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Vikings Vs. Titans Game Observations: Slow Offensive Start & Costly Penalty

MINNEAPOLIS — The Vikings dressed their starters for a half, but Kirk Cousins, Justin Jefferson and all the other Minnesota starters on offense and defense did not take the field Saturday against the Titans.

Cousins did make the video board at U.S. Bank Stadium and hoisted his arms in appreciation in the first half when the crowd clapped for a Happy Birthday message as his favorite band Switchfoot's "Meant to Live" played over the speakers. He also was serenaded by the offensive line in the locker room after the game.

But the Vikings fell 24-16 in their second preseason game of 2023. 

The Vikings opted to start Nick Mullens and play him the entire first half before bringing in rookie Jaren Hall.

Mullens finished 13-of-23 passing for 151 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions. His passer rating was 76.5.

He led scoring drives of 48 yards (six plays), 45 (10 plays) and 46 (seven) that resulted in field goals of 45, 33 and 26 yards by Greg Joseph and a 9-7 halftime lead. The group suffered from penalties and was unable to build and sustain momentum.

"Really some sloppy things that were totally in our control in the first half offensively," Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell said. "Had some opportunities to maybe finish those drives with touchdowns, and we just did not do it, and when we weren't able to get drives going, most of the time, penalties struck again. I know a lot of these guys aren't getting a ton of [practice] reps … but I still would like to believe that we can play clean football and execute the play call without penalties or mental errors, and we've got to continue to work through that with the group that was out there."

O'Connell opted to have the offensive line that started open the second half with Hall, but the group also started slowly.

Minnesota finally reached the end zone with 5:50 remaining in the game. Rookie running back DeWayne McBride powered in from a yard out to end a 12-play, 83-yard drive led by Hall.

Hall finished 4-of-7 passing for 49 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions. His passer rating was 78.9.

The Vikings tried to get the ball back to give Hall an opportunity to lead the team in the 2-minute drill, but Minnesota was unable to stop Tennessee on a third-and-1 from the Minnesota 45-yard line.

"We got it to one score there, just couldn't get that last stop," O'Connell said. "Tried calling some timeouts and seeing if we could maybe get one more drive for Jaren. I would have loved to have seen him in that end-of-the-game, 2-minute drive, but it just didn't come together."

O'Connell prioritized the joint practices on Wednesday and Thursday with the Titans as the most valuable window to have starters compete.

The following players did not play: OLB Marcus Davenport, RB Alexander Mattison, WR Jordan Addison, CB Byron Murphy, Jr., QB Kirk Cousins, CB Mekhi Blackmon, WR K.J. Osborn, WR Justin Jefferson, CB Akayleb Evans, S Harrison Smith, S Camryn Bynum, RB Kene Nwangwu, FB C.J. Ham, LB Brian Asamoah II, CB C.J. Coldon, Jr., S Josh Metellus, C Garrett Bradbury, LB Jordan Hicks, RG Ed Ingram, LT Christian Darrisaw, LG Ezra Cleveland, RT Brian O'Neill, WR N'Keal Harry, TE Johnny Mundt, TE T.J. Hockenson, OLB Pat Jones II, DL Jonathan Bullard, DL Dean Lowry, DL Khyiris Tonga, DL Harrison Phillips, OLB D.J. Wonnum and OLB Danielle Hunter.

"I know we sat a few more guys this week than we did last week, mainly because of the reps we had Wednesday-Thursday with our first groups and the substitutions among those first groups," O'Connell said. "Very much looking forward to this week with the Arizona Cardinals coming to town. It's going to be hot. We're planning on just a little bit more work during the practices rep-wise as part of our build toward the season, so it's going to be a big-time challenge for our guys."

Notes/injury updates: Addison is in concussion protocol but is likely to return next week; Blackmon left Thursday's practice early; Nwangwu has been sidelined for a bit with an undisclosed ailment; Asamoah is working his way back; Bullard did not participate Thursday after returning Wednesday.

