The Minnesota Vikings' 2013 exhibition season is off to a glacial start. Two practice games, two ugly losses.
Before we go on, let's just get this out of the way immediately: Preseason stats are about as meaningful as cheerleader tryouts when it comes to forecasting the coming season.
Dissecting numbers from practice games is only slightly more valuable than doing the same at a Wednesday afternoon practice. Having said that, when the scoreboard is turned on and fans are in the seats, it's always important to put your best foot forward. Good practices are always better than bad ones.
With that out of the way, we can all take the next five slides with a giant grain of salt. As easy as it is to dismiss preseason games, roster spots are being won and lost, and the depth chart is moving this way and that way, depending on how these games unfold.
The Vikings wrapped things up in Mankato on Wednesday, ending a training camp, perhaps, most remembered for the mild weather. Unseasonably mild weather kept the Vikings cool throughout camp. On the downside, the Vikings play in their two preseason contests has been anything but hot as well.
Friday night's loss to the Buffalo Bills saw Minnesota trailing 20-3 well into the fourth quarter before two scores made the 20-16 loss slightly more palatable.
The Vikings were quick to shrug off Friday night's loss, as they should. Reigning MVP Adrian Peterson, once again, wasn't suited up, and the starters played just over a quarter of football for the most part. As Dan Wiederer of the Star-Tribune reports, Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier said as much:
The only thing I was saying to myself when everything was happening was, "OK. Glad it’s the preseason. Let’s get this out of the way now. Because we definitely don’t want to be doing this in September."
The Vikings first-team defense was exceptional on Friday night, but the offense definitely needs to sharpen things up next week against the San Francisco 49ers.
Minnesota's 0-2 start can quickly be dismissed as glorified practices. The Vikings have had a good, tight training camp and head to Eden Prairie next week in great health.
So with the two losses easily tossed aside, we can still look at the numbers and give you the most intriguing preseason stats for the Vikings so far.
In two practice games, the Vikings offense has made 28 first downs. The defense has surrendered 49. If that raises your eyebrow slightly, it should.
There are plenty of disclaimers to go around here. In Game 1 against the Houston Texans, Christian Ponder played two snaps. Game 2 saw the Vikings facing a Bills team that has a heated battle going on for the starting quarterback position, a situation that, no doubt, ratcheted up the Bills' offensive intensity.
The gist of these numbers is, the Minnesota offense has been slightly anemic in the first two games, and the defensive backups have been getting gashed pretty badly.
Of the 14 teams with two exhibition games in the books through Friday night, the Vikings' minus-21 first-down differential is, by far, the worst. The New Orleans Saints sit at the top with a plus-24 and the Chicago Bears and the Kansas City Chiefs are the worst after Minnesota, both at minus-13.
Of course, these numbers add up to nothing come opening weekend, but it does point to the Vikings' readiness to play, so far, in the preseason. Minnesota's clarion call this summer has been how improved the roster depth has become. There is no arguing that point on paper, but, so far, that depth hasn't shown itself in the two games.
The Vikings offense has to get better at sustaining drives, at limiting the number of three-and-out possessions that barely give the defense time to get their helmets off. Conversely, the defense simply needs more stops.
The 49 first downs surrendered is easily the most in the league, and that number has to shrink. Granted, that number might have as much to do with the offensive ineptitude as a porous defense, but the number still has to come down.
The fact that the Vikings are 0-2 in the preseason isn't noteworthy at all. Having a minus-21 first-down differential is, however, enough to raise an eyebrow.
Roster spots and jobs are on the line over the next two weeks. Those who make plays to help reduce that first-down differential will certainly help their cause.
The sample size is tiny, but the passing numbers are just as small.
All offseason, the talk has been of how the Vikings had to shore up their passing game to be a viable alternative to Adrian Peterson's rushing. You don't win football games in the NFL throwing for 150 yards, and it's certainly tough to throw for more than 150 yards when you're only averaging 4.1 yards per completion.
