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Coller: Do Vikings preseason games matter?

There is more pressure this week than is typical for a preseason game.
Mike Zimmer

Matthew Coller is a published author and football writer who covers the Vikings. He also writes a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, in addition to hosting a livestream on the Bring Me The News YouTube and Facebook pages every Tuesday. You can find more of his work at Purple Insider.

Mike Zimmer’s football teams have usually won during the preseason, so when the Minnesota Vikings lost 33-6 to the Denver Broncos at US Bank Stadium last Saturday, it was startling.

Even more eye-catching was Zimmer’s reaction to the loss. Both on TV and at the postgame podium, the Vikings’ head coach went down the entire list of things that went sideways. He talked about everything from cornerback Cam Dantzler giving up a long touchdown to the punter Britton Colquitt shanking three punts.

Normally preseason results don’t get anyone all that riled up but Zimmer explained after the game that many of the players who struggled could be called upon during the season. Yes, they sat 31 players but the guys who were on the field like Dantzler, Stephen Weatherly, DJ Wonnum, Dakota Dozier, Hercules Mata’afa and a handful more have previous experience and are either fighting for jobs or are the direct backups to starters. Zimmer wanted them to show up.

From that perspective, his rage is justified. Last year the Vikings lost Danielle Hunter to injury and failed to even remotely replace his pass rush. They lost cornerbacks to injury and couldn’t cover anyone. Eric Wilson was a fine backup for Anthony Barr but the Vikings couldn’t hold down even a few weeks without Eric Kendricks.

You can imagine Zimmer had flashbacks when he saw the Broncos lighting up his defense last Saturday.

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Now as the Vikings get back in action this Saturday against the Indianapolis Colts, there’s pressure on everyone to be better.

All indications are that the starters are going to get a chance — likely only a few series to shake off the rust. How they play won’t matter save for any catastrophes. Offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak said they want to get a look at guard Oli Udoh in real action for the first time at his new position. Michael Pierce will get to take his first snap as a Viking after sitting out last year due to COVID concerns.

But even those interesting performances won’t tell us much. We have seen star players have great and poor preseason showings in the past and it’s never meant a thing toward how they play in the regular season. It won’t be compelling on Saturday until the second team comes in. Then there’s plenty of intrigue.

Will Jake Browning bounce back from his pick-six against Denver? How much will Kellen Mond play? Will the depth defensive players step up and separate themselves? Can the kicker stay dialed in?

And maybe most importantly, will the team respond to their head coach putting everyone on blast?

The theme of training camp has been an unfiltered Zimmer making his feelings clear about a lot of subjects, from vaccination statuses to backup QBs and their ability to protect the ball or play in fast motion. He’s normally straightforward and blunt but this year has been especially strong, which signifies in part how high the expectations for this year have been set.

If the Vikings’ second unit sharpens up against the Colts and plays with some urgency, Zimmer’s message will have gotten across and we can all move on with our lives to the regular season.

If the Vikings struggle again, it will hardly mean the sky is falling but it will at least leave you scratching your head about whether the tongue lashing and several days of hard practices got them back on track.

One pillar of Zimmer’s long tenure as head coach in Minnesota is that he’s always gotten his teams to bounce back. Each time they’ve missed the playoffs, they’ve reached the postseason again the following year. When they’ve taken hits like losing Teddy Bridgewater or Sam Bradford to injury, they’ve grinded their way to relevance with tough defensive play.

But they’ve also shown some inability to rise to the challenge at times. The Vikings have only won three games against teams that finished with a winning record over the last three regular seasons. That’s fewer than the Jets.

Nothing about Saturday night’s game is going to tell us whether the mental toughness of this team will hold up when asked to win at Soldier Field or on the road against the 49ers or Ravens but it will give us a hint at how they respond, even if most of the players who take the majority of snaps won’t be expected to start.

From that perspective, it’s been an odd training camp. The things that are at the center of conversation haven’t been the battles for WR3 or RG1 so much as how the team is dealing with the hits the team is taking. They have an opportunity against the Colts to at least shrug off one hit. How they deal with the others — like the relationship between HC and QB and COVID issues and injuries — we’ll have to wait until the games actually count to find out. 

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