CANTON, Ohio —The Vikings opened the 2015 preseason in the cradle of professional football with a 14-3 victory against the Steelers in the Hall of Fame Game Sunday night at Tom Benson Stadium.* *
Participation in the Hall of Fame Game is a unique opportunity for a fifth preseason game, and both teams rested their starters for all or most of the game that was attended by 22,364.
Although there was great support for the "home team" from the Vikings fans, the proximity of Pittsburgh created almost a road game atmosphere with the majority of fans sporting black and gold and waving Terrible Towels.
The Vikings added veterans Mike Wallace, Shaun Hill and Terence Newman this offseason and a good bit of the roster is returning for a second season in offensive and defensive systems that remained the same, but Sunday belonged to players with little experience.
Solid start: The Vikings started their first team, but Pittsburgh didn't play Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell or Antonio Brown, who all led the AFC in multiple categories last season.
The defense forced a three-and-punt, with Robert Blanton and Xavier Rhodes making quick tackles and Harrison Smith locking in on elusive speedster Dri Archer on third down.
The first-team offense (sans Adrian Peterson) opened with its starters and moved the ball 51 yards down the field on 10 plays. The drive, however, stalled in the red zone, and Minnesota missed converting fourth-and-1 with a run by Jerick McKinnon, who showed his own elusiveness after catching a short pass near the sideline.
Zimmer opted to pull starters on offense and defense after the first series, but had to be at least a little pleased by the defense getting off the field quickly and the offense staying on it for more than five minutes to open a game.
"I think they wanted to play longer. I just felt like with five preseason games, I told (Offensive Coordinator) Norv (Turner) if we get eight or nine plays and score, I'm going to get them out, and we had 10 plays, I think. I just decided let's get them out. It will be a little bit of confidence for them as we go. Defensively, we had a couple of older guys in there with Newman and (Chad) Greenway and (Brian Robison) that I just felt like we're going to get some of those guys out."
Greenway, who made his first trip to Canton to open his 10th pro season, said he thought it was a good start for the team.
"It's always nice to win every game, so it was a good start for us and good to get out here. I only got three snaps. A lot of the starters only got a few snaps on defense," Greenway said. "The offense went down, and obviously in a regular season situation, you're most likely going to get points, so I think they were content with their first drive. It's nice to see the guys work hard. We have a lot of things to clean up. It's the first preseason game and it's early, but it's always nice to get a win and only give up three points.
Ru-dy! Ru-dy! From Ted-dy! Ted-dy!:Teddy Bridgewater's first pass of 2015 went to tight end Kyle Rudolph cutting across the middle for a gain of 11. Bridgewater also looked Rudy's way to convert a third-and-5 with another gain of 11. Turns out, Bridgewater wanted to go that way again in the red zone, but wasn't able to and a late decision led to his only incompletion of the night on a short throw to Wallace.
"I felt pretty good. It was good to be back out there and take command of that huddle," Bridgewater said. "I felt good. I wish I could have hit Mike in the flat right there, but we know we're not where we want to be. We're going to continue to try to get better. I kind of got a little greedy. I was hoping to get Kyle Rudolph. He was running a corner route and he got tripped up, so I got to Mike late. Coach Turner talked to me and told me the play starts with Mike, so 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."
Rudolph said two quick receptions was an exciting way to feel "in the flow" and the Vikings enjoyed going against another team after two-plus weeks of training camp.
"We've been practicing against each other for a while and to get out and play against another team," Rudolph said. "We didn't do much game plan-wise, but we did walk through some of their stuff. It was good to get a dress rehearsal for what it's like for real."
Bridgewater opened with four straight completions: gaining 11 to Rudolph, 13 to McKinnon, 11 more on his second pass to Rudy and 1 on a quick throw to Charles Johnson.
After missing Wallace, who was open, Bridgewater bounced back with a completion to Jarius Wright, but it was a yard shy of the mark. The Vikings went for it on fourth-and-1 at the Pittsburgh 10, but McKinnon was stopped.
On the line:The second-team offensive line of (from left to right) Carter Bykowski, Tyrus Thompson, Ohio native Zac Kerin, Austin Shepherd and T.J. Clemmings (who played for the Pittsburgh Panthers) faced a challenge late in the second half and answered the bell. The Vikings took over at their own 1-yard line after a goal-line stand by the defense. The OL had a solid push for breathing room and a 3-yard gain by fullback Blake Renaud. Two carries by Matt Asiata nearly led to a first down, but the Vikings were able to end the half on a punt by Jeff Locke that was downed as time expired.
Eight-year veteran center John Sullivan said he liked what he saw from a unit that has 0 regular season games to its credit and played without Joe Berger and David Yankey.
"Backed up is a situation we practice a lot," Sullivan said. "You go in that situation and you've got to get out of the shadow of your own end zone, give your punter and your punt team a little room to operate and make sure you don't give up points there before the half. They did a good job of moving the ball a little bit, and Jeff Locke hit a great punt directionally toward our sideline, and they weren't able to have a fair catch to try to score some points before the half because we executed on offense and special teams."
Takeaway 2:The Vikings were able to force two turnovers with hits after Steelers players caught passes. Audie Cole forced the first fumble with a wallop that popped the ball into the air. Antone Exum, Jr. landed on it, jumped up and returned it 32 yards.
In the second half, it was cornerback Jalil Carter forcing a fumble that was recovered by linebacker Brian Peters one play after Pittsburgh intercepted Taylor Heinicke. The rookie's pass that bounced off tight end Chase Ford. The Vikings defense allowed just 43 yards after forcing the second turnover.
Cole started at middle linebacker, but Eric Kendricks also got some work in, and Gerald Hodges was at "Mike" on a couple of plays.
"That's kind of the things Audie does," Zimmer said. "He knows where to be, shows up, is not real flashy with what he does, but is consistent and that's a good thing.
"I thought Kendricks did some nice things. We had Hodges at the mike linebacker for two plays I believe, and I thought he showed up a little bit. You could see some of the flashes there."
3 Thoughts from Zim:
On Trae Waynes, who was on the opening kick coverage unit and in on the third snap of the game:
"I wanted him to get out there with some of their receivers," Zimmer said. "I didn't know who was playing for them tonight, and then I wanted to look at Newman inside just a little bit. It was something to look at."
Zimmer said he thought Waynes, who drew three flags from officials, showed mental toughness and can "learn some of the technical things about the NFL, but athletically and the type of kid he is, he's going to be fine."
On the 62-yard punt return by Stefon Diggs:
"I don't know about electrifying, but I know the game is not too big for him," Zimmer said. "I like a lot of things about him. He wants to work. One day he was talking to himself before practice, saying, 'I've got to get better today.' I said, 'yeah, that's what happens when you play this game. You start talking to yourself.' "
On MyCole Pruitt's touchdown:
"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 of times tonight. I think he's going to continue to get better. He's a good kid."
Causes for Celebration: Sullivan's had an accomplished career with multiple milestones, but this week eclipsed all others and is going to be tough to supplant.
"You can't beat having a kid on Tuesday, turning 30 on Saturday and playing in an NFL game on Sunday," Sullivan said. "It's the best week ever. Hands down."
Back in Minnesota: In addition to Berger and Yankey, Anthony Barr, Josh Robinson, Scott Crichton, B.J. DuBose and Gavin Lutman did not make the trip because of injuries. Players are scheduled to be off Monday and resume training camp Tuesday at Minnesota State University, Mankato.