For the Vikes offense to reach the next level, the third-year QB has to improve his longball game. Minnesota thinks it’s given him the tools
CINCINNATI — One hour into the first joint practice between the Bengals and Vikings, the clouds hovering over Paul Brown Stadium darken. Local newscasters conspire on the sideline, knowing the window for any dry and usable footage could be limited.
It’s Minnesota’s first-team offense facing Cincinnati’s first-team defense, and one reporter wonders aloud if they should scoot down the sideline in case Teddy Bridgwater erupts for any big plays. “Uh, it’s Teddy,” a camera man says hesitantly. “I don’t know. We probably shouldn’t go further than 10 yards from him.” It’s as good an example as any of the criticism that has haunted Bridgewater since he entered the league in 2014: He’s simply not good at the deep ball.
Try telling that to Bengals cornerback Adam Jones. A few plays into the series, Bridgewater steps back and scans the left sideline, where second-year wideout Stefon Diggs is matched up with Jones. Bridgewater tosses a fade. The ball sails over Jones’s head and is gathered in seamlessly by Diggs for a gain of about 30 yards. Jones stutters his steps to slow down, then kicks the damp grass. Dirt flies.
“F---!” Jones shouts.
That shot might not have made the 5 o’clock news.
In coaches meetings since OTAs, Minnesota staffers have gushed over Bridgewater’s improvements in command and accuracy. Coach Mike Zimmer raved that Bridgewater’s deep balls through camp have been “phenomenal.”
“He’s been making those throws all summer,” offensive coordinator Norv Turner says. “In fact, he was making the same throws last year. It’s just that because we didn't end the year very well offensively people don’t remember that. I think he has a chance to be really really good.”
According to Pro Football Focus, Bridgewater led the league in seven-step drops last season. And yet, a leaky offensive line, his lack of accuracy on deep balls and his receivers’ failure to get open consistently, the Vikings’ dropback passing game was stunted. Center John Sullivan and right tackle Phil Loadholt missed most of 2015 with injuries. The front office addressed this directly, adding veteran linemen Alex Boone and Andre Smith in free agency and using the first-round pick on receiver Laquon Treadwell. At Wednesday’s practice, Treadwell and Diggs shared favored-target status from Bridgewater.
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The Vikings shoulder legitimate expectations in 2016, with a stacked roster especially of young, defensive talent, and a new stadium that features Bridgewater’s likeness plastered all over it, as he transitions into the presumed face of the franchise. Boone, who spent the first seven years of his career with the 49ers, was effusive about his new quarterback. “This is going to sound corny,” he says, “but that guy is just a leader. The ultimate leader. Nothing gets to him.”
“I had never faced Teddy before, but you could tell he’s pretty smart,” Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said. “He made some really good throws, and some great reads. I was impressed. I actually almost had an interception, but my damn gloves were so wet they felt like water.”
Kirkpatrick paused. “Adam Jones did get beat on one though,” he said, smiling. On the play he got beat, Jones said he had the wrong leverage. The Bengals did not watch film of Minnesota before the first day of practice—they’ll likely do so as the week goes on—and Jones noted that the pace of the Vikings’ offense is different and a lot the plays still are “dink-and-dunk.”
But, as he returned to his huddle, the veteran corner sought out Diggs. “Hey,” Jones said. “Nice route.”
FIVE THINGS I THINK ABOUT THE VIKINGS
1. The best Bridgewater asset in 2016 is going to be a much-improved offensive line. Injuries hurt the O-line last season, so depth was an issue, as the Vikings gave up more pressure per dropback than any group in the NFL (per Pro Football reference). First, Minnesota hired the grizzled Tony Sparano, a former head coach who built much of his résumé nurturing offensive lines. Equally important, the Vikings made additions through free agency. The offensive line now features nine players with at least 16 NFL starts.
2. NFL fans will continue to be enthralled by the story of wide receiver Moritz Boehringer, the German receiver and first player to be drafted directly into the NFL from a European football league. But don’t expect him to see the field right away. I’m told Boehringer still has major strides to make in adjusting to the physicality of the NFL game, as well as with his route-running. That said, he is perfectly playing the protagonist in an against-all-odds underdog tale. Since Bohringer moved to Minnesota, the German has refused to buy a car (to save money), instead walking an hour to practice over the summer. This might end once winter strikes Minneapolis.
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3. The Bengals show tremendous respect for Mike Zimmer, who from 2008 to ’13 served as Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator and is the architect of one of the NFL’s most-feared units. All but one of Cincinnati’s defensive starters had been groomed under Zimmer. The coach showed admiration right back, cementing the (so-far) congenial tone of these joint practices. On Wednesday night he was planning a barbecue at the home he still keeps in northern Kentucky, inviting over the coaching staffs of both teams.
4. It will be especially impressive if players keep their cool this week, considering the weather. Yesterday, temperatures peaked at about 90 degrees, but a humidity level of 80 percent made the fields feel like a sauna. It doesn’t help that the practice field is nestled like an asphalt cage around interstates blocking the Ohio River.
5. First-round pick Laquon Treadwell went against Adam Jones for several plays during the 11 v 11 session, and although he didn’t catch a pass, I expect Treadwell to be the beneficiary of Bridgewater’s improved long ball game as he starts opposite Stephon Diggs.
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