The scoreboard showed the Vikings won handily Saturday night, but three plays into the night, they had already suffered a sizable loss.
On their second offensive play, a handoff to Jerick McKinnon, starting right tackle Phil Loadholt went down with what is believed to be a torn left Achilles’ tendon.
He hobbled off with a pair of athletic trainers and was soon carted to the locker room, where preliminary tests revealed the injury that will likely end his season before it started. Loadholt will get a magnetic resonance imaging exam Sunday, but the Vikings fear the worst.
It would be the second straight year during which Loadholt has suffered a season-ending injury. Last season, Loadholt missed the final five games with a torn pectoral.
“It’s disappointing for Phil because he’s worked so hard and he’s such a great person,” coach Mike Zimmer said after the Vikings’ 26-16 exhibition victory over Tampa Bay at TCF Bank Stadium. “But it’s part of football. Guys get hurt and the next guy’s got to [play].”
With rookie T.J. Clemmings filling in for Loadholt at right tackle, the first-string offense didn’t miss a beat while scoring on two of their three possessions against a Buccaneers defense that was one of the league’s worst units last season. After the starters exited the game late in the first quarter up 9-0, the Vikings coasted from there.
But the victory felt hollow for the Vikings, who are 2-0 in preseason play.
Loadholt, one of the NFL’s highest-paid right tackles, was slowly rounding into form after missing all of the spring workouts as he recovered from pectoral surgery. The Vikings were hoping on a healthy return from the 6-foot-8, 345-pound Loadholt to help an offensive line that disappointed in 2014 to finally live up to expectations in 2015.
Now, with Loadholt lost again, Zimmer said Clemmings will get the first crack at right tackle in practice this week.
Some analysts pegged him as a potential first-round talent before April’s draft, but he fell to the Vikings in the fourth round due to concerns about past foot injuries. The Vikings, though, believe the injuries to the rookie’s foot are a thing of the past.
If Clemmings is not ready to start right away, the Vikings could consider fellow rookies Austin Shepherd and Tyrus Thompson at Loadholt’s vacant spot or young veterans Mike Harris or Carter Bykowski, the Eden Prairie native.
“One of these young guys has got to step up,” left tackle Matt Kalil said. “I don’t know who yet, but I’m sure someone will step up to the challenge and fill that right tackle void.”
Despite the loss of Loadholt, the Vikings offense was efficient against a Tampa Bay defense coached by former Vikings coach Leslie Frazier.
Teddy Bridgewater connected on seven of eight passes for 86 yards as the Vikings starters scored twice on three chances. The first-team offense totaled 95 yards on 15 plays before Bridgewater made way for backup Shaun Hill and the second team near the end of the first quarter.
On the opening drive, Bridgewater completed passes of 18 yards to tight end Kyle Rudolph and 26 to receiver Jarius Wright to move the Vikings into field-goal range. Blair Walsh booted a 46-yard field goal for an early 3-0 lead.
The teams exchanged punts. And after Marcus Sherels returned one 19 yards to the Bucs 38-yard line, Bridgewater connected with Wright for another big gain, this one 24 yards, to get to the 3-yard line. Fullback Zach Line plunged into the end zone from a yard out to put the Vikings up 9-0. The ensuing two-point attempt failed.
“We got off to a fast start,” Bridgewater said. “That’s the mindset. We can’t go out there and feel our way around each week. We just have to go out there and let our presence be felt, set the tempo and we did a good job of doing that today.”
Zimmer removed veterans Terence Newman, Chad Greenway and Brian Robison for the third defensive series, and Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, the top pick in the 2015 draft, finally got something going, picking on fellow first-rounder Trae Waynes to put them in position for a field goal.
With a 9-3 lead late in the first quarter and his starting units having performed well enough against a team that finished a league-worst 2-14 a season ago, Zimmer yanked his starters to ensure that no more joined Loadholt in the trainer’s room.
Hill took advantage of excellent field position to lead the Vikings on a pair of second-quarter scoring drives, capped by TD passes to Cordarrelle Patterson and Adam Thielen. He finished 8-for-9 for 104 yards and a 154.4 passer rating.
However, the night was marred by a stomach punch of an injury, one that left the Vikings with a gaping hole at right tackle with the first meaningful game now just a month away.
“It kind of ruins the night,” left guard Brandon Fusco said. “It took the fun out of tonight.”
Matt Vensel email@example.com