first preseason game against the Denver Broncos must be taken with a grain of salt — and it should — so must the rocky performance the group turned in on Saturday.
The Vikings’ offense had faced a stout Jacksonville Jaguars defense that stood out in two days of joint practices even without defensive end Dante Fowler and cornerback Jalen Ramsey, and they figured to have a tough assignment in their preseason home opener on Saturday. They again played without center Pat Elflein, who remains on the physically-unable-to-perform list. They gave two more linemen (tackle Rashod Hill and guard Mike Remmers) the chance to rest ankle injuries, and they again sat running back Dalvin Cook, choosing not to stage his return from a torn ACL behind a makeshift line against a skilled defense.
But even though the offense’s showing in a 14-10 loss to the Jaguars at U.S. Bank Stadium should be placed in its proper context, it still provided a reminder the group has plenty to work on.
A week ago in Denver, the Vikings’ first-team offense was on the field for just eight plays, marching 85 yards for a touchdown in an abbreviated night of work. The Vikings kept their starters in for twice that many plays on Saturday, but the group was able to gain just 21 yards against a Jaguars defense that finished the year ranked No. 2 in the league last season and didn’t afford Kirk Cousins much room to work downfield.
For the day, the Vikings went 0-for-12 on third down, finishing with only 238 yards against a Jaguars team that handed over another 140 yards on 13 penalties.
“Obviously, it’s a good defense, and they’re pressuring us, and we have some guys banged up, but, hey, this is the NFL,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “We have to do better than that. It kind of looked like it did in practice this week, to be honest with you.”
Cousins went 3 of 8 for 12 yards on Saturday, looking primarily to short throws underneath the Jaguars’ zone coverage. Things played out in a similar fashion to how Cousins projected they would on Thursday, when he said, “We found yesterday [in the first day of joint practices between the teams] that there’s probably a greater number of check-downs, of settling for a completion as opposed to getting a home run, because of the nature of their defense.”
The quarterback couldn’t connect with Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph on the Vikings’ first drive, as Tyler Patmon broke up a throw that was slightly behind Thielen on first down and Cousins’ third-down pass went off Rudolph’s hands.
The Vikings’ second offensive drive — which featured a sack negated by a Yannick Nagkoue unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, a Latavius Murray fumble recovered by Tom Compton, a chop block penalty on Danny Isidora and a flag on Jaguars cornerback A.J. Bouye for lowering his helmet — ended in a field goal.
Cousins missed throws to Diggs and Thielen on his fourth series, and thought he was scheduled to stay in the game for a fifth until coaches turned things over to Trevor Siemian, who didn’t have much more success than Cousins.
In the game’s first three quarters, the Vikings’ top two quarterbacks completed only eight of their 18 passes for 58 yards. Murray lost the second of his two fumbles, and the Vikings’ four longest plays of the game’s first three quarters were generated by Mike Boone and Roc Thomas, the two running backs in a battle to replace Jerick McKinnon.
That the Vikings would hold the lead for much of the game was a testament to their defensive depth, on a day where their second unit controlled Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles — who remained in the game through the first half — and the team’s young linemen played especially well.
Jaleel Johnson stood out from both defensive tackle spots, Stephen Weatherly stuffed T.J. Yeldon in the backfield and split a sack with linebacker Ben Gedeon and lineman Ifeadi Odenigbo played both defensive tackle and defensive end, jumping back outside after Ade Aruna left with a knee injury and finishing with two sacks.
“It does feel good. My job is to be the utility guy,” Odenigbo said. “I’m just trying to be the guy that can do it all. That’s the message today, to anyone watching, I can play ball.”
The Vikings led 10-7 until the final two minutes, when the Jaguars spent their three timeouts to get the ball back and Rashad Greene returned a punt 56 yards to the Vikings’ 4-yard line (a week after the team allowed a punt return touchdown to Denver’s Isaiah McKenzie.
That set up Brandon Wilds’ one-yard touchdown, and the Vikings’ bid to score a touchdown in the game’s final minute ended when Kyle Sloter was sacked on fourth down at the Jaguars’ 24.
Zimmer sounded optimistic on Saturday about the possibility of getting Remmers — and perhaps Elflein — back for Friday’s preseason game against Seattle, and the third contest will be closer to a dress rehearsal than the Jaguars game was. Even then, it’s hard to render definitive judgments in the preseason, as Cousins pointed out Saturday.
Especially on offense, the Vikings just have to hope for better than what they showed against Jacksonville.
“I think the preseason has always been hard to take a lot from,” Cousins said. “I think as much as we say that, people are always going to draw a lot from it, and that’s fine. When you look back, I remember last year watching the 49ers versus the Vikings in the third preseason game here, and you would’ve thought the tale of the season was being written [when the 49ers’ starters built a 14-0 lead]. It certainly was very much the opposite for the Vikings. You just have to use it as a chance to get better, make corrections and get back to work.
“Like Coach Zimmer said, it’s probably not the worst thing in the long run to realize we have a lot of work to do. If you want to call it a wake-up call, that’s fine. It’ll get us ready to go when we get back on Monday.”