The Vikings have an elite running back, wide receiver and a defense full of ascending talent. But whether the team can reach its first postseason in three years will come down to how QB Teddy Bridgewater steers the ship
With Adrian Peterson back, the Vikings are now a quarterback away from being serious NFC North contenders. Peterson provides a potentially punishing ground game, which will be complemented nicely by new wide receiver Mike Wallace, whose vertical speed will present a conflict to defenses. Do you play a safety back deep against Wallace and try to stop Peterson with a seven-man box? Or do you defend Peterson with the eight-man box that his skills demand and hope that your corner can stay on top of Wallace?
Countering these offensive playmakers is a Vikings defense ripe with stars in their prime (safety Harrison Smith, end Everson Griffen, linebacker Chad Greenway) and with ascending young first-rate talents (linebacker Anthony Barr, lineman Sharif Floyd, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and, hopefully, first-round rookie corner Trae Waynes). This group now has a full year of experience in coach Mike Zimmer’s complex double-A-gap-driven scheme.
Of course, many teams without a franchise quarterback are just one player away at that position from contending. The difference with the Vikings is they believe they already found their quarterback a year ago. And because 2014 placeholder Matt Cassel was lost for the season in Week 3 (foot injury), that quarterback—Teddy Bridgewater—enters this season with 12 professional starts already under his belt.
Vikings coaches left 2014 excited about Bridgewater’s dozen starts—particularly the ones toward the end of the year. The Week 16 game at Miami comes to mind. In that contest Bridgewater completed 19 of 26 passes for 259 yards, with two touchdowns against one interception. (His numbers were actually more impressive the previous week at Detroit, but two costly interceptions marred what turned out to be a losing performance.) It wasn’t Bridgewater’s Week 16 stats that opened eyes, it was the way he achieved them. He took command of the game by making smart decisions at the line of scrimmage, moving constructively within the pocket and showing an excellent balance of patience and aggression. Seeing coverages clearly, he threw on time and with conviction. He looked like he’d been starting in offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s system for 12 years.
This isn’t to say Bridgewater is ready for stardom in 2015. Impressive as that late-season performance was, the rest of his rookie campaign cannot be discounted. Especially given that NFL defenses tend to become really familiar with a quarterback around the time he approaches 15 or 20 starts. What NFL defenses can see about this 2014 late first-rounder is that he lacks natural arm strength. Bridgewater has to fully hitch up in order to launch downfield throws—and even then, his passes aren’t always guaranteed to have zip. He also throws with a low release point. That’s not the worst thing given his compact motion, but when you factor it in with the arm strength, we’re talking about a quarterback who requires a little extra pocket room. That’s disconcerting because Bridgewater is operating behind the same offensive line that struggled in pass protection last season, especially on the edges.
Bridgewater’s accuracy has also vacillated in bafflingly large degrees—a problem no mild-armed thrower can afford. If he doesn’t become steadier in his precision, he’ll negate what has a chance to be his greatest strength: the ability to read coverages and anticipate open windows.
We also do not have a large sample of how Bridgewater conducts a full-scale offensive system. Turner, especially early last season, kept a short leash on his young QB, loading the game plan with screens, short-area play-action and moving pockets. These tactics might become staples, as they all fit Bridgewater’s style of play. But Turner hasn’t become a legendary developer of quarterbacks (Troy Aikman, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers) by working around guys’ limitations; the 63-year-old coach teaches passers to play in his system. And it’s a hell of a system.
Turner believes in attacking with wide receivers between the 20-yard lines and relying on tight ends and running backs in the red zone. To achieve this, he utilizes vertically stretched route combinations that demand a quarterback make full-field reads. A route that would travel, say, 12 yards in a typical offense might travel 14 or 15 in Turner’s. Everything is just a tad more aggressive. To offset the subtle extra pressure this can place on a passer, Turner also emphasizes balance, featuring a between-the-tackles ground game. With Peterson and last year’s third-round pick Jerick McKinnon, who has good lateral agility and deserves 10-12 touches a game, Bridgewater and the Vikings have a backfield they can ride.
