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Vikings vs. 49ers: Game Notes

A look at a troubling performance across the board during the dress rehearsal for the regular season

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Minnesota Vikings Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a long season.

Every year, every NFL team has it’s ups and downs, points where everything looks dark, and other times things look great. Just look at last season for the Vikings. Enough said.

I mention that as a prelude to what can only be called a troubling and disconcerting performance from most of the Vikings starters during their first pre-season home game against the 49ers.

This caps a preseason in which the Vikings starting offensive unit scored 3 points on 12 drives over 3 games. They didn’t score against the 49ers and won’t be playing against the Dolphins on Thursday.

Mistakes by Core Players

It’s not such a big deal when a ball bounces off of Isaac Fruechte late in the game, but two drops by Stefon Diggs was not a good performance from the otherwise very reliable receiver.

It’s also not such a big deal when an Anthony Harris blows his assignment or gets beat for a touchdown against the 2nd team. But when that happens to Harrison Smith, captain of the defensive secondary, it’s more disconcerting.

Those were some of the more notable miscues by more notable players, and set the tone for the evening, but there were others.

I expect both Diggs and Smith will rebound and refocus from these poor performances, but it raises a question about team preparation and chemistry.

Why all the mental mistakes? Why the flat performance? You’d think by this time in pre-season, the team would look a bit more polished and ready to go, even if not hitting on all cylinders. The performance was reminiscent of the last time the Vikings played the 49ers, starting the 2015 season under Mike Zimmer with a resounding thud- losing 20-3 to a 49ers team that would win only 4 of their remaining 15 games.

The Vikings would go on to win 11 of their remaining 15 games, and win the NFC North for the first time in 6 years.

Good perspective to have after another really poor performance against the 49ers.

The Good, the Bad... and the Curious

The Good

Sam Bradford. Apart from the early miscue- dropping the ball on a fake handoff to Dalvin Cook, Sam Bradford looked pretty good, going 17/20. 2 of the 3 incompletions were drops that hit Stefon Diggs in the numbers. The accuracy that was missing in the first couple pre-season games returned, and he showed surprising mobility and play-making ability by avoiding pressure/sack situations and rolling out to extend the play.

In fact, all of the Vikings QBs played well. Case Keenum put together his third-straight impressive performance, putting up a 138.9 passer rating. He’s on a one-year deal and looks worthy of an extension as a backup based on his performance this pre-season. And of course there was the hero of the game, Taylor Heinicke, who battled what looked like very painfully sore ribs and put together a TD and gutsy 2-point conversion on the last play of the game to get the... uh... win.

Laquon Treadwell. It was encouraging to see Treadwell get open and make a few nice receptions in his first pre-season action. It was some confirmation of his performance in practice, and a sign he could be a significant contributor in the Vikings passing game this season.

Nick Easton, Pat Elflein and Joe Berger. I thought this interior OL tandem did the best for the Vikings, and I like the way they work together. I had hoped the Easton/Elflein combo would get some first-team action, and they did. Alex Boone was an early out at LG, causing some speculation about how secure his starting role is at this point.

Jabari Price. He had the hit that dislodged the ball from a 49ers receiver, resulting in an Antone Exum interception, while not allowing a reception on 14 snaps in coverage per PFF, en route to a 80.5 overall grade for the game. That performance comes at a key time and certainly helps his cause.

Jerick McKinnon. The Vikings look to have found their kick returner after McKinnon made a 108 yard house call in the second half, while easing some fears about the loss of Cordarrelle Patterson in that role. He also had a couple good runs with the 2nd team offense as well.

Stacy Coley. For the 2nd time in 3 games Coley led all Vikings receivers in receiving yards, and looked to be the go-to receiver for both Keenum and Heinicke. He had a miscue late in not getting out of bounds near the end zone on the last drive- instead trying to make a move for the TD, which failed. He also drew a PI penalty a play or two later in the end zone and had the longest reception of the night at 39 yards- which may have gone longer if it hadn’t been a little under-thrown.

