For Vikings fans accustomed to years of stomach-churning pass protection — dating back, more or less, to Jerry Hughes breezing past Matt Kalil in the second game of the 2013 preseason — the sight of Kirk Cousins standing in the pocket last Friday night, almost unperturbed as he surveyed his receivers, had to amount to a sugar rush.
None of the Vikings’ four quarterbacks was sacked in last Friday’s win over the Saints, marking the first time the team has gone without giving up a sack in a preseason game since its final exhibition game against the Broncos in 2010.
What’s more, the team gave up just four pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. The Saints’ only pressure against the Vikings’ first-team offense, which came when Saints linebacker Demario Davis beat fullback C.J. Ham on a third-down blitz, went for naught when Cousins evaded Davis and scrambled for a 10-yard gain.
“The one time that Kirk scrambled actually was a miscommunication; C.J. had the guy, and he didn’t realize it until late,” coach Mike Zimmer said this week. “But as far as the five guys up front, Rashod [Hill] had a holding penalty on the first play, but the way they’re keeping the pocket clean, I was very encouraged about that part of it.”
The concentrated optimism over the Vikings’ line play against the Saints, however, should likely be diluted by the fact it came in the first preseason game, when both teams ran relatively simple game plans and starters played only a few snaps. On Thursday, assistant head coach Gary Kubiak placed nearly as high a premium on how the line has practiced in training camp as how it played in the first game.
“Obviously there were a lot of good things and we moved the ball; some young kids made plays,” Kubiak said. “That’s what you’re looking for, who can help you, but really I just try to stay focused on the work, the month’s work at training camp, and it’s been really good. We go against a great defense every day, so our judgment offensively is real, if that makes sense, because we get to really see where we stand because of the people we work against. So far so good, [but] we have a long way to go.”
What, then, is the Vikings’ second preseason game on Sunday night against the Seahawks worth as a metric for their revamped offensive line? The team’s starters figure to play more than they did in New Orleans. They’ll face a Seattle defense that allowed the 11th-fewest points in the league last year (and nearly shut out the Vikings in a Monday night victory that prompted offensive coordinator John DeFilippo’s ouster last December).
But the Vikings figure to remain without right tackle Brian O’Neill, who sat out the entire week of practice with a right arm injury. They’ll likely see a minimalist defensive approach from the Seahawks, who will likely have little interest in revealing much to a team they’ll again host for a Monday night game in December.
Even as the Vikings open up U.S. Bank Stadium for the season in front of a national TV audience, they’ll have to keep much of what happens on Sunday night in context.
“I just want us to play well as a unit. That involves running the football, protecting, and just handling all the different calls. It’s a total package,” Cousins said. “Many times, protection is far more than just the O-line. It can be communication, it can be a call made by the quarterback, it can be the running backs and even the pass game, everything clicking so that the ball can get out of my hand quickly. I just want to see us run our operation well; avoid[ing] penalties is a big deal. In the preseason it always seems there is a lot of flags, and just trying to avoid those unnecessary ones, especially the pre-snap penalties, that’s a big part of offensive line play early in the year.”
The real indicator of how much the group has improved doesn’t figure to come for a while.
“It’s really hard to get a sense of where you are in any phase of the game, and that’s not just offensive line play,” Cousins said. “I don’t think you know a lot about your football team until you’re two, three, four weeks into the season, just because of the nature of it being so hard to simulate what real Sundays are like. We’ve got to go out and play and prepare and work. You do everything you can, but you don’t really know until you get into the year.”