There's plenty of blame to go around following the lackluster performance of the air attack on Friday night against the Bills. The offensive line clearly hadn't prepared for a Bills defense that implemented a variety of blitz packages.
The Vikings also made two huge gaffes in the center/quarterback exchange in shotgun situations that hurt them badly. Both miscues looked to be the center's fault, and while easily fixable, it has to be addressed immediately as this just can't happen when you're trying to win games.
Most importantly Friday night, Christian Ponder was off target too many times on simple throws. There have been a ton of complaints from Vikings fans that the offense is too simple and doesn't take enough deep shots, but Ponder has to first show that he can complete simple, short throws.
The Minnesota offense will always be predicated, first and foremost, around Adrian Peterson, but in order for Peterson to maximize his talents, the passing game needs to put at least a little fear into opposing defenses.
In what might be the single-best statistic for the Vikings, so far, in two preseason games is this: The team has taken just four penalties for 40 yards.
That's an insanely good number.
Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier and general manager Rick Spielman have stressed the importance of putting together a high-character group of players. Included in high character is discipline and attention to detail.
The Vikings have flat-out aced those two criteria when it comes to penalties, so far, in the preseason. Physical mistakes and miscues are usually forgivable when it comes to athletics, but mental errors are what drive coaches crazy.
The Vikings lack of penalties hasn't helped them win either game, but the display of intelligence and discipline is a great harbinger for the coming season. Good football teams usually have those two characteristics in spades, and if Minnesota can continue to play virtually penalty-free, it will certainly serve them well throughout the course of the season.
The two teams they've played have committed 19 penalties for 156 yards. Once again, the Vikings have committed just four for 40 yards. That differential might not pay off today or tomorrow, but it will certainly pay dividends over the course of a season.
That's the sign of a well-coached team. That's a team that will be able to handle adversity when it rears its head. That's a team that has accepted the challenge of playing smart, disciplined football. That's a team that has a chance to go a long way.
Vikings' cornerback Bobby Felder is doing a lot of really good things for the second consecutive training camp.
Felder was part of the 2012 practice squad after signing with the Vikings as an undrafted free agent out of Nicholls State. He's making a huge push to be a part of the active roster in 2013.
It's no secret Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer has an affinity for cornerback Marcus Sherels as a punt returner. Sherels has been very dependable, with good hands and the steady demeanor you look for in a punt returner.
As reported by ESPN1500.com's Andrew Krammer earlier in training camp, Sherels remains the leader for the punt-return job.
It's also no secret that Sherels has been a liability when forced into a role as a pass defender.
That's why Friday night's play might go a long way in determining one of the last roster spots for the Vikings. Felder was excellent, not only in just punt returning, but on defense and other special teams.
Felder picked up 62 yards on three punt returns for a tidy 20.7 average. He made six tackles on defense, giving him 10 in two games, eight of them solo. And in what couldn't have escaped Priefer's eyes, Felder downed two punts inside the Bills 5-yard line.
Bobby Felder is making the most of his opportunities, and the horse that he rides toward making the Vikings' active roster is no longer quite so dark.
Speaking of Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer, it might be deja vu all over again, as the Vikings have drafted another huge leg that should pay immediate dividends in the kicking game.
Rookie punter Jeff Locke bounced back from a so-so first game with a fantastic second outing, averaging 48.9 yards on seven punts, with a net average of 39.7.
Locke not only netted big yardage, but he was also accurate, with three punts inside the Bills' 11-yard line and two inside the five.
Locke has a huge act to follow after rookie kicker Blair Walsh made the Pro Bowl after having the best kicking season in Vikings' history, but, so far, Locke looks to be up to the task.
Locke and Walsh should combine to give the Vikings a big advantage when it comes to field position throughout the season. Priefer and Speilman have done a tremendous job in using late-round draft picks to put together one of the best kicking tandems in the league.