The Vikings got a long look at backup quarterback Shaun Hill against one of the NFL’s top defenses when starter Teddy Bridgewater was surprisingly held out of Thursday night’s game.
And the team’s starting offensive line — at least for the moment — helped Hill show them something good with a strong performance in pass protection.
Hill was not sacked and often had a clean pocket while completing 10 of his 17 attempts for 129 yards in the 18-11 preseason victory vs. the Seattle Seahawks, who for much of the first half relied on starters and top backups from what was the league’s stingiest scoring defense a season ago. Bridgewater did not play, in part because of a slightly sore shoulder, according to an ESPN report.
It was a much-improved effort from a week ago, when Bridgewater was on the run on all three plays of an opening-drive three-and-out in a preseason victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. Some of that was on Bridgewater for being indecisive. But there’s no question that the offensive line, with the help of blocks from backs and tight ends, protected Hill better on Thursday night.
“They did a real good job, yeah,” the 36-year-old backup said after the win. “And that’s a tough front to handle. They did a heck of a job pass protecting.”
The run blocking? That was again an issue for the starting offensive line of Matt Kalil, Alex Boone, John Sullivan, Joe Berger and Andre Smith.
Running back Jerick McKinnon got his second straight start in place of Adrian Peterson, whom the coaching staff continues to hold out as a precaution, and he mustered just 15 yards on nine carries. He did score a touchdown, though. Backfield buddy Matt Asiata contributed just 2 yards on a trio of carries.
That was an average of only 1.4 yards per carry behind the first-string line.
In their two preseason games, the Vikings averaged only 2.5 yards per carry overall. Their longest run was a 12-yarder by rookie Jhurell Pressley late in Thursday’s win. Their opponents, meanwhile, averaged 4.7 yards per carry.
“The running game is a thing we need to clean up and get moving,” said Berger, who again started at right guard. “It’s just working together as a group and just continuing that process. That’s what the preseason is for.”
The Vikings gained 2 yards or fewer on their first seven handoffs vs. the Seahawks before McKinnon finally popped a 5-yarder about 21 minutes into the game. That was the lone run out of a dozen carries for McKinnon and Asiata in which one of the running backs gained more than 3 yards.
In the 17-16 win over the Bengals last Friday, five of their six runs in the two drives their current starting line played went for 3 yards or fewer.
“We’re making progress. It’s still in the works. That’s what the preseason is for and camp is for,” McKinnon said Thursday. “We’re still working at it, but we know the kind of potential we have. Eventually it’s going to click.”
There were signs of the pass protection clicking, perhaps because 10 days of continuity have helped that up-front quintet develop some chemistry.
With Brandon Fusco sidelined since Aug. 9, the only moving part along the line has been the rotation of Smith and T.J. Clemmings at right tackle. The other four linemen have now had four consecutive practices and two preseason games together, which is allowing that group to get on the same page.
“I think that’s making it a little easier,” Boone, the left guard, admitted.
Coach Mike Zimmer has not put a timetable on when he plans to officially pick his five starters. But the more time they have together, the better. The season opener in Tennessee already looms three weeks from Sunday.
“We have to run the ball better. We are making progress. I thought the pass protection was good. I thought it was solid. We gave [Hill] a lot of time,” Zimmer said. “We still have a long way to go. But we’re going to keep grinding at it.”