The defense opened with a three-and-out and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater moved the ball crisply as the Vikings’ first-team units began the long preseason schedule with a brief but not-too-bad showing in Sunday’s 14-3 victory over the Steelers, sans Ben Roethlisberger, at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.
Rookie Stefon Diggs also turned more heads and made a pitch to unseat incumbent punt returner Marcus Sherels when he took a 57-yard punt 62 yards to the Pittsburgh 1-yard line, setting up a Joe Banyard touchdown run to finish the scoring late in the third quarter.
“I thought our team looked fast and physical,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “We still got a long ways to go. I don’t like having 10 guys on the field goal and some penalties on our young corner [Trae Waynes]. But for the first day out, it’s probably a decent performance.”
However, Blair Walsh did miss a 48-yard field-goal attempt, and Waynes, the rookie first-round draft pick, was flagged three times and beaten deep once during a rough — but not unexpectedly so — NFL debut.
Both starting units played only one series as a group before turning things over to the backups.
The No. 1 defense, which played with Gerald Hodges starting for injured strong-side linebacker Anthony Barr (knee), limited the Steelers to 3 net yards on the opening series. Of course, we should keep in mind that it came against quarterback Landry Jones and without Antonio Brown at receiver.
Bridgewater, meanwhile, completed five of six passes for 44 yards and two first downs. His only incompletion came on a short rollout pass that was low and too far behind Mike Wallace, who got his hands on the ball but couldn’t hang on.
“I kind of got a little greedy on that one,” Bridgewater said. “I was hoping to hit Kyle Rudolph. He was running a corner route, and he got tripped up. So I got to Mike too late. Coach [Norv] Turner talked to me and said, ‘The play starts with Mike.’ So that’s one of those things where I have to continue to stay within the system. Sometimes it’s good to be aggressive. But in that case, if I hit Mike, we avoid fourth down.”
Bridgewater also ran once for 6 yards while moving the team 50 yards in 10 plays. The series ended on downs when Jerick McKinnon was stopped for no gain on fourth-and-1 at the Pittsburgh 11.
That play was hard to judge by regular-season standards. First, McKinnon started at running back because Adrian Peterson was rested, per his usual preseason routine. Secondly, undrafted rookie fullback Blake Renaud worked with the first unit instead of the preferred starting candidate, Zach Line, who wasn’t in uniform.
“Zach couldn’t answer the bell tonight,” said Zimmer, who didn’t specify why.
Renaud’s lead block was too high. He was undercut, which helped blow up the play and make McKinnon an easy target. The right side of the line didn’t get enough push either behind tentative starting right guard Mike Harris.
Neither starting unit was penalized, and Rudolph also looked good with two catches for 22 yards and two first downs, including one on third-and-5. Middle linebacker Audie Cole forced a fumble that safety Antone Exum returned 32 yards and rookie tight end MyCole Pruitt caught a 34-yard touchdown pass from Mike Kafka, who worked with the second unit while unchallenged No. 2 quarterback Shaun Hill was rested.
“Like the official said to me after the game, ‘You guys played very clean game and did things the right way,’” said Zimmer, whose team had six penalties and won the turnover battle 2-1. “That’s what I was looking for at this early stage of the season.”
And with that, Zimmer left the field with a 5-0 record in preseason games.
“Yeah,” Zimmer said. “I wish I was 5-0 in the regular season.”