Friday night was an atypical start for the Vikings offense. Right up to the self-inflicted implosion part that was all too familiar a season ago.
The first seven snaps in a preseason game at Seattle produced an unusually efficient 76 yards and three first downs as Sam Bradford completed his first four passes for 66 yards, including a 39-yarder to Stefon Diggs.
That explosive play made it first-and-10 at the Seahawks 12-yard line.
The next play would be the first snap in the red zone for the Vikings’ No. 1 offense since last season. The first chance to start forgetting about this maligned offense being flagged a league-high 19 times in the red zone in 2016.
False start, tight end Kyle Rudolph. First-and-15.
And three snaps later …
Delay of game. Third-and-20. And, well, you know the drill: checkdown to the running back followed by a short, deflating field goal.
“I’m hoping that was an enigma because [Sunday in practice] we didn’t have any [red-zone penalties], and we haven’t had them in training camp,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “I get the report every day from practice, and we get two or three penalties all day. It’s just understanding that down there it’s going to get a little louder, especially on the road.”
Well, actually …
A trip down agony lane via every gamebook from last season shows the Vikings had 11 offensive pre-snap penalties in the red zone. Six of them were at home. Of their seven false starts, six were at home. And that doesn’t include Jeremiah Sirles false-starting on the two-point conversion attempt with the Vikings trailing the Cowboys 17-15 with 30 seconds left.
With a well-structured special teams unit and a defense that’s capable of dominance, the Vikings don’t need to be great offensively to make a playoff run. At this point, many would settle for the offense not being self-destructive inside the 20.
Eighteen of those 19 red-zone penalties last year were accepted. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the offenses in Carolina and Miami were next in line. Both had 15 red-zone penalties and 12 that were accepted.
So what’s a coach to do when it’s this difficult to eliminate penalties that seem so easily preventable?
“Well,” Zimmer said, “you complain about it a lot, and you talk to them about it a lot. Just keep trying to grind it into them that they’re hurting the team. Then, at some point, the guys that are committing the penalty, you’ve got to get their butt out.”
T.J. Clemmings, who started at left and right tackle before being moved to third-string guard this year, led the way with three red-zone penalties, including two false starts and a chop block.
Sirles, Andre Smith, Alex Boone and Brandon Fusco were flagged twice in the red zone. Bradford got two delay of game penalties, but sideline issues can contribute to those.
Of the 10 offensive players who were flagged in the red zone last year, five are no longer with the team, and only Bradford and Boone still start.
Boone’s two penalties came on the same play at Philadelphia, site of the Vikings’ first loss after a 5-0 start. With penalties for holding and unsportsmanlike conduct, he singlehandedly turned first-and-goal at the 8 into first-and-goal at the 33.
But that’s not even the most infamous of red-zone infractions that took place last year. Those came in the 22-16 loss to Detroit at home.
A Chad Greenway interception handed the offense the ball at the Detroit 18. After 4 yards were gained, Clemmings false started. Then Sirles had an illegal block. After losing 13 yards on the next two plays, the Vikings actually had to punt on fourth-and-32. Detroit got the ball back at its 16.
Zimmer met with reporters on Sunday, two days after those two red-zone penalties in Seattle. He wasn’t panicked. But he did establish red zone execution as a point of emphasis this week.
“We got to do better in the red zone,” he said.