O'Connell said Harry dealt with "a little bit of a soft tissue kind of aggravation in warm-ups and we wanted to be smart with him instead of trying to make him push through it, but that was unfortunate. Wanted to see him tonight."

Left the game: Rookie cornerback NaJee Thompson, who has impressed on special teams and made another impressive tackle as a gunner on the punt team, left the game with some concussion symptoms. Theo Jackson suffered an acromioclavicular (AC) joint injury while making a tackle at the end of a 55-yard run. Jackson's all-out effort helped hold the Titans to a field goal on that drive. 

"[He] was able to return, which was great to see," O'Connell said. "Tay [Gowan] had a little bit of a shoulder, as well."

Vikings Starting Offense

WR Jalen Reagor

TE Nick Muse

LT Vederian Lowe

LG Alan Ali

C Austin Schlottmann

RG Blake Brandel

RT Olisaemeka Udoh

WR Trishton Jackson

WR Brandon Powell

QB Nick Mullens

RB Ty Chandler

Notes: The Vikings opened in 11 personnel with one running back, one tight end and three receivers. Udoh has been taking first-team reps in place of O'Neill.

Vikings Starting Defense

OLB Luiji Vilain

DL Sheldon Day

DL Ross Blacklock

DL T.J. Smith

OLB Benton Whitley

ILB Troy Dye

ILB Ivan Pace, Jr.

CB Andrew Booth, Jr.

CB Joejuan Williams

S Theo Jackson

S Lewis Cine

Notes: After opening in a sub, three-safety package at Seattle, the Vikings opted with a base 3-4.

Here are four more observations presented by Minnesota Eye Consultants, the Proud LASIK Partner of the Minnesota Vikings, followed by a scoring summary:

1. Tight Ends Leave a Mark

The ball found tight ends early and often, even with Hockenson, Oliver and Mundt not playing.

Muse caught three passes for 46 yards. Ben Sims added two receptions for 38 yards and Colin Thompson added two receptions for 31 yards.

Sims also drew a pass interference penalty in the end zone.

2. Running game fails to find stride

The Vikings faced a Titans squad that ranked No. 1 in the NFL against the run in 2022 all week, and even though Tennessee rested plenty of people, too, Minnesota struggled to move the ball on the ground a week after stringing together a few nice runs in Seattle.

Mullens gained 9 on a scramble, and it was tied with newcomer Aaron Dykes for the longest run by a player in Purple all night.

Chandler rushed 11 times for 24 yards with a long of 7 but was met in the backfield more often than Minnesota would like.

Dykes totaled 19 yards on three carries, and McBride added 18 on six carries.

The Vikings were outgained on the ground 281 to 91.

3. Costly penalty

The Vikings had six flags accepted against them for a total of 35 yards, but there's always hidden stories with penalties.

The most glaring infraction occurred on a third-and-9.

Malik Willis fumbled the snap and recovered the ball. He kept it alive before throwing an incompletion, but officials flagged Jaylin Williams for holding.

Instead of facing a fourth-and-9 at the 38, the Titans received a fresh set of downs.

Rookie Tyjae Spears scored on the following play after using a nifty scissors move to get past a tackle attempt by Lewis Cine.

4. Special teams' mix

Dykes, who just signed with Minnesota on Thursday, opened the game with a 38-yard kickoff return that was Minnesota's best of the night.

The kickoff return unit looked cleaner on multiple returns, but others resulted in being stopped well inside the 25-yard line.

Dykes totaled 112 yards on five returns.

Greg Joseph was 3-for-3 on field goals and kicked his lone extra point through the uprights.

Ryan Wright had a few boomers, averaging 48.0 yards, but his shortest — a 28-yarder — resulted in the Vikings getting the ball back after Titans cornerback Tre Avery made contact with the football.

Tay Gowan recovered it for Minnesota.