Notebook: Vikings offense shows good signs; CBs 'fine' after departing
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings finally took the training wheels off their offense Saturday night and allowed Donovan McNabb, Adrian Peterson and company an opportunity to see what they could do.
Using multiple formations, the results should have provided some encouragement that new coordinator Bill Musgrave is willing to take some downfield shots. The Vikings' first-team offense, which had generated three points in four series in the opening two preseason games, had drives of 83, 51, 56 and 45 yards among its six possessions on Saturday.
While Peterson clearly is going to be the focus of this unit -- he carried 11 times for 69 yards in the opening half -- McNabb also utilized wide receiver Bernard Berrian as a deep threat in the Vikings' 23-17 exhibition loss to the Dallas Cowboys before an announced crowd of 62,800.
That is an absolute must, considering that defenses will load up the box to stop Peterson if the Vikings don't try to stretch the field. The biggest play for the first-team offense came on its opening series when McNabb connected with Berrian deep down the middle for a 49-yard touchdown.
Safety Abram Elam had a chance to provide help on the play but couldn't break up the pass before it landed in Berrian's arms.
"That's one of Bernard's strengths," Musgrave said. "He can run some other routes in the intermediate and short-range, too, but he definitely can track the football down the field."
McNabb later looked for Berrian on a 37-yard pass into the end zone in the second quarter, but the receiver couldn't out-jump Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick for the ball.
Berrian finished the half having been targeted four times and catching two passes for 64 yards. Berrian, who did not catch a touchdown pass in the 2010 regular season, is looking to rebound after agreeing to redo his contract and going from a $3.9 million base salary for 2011 to $1.9 million.
It's no secret that former Vikings quarterback Brett Favre often looked for receivers other than Berrian. McNabb, however, appears to have developed a chemistry with Berrian.
"It's been great," Berrian said. "We both came into this offense at the same time so we both took ownership of it and are growing together and getting to know each other well from Day One."
McNabb and several other members of the first-team offense played one series into the third quarter before exiting. McNabb completed 12 of 18 passes for 164 yards with the touchdown and an interception on a pass that was tipped.
Joe Webb replaced McNabb and led the Vikings on a scoring drive that ended with the quarterback running for a 10-yard touchdown. Webb also showed his passing ability during the series, completing a 43-yard pass down the left sideline to Manny Arceneaux to put the Vikings at the Dallas 15-yard line.
Webb had a 36-yard scramble later before rookie Christian Ponder replaced him with 5 minutes, 16 seconds remaining and drove the Vikings to the 16-yard line before time ran out.
Winfield, Cook 'fine' after early exits
Chris Cook continued to get work with the first team in the nickel defense, playing the left corner in place of Antoine Winfield -- who moves inside in that package -- when the Vikings went to five defensive backs until both exited with injuries.
Winfield received attention from trainers after he appeared to jam his right shoulder while tackling Cowboys tight end Jason Witten late in the first quarter. He didn't return to the game, but he walked off the field smiling and was checked out only briefly before watching the rest of the half in pads while standing on the bench.
"Antoine's going to be fine," coach Leslie Frazier said. "If we were in a regular-season game, he would have been right back that next series. But we just want to be cautious and held him back and he'll be ready when the time comes."
Cook departed around the same time with an apparent left hamstring injury.
"Chris is fine," Frazier said. "Just tight a little bit."
Said Cook: "(The hamstring) just got a little tight and it was just precautionary. We've got two weeks until Sept. 11. They didn't want me to pull it in the preseason so (they) just sat me down."
Cook had a miscue in the first quarter, getting a 16-yard pass interference penalty when he grabbed Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant by the hips and slightly spun him around.
Sanford gets the start
Sanford got the start on Saturday, meaning he has started two of the first three preseason games, and made an open-field tackle on big Cowboys tight end Jason Witten to stop Dallas' first series.
"They both made some plays tonight, but Jamarca definitely made a play that sticks out a little bit," Frazier said. "But just to look at the whole and decide which guy's being more productive."
Johnson took over at strong safety in Dallas' third series when several of the Vikings defensive starters remained in the game. He did not help himself as he failed to intercept a Tony Romo pass in the red zone on which he had a chance and then failed to complete a tackle as Dallas running back scored on a 5-yard run.
Sanford, who returned on the next defensive series, said he does not feel as if he has an edge.
"Not at all," he said. "The rotation we've been swapping it up. ... Tonight didn't mean nothing. We're still competing for the job and whoever the decision they go we'll be happy with it."
Return to the 'Dome
The Vikings returned home on Saturday night for the first time since the Metrodome roof collapsed under the weight of a blizzard last Dec. 12. The building had a new roof and a new turf but otherwise had little to nothing altered.
