Vikings report card: Zimmer era off to a strong start

New coach Mike Zimmer earned his first win as a head coach with an all-around performance from his team.

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The good feelings from an offseason of change and an undefeated preseason continued for the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.

Minnesota went on the road and beat the St. Louis Rams 34-6, the first road win for the Vikings since 2012. New coach Mike Zimmer earned his first win as a head coach with an all-around performance from his team.

Here’s how Minnesota graded out in each phase in Sunday’s win:

Quarterback Matt Cassel was efficient as the Vikings’ unquestioned starter. Minnesota didn’t have to take to the air much as the big strike came on the ground, the defense provided its own score and a short field which contributed to another touchdown. But Cassel did what he needed to in leading the offense in only attempting 25 passes.

Cassel was 17 of 25 for 170 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers. He completed 68 percent of his passes for a 6.8-yard average per attempt. He had a 113.8 quarterback rating.

There are some kinks to work out. Two snaps went awry, shooting past Cassel and were eventually recovered by the Vikings. Cassel was sacked once and pressured a few times as Minnesota tried to deal with St. Louis’ strong defensive line. The Vikings were just 3 of 11 on third down.

Minnesota suffered from a few penalties, particularly in the first half — including two false starts from left tackle Matt Kalil. Kalil was often matched up with Rams’ defensive end Robert Quinn, who had 19 sacks last season.

Vikings 34, Rams 6

Receiver Greg Jennings again showed chemistry with Cassel, finishing with six catches for 58 yards and a touchdown. Tight end Kyle Rudolph scored a touchdown and should prove to be a red-zone weapon for the Vikings this season.

Minnesota earned this grade in two ways. Cordarrelle Patterson had the biggest play of the game, perhaps the backbreaker for St. Louis when he lined up in the backfield and took a carry 67 yards for a touchdown. Patterson, a receiver, ended up leading the team with 102 rushing yards.

Patterson followed a lead block from running back Matt Asiata with a clear-out block by Brandon Fusco, weaved through the defense and forced four missed tackles on the way to the end zone. Patterson was slow to come around on the offensive side last year, but he’s a key player to start this year and has touchdowns in six straight regular-season games.

The Vikings had 186 rushing yards as a team. Including Patterson’s jaunt, Minnesota averaged 6.2 yards per carry. Adrian Peterson helped the team grind out yards and clock.

Peterson, in his first game of the year, had 21 carries. He finished with 75 rushing yards, averaging 3.6 yards per carry. The Rams’ defensive line put plenty of pressure on the Vikings’ offensive line and Peterson didn’t have much running room at times. He was hit in the backfield several times.

Peterson did show some patience, however. He had a long carry of 17 yards and another rush of 16. On his other 19 carries he had 42 yards, but he helped Minnesota control the game. He just didn’t have the typical explosive Peterson game.

The biggest difference was the Vikings’ defense. The Rams started the game with backup quarterback Shaun Hill. Third-stringer Austin Davis played the second half after Hill was injured. Minnesota took advantage of its opportunities, though. The Vikings had two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown and another led directly to their first touchdown. Minnesota also had five sacks.

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The Vikings will no longer rely on one speed rusher from the outside like in past years with Jared Allen. Zimmer preaches a team approach and will use blitzes to create pressure. Everson Griffen, starting in Allen’s spot now, had two sacks. Minnesota also had sacks from safety Harrison Smith and new defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Tom Johnson.

Smith, back in the secondary after missing eight games last year, returned an interception for touchdown. Josh Robinson, who struggled mightily last season, had a strong game and his interception right before halftime led to a touchdown. Robinson cut in front of a receiver and made a good play by keeping his feet in bounds.

Minnesota allowed 246 new passing yards. However, St. Louis was 4 of 14 on third down and didn’t score a touchdown, while never taking a snap inside the red zone.

The Rams were forced to pass in the second half. The running game wasn’t working anyway. St. Louis did have 22 rushes, finishing with just 72 yards and a 3.3-yard average. The Rams’ longest run was seven yards.

Zac Stacy was a revelation as a fifth-round rookie last year with nearly 1,000 yards. Minnesota bottled Stacy up to 43 yards on 11 carries. Backup Benny Cunningham has more speed, but he didn’t fare much better with 21 yards on five carries. Receiver Tavon Austin added three carries for five yards, as the Vikings didn’t get fooled when he moved into the backfield.

A good sign was kicker Blair Walsh’s performance. Minnesota said it had no concern with its third-year kicker, and he showed why. Walsh started the scoring with a 52-yard field goal and added a 46-yarder, looking like the lock from long distances he was as a rookie. For good measure, he put six of his seven kickoffs deep for touchbacks.

Punter Jeff Locke averaged 47.4 gross yards per attempt and 42.6 net yards, with a long of 52 yards. Austin had five punt returns for a 4.8-yard average and long of 19 yards. The only kickoff return for St. Louis went for 26 yards.

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Patterson didn’t have many chances as kickoff returner, taking two returns for 48 total yards. Punt returner Marcus Sherels only had one return for six yards and was able to keep playing after a vicious hit on one return when a St. Louis player was blocked into an unsuspecting Sherels.

It’s just one game, but the script went well for Zimmer in his first game. There are coaching points and pieces to fix, yet Minnesota snapped its road losing streak and started the 2014 season in fashion. After six penalties for 50 yards in the first half, the Vikings had just one penalty in the second half, while the Rams’ continued to self-destruct with penalties.

Minnesota won the turnover-margin. The Vikings didn’t turn the ball over and had two takeaways. And all of the big plays were on Minnesota’s side. Things will get tougher, starting with next week’s home game against New England, but the Zimmer era is off to a strong start.

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