Mike Zimmer Era Begins With Impressive Preseason Opener for Matt Cassel, Vikings

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Mike Zimmer Era Begins With Impressive Preseason Opener for Matt Cassel, Vikings
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The Minnesota Vikings kicked off the Mike Zimmer era with a bang Friday night, getting scoring drives from Matt Cassel and Teddy Bridgewater and back-to-back three-and-outs from the starting defense en route to a 10-6 win over the Oakland Raiders in the preseason opener at TCF Bank Stadium.

It was a fast and impressive start for the new-look Vikings.

Cassel opened the game and made the most of his one and only drive.

Fighting to hold off Bridgewater as the Vikings' starting quarterback, Cassel completed five of his six passes—including completions to Cordarrelle Patterson, Greg Jennings and Kyle Rudolph—for 62 yards and a 109.7 passer rating. Minnesota capped off Cassel's opening drive with a one-yard touchdown run from running back Matt Asiata, who started in place of Adrian Peterson

"Well, it was good to get a win," Zimmer said during his postgame press conference. "I wanted to know who would play fast and smart, and for the most part we did that."

Meanwhile, Zimmer's defense looked nothing like the unit that gave up the most points in football a year ago.

The Raiders gained all of 17 yards over their first six plays, with both opening drives ending in punts after just three plays. It took Oakland until midway through the second quarter to cross midfield. 

Only a late rushing touchdown from Matt McGloin kept Minnesota from its first shutout in the preseason since 2011. 

Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

Bridgewater, Minnesota's much-anticipated rookie quarterback, had an up-an-down performance typical of a first-year player in his preseason debut. 

His first play from scrimmage was arguably his best. Bridgewater rolled to his right off play-action and delivered a frozen rope on the run to Jennings, who made the catch along the sidelines against Charles Woodson's coverage for 21 yards. But an illegal-formation penalty negated the play. 

After hitting Patterson underneath for 13 yards a few plays later, Bridgewater took a strip-sack inside the red zone that stalled the drive. The Vikings failed to convert on the ensuing 3rd-and-long, and Blair Walsh came on to make the 30-yard field goal. 

Bridgewater played into the second half, but he finished just 6-of-13 for 49 yards and two sacks. His debut passer rating was 56.2. He led one scoring drive and another that resulted in a long field-goal attempt (Walsh missed wide right) over five total drives. 

"He made some great throws," Zimmer said. "There were a couple mishaps he had, but I think Teddy is going to be a great player."

Bridgewater's night had some positives, including a pair of impressive escapes from pressure.

He had the Vikings in and out of the huddle—there were no noticeable hurries against the play clock—and his game management was generally solid. But he also forced the football into tight windows, and his decision-making was slower than offensive coordinator Norv Turner would probably like.

Matt Cassel and Teddy Bridgewater vs. OAK
Cmp/Att Yrds TD/INT Sacks Passer Rating
M. Cassel* 5-of-6 62 0/0 1 109.7
T. Bridgewater 6-of-13 49 0/0 2 56.2

Cassel played opening series

Cassel will maintain his hold on the starting job for now, while Bridgewater will leave his professional debut with obvious areas he needs to clean up before he's considered a strong candidate to start. 

Other newcomers had encouraging debuts. 

Fellow first-round pick Anthony Barr ended the first quarter with a sack of Raiders quarterback Matt Schaub. While the Vikings didn't show much of their hand with Barr in terms of creative usage, the rookie still displayed his impressive athleticism off the edge against Oakland's starting offense. 

Free-agent acquisition Captain Munnerlyn nearly had an interception along the sidelines on the Raiders' first offensive series, while Corey Wootton, another offseason signing, registered a sack in the first half. 

Jim Mone/Associated Press

Jerick McKinnon, a third-round pick, looked quick and shifty, and he showed off vision beyond his years during a few carries behind the first-team offensive line. The rookie finished with a game-high 45 rushing yards on 12 attempts.

Even the special teams had a standout night. Roster hopeful and local product Adam Thielen (Minnesota State) returned three punts for 52 yards (26 long), and Gerald Hodges blocked a fourth-quarter kick. 

Zimmer's preseason debut wasn't a perfect one—he even admitted, coming out of halftime, in classic head coaching style, that his team's first-half performance wasn't good enough—but the Vikings have to be pleased with how the team looked to start the 2014 season. 

Cassel and the first-team offense moved the football with ease, even without Peterson. Turner's offensive play-calling looked like a night-and-day difference from the bland, predictable leadership of former Vikings coordinator Bill Musgrave

Vikings Opening Drive, Play-by-Play
Down-Distance Field Result
1-10 MIN 30 Cassel to Patterson, 17 yards
1-10 MIN 47 Asiata rush, 3 yards
2-7 50 Cassel incomplete
3-7 50 Cassel to Patterson, 8 yards
1-10 OAK 42 Cassel sacked, -5 yards
2-15 OAK 47 Asiata rush, 9 yards
3-6 OAK 38 Cassel to Jennings, 13 yards
1-10 OAK 25 Cassel to Asiata, 2 yards
2-8 OAK 23 Cassel to Rudolph, 22 yards
1-G OAK 1 Asiata, 1 yard TD

Source: ESPN.com

Patterson was especially impressive, catching a low throw from Cassel on a post before somehow one-handing another difficult catch against blanket coverage a few plays later. He finished with a team-high 38 receiving yards on three catches. It appears Patterson may have taken a step forward in terms of playing the receiver position. 

The starting defense all but locked down Oakland's offense, using pressure from the defensive line and aggressive play from the secondary to force back-to-back three-and-outs. Overall, the Raiders had just two drives netting more than 25 yards. Minnesota forced seven punts, and Kurt Coleman's first-half interception represented the game's only takeaway.

The only noteworthy hiccup from the special teams came when Walsh just missed a 53-yard field goal in the second half.

"All in all, we still have a lot of work to do," Zimmer said. "A lot mistakes, a lot of things to get corrected. ... But I do like this football team."

For a team beginning a new era in so many ways, Friday night's preseason win was a strong start in terms of constructing a foundation and gaining confidence.

It's now on Zimmer and his roster to build on the positives and clean up the negatives as the Vikings continue preparations for the season-opener that really matters: Sept. 7 versus the St. Louis Rams.

 

Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report. 

Follow @zachkruse2

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