High hopes: Vikings finally pair Peterson with Bridgewater
Finally, the Minnesota Vikings can send the fulcrum of their offense onto the field at the same time. The combination came together one year late, but there's plenty of time remaining for the franchise running back in the evening phase of his career to do some damage to opposing defenses with the still-dawning quarterback.
''Teddy, I feel like he's the key. There's not too many guys that come into the league that have that talent, especially at the quarterback position,'' Peterson said. ''He's just so poised. He has a great arm. He's mature. And he's a competitor.''
When the Vikings drafted Bridgewater at the end of the first round last year, the environment appeared ideal for a rookie quarterback. Get in on the ground floor with the offensive coordinator Norv Turner's system. Ease in as the backup. Once ready to run the team, take advantage of Peterson's presence to find receivers in one-on-one coverage.
Last year was a prime example of those best-laid NFL plans going to waste. Peterson was shelved before the second game, when the child abuse case arose against him. Matt Cassel was hurt one week later, pushing Bridgewater into the role before he was ready. There were many Sundays like the eight-sack, three-interception day against Detroit. Bridgewater didn't throw his first touchdown pass until his fourth start.
His five best completion percentages came over the final five games, though. While the Vikings won four of their last five home games, Bridgewater was intercepted a total of three times. Clearly, he was improving, an ascent that ought to accelerate with Peterson back in the fold.
''I don't know if it's `excitement level,''' coach Mike Zimmer said, ''but I think we've improved the football team that way.''
Here are some key story lines to know about the Vikings this year:
UNSETTLED UP FRONT: The offensive line, coming off a collectively shaky 2014 season, was already going to be the biggest question mark. Then right tackle Phil Loadholt, the starter for the last six years, tore an Achilles tendon. Center John Sullivan missed the last three weeks of the preseason because of a back injury, putting his availability for the opener against the 49ers in question.
With Loadholt out for the year, rookie T.J. Clemmings is in the lineup. Mike Harris is the new starter at right guard. Left tackle Matt Kalil, whose pass blocking last season was the most glaring problem on the line, is probably the player to be least concerned about following winter knee surgeries and a strong training camp. Veteran Joe Berger is a capable backup at the three interior positions, but the depth beyond him is unproven in case of further injuries or struggling starters.
Peterson, for his part, has liked what he's seen this summer.
''They understand what it's going to take for us to be a playoff, championship-caliber team. They're taking it personally. You see it in the preseason when those guys go out there, how they've been improving,'' Peterson said.
MARKET CORNERED: Zimmer's expertise is defense. His specialty is cornerbacks. After a breakout year by Xavier Rhodes under his tutelage, the acquisition of veteran Terence Newman and the eager return of Captain Munnerlyn to make the team forget his disappointing first season, the quality at this position is the highest it's been for the Vikings in decades. That's given them the luxury to bring along first-round draft pick Trae Waynes slowly.
KICKING CONCERNS: Blair Walsh missed six field goals and an extra point over five exhibition games, following last year's field goal rate of 74 percent that ranked last in the league among regular kickers. Punter Jeff Locke has ranked just 24th and 25th in the NFL in his first two years on the job.
LINEBACKER SHUFFLE: Gerald Hodges is the new middle linebacker, having shown enough ability as the top backup at the outside spots to Anthony Barr and Chad Greenway the team decided to try the third-year player inside. Hodges beat out rookie Eric Kendricks to start in the base defense, but Kendricks will enter in the nickel package on passing downs. The Vikings ranked 25th in yards rushing allowed in 2014.
OUTDOOR AU REVOIR: This will be the last of two seasons playing in the fresh air at the University of Minnesota, with the team's colossal new covered stadium set to open in 2016. Cold or snow could come into play, too: The Vikings have three home games in December.
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