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Jay Ward Flashes for Vikings in Preseason Finale Vs. Cardinals

MINNEAPOLIS – Jay Ward got to the quarterback untouched.

The Vikings rookie safety accelerated unimpeded on a blitz and sacked Cardinals QB Clayton Tune, who dropped the football.

"They just gave us a play call, and we executed it," Ward said after Minnesota’s 18-17 loss to Arizona. "I came wide open, so I just tried to get a turnover."

Vikings linebacker Troy Reeder had the perfect sightline to see Ward's play, and he got on top of the loose ball for a fumble recovery.

"[Jay] makes these routine plays all the time. Sometimes that goes unnoticed to fans, especially in the secondary. If you're not getting thrown at, it's usually a good thing if your name's not being called," Reeder said. "But he's been doing a great job in the run, and then today got a little blitz for him, and he came off the edge and made a nice play. A strike-zone tackle, freed the ball.

"I wish I could have scooped it and scored, but it just felt like there were a lot of people around me, and falling on it felt like the best option," Reeder added.

"I wanted to scoop my own forced fumble," Ward laughed. "But he beat me before I got there."

Minnesota's offense responded to the flipped possession. Set up at the Cardinals 5-yard line, rookie QB Jaren Hall connected with running back Abram Smith for a receiving touchdown on the next snap.

The series of plays created momentum for the Vikings that later slipped away. But despite the final score, there are positive takeaways from Minnesota's defensive performance in its final preseason game.

Vikings Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores has already shown his aggressive mentality and creative approach throughout training camp, but the preseason games have been toned down and not fully schemed the way they'll be in a couple of weeks.

With coaches mindful of not revealing too much of their system ahead of the regular season, Flores emphasized the importance of "playing free" and not overthinking. The coach reiterated the messaging in Friday night's meeting and Saturday before the game.

"When he said that, that's all I needed to hear," Ward said with a smile. "I feel like I played very freely, very comfortable in executing the plays."

Linebacker Wilson Huber appreciates the situations Flores has put him in. And especially as an undrafted rookie, he doesn't take the opportunity for granted.

"It's awesome. I think a lot of coaches don't give that freedom to guys in the preseason. Especially that last preseason game – a lot of [third-team players], a lot of guys with stuff to prove," Huber said. "A lot of coaches would just put some vanilla defense out there, but Coach Flo' lets us go out and play free. You can't play great football unless you play free … and I think we did that."

Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell had a little more "free time" Saturday after offering Offensive Coordinator Wes Phillips play-calling duties when the Vikings had the ball, and he found himself dedicating some of that energy to the defense. Flores extended the opportunity to call defensive plays to defensive backs coach Daronte Jones and inside linebackers coach Mike Siravo.

"It's one of those things where I find myself calling for things. And the response even today was, 'Are you sure you wanna show that?' " O'Connell said. "I did want to win the football game today, so there was maybe a little bit more in there on some of those situational downs.

"I don't really mind showing some things. I do think our opponents probably think they have some things left to their imagination, which is good," O'Connell added. "But it's one of those things where [Flores is] probably more patient than I am, knowing certain situations in the game."

Ward and Huber led the team with seven total tackles apiece, followed by cornerback Kalon Barnes with six.

Ward also had a quarterback hit of David Blough in the second quarter and a late-game tackle for loss to force a Cardinals punt. In the third quarter, he nearly picked off Blough but couldn't quite reach the sailed pass.

O'Connell wasn't surprised to see a strong performance out of "one of the better safety rooms" in the NFL.

"Really happy with where Jay's at. His physicality, his ability to see it – then go pull the trigger and try to make a play. Shoot, he almost came out of the post to pick a ball off; if it hadn't had been high, he probably would have taken that one the other way," O'Connell said. "He's been making plays like that, showing instincts, and then the best thing has just been some of the physicality that we've seen from him – not only from defense but on [special] teams."

Ward did catch a little friendly fire on a kickoff return when he collided with fellow Vikings rookie DeWayne McBride. He briefly left the game for a checkup in the medical tent but returned soon after.

"I'm good," he said. "I wasn't worried. They told me to come out, so I just had to come off and go in the tent.

"I was ready to go back in," Ward added. "I felt like I didn't have any problems."

With Ward's help, the Vikings defense limited Tune, who played almost the entire first half, and Blough to 20-of-34 passing for just 178 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. Tune's passer rating was 94.1, and Blough's was 76.5.

Corey Clement led Arizona with 14 carries for 79 yards rushing; the Cardinals as a team had 139 yards on the ground.

View game action photos from he Vikings vs. Cardinals preseason Week 3 game at U.S. Bank Stadium

While the Vikings would have preferred to win the game, the afternoon nonetheless provided valuable experience for young players – and equally worthwhile opportunity for coaches to evaluate players before Tuesday's roster cut-down deadline.

"It was a lot of fun. Obviously a lot of young guys out there. A lot of guys with not a whole lot of experience," Huber said. "There were some plays we left out there that we want back, but for the most part I thought we played hard, we played together, and we executed like we wanted to going in.

"I had fun today. I just wanted to leave it all out there," Huber added. "I had a good time. The tackles, whatever that may be, it is what it is now. I wasn't trying to do too much; I was just trying to do my job. The plays that came, I just tried to make those."

Saturday's score might not count, but the effort and execution certainly do as roster decisions are made and the Vikings transition to the real thing.

"A lot of good out there. A lot of good stuff for guys. Got to play a lot of dudes and gave everybody an opportunity to put some stuff on tape. It's tough when you don't come away with a win," Reeder said. "It says a lot about these guys that it's a third preseason game, and everybody top to bottom on this roster feels like we could have won that one. I think that just shows we have a competitive unit and are ready to go in the next stage."