No injuries. With the Vikings starters not likely to play much against the Dolphins, the Vikings look to have avoided any significant injuries to starters in any pre-season games, which is a good thing especially looking around the league this year.

The Bad

Right-Tackle. Both Mike Remmers and Willie Beavers struggled against the 49ers edge pressure, and Beavers had a holding penalty to boot. I’d trade Remmers and Boone to the 49ers for Trent Brown in a heartbeat. Four of the five highest PFF-rated players for the 49ers were edge rushers. Rashod Hill and Riley Reiff held up a little better at left tackle, but both looked to have given up some pressures.

MacKenzie Alexander. For the 2nd straight pre-season game, he looks every bit as bad as last year. He was busy chasing receivers and ball-carriers all night, missing a few tackles along the way. I’ve got him 3rd on the depth chart at slot CB at this point, behind Terence Newman and Jabari Price.

Harrison Smith. I mentioned his two big miscues. Not a good night for the otherwise very solid safety.

Stefon Diggs. His two drops were part of the reason the Vikings starting offense failed to score.

Covering and tackling backs out of the backfield. Two of the three big plays, and touchdowns, for the 49ers came on passes to backs out of the backfield. But beyond those big plays, the Vikings yielded more than expected on other plays as well.

Mike Zimmer. When your starters play bad on both sides of the ball in the most important pre-season game, part of the blame is on the head coach. Whatever goes into preparation, motivation, and building chemistry to get a team where it needs to be at this point in the pre-season, Mike Zimmer needs to do a better job.

The Curious

Alex Boone. He got the start, but was pulled earlier than the rest of the starting offensive linemen except Riley Reiff, in favor of Nick Easton. I was glad to see this, but it raises some questions on where Boone stands right now. Will he start? Could he be traded? Will he be a backup at $6.7m salary cap?

Brian Robison. He was a scratch against the 49ers, which may have been injury-related, but also he has a house in Houston that was impacted by the Hurricane. Whatever the reason for this absence, he has been very quiet since losing his starting job to Danielle Hunter. He hasn’t played much, and doesn’t seem as involved for a guy who has been a vocal leader in the past.

Riley Reiff. He also exited before the rest of the starters on offense, presumably to continue to take it easy on his back injury. But if he still can’t go two quarters, is he gonna be able to go the whole game in two weeks? Will he be a durability issue this year with the back issue or will that go away? Was his early exit merely precautionary?

San Francisco game planning. Every team approaches pre-season a little differently, but most teams focus on themselves in pre-season games, and leave game planning against an opponent and showing much of scouting value for the regular season. There was some chatter that the 49ers may have done some game planning for this matchup with the Vikings, which may have given them an advantage. It’s certainly not illegal to do so, and it may have been a factor on the relative success of each team early on.

Vikings playing vanilla. Reading between the lines in Adam Thielen’s post-game interview, it seemed fairly clear that the Vikings were not planning to show much of their offensive scheme other than the more basic plays in the playbook- which is normal. But it makes you wonder how much different the plays and play-calling will be once the regular season is underway. Same on defense.

Bottom Line

This was a poor performance where it mattered most for the Vikings- among their starting units. Pre-season is a time to work out the kinks, build chemistry and lay the foundation for the season ahead. You would expect the Vikings, especially on defense where the system and starters are well established, to look better at this point. The fact that they didn’t is a little troubling and disconcerting.

Also, in regard to position battles, I’m not sure this game moved the needle much on any position battles, except perhaps that Jerick McKinnon looks to have landed the kick returner job. Apart from that, I’m not sure anything else was conclusive.

It was nice to see the guys playing at the end of the game with their jobs on the line showing the grind and determination to get back into the game and ultimately win it, but the contrast with the starters - who seemed to lack both- is unsettling. Hopefully that will be corrected in short order, as was the case two years ago after an opening Monday night fiasco against the 49ers.

It’s a long season.