NEW ORLEANS – Should one view the Vikings’ preseason-opening touchdown drive — during which Kirk Cousins overcame an early holding penalty, threaded a deep throw to one of his top receivers and finished his night with a 1-yard scoring pass — as a sign the team’s latest offensive overhaul was successful, and all will be well this season?
Given the fact the Vikings opened the 2018 preseason with almost an identical drive and fired their first-year offensive coordinator four months later, it’s perhaps best to process the 2019 debut for Cousins and company with some perspective.
The Vikings marched 75 yards in eight plays to kick off the preseason a year ago in Denver, prompting platitudes about what the group could achieve under new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. On that drive, the Vikings shook off an early holding penalty with a pair of long runs before Cousins hit a picturesque 28-yard throw to Stefon Diggs, setting up a touchdown two plays later. This year’s version, against the Saints in New Orleans, covered 76 yards in eight plays, with a 34-yard Cousins-to-Adam Thielen connection providing the early highlight and setting up a scoring pass to rookie Alexander Mattison.
But even if the early result should be viewed in context, the Vikings’ offense did about all it could have done to kick the preseason off in style with a 34-25 victory over the Saints on Friday night.
The Vikings’ much-publicized shift away from shotgun formations and three-receiver sets was on full display early, with Cousins under center for all but one third-and-9 play. The Vikings used a second tight end or fullback four times on the drive, once more than they put a third receiver on the field, and Cousins hit tight end Kyle Rudolph twice on the drive for a total of 30 yards.
“It’s not a lot to build on; I mean, we did the same thing last year against Denver in the preseason,” Cousins said. “You take from it what it is — it was one drive in the first preseason game. But if we’re going to have a drive, it was better to go down and score and be that efficient than to do anything else.”
The team’s reconfigured offensive philosophy under coordinator Kevin Stefanski continued with backup quarterbacks Sean Mannion and Kyle Sloter on the field, as tight ends Tyler Conklin and Irv Smith Jr. combined for 77 yards on five catches. Even if Friday’s debut was far from perfect — the Vikings were flagged 13 times for 136 yards, including a pair of early holding penalties on Rashod Hill and one on Smith — the Vikings could come out of the preseason opener with some confidence in their new offensive direction.
Cousins was 4-for-4 for 65 yards and a touchdown, and scrambled once for 10 yards on his one shotgun snap to convert a first down on a 3rd-and-9. Mattison, who started the game with Dalvin Cook sitting out, carried nine times for 30 yards in addition to his touchdown catch.
Minnesota’s first-team defense played just one series, as well, facing former teammate Teddy Bridgewater with Drew Brees sitting out the first preseason game for the Saints.
Bridgewater hit the kinds of quick throws that should be familiar to Vikings fans, connecting with running backs Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray (another former Viking) three times on the Saints’ opening drive. It appeared the Vikings had stopped the Saints when Jalyn Holmes sacked Bridgewater on a third down in the red zone, but a penalty gave New Orleans new life once again, when Trae Waynes was flagged for defensive holding. Still, the Vikings were able to hold the Saints to a field goal after a holding penalty on New Orleans.
Each of the Vikings’ first three quarterbacks finished the night with a touchdown pass; Sean Mannion connected with rookie receiver Bisi Johnson for an 18-yard score in the second quarter, while Kyle Sloter hit rookie fullback Khari Blasingame for a 2-yard touchdown late in the third quarter.
The Vikings’ penalty issues were a sticking point for Zimmer — “They heard it at halftime, and they’re going to hear it again on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. We need to clean that up,” he said. And as last year’s second preseason game showed — when the Vikings scored just 10 points against Jacksonville — early success against rudimentary defenses can be fleeting.
“The defenses we’re seeing will get more complex as we go, and that will expose the offense more. We have to be really on the details,” Cousins said. “It was pretty vanilla tonight, and that helped us to look really efficient.”
The early test represented a low bar. The Vikings’ offensive starters, for whatever it’s worth, could be happy they cleared it.
“To be able to rotate that many different players at different positions and have sustained success moving the football, I think that says a lot about Kevin’s play-calling, and the system and the execution,” Cousins said. “So in that sense, it’s really positive.”