Fleet feet weren’t the only reasons behind Stefon Diggs’ 62-yard punt return during the Vikings’ 14-3 victory over the Steelers in Sunday night’s Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio.
Yes, it was an outstanding performance by the rookie fifth-round draft pick, especially toward the end, when he zigzagged through defenders and nearly reached the ball across the goal line. But none of that would have happened if not for so many other players executing the scheme designed by special teams coordinator Mike Priefer.
“It was just great blocks,” Diggs said. “I tried to set up some great blocks. There were some key blocks down the stretch, and I was just trying to be quick and make plays with my feet.”
The first key was former CFL linebacker Brian Peters being alert and intelligent enough to avoid what could have been an illegal block in the back near the point where Diggs caught the ball. Rookie fullback Blake Renaud avoided a similar situation early in the return as well.
Linebacker Josh Kaddu had the key block that enabled Diggs to turn the corner. Linebacker Michael Mauti and cornerback Josh Thomas also had key blocks.
Diggs said it was a good NFL debut overall. But he didn’t sound satisfied.
“I made some mistakes that you might not have been able to see,” he said. “I just want to get better all around and contribute more.”
Diggs made an early pitch to unseat incumbent punt returner Marcus Sherels. Diggs had one fair catch and two returns for 66 yards. Sherels had one return for 24 yards.
“I kind of laughed [at Diggs’ long return] because the first time he went out there, I’m telling everybody on the sideline that he’s about to [score],” receiver Jarius Wright said. “Then he goes out there and fair catches it. Then it was like, ‘You got to go get one now because you made me look bad in front of everybody.’ ”
Nice move, Jerick
One of the more subtle highlights of the game was a 13-yard reception by running back Jerick McKinnon, who started in place of Adrian Peterson, who doesn’t play in the preseason.
On second-and-8 from the Pittsburgh 48-yard line, McKinnon caught a swing pass a yard behind the line of scrimmage. With linebacker Arthur Moats closing in, McKinnon faked right. Then he faked left. Then he went right as Moats whiffed.
About 12 yards later, McKinnon lowered his shoulders and ran over cornerback Antwon Blake.
“You saw him make a nice catch out of the backfield,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “He made the guy miss and then ran over a guy. He’s going to get some touches and as we continue to go through the season we’re going to figure out more ways to use him.”
Pruitt’s stock rising
MyCole Pruitt continues to push one of the veteran tight ends behind Kyle Rudolph to the brink of being cut. The rookie fifth-round pick from Southern Illinois posted a team-high four catches for a game-high 51 yards, including a 34-yard touchdown against busted coverage.
“He had a couple nice catches,” Zimmer said. “The guy is very fast. He’s had great hands all camp. That showed up a couple times tonight, with his hands. I think he’s going to continue to get better. He’s a good kid.”
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was asked point blank, “Is this a playoff team?”
He said: “We’re still in August. You can’t predict the future. We have high expectations. Coach Zimmer talks about bringing the Minnesota Vikings their first Super Bowl [win]. Why can’t it be us? But we know we’re nowhere near where we want to be.”
• The first two things Zimmer mentioned as areas that pleased him were pass protection, “especially with the first group,” and run defense, which was a weakness a year ago. The Steelers averaged 2.7 yards on 25 carries, although Le’Veon Bell did not get a carry.