Sunday October 23rd, 2016

See if you can spot the trend on the three turnovers committed by Minnesota QB Sam Bradford during Sunday’s 21–10 loss in Philadelphia:

1. An interception of Carson Wentz set the Vikings up with a glorious chance to score. On a third-and-goal from the Eagles’s six-yard line, Bradford set up to throw, but he was pressured quickly off the right side by Philadelphia’s Brandon Graham, who whipped right around right tackle T.J. Clemmings.

2. Again inside the red zone following a Wentz turnover, Bradford faked a handoff and took a deep drop—a good nine yards back of the line of scrimmage. Eagles edge rusher Connor Barwin looped around left tackle Jake Long and swatted the ball from Bradford’s hand just as he was about to let go of a pass.

3. The Eagles blitzed Bradford on second down from the Philadelphia 31. Linebacker Mychal Kendricks stepped around a Ronnie Hillman block to pressure Bradford up the middle. His teammate, Rodney McLeod, was a beat ahead of him. McLeod flew around Long to strip the ball.

Philadelphia Eagles 21, Minnesota Vikings 10: Complete box score

The link between all three is obvious: issues at the tackle spots. And it’s that headache—not the loss of Teddy Bridgewater, nor Adrian Peterson’s absence—that could threaten to be Minnesota’s fatal flaw down the line.

A step back here lest we wander into "hot take" territory. The Vikings only recently signed Long, after placing Andre Smith on injured reserve two weeks ago (where he joined another former starting OT, Matt Kalil). This was Long’s first start, against a Philadelphia team made a bit desperate by back-to-back losses and powered by a defense that’s very strong up front. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s favored wide-nine scheme can be tough to deal with for any front when it’s clicking.

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The Vikings probably weren’t counting on a 16–0 finish anyway, so how they respond to Sunday’s setback will carry more water than their first loss. But there already was reason to be concerned, on paper, and this performance will not alleviate any of them.

The main conundrum? Where Minnesota finds a solution. Long offers a wealth of experience, but he also just came in off the street and has a significant injury history of his own (11 total games played in 2014–15). Clemmings, a 16-game starter as a rookie last season, is a promising but inconsistent option. Jeremiah Sirles, who rotated in Sunday, has two career starts.

Barring a trade for, say, Cleveland’s Joe Thomas, the Vikings will find themselves in one of those oft-frustrating situations where they have no choice but to make the best of what’s there.

Most weeks, that should be enough. The Vikings worked their way to 5–0 on the strength of their outstanding defense, while merely asking Bradford & Co. to take care of the football and maybe occasionally put some points on the board. Bradford obliged through Week 5, with a 70.4% completion percentage, six touchdown passes and zero turnovers.

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However, he’s never exactly been a rock with the ball in his hands. He came into Sunday with 52 interceptions and 37 fumbles in 67 career starts. As is the case with many quarterbacks, things can start to unravel in a hurry when he feels the heat.

And the Eagles made sure that he did Sunday, with a performance that hearkened back to their own quick start—they opened the year 3–0 behind a top-five defense and a surprising Carson Wentz. Glancing at their schedule, the Vikings may not face another team this regular season with the playmakers off the edge Philadelphia boasts.

What happens when that challenge arises, though? Or if Minnesota runs into a team like Seattle or Denver in the playoffs?

Those are the questions Minnesota has to answer now, after a miserable performance Sunday. There should be better days to come once Long settles in, but if the Vikings have a spot that could be their undoing, it’s at offensive tackle.

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