CINCINNATI – A little before 10 a.m. local time Wednesday, the Vikings’ buses rolled up to Paul Brown Stadium and out stepped coach Mike Zimmer, who made a beeline for the two practice fields adjacent to the stadium.
While his players padded up for a morning walk-through, the coach ventured onto the practice fields that used to be his office, the place where for six years as a coordinator he molded a group of mostly young Cincinnati Bengals into one of the NFL’s better defenses over that span.
A few hours later, after a steady morning rain made for an uncomfortably humid afternoon, Zimmer watched his new defense — one that this season could be better than any he had in Cincinnati — put the clamps on a Bengals offense that ranked seventh in the NFL in scoring last season.
Sure, it was only one day and things could change Thursday morning when the two teams go at it again. But the mostly dominant performance was a continuation of what was seen from Zimmer’s defense in Mankato, especially from the guys up front, who flustered Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton.
“Hey, it was one day,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “But we need to keep stacking bricks, keep stacking bricks. It was one nice brick, but at the same time we have to come back out here [Thursday] and do it again.”
Led by defensive end Everson Griffen, unblockable at times during training camp, the Vikings would have sacked Dalton at least six times had they not let up in accordance to the rules on contact agreed upon by both squads. On one third-down rep, Griffen schooled second-year Bengals left tackle Jake Fisher by quickly walking the youngster straight back into Dalton’s lap.
“I think I did [give Fisher an education],” Griffen said. “It was fun, man.”
Fellow defensive end Brian Robison, outside linebacker Anthony Barr and nose tackle Linval Joseph were among those who holstered Dalton, “the Red Rocket.” On a few other occasions, Dalton was forced to flee but found safety. And when he did throw the ball, he did not find much success deep down the field.
The second-stringers were often in the Bengals backfield, too, and rookie cornerback Mackensie Alexander picked off Bengals backup AJ McCarron.
“We were just doing good as a whole. Everything was going well,” said cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who on one early play nearly intercepted Dalton. “Man, those guys competed. We competed. It was just a great practice.”
On the opposite field, the offense went up against a still-talented Bengals defense. Results were mixed as the offensive line had its hands full against a stout Bengals front four. But quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was able to complete some strikes down the field to Stefon Diggs and other receivers.
In all, after the teams got warmed up on adjacent fields Wednesday and did individual drills, there were six intersquad periods where the Vikings and Bengals faced off against each other. They included third-down work, red zone, 7-on-7 passing, line drills and field goals against would-be blockers.
There was one heated exchange between wide receiver Adam Thielen and Bengals cornerback Adam Jones but nothing close to a physical altercation. And it appeared the only major injury of the day happened to Bengals rookie nose tackle Andrew Billings, who had to be carted off the practice fields.
Other than that, it was a productive but mostly uneventful afternoon session between two quality teams that have Zimmer’s fingerprints all over them.
Zimmer did not speak with reporters after the practice, but after the wet morning walk-through, he did allow himself to reminisce for a brief moment about what it was like to be back in Cincinnati facing his former team.
“It brings back a lot of good memories. We had a good run when I was there, and [there are] a lot of great people in the administration,” Zimmer said. “It’ll be fun to bring my team in here, trying to compete with them.”
Through one day of practice, it was so far, so good for Zimmer’s Vikings.