The predictive value of preseason football on an NFL regular season is largely unknown, and if the Vikings’ next game at U.S. Bank Stadium — their Week 1 matchup with the Atlanta Falcons — is a crisp and impressive performance, their struggles on Saturday against the Arizona Cardinals will be a distant memory.
On Saturday, though, after the Vikings’ starters slogged through their third preseason game — a contest the team eventually won 20-9 over the Cardinals — the performance was sour enough to earn an unsparing critique from coach Mike Zimmer.
“I felt like there wasn’t much energy,” Zimmer said. “Defensively, we didn’t rush the passer well. We had guys not going to the huddle defensively, so they don’t know the call. Offensively, we had dropped balls, penalties, a bunch of three-and-outs. We missed two field goals. It was really a poor performance, and we need to play a lot better than that if we’re going to win football games.”
The Vikings’ first-team offense picked up only four first downs in two quarters of work, getting 85 of its 130 yards on Dalvin Cook’s first-quarter touchdown run that put the window dressing on an otherwise languid performance. The Vikings began pulling defensive starters by the Cardinals’ fifth drive, after allowing a pair of field goals in the first four. Arizona posted 248 of its 362 yards in the first half.
And Kaare Vedvik missed his first two in-game field goals for the Vikings, going wide left from 43 yards and wide right from 54 in a display that Zimmer said left him “at a loss” over what to do next in the team’s kicking competition.
With a raft of starters expected to sit out Thursday’s preseason finale in Buffalo, the Vikings first-stringers head into the season having missed a chance Saturday to deliver a convincing performance in their most substantive work of the preseason.
“We’ve got a long story to write here for the season,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “This will be ancient history as we get deep into the season, and we’ll find out if it was a help or not. But all I know right now without that benefit of hindsight is that if we play or I should say I, if I play the way I did today, it’s going to be a long year. We’ve got to be a lot better.”
After going 10-for-12 for 133 yards and a TD in the Vikings’ first two games, Cousins hit just three of his 13 passes for 35 yards. Two passes were tipped, including his final throw of the day, and he took his first sack of the preseason on the Vikings’ third drive. As the team sat Adam Thielen, opting to take a look at its young receivers while letting the Pro Bowl player rest some training camp soreness, the Vikings were vexed by dropped passes, with Chad Beebe failing to corral a third-and-8 throw and Stefon Diggs missing a chance to haul in a catch.
The highlight, for the offense, came from Cook’s second preseason carry.
Cook said he’d talked all week with Zimmer about potentially playing in the third game, and got the go-ahead from the coach on Saturday. In just two carries, he ended up with the fifth-highest single-game yardage total of his career — in a preseason or regular-season game.
Cook cut a run back to the right side of the Vikings line on the team’s second drive, breaking free for an outburst that put the Vikings up 7-3.
“Those guys did a great job of blocking. Beebe and [Kyle] Rudolph made some great blocks downfield. Rudolph’s block sprung me free,” Cook said. “I feel like if I get to the second level [of the defense], it’s my job to change the scoreboard. As a running back, you only get to the secondary so many times. I have to take advantage of those moments.”
While Cook could rehash the longest run of his career after the game, many of his teammates were largely left with self-flagellation in their final game of 2019 that didn’t mean anything.
“If this ends up being the needed wake-up call or somehow we’re much sharper coming out of the gates Week 1, then it was all for the better,” Cousins said. “We don’t have that knowledge yet to see how it plays out, but certainly there will be a sense of urgency in our preparation, as there always should be. Bottom line, today was not acceptable.”