Mike Zimmer watched over his Vikings defensive backs as they were placed in the unenviable position of practicing “off coverage,” or ceding five to seven yards against an opposing receiver, at the snap.
On Wednesday, these one-on-one passing drills between Vikings receivers and defensive backs happened where defenders can’t afford to surrender such room — inside the 10-yard line.
One by one, Vikings receivers prevailed. Chad Beebe slid past safety Harrison Smith for two touchdown catches. Adam Thielen and Davion Davis joined the party as Zimmer barked instructions at his defensive backs, something to the effect of not allowing any separation in the end zone. Receiver Dillon Mitchell beat rookie Marcus Epps for a score. Stefon Diggs snagged a contested grab away from Trae Waynes near a front pylon.
Then undrafted rookie safety Isaiah Wharton finally won one for the defense, cutting in front of receiver Olabisi Johnson for an interception under the goal posts. There would be more of that to come in 11-on-11 team drills.
It was a rocky day for backup quarterback Sean Mannion, who threw two interceptions in his team sessions. The first was an overthrown deep ball to Davion Davis, leading rookie safety Marcus Epps to field it out of the air like a punt. A few series later, Mannion returned to the field and was again picked off by rookie cornerback Kris Boyd as he targeted the middle of the field.
Keep in mind the Vikings were without three injured receivers (Jeff Badet, Brandon Zylstra and Jordan Taylor) as well as three injured tight ends (Irv Smith Jr., David Morgan and Tyler Conklin), meaning Mannion’s inexperienced targets could be culpable in the errors. Either way, it looked poor. Especially when Mannion took the field again later in practice and was nearly intercepted by linebacker Eric Wilson and watched Boyd knock his next pass to the grass.
The offense overall didn’t look sharp, including Kirk Cousins. There were false starts and practice “timeouts” needed. There were drops by running back Ameer Abdullah and Johnson, who seemed to have a rough day. Coordinator Kevin Stefanski called the Vikings’ play-action packages “a work in progress” after practice, and any onlooker could’ve noticed such. Cousins missed on a handful of deep throws, including overthrowing tight end Kyle Rudolph, whom Cousins credited after practice for later plucking a low throw of his out of the air for a completed crossing route. Cousins also missed Johnson, the rookie, on a deep ball earlier and watched Harrison Smith dive at another pass that failed to find Diggs in the middle of the field.
A positive sign was Cousins taking his starting offensive linemen off to the side of practice, while the second and third teams ran drills, to seemingly work on everyone being on the same page with his cadence.
Receiver Chad Beebe drew strong praise from Stefanski, who said the second-year player is “making a name for himself” with plays he’s making throughout the spring. Beebe helped Cousins end practice on a positive note with back-to-back grabs off play-action bootlegs. Beebe has been getting reps as a No. 3 receiver option as well as plenty of work as a punt returner. He may be the leader in the punt returner competition, especially with Taylor currently sidelined.
The Vikings’ pass rush is going to be fun to watch when real football starts being played in late July and August training camp. The looks they’re giving the Vikings offense have varied more than seasons’ past, and seemed to easily create pressure. Players ranging from linebacker Anthony Barr to defensive end Stephen Weatherly often looped through the line and halted in front of red-clad quarterbacks, allowing them to throw. The new-look offensive line will have their work cut out for them this summer.
Another player fans should look forward to seeing this summer is rookie running back Alexander Mattison, who has been the unquestioned No. 2 behind Dalvin Cook during 11-on-11 drills. The first thought observing Mattison (without pads) is — decisive. He does not dance around and has a strong upfield burst that could be dangerous if he carries himself the same in pads. Behind Cook and Mattison in the pecking order have been Abdullah, a candidate for kickoff returner with cornerback Holton Hill, and running back Mike Boone.
Eight Vikings were sidelined due to injury, including the aforementioned six receivers/tight ends and cornerback Mike Hughes (knee) and defensive end Tashawn Bower (ankle). A good sign was the return of linebacker Reshard Cliett, who will need to be healthy this summer to have a shot at the sixth linebacker spot (assuming the Vikings again keep six linebackers).