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Vikings Scrimmage Notes: First-Team Defense and Thielen Stand Out

The Vikings played a full half of football at U.S. Bank Stadium on Friday.
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The Vikings took the field at U.S. Bank Stadium on Friday afternoon for the first time since their Week 17 loss to the Bears last December 29th. After some stretching and positional drills, the team scrimmaged for an entire half in what was their most intense and realistic game simulation of training camp up to this point.

With the Packers coming to town in just over two weeks, the Vikings tried to create as close to a game-like environment as possible. Obviously there were no fans in the stands, but crowd noise was pumped in and music was blasted through the speakers during stoppages. The game clock was running, the chains were moving, and flags were thrown. There was even a little bit of tackling. Here are my four main takeaways from the action, along with a bunch of other notes and (admittedly inexact) statistics.

Defense stronger than offense, causing some sloppy play

There's been plenty of talk about how the Vikings' offense might be in the unusual position of being ahead of the defense this year, given the former's continuity and the latter's turnover this offseason. While that has appeared to be the case at times during training camp, it was decidedly the opposite on Friday.

The first-team offense went against the first-team defense for five different drives during the scrimmage, and only ended up with six points on two Dan Bailey field goals. Kirk Cousins was held to 11 of 20 passing for 122 yards (just over 6 yards per attempt), and was "sacked" three times. All three of those sacks came on the starters' first two drives of the day, with Jaleel Johnson, Ifeadi Odenigbo, and Eric Wilson getting to Cousins. While it was hard to tell exactly who was at fault on each of the sacks, it's not a great sign for the starting offensive line.

The Vikings also failed to generate many holes in the running game. Dalvin Cook was solid, with three carries for 18 yards and a ten-yard catch on a screen pass, but Alexander Mattison and Mike Boone were held to a combined 27 yards on 11 carries. However, it's tough to evaluate running backs when they are essentially touched down and don't get the opportunity to try to break any tackles.

Eric Kendricks made one of the best defensive plays of the day with a diving pass breakup on a Cousins pass intended for Kyle Rudolph. Overall, the first-team defense forced the offense into some fairly sloppy play at times, even without Danielle Hunter (who missed his 11th straight practice).

The Kirk Cousins to Adam Thielen connection is still strong

Out of Cousins' 122 yards, 67 of them went Adam Thielen, who caught three of his five targets. That included an incredible leaping grab on the sideline for 35 yards with Holton Hill in tight coverage. Thielen also had catches of 17 and 15 yards on out-breaking routes where he generated a ton of separation. 

It's clear Cousins trusts Thielen the most of any of his receivers – not that there's anything surprising about that. The two were in sync on Friday.

Offense spreads out, airs it out

Overall, the Vikings threw the ball way more than usual during the scrimmage. There were 43 pass attempts compared to just 15 rushes, meaning over 74 percent of their offensive plays were passes. I wouldn't expect things to be nearly that extreme during the regular season, especially given that the team is taking things slowly with Cook right now.

With that said, I think it's fair to assume that the Vikings won't be quite as run-heavy as they were last year now that Gary Kubiak is calling the shots. As a first-time offensive coordinator, Kevin Stefanski may have felt some pressure to run the ball a ton, given that John DeFilippo was ostensibly fired for not running it enough in 2018. Kubiak won't have that same pressure.

Also of note was the frequency in which the Vikings lined up in three or four-receiver sets. There were plenty of empty backfields on passing downs, which we didn't see very frequently from this offense in 2019. That might not mean much, but I think it's worth noting.

Jake Browning looked the sharpest of the backup QBs

Of the six non-Cousins drives, Sean Mannion got three, Jake Browning got two, and Nate Stanley got one. And while all three of the backup quarterbacks had some positive moments, I think it's safe to say Browning looked the sharpest.

The second-year QB from Washington got his first chance with the second team on the fourth drive of the day. After hitting Tajae Sharpe for nine yards on first down, the offense stalled. Hercules Mata'afa stuffed Mike Boone on second down, and Browning took a sack from Armon Watts while trying to scramble on 3rd-and-1.

It was during his second drive where Browning made things happen. He found Chad Beebe for a 21-yard catch and run over the middle on third and short to move the chains. He then made a great deep throw to Tyler Conklin up the sideline, but the tight end was ruled out of bounds on a diving catch. Browning responded by finding K.J. Osborn in a tight window for 14 yards, and eventually threw a touchdown on a six-yard swing pass to Boone.

Mannion, meanwhile, had two of his three drives end in three-and-outs. On the first, he made a couple poor throws to Sharpe and Conklin. On the second, a holding penalty and a blown-up screen pass resulted in the offense losing yards. Mannion salvaged his day with a couple nice throws on his third drive. He found Alexander Hollins – one of the top breakout players of this year's camp – for 35 yards down the sideline against Jeff Gladney. Then, on third down, Mannion took another deep shot to Hollins, who drew a pass interference flag on Kris Boyd. Those two guys have a pretty solid connection. The drive was capped off by a Mannion touchdown pass to Sharpe with Josh Metellus in coverage.

Stanley moved the ball downfield in hurry-up mode during his one opportunity, which came on the final drive of the game. He mostly dumped the ball off to Tony Brooks-James, but did have a couple impressive throws to Dillon Mitchell and Osborn. Stanley threw a touchdown pass to a wide-open Mitchell on a blown coverage by the third-team defense.

Here are the final statlines for the three backup QBs:

  • Mannion: 4 of 6, 41 yards, TD
  • Browning: 7 of 8, 67 yards, TD
  • Stanley: 7 of 9, 69 yards, TD

Other notes and stats

  • Injury notes: Outside of Hunter, the only player who didn't participate in the scrimmage was backup tackle Rashod Hill. With Hill out, rookie Blake Brandel worked at left tackle with the second-team offense. Also, rookie defensive end Kenny Willekes was seen walking on crutches after the scrimmage had concluded, which is concerning.
  • If it wasn't clear already, Dakota Dozier appears to have won the LG job over Aviante Collins.
  • K.J. Osborn seems like a lock to make the team as a returner. He got all of the kick returner reps, and while Chad Beebe did take the first punt return, it was all Osborn at PR after that.
  • Mike Hughes didn't have the best day. He seemed to be slightly out of position while giving up catches to Thielen and Bisi Johnson. But all of the top four corners gave up some catches, with Hill struggling to contain Thielen, Gladney being beaten by Hollins, and Dantzler giving up some short gains to Justin Jefferson. Gladney did have a nice breakup on the play before he was beaten by Hollins.
  • Non-Thielen receiving stats:
    • Bisi Johnson: 3 targets, 2 catches, 14 yards
    • Justin Jefferson: 5 targets, 4 catches, 22 yards
    • Tajae Sharpe: 3 targets, 2 catches, 11 yards, 1 TD
    • Alexander Hollins: 2 targets, 1 catch, 35 yards, 1 TD (and one long PI drawn)
    • Chad Beebe: 2 targets, 1 catch, 21 yards
    • KJ Osborn: 2 targets, 2 catches, 22 yards
    • Dillon Mitchell: 2 targets, 2 catches, 40 yards, 1 TD (on blown coverage)
    • Mike Boone: 2 targets, 2 catches, 4 yards, 1 TD
    • CJ Ham: 3 catches, 3 targets, 13 yards
    • Kyle Rudolph: 2 targets, 1 catch, 10 yards

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