The question is whether the right receiving weapons are in place for the passing game. Wallace can fulfill the vertical element, but only if we’re talking about straight point-A-to-B speed. His route tree otherwise has few strong branches; overall, he’s very unrefined. This, in a way, makes Wallace the antithesis of Charles Johnson, who came on strong in the second half of last season and will likely be the man most of the passing designs center around. The Vikings are counting heavily on the 26-year-old breakout journeyman; their next best option is Cordarrelle Patterson, one of the NFL’s most explosive athletes but someone who has seemingly failed to earn the trust of Zimmer’s staff (and before that, Leslie Frazier’s staff). Patterson is a game-changer in open space and can really threaten a corner with his initial burst off the line. He must, however, vanquish his knack for doing all the little things wrong.
But let’s look past the minutiae. From 30,000 feet, you see Wallace and his deep routes; Patterson on gadget plays; McKinnon on screens and misdirections; Peterson between the tackles. That’s a lot of factors for a brilliant offensive architect to work with. This machine has good parts. Of course, in the NFL, a machine is often only as effective as its motor under center.
Vikings Nickel Package
1. Here’s the most common (and ridiculous) thing you hear when a team drafts a left tackle high in the first round: That’s a good solid pick. You can plug that guy in on the blind side and know that you’re set there for the next 10 years. In reality, high-drafted left tackles fail just as often as high-drafted players at other positions. The latest example is Matt Kalil. Impressive as the No. 4 overall pick was in his rookie 2012 season, Kalil hit what appeared to be a sophomore slump in 2013. But then he was even worse in 2014, a virtual turnstile for defensive ends. Kalil’s footwork and hand placement techniques have been out of sync for two years now. Frankly, it was a surprise that the Vikings picked up his $11.1 million fifth-year option for 2016. (The option, however, can be withdrawn after this season, as it’s protected against injury only.)
2. Double-A-gap pressure concepts have become the norm in pro football, but Mike Zimmer, a pioneer of this tactic, remains at the cutting edge. The Vikings last season were excellent with interior looks and blitzes. No team was more effective running stunts and twists out of double-A-gap.
3. Second-year outside linebacker Anthony Barr has a chance to be special in Zimmer’s scheme. His size (6-foot-5, 255 pounds) makes him potent as a blocker-eater or blitzer in the nickel double-A-gap looks. But that’s just a fraction of Barr’s game. He can also line up at defensive end and rush off the edge opposite Everson Griffen, who will draw most of the double-teams and protection slides. And Barr is very good in space, evidenced by his aptitude in underneath coverage and his services as a spy against mobile quarterbacks last year. Above all else, though, Barr thrives in the one area that 255-pound linebackers are meant to: run defense. He takes on and sheds blocks and has the short-area range to chase down ballcarriers in the flats.
4. Safety Harrison Smith is a key piece in Zimmer’s system, playing the Reggie Nelson role as an edge blitzer. The role also has him spend time as a traffic director back deeper in space, where he’s very good at locating the ball. Given the nature of Smith’s assignments, and the Vikings’ utter lack of depth at safety, the more time Smith logs in this system, the more valuable he’ll prove to be.
5. Zimmer wants his corners to play press coverage and deny wide receivers free access off the line of scrimmage. At Cincinnati, with Adam Jones and Terence Newman (who, by the way, is on Minnesota’s roster and, remarkably, competing for a significant role at nearly 37 years old), he didn’t always get that. He should here, though. At right cornerback, 2013 first-rounder Xavier Rhodes has emerged as one of the most physically imposing boundary defenders in the game (against the run and pass). Opposite him, GM Rick Spielman spent another first-round pick to bring in Trae Waynes, the best pure cover corner prospect in this year’s draft. If Waynes pans out—and that may take time; Zimmer is a tremendous teacher of defensive backs but he demands a lot of nuanced techniques—throwing outside against Minnesota will be a nightmare.