The Vikings escaped an opening week on the road with a 25-16 win against the Titans, despite Minnesota missing its presumed franchise quarterback, getting very little out of the star running back, and failing to score an offensive touchdown. The Vikings are now 1-0.
This column presents 4 thoughts from Sunday’s win.
1. The story of the game almost turned out to be Blair Walsh.
Fortunately for the Vikings and for their struggling kicker, he recovered and the team’s great defense bailed him out.
Walsh lined up to kick a 37-yard field goal early in the second quarter, and not a single Vikings fan had forgotten about the kick he missed in the first round of the playoffs last year as the Seahawks advanced.
On Sunday, Walsh’s first kick sailed…wide left.
OK, no big deal. Sure, a conspiracy theorist could wonder if the nerves got to Walsh, who has drilled countless kicks since that fateful January day – in practice and in games that don’t matter. Perhaps he was battling demons or perhaps it was just a fluke and these things happen and he got the first one out of the way.
Nope. At the end of the first half Walsh missed another one — albeit from 56 yards – not only wide left but so improbably far wide left that the first thought was that it must have been blocked. He also missed an extra point after the Vikings scored on Eric Kendricks’ interception touchdown return.
To Walsh’s credit, he recovered and the Vikings continued to trust him to go out and drill field goals from 50 yards, 33 yards, 45 yard and 30 yards. Still, you have to wonder how much confidence he inspired with his 4-for-6 performance after an offseason spent talking about how Walsh and the team had moved on from the Wide Left game.
“He’s our kicker so there’s no question about that, but he needs to kick better,” Mike Zimmer told reporters after the game.
2. After returning to practice as a full participant Friday, cornerback Xavier Rhodes missed Sunday’s game with a new injury and second-year corner Trae Waynes started in his place.
According to Zimmer, Rhodes “was stretching” before the game and something happened to his knee, and he’s “going to get a scan [Sunday] night.”
That’s noteworthy for someone I consider to be an important part of the Vikings’ defense. I thought Terence Newman and Waynes were fine Sunday, but you’d rather not play without Rhodes for an extended period if it can be avoided.
On Waynes in particular, I thought he played well enough to have his name in the mix for a starting spot, even though I think it’s fair to say the Vikings seem to have more trust in the veteran Newman right now.
Waynes for the most part had good coverage Sunday. The one notable reception he allowed came after Andre Johnson shoved off him and caught a pass from Marcus Mariota for a first down in the second half.
One other play that stood out: On a 3rd and 1 early in the 2nd quarter, the Titans tried to get fancy. Mariota dumped a bubble screen pass to Derrick Henry in the left flat, and the Vikings had it well covered. With one more defender than the Titans had blockers on the left side, Waynes had a free route to the running back, and he made a nice open-field tackle to wrap up Henry for a one-yard loss, forcing the Titans to punt.
Rhodes was limited on Wednesday and Thursday with a hamstring injury but returned to practice fully on Friday. So the listed knee injury is new and noteworthy.
3. Shaun Hill played about as well as Vikings fans could have hoped. He got the start over Sam Bradford, who had only had a uniform with any purple on it for six days before the game.
Hill didn’t light up the Titans, and no, he didn’t lead a drive for an offensive touchdown all day. But he was efficient, with 7.2 yards per attempt, and exactly zero turnovers. If we’re nitpicking, he probably had Stefon Diggs open for a touchdown on a post route and missed him, but otherwise I mostly felt the shortcomings in Hill’s stats were the fault of things like a dropped pass (Kyle Rudolph) and utter lack of a running game (Adrian Peterson and the almost unused Jerick McKinnon).
Hill also took a couple deep shots that didn’t connect, but I came away impressed that he effectively managed a game in which Adrian Peterson contributed very little (19 carries for 31 yards – 1.6 yards per carry).
I think I’d still expect Sam Bradford to get the start in Week 2 against the Packers, but Hill acquitted himself well in my mind and the Vikings are 1-0 under his guidance.
4. And the reason Hill was permitted to “manage” things was because the Vikings’ defense was terrific. The Titans scored 16 points, including two touchdowns, which is the same number of TDs the Vikings defense turned in Sunday.
Eric Kendricks picked off one of Mariota’s passes and ran it back for a touchdown, after Everson Griffen had all kinds of pressure on the quarterback.
Later, Danielle Hunter picked up a fumble and ran it back for a score – impressively, he out-accelerated a wide receiver in the process.
And the Vikings would have had another interception from Harrison Smith if not for a late penalty on Everson Griffen, which Zimmer later called a “selfish” penalty.
Andrew Sendejo recovered a fumble for the team’s third takeaway.
It wasn’t a perfect game, but as Zimmer alluded in his press conference after the game: winning the turnover differential battle is a good start to a winning formula. This defense has slowly acquired an assortment of high-quality players at every level, and will continue to be the strength of this year’s Vikings team for the foreseeable future.
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