Notebook: Goodbye, zone running? Vikings leaned toward power in opener
Are the Minnesota Vikings moving away from the zone-running scheme?
It sure looked that way in the early stages of Saturday's exhibition loss at Tennessee, where the No. 1 offense didn't run a single zone play in its first two series under new coordinator Bill Musgrave.
The Vikings opened by sweeping right, with center John Sullivan and right guard Chris DeGeare kicking out in front of Adrian Peterson. They also pulled DeGeare and left guard Steve Hutchinson once each on power runs, one of which yielded a 9-yard gain for Toby Gerhart behind Jeff Dugan's lead block.
Asked if he's trying to feel out what his line does well in the running game, Musgrave was vague, saying only that the Vikings "ran the ball pretty well (Saturday). We had good communication on the sideline as a staff for the first time, and the mechanics were good, I think, for a first game."
Former Vikings coach Brad Childress espoused the inside-zone scheme, which calls for quicker offensive linemen to block an area instead of a specific man and backs to make one cut through the hole wherever it opens up. The Atlanta Falcons mostly were a zone team while Musgrave was quarterbacks coach there, too.
But the evolution of the Vikings' line suggests it might be best-suited to running more power plays. Hutchinson's balance and bending ability have declined at age 33, and there's a lot of beef on the right side of the line between DeGeare (335 pounds) and right tackle Phil Loadholt (343 pounds).
Then again, in the starters' 15 snaps on Saturday, the only other run play was a failed dive to Gerhart on third-and-1 that ended with Hutchinson, Sullivan and fullback Ryan D'Imperio all on the ground behind the line of scrimmage. Two other runs were called for Peterson, who is so talented he probably can succeed in any scheme, but quarterback Donovan McNabb threw backside options.
Once the second string took the field, the first play was a zone-left run to Lorenzo Booker, who ended that drive with a fumble on another power run that fell apart because of missed blocks by DeGeare and backup left tackle Patrick Brown.
There's a danger in reading too much into scheme in the preseason, of course, given there is little or no game-planning and coaches are reluctant to reveal any unexpected wrinkles. Still, it'll be interesting to see if there's a similar trend in the running game next Saturday, when starters figure to play close to 20 snaps at Seattle.
"I think we'll find out where we want to hang our hat and go in that direction," Musgrave said. "If we need to get more exotic, we will, but we also want to breast our cards for the regular season as well."
Jasper Brinkley provided one of Saturday's forgettable moments when he flew into the backfield on a zone blitz and whiffed on Titans quarterback Jake Locker.
Less noticed on the play was fellow linebacker Erin Henderson losing sight in coverage on receiver Nate Washington, who came free over the middle and caught Locker's pass for a 7-yard gain.
It wasn't all bad, however, in Henderson's first start as he tries to beat out Brinkley and perhaps others for the weakside starting job. He made a good read to snuff out a screen for a 4-yard loss and was credited with 10 tackles, including seven solo.
"I have a lot of work to do," Henderson said. "I have to stay low and continue to try and be explosive like the coaches are asking me to do. I think I came on a little stronger towards the end.
"I had a rough start. I was flying around a little bit. I'm just still trying to get adjusted to the speed of the game again. But I think it went pretty well."
Christian Ponder got an up-close look at how ugly things can get in the fourth quarter of NFL preseason games.
The rookie quarterback's final two series ended in turnovers on downs -- a stretch in which the Vikings were flagged for delay of game and an illegal shift and at one point broke the huddle with only 10 players before rookie fullback Matt Asiata ran on late.
"That's going to happen," Ponder said. "Obviously, we don't want it to happen and it's stuff to learn from. But that was basically all rookies in in the fourth quarter and new to it all. I think it's good to learn from. The good thing is it happened in the preseason, not the regular season."
Ponder will have a little more experience around him in Seattle. He's slated to run the second-team offense while Joe Webb runs the third string.
• Rookie DT Christian Ballard sacked Titans QB Jake Locker in 1.7 seconds, with a blitzer in the A-gap confusing the protection. Ballard could end up with a fine -- it appeared the crown of his helmet struck Locker's.
• D'Imperio, Asiata and tight ends Jimmy Kleinsasser and Jeff Dugan all lined up in the backfield during the No. 1 offense's 15 plays as the Vikings evaluate whether they need a true fullback or have one who's worth keeping around.
• Starting in place of RE Jared Allen, Everson Griffen had three QB pressures on the Titans' opening series -- one each with a speed move, a bull rush and a spin -- but probably cost himself at least one sack by losing his balance.
• LT Charlie Johnson didn't receive much help from chips or double teams, but the Vikings did repeatedly line up a tight end on his side, making the Titans' ends line up farther away from the ball.
• After an off-day on Sunday, the Vikings return to the field at their Winter Park headquarters for a walkthrough on Monday morning and practice in the Monday afternoon. All practices the rest of the season are closed to the public.