Titans-Vikings practices were the ideal fit for coaches and former teammates Vrabel, O’Connell

Published 3:02 pm Thursday, August 17, 2023

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EAGAN — Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell made a priority call to his Tennessee Titans counterpart Mike Vrabel even before the preseason game schedule was released, desiring a hard-nosed opponent with a stout front seven to test his team against in training camp.

Vrabel sought a challenge for his young defensive backs against the NFL’s reigning receiving leader, Justin Jefferson, after a season in which the Titans allowed the most passing yards in the league.

Interconference joint practice sessions were the right fit for these two former teammates from 2008 with the New England Patriots.

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“This is going to be some hands-on experience,” Vrabel said, “just learning different guys’ route crafts, releases and different players at the line of scrimmage. So that can help us to say, ‘OK, let’s make some corrections,’ or ‘What do we need to adjust?'”

Vrabel spoke to reporters before the two-hour session on a sun-soaked and wind-swept Wednesday at Vikings headquarters, and there’s a reason he offered that from a defensive back’s perspective. The Titans badly need a spike in performance from their secondary this season.

Sean Murphy-Bunting was signed as a free agent to take one cornerback spot opposite fourth-year player Kristian Fulton and flanking the formidable safety duo of two-time All-Pro Kevin Byard and Minnesota native Amani Hooker. Roger McCreary, the team’s second-round draft pick in 2022, will be pushing for cornerback playing time too. He had an interception of Kirk Cousins during a two-minute drill.

“Trying to squeeze one in there into the wind,” O’Connell said. “No excuses. We have to find a way to move the ball and get points right there, but that’s why I love this work.”

There’s another session on Thursday. Then the teams play their second exhibition game on Saturday night at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Both teams also have another round of dual workouts next week, when the Titans host the Patriots ahead of their final preseason contest and the Vikings stay home to practice and play against the Arizona Cardinals.

“It’s definitely good to go up against a different defense,” Jefferson said.

The benefit, of course, is mutual.

“Anytime Kristian Fulton and Sean Murphy-Bunting can go up against a competitor like him, it gives us confidence,” Byard said. “You feel like, ‘Hey, if I can cover this guy or if I make a good play on him, I can do it against anybody.’ It’s important. It’s key to go up against top-notch talent like that.”

The visit from the Titans also gave Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah the chance to catch up with his counterpart Ran Carthon, who’s in his first season in his role. Adofo-Mensah has begun his second year. They worked together from 2017-19 with the San Francisco 49ers.

The biggest downside of the day for the Titans was a concerning injury to wide receiver Treylon Burks, who got up limping badly after catching a deep pass in a one-on-one drill and needed help to get off the field.

Fortunately for both sides, no players had to be pulled out of a drill for initiating a fight or committing some form of unnecessary roughness, as is a not-uncommon occurrence across the league during these dual practices when players are not only cranky from the grind of camp but fired up to compete against an opponent with a different color jersey on.

The most obviously intense moments came during a one-on-one special teams coverage drill. The defenses on both sides had the upper hand.

“Just from the eye test, I thought it was really, really good,” Byard said. “We didn’t allow any big plays downfield as a defense. They made some plays, but at the end of the day I feel like we competed our behinds off.”