Minnesota finished its 2014 preseason undefeated with a 19-3 victory at Tennessee. The Vikings now will head into meetings to discuss the final roster cuts as they round out their 53-man roster before Saturday’s deadline and the start of the regular season on Sept. 7.
Coach Mike Zimmer’s first preseason went well. Minnesota outscored its opponents 89-49 and was plus-5 in turnover-differential with six takeaways. The Vikings will try to decipher which players that helped them to the strong preseason can stay and hope to continue momentum into the regular season
Here are five things learned as Minnesota had its last chance to impress in the regular season:
1. Some intrigue at running back
The fourth preseason game will always allow some players to shine who likely won’t make the team. The Vikings have one of those situations at running back. Adrian Peterson is perhaps the best back in the league and Matt Asiata’s spot seems secure as the top backup. Asiata didn’t even play Thursday. Rookie Jerick McKinnon has shown well in the preseason and was a third-round draft pick.
Three spots settled leaves Joe Banyard and Dominique Williams in a position in which Minnesota likely can’t afford to keep four running backs. Banyard did his part on Thursday to prove his worth to the Vikings and to the rest of the NFL. The game gave Banyard a chance to audition for the entire league if he doesn’t make Minnesota’s roster.
After a short appearance by McKinnon (three carries for 23 yards), Banyard took over in wet conditions and might have earned a job on some team’s roster. He had 18 carries for 111 yards and was the offensive star of the game. He added one catch, though he did drop a potential touchdown right at the goal line. Banyard ran for 212 yards in the preseason
Williams had 15 carries for 58 yards and added two catches. Williams finished with 131 rushing yards in the preseason
2. Opening the holes
One reason for Banyard’s success was the holes opened by the offensive line. Minnesota sat its five starting linemen, leaving Thursday as the opportunity for several players to prove they should stick as backups. Center Joe Berger is almost assured of one backup position and it would be hard to see the Vikings waiving guard David Yankey, a fifth-round draft pick.
With Berger and Yankey nearly locks, one or two positions on the active roster are likely left between guards Vladimir Ducasse and Jeff Baca, tackles Austin Wentworth, Antonio Richardson and Mike Remmers and possibly center Zac Kerin. Richardson and Wentworth started at left and right tackle, respectively, on Thursday, with Berger joined inside by Yankey and Ducasse.
The group opened plenty of big holes in the running game for Banyard, but struggled at times in pass coverage. Starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater evaded pressure a few times, and Christian Ponder was forced out and ran three times, while also being sacked twice. On one play, Tennessee defensive lineman Karl Klug easily beat Yankey.
3. Reisner rising
Allen Reisner returned to Minnesota this offseason after time in Jacksonville and could stick around. The Vikings likely will keep three tight ends and are looking for someone behind Kyle Rudolph and Rhett Ellison. Reisner is the only one of the bubble tight ends to have produced in games.
Chase Ford had appeared as the favorite early in the offseason, but he just recently returned to practice and he didn’t play in Thursday’s game as he comes back from foot surgery. Has time run out on Ford? Minnesota released Mike Higgins and Kory Sperry earlier this week in the first round of cuts.
Reisner appears to have risen from the pack. He had a team-high four catches for 33 yards on Thursday and ended the preseason tied for the team high with eight catches and led with three receiving touchdowns.
The Vikings allowed 30 points per game last season. The defense accounted for 20 takeaways, tied for the fifth-fewest in the league, with 12 interceptions, tied for the eighth-fewest. It might just be preseason, but Minnesota has to feel progress is being made defensively.
The Vikings allowed 12.25 points per game in the preseason. The offense committed one turnover, which helped Minnesota go plus-5 in turnover differential in the preseason. The team was plus-2 on Thursday at Tennessee.
Julian Posey, perhaps fighting for one of the final cornerback spots, had an interception on Thursday. Backup defensive lineman Corey Wootton stripped Tennessee’s quarterback of the ball and deftly grabbed the ball while it was in the air for a fumble recovery. The Vikings intercepted five passes in the preseason, each by a different player.
Zimmer won’t be happy with letting the Titans run for 125 yards and 5.7 yards per carry. But Minnesota only allowed a field goal with 7:08 left in the game, the second time this preseason in which it lost a shutout late.
As for the battle at middle linebacker, both Jasper Brinkley and Audie Cole started Thursday’s game, with Cole playing on the outside. Cole finished with a team-high five tackles. Brinkley had two. At safety, Kurt Coleman and Robert Blanton played the first half, with Andrew Sendejo and Antone Exum playing in the second half. Exum left late in the game with an apparent injury but had four tackles.
5. No worries
There was some concern outside the organization about Blair Walsh after the kicker missed three kicks in the first two preseason games. Walsh has been perfect since. He made four field goals on Thursday, with the longest from 45 yards.
One of his misses in the first two games was the longer, experimental extra-point attempt. The two others were from beyond 50 yards. Since his last miss, he’s made seven straight field-goal attempts. All of the games were played outdoors, and the wet weather Thursday wasn’t ideal.