Thursday night’s fourth preseason game was important for the Minnesota Vikings and the players fighting to stay on the active roster when the deadline for cuts comes Friday evening.
Minnesota has to release 22 players Friday to reach the 53-man limit. Some might be brought back for the eight-man practice squad after they clear waivers. Coaches only had only one more game — the final impression — and a few hours to evaluate before cuts had to be made. Thursday’s 28-24 loss on the road to the Houston Texans was a resume builder, and the Vikings had several big plays to alter what coaches might be thinking heading into the cuts.
Five things learned in the final audition for the regular season:
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1. Big plays by receivers help their cause.
With starting receiver Jerome Simpson suspended for the first three games, Minnesota had been looking for a receiver to step forward with four key players getting all of the action Thursday. Devin Aromashodu and Jarius Wright seized the opportunity. Wright entered the game without a catch in the preseason and had six receptions for 122 yards, including a 59-yard touchdown catch on a streak down the sideline. However, Wright did leave the game with what appeared to be a sprained ankle on his final catch.
Aromashodu has the edge among the four receivers because of his experience last season, and he had five catches for 89 yards, including a 58-yard touchdown. The two big plays from Aromashodu and Wright were the exact type of plays the Vikings could be missing without Simpson. With possibly three roster spots open for Aromashodu, Wright, Stephen Burton and Emmanuel Arceneaux, Thursday’s game might have decided the winners. Burton had three catches for 47 yards and returned four kicks for a 25-yard average but dropped one pass. Meanwhile, Arceneaux had two catches for 28 yards but also appeared to lose sight of a pass that could have been completed.
2. The fight for the final roster spot among running backs got more interesting.
Fullback turned tailback Matt Asiata led Minnesota in rushing during the preseason and had another strong game with seven carries for 43 yards, but Jordan Todman’s arrival was a big one. Todman had been limited most of training camp and the preseason with a sprained ankle. Finally healthy, he showed off his speed with his most extensive playing time to date. He got to the outside and outraced the defense down the sideline for a 76-yard touchdown run. He had 10 carries for 114 yards and also caught four passes. Also in the mix, Lex Hilliard had seven carries for 33 yards.
Special teams play will likely factor in the decision between Asiata, Hilliard and Todman. Asiata and Hilliard play on the coverage units. Todman returned a kickoff in Thursday for 29 yards. Todman was behind the curve because of his injury, but he leapt back into the conversation with his big run, and his ability to make big plays could sway the coaches’ minds after Asiata likely came into Thursday with the edge. This decision will come down to what kind of player the coaches are looking for.
3. The Vikings’ backups struggle against the run.
Minnesota started the preseason with a poor effort against the running offense of the San Francisco 49ers, giving up more than 200 yards playing without starters Jared Allen, Kevin Williams and Antoine Winfield. With their full starting unit back on the field, the Vikings regained their momentum by holding the Bills and Chargers under 100 yards rushing. With the starters again on the sideline Thursday, the Texans’ running backs took advantage.
Against the second- and third-team defense, Houston ran for 168 yards, averaging 5.8 yards per attempt. Texans third-string back Justin Forsett had 13 carries for 114 yards and two touchdowns. His 52-yard run set up the opening touchdown. Many of Minnesota’s backup defenders don’t have enough experience on defense — particularly linebacker Larry Dean and safety Eric Frampton, two standout special teams players who were burned at times Thursday. Rookie linebacker Audie Cole was active with five tackles, but the linebacking corps could undergo some changes even after Friday’s cuts.
4. There’s reason to question the quarterback hierarchy.
Joe Webb has been Christian Ponder’s primary backup, and the coaches haven’t wavered from making him the No. 2. He’s shown flashes of potential in relief roles the past two years, but in his third year in the NFL he’s still raw as a quarterback. On Thursday, he was 4 for 7 passing for 47 yards while playing the first quarter. He was 21 for 41 for 199 yards in the preseason and didn’t have a touchdown pass or interception.
Third-stringer Sage Rosenfels had another strong outing. The veteran was 7 for 11 for 111 yards with the touchdown to Aromashodu. Rosenfels doesn’t have the upside of Webb, but he has a much stronger grasp of the offense. Even fourth-stringer McLeod Bethel-Thompson, getting the chance to play the entire second half, was 15 for 29 for 193 yards with one interception. He connected with Wright for the long touchdown, though, and drove the Vikings 78 yards deep into Houston territory at the end of the game, but a missed fourth-down pass ended the chance at a comeback with nine seconds left. It’s unlikely the Vikings would change how the quarterbacks stack up, but after this game it’s a worthy debate due to Webb’s slow growth as a passer, Rosenfels’ knowledge and Bethel-Thompson’s big arm and possible upside.
5. The field goal group is still trying to get in sync.
Whatever is the cause, rookie kicker Blair Walsh has missed field-goal attempts in three straight games. Minnesota took a chance by releasing reliable veteran Ryan Longwell because it liked Walsh’s strong leg and believed it could solve his consistency issues.
The miss three weeks ago could possibly have occurred because of the snap and hold. Last week’s miss was on Walsh, as he pushed it to the left. This week’s miss looked like another mistake on either the snap or the hold. Regardless, three misses in three straight weeks with a rookie kicker looking to gain confidence is a factor. Longwell, holder Chris Kluwe and long snapper Cullen Loeffler had worked together for a long time. And now there is a different dynamic with Walsh replacing Longwell. Walsh ended the preseason 9 for 12 on field-goal attempts, getting several chances as drives stalled. This trio needs to get on the same page before the regular season rolls around next week.