The Minnesota Vikings finally played smart and efficient football -- NFL-caliber football, even if the special teams were awful again.
Despite misfiring on the first drive, Daunte Culpepper played an extremely efficient first half -- throwing the ball away when necessary, running when he was flushed, and rebounding from an inaccurate first drive to finish 13-for-22 for 141 yards and two touchdowns without anything close to an interception or a forced pass.
On defense, even playing against the NFL’s top-moving offense from last year and without the Vikings’ starting cornerbacks, they held Oakland’s first-team offense (which played almost the entire first half) to three points. Chris Claiborne intercepted a pass, and the defensive line applied more pressure as the first half moved on.
The Vikings’ halftime lead of 14-3 could have been even better against last year’s Super Bowl runner-up if not for special teams breakdowns, which allowed the Raiders starting position on the 50-yard line and their own 45-yard line on two first-half returns, along with kicker Hayden Epstein pushing two field goal attempts wide right.
In all, Minnesota’s first-team offense had five drives in the first half, garnering two touchdowns, two missed field goals and one three-and-out series. But sometimes the best statistics are those with small number -- and in this game zero interceptions and one 5-yard penalty on the starters were excellent signs of improved focus. The good big numbers were from the top running backs, with Doug Chapman getting six carries for 35 yards before leaving with an ankle injury, Onterrio Smith getting six carries for 38 yards and a touchdown and Moe Williams getting six carries for 39 yards. On defense, considering the lack of experienced cornerbacks and the opposition, three points can be considered a victory.
What was definitely a victory for the Vikings was the final outcome, a 21-6 win against a great passing team on the road -- two things that last year would have converged for a Vikings loss.
After a lackluster performance last weekend from the offensive line in Kansas City, the only offensive starter struggling on the first drive was quarterback Culpepper. But unlike last year, when he tried to force throws, Culpepper played it efficiently through a one-drive slump. When Oakland jumped offsides on the first play from scrimmage, Culpepper wisely went deep for Randy Moss on a gift down and made sure that Moss was the only one who had a chance with an overthrow. Culpepper followed with two incompletions with inaccurate passes before Moe Williams picked up the first down with an 11-yard run. After missing D’Wayne Bates, Culpepper got his first completion with an 11-yard misdirection play to Jim Kleinsasser, who still showed signs of his plantar fasciitis but picked up the first down. A reverse to Moss (set up by the misdirection to Moss on the previous play) and an 8-yard run by Doug Chapman moved the chains to the 6-yard line. From there, it fell apart with a false start on David Dixon -- the only penalty by the starters in the first half -- an imcompletion and a 1-yard scramble. To make matters worse, kicker Hayden Epstein pushed a 28-yard attempted field goal wide right.
The Vikings defense came into the game knowing that it would be thrown at often by last year’s league MVP Rich Gannon and that they needed to keep the ball in front of them. On the Raiders’ first drive, the Vikings defense kept the ball in front of them on all but one play -- a 41-yard reception in a zone coverage where Greg Biekert and Nick Rogers ran into each other, and Jerry Rice exploited the confusion underneath like the best receiver in NFL history would. But when it counted, three plays later, the defense held on fourth-and-2 and gave the ball back to the offense.
This time the offense looked good in both the running game and passing game. Williams got the call at running back on the second series and looked terrific. He started with runs of 11 and 6 yards. Culpepper then completed on his first attempt of the drive with a 23-yard strike under duress to Nate Burleson. The offense went back to Williams for 7 yards on the ground, followed by a breakout run from Doug Chapman, this one a 19-yard burst up the middle to the 9-yard line. This time, however, Culpepper delivered on third down, a 5-yard bullet to Moss in the back of the end zone for a 7-0 lead with 4:41 left in the first quarter.
Special teams coverage reared its ugly head again when the Raiders returned the ball to the 50-yard line, starting a scoring drive for the Silver and Black. Oakland moved the ball again on their second drive, this time with Raider-like efficiency. With a heavy dose of Tim Brown underneath in the air and Tyrone Wheatley on the ground, the two picked up two first downs with two touches each, good for 24 yards to the Vikings 26-yard line. Two passes to up-and-coming tight end Doug Jolley brought the ball to the 7-yard line, but while the Raiders threatened, it was a call by the offiicials that kept Oakland from getting a touchdown. On second-and-goal from the 2-yard line, Gannon threw for Teyo Johnson in the end zone. He caught the ball and appeared to have control and both feet down when Chris Claiborne knocked it loose, but "control" was the key issue the officials didn’t see in the review. That forced the Raiders to settle for a field goal of 20 yards from Sebastian Janikowski with 14:11 left in the first half.
The Vikings went three downs and out, but the defense began to pressure Gannon and forced an Oakland punt.
Minnesota’s offense rebounded from the only poor drive of the first half with another drive deep in Oakland territory. Moss picked up the initial first down with a 12-yard reception, Burleson followed with an 11-yard catch, and on the seventh play of the drive Culpepper found Hunter Goodwin down the middle of the field for 24 yards. Three plays later, Moe Williams was stopped after a 1-yard run, and Mike Tice called on Epstein again. Once again, he pushed it right, this one from 36 yards.
But two plays later, Claiborne intercepted Marques Tuiasosopo on his second attempt, and the Vikings were in business on the 41-yard line. This time they wouldn’t leave it up to a kicker. Williams caught a 12-yard pass on second down, Culpepper picked up another first down with a 12-yard scramble, and Kleinsasser put the ball on the 1-yard line with an 11-yard catch. With Moss lined up opposite of safety Rod Woodson, Culpepper called for the slant from Moss, who was held up by Woodson for an incompletion. On second down, with Moss lined up opposite of cornerback Charles Woodson, Culpepper called for the fade from Moss and threw a perfect high fastball that Moss hauled in for a 14-3 Vikings lead heading into halftime.
A strong first half carried over into the second half for the Vikings, who kept their first-team offense and defense in for the first series of the second half, as opposed to the Raiders, who pulled their first teams late in the first half.
After allowing the Raiders to pick up two first downs on rushes of 10 and 12 yards by Madre Hill, safety Brian Russell (making his first start of the preseason) met Hill in the hole on the third play and popped the ball loose. Brian Williams recovered, and the Vikings offense would get another great opportunity after a turnover from their defense.
Starting from the Oakland 49-yard line, Onterrio Smith picked up 6 yards to start the drive, but a 1-yard flush sack by Kenyon Coleman brought on third-and-6. Culpepper found his go-to man of the night, with a 14-yard pass to Moss, followed by another 4-yarder to the two-touchdown receiver. But once at the 26-yard line, it was SOD (Steal Of the Draft) Smith who took it into the end zone on three impressive carries, the final one a 5-yard run with 10:03 left in the third quarter for a 21-3 lead.
With the starters then pulled for both teams, it got sloppy typical of preseason play. Tuiasosopo couldn’t hit his receivers, and his receivers couldn’t hold on when he did. For the Vikings, the running game couldn’t produce and the second-team offensive line struggled to give backup Gus Frerotte throwing lanes and good looks at his receivers.
When Oakland backup Rick Mirer entered the game, he led the Raiders to a field goal after a 44-yard pass to tight end Johnson, and with 15 seconds left in the third quarter the Raiders pulled to within 21-6.
But that was all the scoring in the second half, as the teams exchanged punts and the Vikings defense came up with another interception.
The third preseason game is usually looked on as the true measuring stick for a complete team. If that’s true, then the Vikings offense and defense should be productive during the regular season -- but if they are productive enough to overcome the mistakes that haunted the special teams all preseason is another matter to be decided after preseason cuts are made.