Vikings’ offense sputters in San Francisco

The Minnesota Vikings finally got their chance to hit another team on Friday in the preseason opener, but they ended up taking most of the hits in a 17-6 loss at San Francisco.

But the final results aren’t the important thing for Minnesota. Player evaluations are taken to another step based on the preseason games and the Vikings have 90 players in camp, with several to be cut to reach the 53-man roster limit in a month.

Minnesota didn’t use much time for most of their top players, sitting out receiver Percy Harvin, defensive end Jared Allen, defensive tackle Kevin Williams and cornerback Antoine Winfield. The starting offense played two series and the main defensive starters played part of the first quarter.

Here are five things we learned in the first preseason game:
1. Ponder seems comfortable on offense.
All the talk from coaches, teammates and quarterback Christian Ponder himself has been about the starting quarterback being more comfortable and confident in his second year in the NFL and second year in offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave’s system.

Ponder certainly seemed more sure of himself in his limited time on Friday. He was only 4 for 9 passing for 80 yards, but three passes were dropped by receivers and two of the incompletions were from balls Ponder purposely threw away. He drove the Vikings to just outside the red zone on his first drive and into the red zone on the second drive against one of the top defenses in the NFL last season, but had to settle for field goals.

Perhaps most importantly, Ponder seemed comfortable in the pocket. Even when faced with some mild pressure, he stayed in the pocket and delivered the ball to receivers. Last year, Ponder resorted to running out of the pocket at the slightest hint of pressure quite often. Staying on his spot is another sign of progress.
2. Wide receivers have a lot to prove.
Harvin didn’t play and the other receivers didn’t ease any concerns. Jerome Simpson, Michael Jenkins and Stephen Burton each dropped passes on the first two drives. Simpson has been the highlight during training camp, but he has struggled with drops in the past. Jenkins isn’t able to get the separation that he might have been able to earlier in his career and needs to be sure-handed. Burton did catch a 52-yard pass from Ponder, the key to the first drive. Burton has impressed this offseason in his second year.

But Minnesota needs receivers other than Harvin to step up and aid Ponder’s development. Simpson was signed to be one of those guys, but he’s suspended for the first three games and must catch the ball. Burton and Jenkins will have their opportunities, but didn’t really stand out Friday aside from Burton’s deep ball. The only backup receiver to catch a pass was Kerry Taylor, who caught two passes from third-string quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson in the fourth quarter. With a few roster spots up for grabs, none of the receivers established themselves as leaders of the pack.
3. Walsh shows off his leg.
Aside from Ponder, the biggest spotlight is probably on rookie kicker Blair Walsh and he fared well in his first game action in the NFL. He was 2 for 2 on field-goal attempts, connecting from 39 yards and 26 yards to finish off each of Ponder’s drives with points.

And one of the big reasons why Walsh was drafted and the Vikings released veteran Ryan Longwell was the effect on kickoffs. Walsh has a strong leg and showed it in the winds in San Francisco. His first kickoff, into the wind, went five yards into the end zone. His second one, with the wind, went out out of the end zone for a touchback. He also had a kickoff into the wind that went about eight yards deep in the end zone. Minnesota wants to see how the rookie reacts to pressure, and his first NFL game went as well as could have been expected.
4. Webb is still a runner.
Backup quarterback Joe Webb is a great athlete, who is still trying to become a quarterback. He’s had a rough training camp and it continued in Friday’s game. Partly due to an ineffective offensive line, Webb was erratic and turned into, simply, a runner on Friday. He was 4 for 11 passing for 20 yards and was flushed from the pocket repeatedly. He ended with two official carries for nine yards.

But Webb was running all over the field. Even in training camp practices, Webb has seemed reluctant to pull the trigger on some throws and doesn’t seem as comfortable in the passing game despite being in his second season in Musgrave’s system, as well. Webb’s athleticism and strong arm offer intrigue, but he’s still raw when it comes to being a passer. Webb is now in his third NFL season and needs to show he can be a competent quarterback, even if the Vikings view him in a solely backup role.
5. The rookies get their first NFL test.
Walsh had a strong game, one of 10 draft picks for Minnesota in what should be a pivotal draft class. Third-round pick Josh Robinson didn’t play because he’s still recovering from a hamstring injury and Robert Blanton was also out and has missed a week of practice with a hamstring injury.

First-rounders Matt Kalil and Harrison Smith were strong in limited action. Kalil, taking over as the starting left tackle, was hardly noticeable, a good thing from a left tackle. He was beat on one play, which forced Ponder from the pocket. But Ponder wasn’t sacked in the game and Kalil was solid otherwise. Smith backed up starters Mistral Raymond and Jamarca Sanford at safety and really didn’t play much. He did make one heady play on a reverse, standing his ground and stopping the play for a loss. He had one tackle.

Fourth-round receiver Jarius Wright received snaps throughout the entire game and did drop a pass in the fourth quarter. Another fourth-rounder, tight end Rhett Ellison, continues to show good hands. He was drafted for his blocking acumen, but he’s also surprised with his receiving. He had two catches for 17 yards.

Seventh-round linebacker Audie Cole, playing mostly with the third-team defense, had three tackles and a sack. Cole stood out and maybe could earn more of a role in a linebacker corps looking for someone to step up and provide depth for the starters. Defensive lineman Trevor Guyton, drafted in the seventh round, didn’t record any stats but did play a good portion of the game in a reserve role.
Follow Brian Hall on Twitter.