Vikings' first preseason game a lesson in situational football

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings ' practice on Sunday was their first after a game this season, and their preseason debut against the Cincinnati Bengals left coach Mike Zimmer with a few corrections for the defense. While the Vikings held the Bengals to 3.2 yards per carry on Friday night, they allowed Cincinnati to convert six third downs before a goal-line stop on the game's second drive.

It's worth noting the first four third downs were third-and-1s, and though the Bengals converted all of them on the ground, Zimmer was more positive about the defense after watching the film than he was on Friday night, when he said the group was "soft in the running game." Still, the biggest benefit of the game might have been its use as a litmus test for how the Vikings are faring in situational football.

"There were a couple things in there that we misfitted," Zimmer said. "We saw a couple different plays that we hadn’t seen. The perimeter run plays, a couple times that the corner jumped inside, the linebacker didn’t get to where he was going. It was all really correctable things. Actually, I thought the defensive line did really good, they played the blocks good. Here’s a perfect example: Remember the fourth-and-1 that we stopped them on the goal line? They ran the same play in the same defense for that as they ran earlier on that drive that ended up being about a 6-yard gain."

The Vikings were the league's fifth-best defense at getting off the field on third down last year, but Friday night provided some examples of what they still have to clean up -- probably as much on pass defense as in the running game. Zimmer cited a second-and-12 in the first quarter, where Andy Dalton hit A.J. Green on a 9-yard hitch route with Trae Waynes playing 10 yards off the line of scrimmage, and a third-and-7 in the second quarter where Jabari Price -- playing 8 yards off James Wright -- allowed an 8-yard completion for a first down.

"They weren’t hard things to cover. I think that’s just understanding the game a little bit more," Zimmer said. "Sometimes we come out here in practice and say it’s third-and-7 and they catch a ball and it’s no big deal. It’s different in a ball game."

Here are some other notes and observations from the Vikings' Sunday practice:

  • The Vikings had T.J. Clemmings at right tackle with the first-team offense on Sunday, after Andre Smith started against the Bengals. Zimmer had said last week the Vikings were going to look at some different combinations on the offensive line. Smith allowed a sack on Friday night, and the line configuration bears watching this week, but some fluctuation with the lineup shouldn't be surprising.

  • Teddy Bridgewater and Charles Johnson, who connected for a 49-yard touchdown on Friday night, had another deep completion during Sunday's practice. Bridgewater was also intercepted on an underthrown deep ball by Xavier Rhodes.

  • All three of Blair Walsh's kickoffs were returned on Friday night, including two high kickoffs he put to the 3-yard line. In other words, don't expect the Vikings to just boot the ball out of the end zone and concede touchbacks now that the NFL added a 5-yard incentive for teams to down the ball in the end zone. "It can change the complexion of the drive, because the percentage of scores go up," Zimmer said. "Even though it’s only five yards, it goes up." The league's rule change was ostensibly made with the goal of marginalizing what it sees as a dangerous play, but as Kevin Seifert discussed last week, the change could instead encourage teams to kick shorter and try to cover, now that any return short of the 25-yard line is seen as a win for special-teams units. We saw the Vikings take that tack on Friday, and Zimmer doesn't sound inclined to give up free yardage.