Kirk Cousins outperforms Vikings’ predecessor Case Keenum in their brief showdown
Denver – On second down-and-14 after the lone blemish of the Vikings’ opening drive, tight end David Morgan made a key block that sprung Latavius Murray for a 20-yard gain out of a two-tight end set. Murray lined up behind fullback C.J. Ham on the next play, ripping off a 21-yard gain.
Two plays after that, Kirk Cousins threw a 28-yard strike to Stefon Diggs off play action. And on a third-and goal from the 1-yard line, Cousins drilled a quick slant to Diggs for a touchdown.
It’s debatable the extent to which the initial drive of the preseason should serve as a bellwether for a team’s offensive health. But in their eight-play, 85-yard march to kick off Saturday night’s preseason opener against the Denver Broncos, the Vikings offense flashed plenty of the qualities that are likely to be its best in 2018.
New coordinator John DeFilippo used five different personnel groups on the touchdown drive, which helped build the Vikings’ initial 17-0 lead — a game they eventually won 42-28.
Cousins’ throws to Diggs displayed both his arm strength and touch. Murray carried four times for 43 yards, finding plenty of room on a couple of downhill runs, and the Vikings’ offensive line — without three projected starters in the middle — provided clean pockets for Cousins.
Things weren’t perfect — Cornelius Edison’s holding penalty wiped out Cousins’ second completion of the night to Murray — but in their first live action with Cousins and DeFilippo, the Vikings got the opening statement they were looking for.
“I thought Kirk was very sharp early,” coach Mike Zimmer said in an interview with the Vikings’ television broadcast early in the second half. “I thought our offensive line came off the ball. We ran the ball good. Latavius had a couple nice runs; Roc Thomas had a couple nice runs.”
Thomas, the rookie running back, might have been the offensive star of the night after the Vikings’ regulars came out, catching a 13-yard touchdown pass from Trevor Siemian on a wheel route and taking advantage of a block from Aviante Collins to break loose for a 78-yard score on a screen pass in the second quarter.
He posted 130 all-purpose yards in the first half, helping the Vikings build a 24-14 halftime lead over Denver.
Minnesota’s defense allowed only one Broncos first down in the first half — on Royce Freeman’s 23-yard touchdown run on a third-and-3 in the second quarter — but Denver was able to score a second touchdown when Isaiah McKenzie, after hesitating for a moment, raced down the left sideline for a 78-yard punt return touchdown after the Vikings’ coverage unit got caught inside.
The Vikings had 269 yards in the first half, with Siemian going 11-for-17 for 165 yards, two touchdowns and an interception that came after his throw went off tight end Tyler Conklin’s hands.
Minnesota’s offensive starters mostly left the game after one series, with four linemen (Tom Compton, Edison, Danny Isidora and Rashod Hill) staying in the game for extra work with Siemian.
The Vikings’ defensive starters also mostly departed after the first series of the game, when they forced a three-and-out against the Broncos and former Vikings quarterback Case Keenum, who signed a two-year deal with the team in March once it became clear the Vikings were focusing their free agent pursuit on Cousins.
Keenum stayed in for two series, going 1-for-4 for 5 yards. He told the Broncos’ TV broadcast he would have preferred to play another series.
“I definitely did; I’ll be honest,” he said. “I wanted one series with a [few] more plays [to] score a touchdown. This is a great test, one of the top defenses in the league last year, so we knew we had our work cut out for us.”