Buffalo set the stage for one last audition on Thursday, and several Vikings made the most of their opportunities to be part of Minnesota’s cast this season.
Players on both sides of the ball flashed against the Bills in both teams’ fourth and final preseason game before mandatory final roster cuts are made by Saturday afternoon.
“Yeah, tonight we played a lot of those guys,” Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said of those still being evaluated and jockeying for positions. “They got a lot of plays in there.”
Among that group was a pair of young tight ends who led the team in receiving yards.
Offensive Coordinator Kevin Stefanski and Assistant Head Coach/Offensive Advisor Gary Kubiak have emphasized the importance of being “multiple” on offense, and it appears that the Vikings system will employ the use of heavier formations and, well, multiple tight end sets.
Cole Hikutini, who was on the Vikings practice squad in 2018, and rookie Brandon Dillon, largely unknown prior to the preseason, combined for 93 yards through the air. Dillon had five catches for 48 yards, and Hikutini made four grabs for 45.
In the first quarter, Dillon hauled in a would-be 23-yard touchdown from Kyle Sloter, but the score was nullified by a holding penalty on tackle Storm Norton. Soon after, an 11-yard catch by Hikutini helped set up a 15-yard touchdown catch by Ameer Abdullah on third down.
Hikutini and Dillon each totaled three catches for double-digit gains. Just before halftime, they combined for four catches and 41 yards on a drive capped by a Kaare Vedvik 27-yard field goal.
Veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph, second-round draft pick Irv Smith, Jr., and Tyler Conklin did not play.
From the running backs room, Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison were held out, which opened the door for Mike Boone, Abdullah and De’Angelo Henderson in the ground game. Fullback C.J. Ham also did not play, which opened created another opportunity for Khari Blasingame.
Henderson led the pack in rushing with 59 yards on 16 carries and scored one of the Vikings two touchdowns. He and Blasingame took all of the carries in the second half.
In the first two quarters, Abdullah and Boone shared the load, with Boone accruing 21 yards on five attempts. Boone, who led the NFL in preseason rushing yards entering Thursday’s game, had 19 yards on six attempts.
Boone also turned on the jets when he chased down a defender who scooped up a lost ball by Sloter and sprinted toward the end zone.
“I tried to do whatever I could with the opportunities I had, tried to take advantage,” Boone said.
“That’s our standard. You make a play with or without the ball, you know, it’s kind of what they’ve been preaching, and that’s what I was trying to do,” he later added.
View images as the Vikings take on the Buffalo Bills in Buffalo on Thursday night.
The fumble was reviewed and ultimately ruled an incomplete pass, but Boone’s effort caught the eye of Zimmer, nonetheless.
“The runners all did well. Boone ran hard, he’s physical – I liked how he went and chased that guy down after they thought the ball was a fumble. He did really well,” Zimmer said. “Abdullah ran hard. Blasingame did a nice job. I thought they all did well.”
Evaluation of roster spots will happen on defense, as well, and young Vikings made their case in front a crowd that contained at least a few familiar faces.
Rookie Anree Saint-Amour was one of the starting defensive ends and proud to play in front of his parents, Manfred and Renise, who made the trip up from Georgia to watch their son.
“It was great. Growing up, you always want to play in an NFL game,” Saint-Amour said. “Being able to … to play in the game, make some plays, you just go out there and play hard – you never know what’s going to happen. It was great having them up here, supporting me.”
Saint-Amour stopped Bills running back Marcus Murphy for a loss of 2 late in the first quarter, helping to stall the Bills drive and force them to settle for a field goal.
In the fourth quarter, he recovered a fumble by Bills 6-foot-7 quarterback Tyree Jackson.
“It felt great to do something productive,” Saint-Amour said after the game.
The fumble was caused by fellow rookie defensive end Karter Schult, who sacked Jackson for a loss of 9. According to press box stats, Schult finished the night with three tackles (two solo).
Schult and Saint-Amour both know they’re part of a deep defensive line group and are hopeful for a shot while equally grateful for being able to develop under veterans in the room.
Saint-Amour said he’s grown “exponentially” as a player since signing with the Vikings this spring.
“Just being here with [defensive line coaches Andre Patterson and Rob Rodriguez], they taught me so much about the pass rush, so much about the run game, about football in general,” he said. “And just having [veterans] like [Everson Griffen], Danielle [Hunter], Stephen [Weatherly], Ifeadi [Odenigbo], all those guys, you pick up so many things – Shamar [Stephen] – everybody.
“You pick up so much from the veterans even though you’re not getting so much in the games, but during practice, you’re learning things and getting better – at least one-percent better every day,” Saint-Amour added. “After a couple days, you’re getting a lot better.”
Zimmer has previously kept 10 defensive linemen on the roster but reminded media members that final numbers have yet to be hashed out.
“We have a good group of defensive linemen, and it’s always good to keep big guys. Big guys are hard to find, whether it’s on the offensive line or defensive line,” Zimmer said. “We’ll just have to see how it goes.”
The young Vikings have done everything they can, and now they wait.
Asked about his confidence level that he will be a part of Minnesota’s active roster, Boone said that he understands it’s out of his control.
“I don’t even think about it,” he said. “I just do what I do and leave that up to the coaches. That’s their decision – it’s out of my hands.”
And although the teammates are competing against one another for coveted roles, they emphasize equally the camaraderie in the locker room.
“It’s all love,” Boone said. “I feel like throughout the whole team, not just the running back room. We cheer each other on – good, bad, ugly. That’s what teammates and brothers are for.”
Added Saint-Amour: “The spirit’s good because … we’re all cheering each other on. We’ve got each other’s backs.”