"Obviously, this is not long-term where we want to be as far as far as our home stadium, but we're excited (the roof) is back up," Vikings chief marketing officer Steve LaCroix said. "It's definitely brighter in the seating bowl. It has a little more energy to it.
"Obviously, it's still preseason, so once we (get to) the Tampa Bay regular-season home opener (on Sept. 18) I think we'll really know what this building can do. All the way from how does it sound different, look different, new turf, all that kind of stuff."
The biggest difference is that the middle area of the ceiling allows far more light in than the old roof and acoustic bats now hang from above.
"The new roof -- the only thing that we had to pay for was the $25,000 deductable, plus legal costs," said Bill Lester, the executive director of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission.
"The insurance covered a big part of the bill. Now we're back, we're up, we're running, it's brighter, it looks great. Everybody has an extra hop in their step and it's great."
The Vikings scored on each of their first two possessions and were in position to make it three in a row. But protection broke down on Ryan Longwell's 47-yard field goal attempt, which was blocked and turned into a 20-yard touchdown return for Cowboys cornerback Alan Ball.
"It looked like they were able to leap over the top of us," Frazier said. "They tried it again, and we adjusted something and it wasn't effective for them."
That was the start of an uncommonly rough day for Longwell, who hit a 44-yard field goal early but then had the 47-yarder blocked and came up well short on a 52-yard attempt in the third quarter.
"It was just a bad mishit," Longwell said of the kick that fell short. "I didn't get my foot on it for whatever reason. I can't remember the last time we did that. Good lesson learned for me. I may be experienced but you can still learn. ... It's fortunate it's in the preseason."
Cedric Griffin got his most extensive playing time since his second knee reconstruction surgery in October, and the Cowboys went after him from the get-go.
The Cowboys' first play was a one-step route to Dez Bryant that gained 1 yard, and quarterback Tony Romo unofficially threw into Griffin's coverage eight times, completing six for 57 yards before Griffin departed midway through the second quarter after 27 snaps.
"Oh, I would expect that, for sure, and he does, too," Frazier said. "He knows what happens in the National Football League if you're coming off of one ACL -- that's on two in a span of (nine months).
"But it was good work for him. He needed that. He wanted that. We had a set number of plays we wanted him to get in this ballgame, and once we got to that point, we took him out, but it was good exposure for him."
Griffin sat out the preseason opener and played only five snaps last weekend at Seattle. He showed some rust on Saturday -- particularly on a back-shoulder throw to Bryant along the sideline that went for 14 yards. Griffin never even got his head turned around. He also missed a tackle and was a bystander on Felix Jones' 5-yard touchdown run.
"I'll go back and look at this tape and just see with a critical eye how he did when plays were away from him," Frazier said. "But it looked like from the sideline that he was playing with confidence and breaking and moving like you'd like him to."
Halfback Lorenzo Booker left the field slowly after going to the ground on a third-down play in the third quarter. Frazier said Booker hurt his back and was undergoing evaluation.
Offensive lineman Chris DeGeare suffered what appeared to be a mild concussion on the blocked field goal, Frazier said, and also was undergoing evaluation.
The Vikings scratched seven players, including tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, whom Frazier said "is really close," to returning but will be held out of Thursday's preseason finale as a precaution. It's likely all the starters will be held out of that game.
• RG Anthony Herrera made his first appearance in a game since Nov. 21, when he suffered a torn left ACL against Green Bay at the Metrodome. Herrera exited Saturday's game late in the first half while and was replaced by Ryan Cook. The other members of the starting offensive line remained in the game.
• Sherels again got the first chance to return punts for the Vikings and Lorenzo Booker returned the opening two kickoffs. Booker's role on kickoff returns could be key, because it's expected WR Percy Harvin will see enough playing time on offense that he won't be used consistently on special teams. CB Cord Parks, meanwhile, had a 53-yard kick return in the second quarter.
• LaCroix said next Thursday's preseason finale against Houston at the Metrodome will air in the Twin Cities on KARE (Ch. 11).
• The Vikings' first-team nickel also included rookie Christian Ballard replacing the nose tackle to provide a pass rushing presence. That was the role in which Brian Robison had been utilized before he became the starting left end. Ballard, a fourth-round pick by the Vikings in April, had a third-down sack of Romo late in the first half. "He's a tremendous athlete, and we think he's going to be able to help us here in his rookie year," Frazier said.
• The Vikings were introduced as a team, rather than individually.
• Former Gophers tight end Ben Utecht sang the National Anthem.
Tom Pelissero contributed.