MINNEAPOLIS — Tennessee coach Mike Munchak gambled by playing much of his starting offense in the final preseason game.
Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier wanted no part of that, and was reminded just how dangerous the NFL can be when one of his backups was carted off the field in the second quarter.
Jake Locker went 3 for 5 for 31 yards and led the Titans to a field goal on the opening drive of a 24-23 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday night.
For Locker, it was chance to get one last bit of work in and build on a solid preseason before they open the regular season at Pittsburgh on Sept. 8.
“I feel really comfortable with this group,” Locker said. “I like what we’re doing offensively and I’ve got a lot of confidence in what we’re doing, so I’m excited.”
Hoping to avoid a spot on the practice squad, Rusty Smith completed 13 of 21 passes for 178 yards with one touchdown and one interception for the Titans (1-3). Backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was 5 for 5 for 61 yards and a touchdown.
Marcus Sherels returned a kick 109 yards for a touchdown and intercepted a pass in a last-ditch effort to make the team for the Vikings, who were thankful that a scary collision involving offensive lineman Seth Olsen only resulted in a concussion.
Sherels entered the game with a heavy heart, having recently lost his father, and fighting for one of the final cornerback spots.
“It’s been tough, but with my teammates and the organization and the coaches, they’ve all helped me tremendously,” Sherels said. “They’ve made it a lot easier.”
Olsen was taken off the field on a stretcher after linebacker Scott Solomon’s knee collided with Olsen’s helmet. He received a standing ovation from the crowd and gave a thumbs-up with his left hand as he was wheeled off the field.
A few hours later, Olsen was walking around in the locker room and speaking with teammates.
Munchak took the unusual approach of playing his starting quarterback, starting offensive line and several of his most important skill position players in the fourth preseason game.
One of the few offensive starters who did not see action was star running back Chris Johnson.
But Munchak felt the risk of injury just over a week away from the season opener was outweighed by the desire to get Locker as much work as possible to prepare him for his second full season as the starter.
Locker missed five games last season because of a shoulder injury and many consider this year make-or-break for the 2011 first-round pick.
So Munchak threw him out there in a game that traditionally calls for coaches to rest starters, especially at the game’s most important position.
Locker led an 18-play drive in the first quarter that ended with a 28-yard field goal by Rob Bironas. The drive did come against the Vikings’ second-team defense, but it was enough for Munchak, who sent in Fitzpatrick after that.
“We’re glad it was just one drive and not a few,” Munchak said. “We thought we’d have that group in for 12 plays with that offensive line group, and they went about (18) plays.
“We didn’t finish the drive. We got a field goal, but it was all we wanted, to break a sweat and get a workout, have a little success with that group again.”
Many Vikings fans wanted to see Frazier take the same approach with Christian Ponder, also about to enter his second full season as the starter.
Ponder was unimpressive in the first three preseason games, completing 62 percent of his passes for 184 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Vikings will no doubt ride MVP Adrian Peterson in pursuit of a return to the playoffs, but Ponder’s development into a consistent playmaker may be the biggest key to their chances.
But after watching starting defensive tackle Kevin Williams go down with a knee injury in the third quarter last week at San Francisco, Frazier wasn’t about to take any chances with the opener at Detroit so close.
“From my standpoint, in today’s NFL with the depth issues that you have, it’s not worth the risk,” Frazier said.
Titans second-round pick Justin Hunter had four catches for 45 yards and a touchdown.
McLeod Bethel-Thompson completed 19 of 26 passes for 187 yards with one touchdown and one interception, and Blair Walsh kicked a 25-yard field goal with 1:38 to play to help the Vikings avoid going 0-4 in the preseason.