The biggest defensive play of the Vikings' final preseason game Saturday came on a third-down blitz from the Cardinals' 21-yard line when the Vikings lined up with seven defenders on the line of scrimmage. Lineman T.J. Smith and linebacker Troy Dye briefly tagged center Hayden Howerton and right guard Marquis Hayes, respectively, before dropping back into coverage, while safety Jay Ward raced untouched off the right side of the Arizona line for a strip sack of Clayton Tune that would eventually stake the Vikings to a 14-0 lead.
It was the kind of pressure look they likely wouldn't have shown earlier in the preseason. Even on Saturday, coach Kevin O'Connell encountered some surprise when he called for the Vikings to unveil a few of the things they'd kept secret during their first two exhibition games.
"I find myself calling for things now, and the response even today was, 'Are you sure you want to show that?' " O'Connell said. "I did want to win the football game today, so there was maybe a little bit more in there on some of those situational downs."
There is a limit, though, to how hard the Vikings will try to win a preseason game when it clashes with their chief priority: fielding as healthy a roster as possible in Week 1 against the Buccaneers on Sept. 10.
The Vikings sat nearly half their roster in an 18-17 loss to Arizona at U.S. Bank Stadium, playing rookie quarterback Jaren Hall for the entire game among other third- and fourth-stringers. Their third loss of the preseason, in which they gave up a 14-point halftime lead and missed two chances to win the game late, came in the context of an approach that's prioritized longer-term goals.
"I just have so much respect for the grit and kind of the effort that we played with today," O'Connell said. "I would have loved to win the football game today. Got off to a really good start there, started making some substitutions and just didn't have the cleanest execution late in the game to try to go win that thing."
The Vikings had planned for starters to sit again after joint practices with the Cardinals on Wednesday and Thursday. Before Saturday's noon kickoff, fans filed into U.S. Bank Stadium to a videoboard graphic of Hall and Tune, the quarterback the Cardinals selected 25 picks before the Vikings drafted Hall in April.
By the fourth quarter, even some of the Vikings backups who played in the first half — like wide receiver Jalen Reagor and Dye — had taken their pads off to watch the final snaps of the preseason.
Hall, who had thrown 21 passes in his first two preseason games, more than doubled that total Saturday, completing 16 of his 27 throws for 178 yards, a touchdown and an interception. With offensive coordinator Wes Phillips calling plays on Saturday, Hall went 3-for-4 on the Vikings' opening drive, setting up a touchdown run by rookie DeWayne McBride.
Then, after Ward's strip sack gave Minnesota the ball on the Cardinals 5, Hall found running back Abram Smith for a touchdown that made it 14-0. The Vikings took a 17-3 lead at halftime before David Blough — the quarterback the Cardinals picked up off the Vikings practice squad last season — directed a pair of 75-yard touchdown drives that cut the Vikings' lead to two.
Three plays later, Hall threw behind tight end Ben Sims, who ran a hitch route when it appeared the quarterback might have been expecting him to run an out route. Cardinals safety Sean Chandler intercepted the pass, setting up Matt Prater's field goal that gave Arizona the lead for good.
"I think it was a little bit of miscommunication between me and him," Hall said. "But at the end of the day, you have to see your guy, and you're the last guy with the ball. You're responsible, so I have to see his break and put it on him."
If the blown lead had any benefit to the Vikings, it was the fact that it set up a pair of chances to see Hall in late-game situations. O'Connell said he had planned to get Jordan Ta'amu, the former XFL quarterback the team signed Monday, into the game for a few series but decided to see how Hall would handle a moment that's usually reserved for players higher on the depth chart in practice.
"Really, when you think about those down-the-line guys, the hardest thing to do is get them the situational work [in practice]," O'Connell said. "You could really try to manufacture it in practice, but that's normally for your ones and twos, especially how we handle the preseason game. Jordan came in and has done a really good job, and I wanted to get him on the field, but those opportunities are so few and far between for Jaren and really a lot of the guys in that huddle."
On the first opportunity, Hall threaded a throw into traffic for Jacob Copeland on second-and-17 to give the Vikings the ball in Cardinals territory. But after Hall's third-and-9 throw for Copeland fell incomplete while O'Connell argued for a flag on Cardinals safety JuJu Hughes, Greg Joseph missed a 54-yard field goal wide right.
After a Vikings defensive stop, Hall got one more chance to direct a drive for a game-winning field goal. With fans doing the wave before a fourth-and-8 play from the Vikings 9, Hall spun away from pressure and heaved a 43-yard throw for Sims. By the time Hall let the ball go, he'd drifted past the line of scrimmage. The penalty caused a loss of down that allowed the Cardinals to kneel out the clock as fans booed referee Tra Blake's call.
"Looking back, I probably should have taken off and run," Hall said. "[Eight] yards to go, I think I probably could have just gone off running in that situation."
O'Connell said after the game he wants to keep the fifth-round pick and called Saturday a game with some "teachable moments" for Hall. That's as good a synopsis as any for how the Vikings handled the preseason.
"Playing a full game with more plays, more opportunities, second-half drives, two-minute drives, just the good and the bad, it just exposed me to a lot more, which is good," Hall said.