ReFo: TEN @ MIN, Preseason WK 4
Well, we’ve made it guys. The last of the preseason games has been played and now it’s real football all the way to the Super Bowl. The fourth game of preseason is traditionally the least impactful when it comes to the top end of the roster, but is everything for the guys lower down trying to make an impression.
The Vikings sat most players of consequence for the entire game, not dressing many of their starters and even some key backups, but the Titans, presumably looking for a lift, chose to play with many of their starters for some significant time. That they managed to trail the game against the Minnesota second and third string can’t have been the result they were looking for. But let’s move to a more micro level and take a look at some players that stood out, good and bad.
Tennessee – Three Performances of Note
The biggest concession the Titans made to the last preseason game was sitting Chris Johnson, which gave them a chance to better evaluate the quality of their run blocking with more dependent backs. Jackie Battle (+1.7) got the start and ran hard but could only muster a 3.8 yard per carry average behind the line. Jalen Parmele was next up and could only average 2.9 yards per carry and it wasn’t until Darius Reynaud, a more Johnson-esque back in terms of his ability to exploit a gap and make things happen on his own, that they found a player that could attain a healthy average. Reynaud ran for 56 yards on his 11 carries but needed to force four missed tackles to do it. While free agent addition Andy Levitre (+2.3) has looked worth the outlay most of the time, the entire right side of the line (C-RG-RT) graded negatively for their run blocking in this game, albeit not dramatically so. With the offense they have, the Titans need their front five to make holes and create chances.
The Vikings and Titans share a concern heading into the 2013 season – Quarterback. Chosen in the same draft this is the year that both Christian Ponder and Jake Locker need to step up. Locker played reasonably well against Atlanta in the more meaningful game, which is a positive sign, but against the Vikings backups to start this game he didn’t rattle off the kind of efficient drive the Titans would have wanted to see before sitting him down. He attempted five passes, completing three for just 31 yards, and missed high on the other two. Backup Ryan Fitzpatrick on the other hand looked far more comfortable against players he would be expected to exploit and completed his all five of his attempts for 61 yards and a touchdown.
The Titans had a few notable performances from their backup linemen, both good and bad. LG Kasey Studdard (+3.2) had a good day, keeping a clean sheet in pass protection and run blocking well, as did LT Byron Stingily (+2.4). RG Chris Spencer, once a first round draft pick, didn’t perform quite as well (-1.2), but he wasn’t nearly as picked on as C Brian Schwenke, who was controlled at the point of attack to the tune of a -5.0 run blocking grade.
Minnesota – Three Performances of Note
Special Teams Positives
There were very few starters anywhere to be seen for the Vikings. Of all the players they suited up in this game, there are maybe two with a shot to start in the regular season and even that would hinge on the nickel package. What was perhaps most notable was the blocking on special teams they managed to find. The kick offs from both Blair Walsh and Tennessee’s Rob Bironas were monstrous and allowed very few opportunities all night, but when he finally got hold of one he could take out of the end zone Marcus Sherels brought it back 109 yards for a score. The most impressive part however was how little he had to do to get there. He essentially just ran in a straight line out of the end zone towards the sideline and the seas parted in his path. The only thing that made it more complicated was the final player he had to evade late on as he was being caught from behind. The Vikings have some talented return men on the team, if they can pair them with competent blocking from the return unit they can continue to score from those plays.
The Last Receiver Spot
Moving Joe Webb to receiver again gives the Vikings an interesting decision. He remains a measurables dream, at 6’4, 220lbs with 4.4 speed, and ordinarily that would be an easy keep for the Vikings, but WR Stephen Burton has been vastly improved this preseason. In the past he has looked physically behind the 8-ball, but this year he seems notably more explosive and sudden. Though he didn’t get the opportunities in the pass game that Webb got, he run blocked very well in this game. Muddying the waters further was Webb executing a key block on the Sherels return to show that he too is capable of that. The Vikings gave Webb a look running the 2012 ‘Harvin Package’ in this game, which only showed to prove how important Harvin was to those plays. The hesitation Webb showed would cost him five yards that Harvin would have gained through sheer lack of thinking time.
I wrote a while back that the Vikings don’t really have a true NT on the roster. With injuries along the D-line they’re also pretty thin at the DT spot heading into the season which cracks the door a little for a pair of players that have flashed to me in preseason: Chase Baker (+0.7) and Anthony McCloud (+1.2). Baker in particular has made plays all through preseason and looks like a player that could be worth a look in the long-term for Minnesota. He’s certainly raw, but it’s worth noting that he was going up against the Titans starters for much of this game and still came out on the positive side of the grading curve, which for a player who would likely only be a deep backup if he made the roster is a significant achievement. McCloud was plying his trade further down the depth chart but also looked good. Both of these players look like more natural nose tackles than anybody the Vikings currently have trying to do that job.
– Vikings DE Collins Ukwu played a game-high 71 snaps, but despite 34 pass rushes he was able to notch just 2 hurries, one of which was unblocked.
– Ponder sat, and Cassell attempted just three passes, so McLeod Bethel-Thompson saw an extended playtime. The results? -3.2 grade and a 39.6 rating under pressure.
– All five of Blair Walsh’s kickoffs went for touchbacks. His kickoffs averaged 74.8 yards.
PFF Game Ball
Minnesota RB Joe Baynard was the star of the third team, racking up 54 receiving yards and a score from his seven catches and rushing for another 62 on 13 carries.
Follow Sam on Twitter @PFF_Sam