The Vikings opened the most important game of the preseason with exactly the kind of offensive attack they’re hoping will stun the rest of the NFC North during a regular season that starts two weeks from Sunday.
The result was a perfect combination. Powerful running by Adrian Peterson setting up a 49-yard, quick-strike touchdown pass from Donovan McNabb to last year’s forgotten man, Bernard Berrian, for a 7-0 lead over the Dallas Cowboys in front of 62,800 fans at Mall of America Field.
Yeah, the Cowboys ended up winning 23-17 behind a blocked field goal that Alan Ball returned for a second-quarter touchdown. But if you’re a Vikings fan, you’re not nearly as nervous about this new offense after Saturday night’s game.
“That drive,” said coach Leslie Frazier, “was really indicative of what we want to be like during the course of the year.”
If you’re a Vikings fan, you’re also breathing a giant sigh of relief because starting cornerback Antoine Winfield’s right shoulder is A-OK. He went down with a stinger in the second quarter and did not return, but he would have if it had been a regular-season game.
The game billed as the regular-season dress rehearsal couldn’t have started any better.
After the Vikings defense held the Cowboys to one first down on the game’s opening drive, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave gave fans their first glimpse of how he intends to move the ball this season.
His first call was a power run by Peterson behind three tight ends lined up to the near right side.
Peterson gained 4 yards and then touched the ball four more times for 25 more yards — converting two third-and-1 situations — during a seven-play drive.
And just when the Cowboys decided they’d better stack the box, quarterback McNabb took a seven-step drop and stood there with all the time he needed to launch a perfectly thrown ball to Berrian. Berrian caught the ball between two defenders at the goal line.
“We’re counting on Bernard to make the kind of plays he made on that opening drive,” Frazier said. “If that does happen for us, we have a chance to be an explosive offense.”
It was a perfect knockoff of the Atlanta Falcons (Musgrave’s old team), using power to move the ball, bring the defense close to the line, slow the pass rush and set up a quick strike down the field for the first touchdown by the first-team offense this season.
Musgrave also mixed in a brief no-huddle offense and had McNabb throwing to receivers instead of sticking with tight ends and running backs. McNabb looked comfortable throwing short and long, completing 12 of 18 passes for 164 yards behind a line that played well in the first game back from knee surgery for right guard Anthony Herrera.
“I love Coach Musgrave’s offense,” said receiver Percy Harvin, who was moved around quite a bit. “I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
McNabb wasn’t flawless. He tried to force a ball through double coverage to Jim Kleinsasser, but the ball was tipped and intercepted. The Cowboys converted the turnover into a touchdown and a 17-7 lead.
The first-team defense held the Cowboys to 10 first-half points. The special teams struggled with the blocked field goal and a 52-yard field goal attempt by Ryan Longwell that fell short.
But the offense clicked for the most part as the starters played through the first series of the third quarter. Peterson ran 14 times for 81 yards (5.8-yard average). McNabb targeted his wideouts 13 times, completing nine passes for 141 yards. Berrian, who was lost in last year’s offense, was targeted four times, catching two for 64 yards.
“We want to spread the ball around to different guys,” McNabb said. “But Adrian is kind of the straw that stirs the drink. When we get that part of the game going, it opens up a lot of things in the passing game.”
Most of the Vikings’ starters are expected to rest in Thursday’s preseason finale against Houston at Mall of America Field. The team must cut from 90 to 80 players by Tuesday.
Joe Webb replaced McNabb on the second series of the second half. He completed four of seven passes for 81 yards. He also made it a 20-17 game with a 10-yard touchdown run up the middle on third-and-5. Christian Ponder made his Metrodome debut late in the fourth quarter and completed three of eight passes for 60 yards. He led the Vikings to the Cowboys 16-yard line as time expired.
But it was the Vikings’ first drive that people will remember.
“There’s no secret how we want to run our offense,” Frazier said. “We want things centered around Adrian Peterson, and that will help us open up things in the passing game.”