The Vikings are sitting atop the NFC North with a surprising 7-2 record. But if they want to make a real Super Bowl run this winter, they need more from their second-year QB Teddy Bridgewater.
Going into this Sunday's pivotal NFC North matchup with the Packers, the Vikings stand at 7–2. If the season ended today, they'd hold the NFC's second playoff seed, behind only the undefeated Panthers. Coach Mike Zimmer's defense has become a force, and Adrian Peterson has made an amazing comeback, regardless of what you think of the circumstances that forced the comeback in the first place. Their two losses this season? A highly unusual 20–3 loss to the 49ers in the season opener, and a 23–20 loss to the Broncos back in early October, when people weren't yet wondering whether Peyton Manning could even finish out the season.
And yet, very little of this has impressed anybody. The Vikings are flying very much under the radar for a couple of reasons—the only true superstar (Peterson) has a personal story that's hard to polish, and they haven't beaten a single team with a record over .500. They currently rank 19th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted team efficiency rankings—24th on offense, 20th on defense, and seventh in special teams. Minnesota has quite the tough schedule coming up in the next month, with Green Bay, Atlanta, Seattle and Arizona as their next four opponents. Perhaps if Mike Zimmer's team is able to post a winning mark in that mini-season, the Vikings will gain some respect. Beating the Packers on Sunday and moving to two games up in the division would be a good start.
And for that start to happen, the Vikings will need to see more from second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
The team has no doubt that they've found their eventual franchise quarterback in Bridgewater, nor should they, but time is running out this season for games in which he defines more victories. And that's going to have to happen at some point if the Vikings want to be more than a paper tiger. So far this season, he's completed 163 passes in 254 attempts for 1,810 yards, seven touchdowns and six interceptions. He's thrown for over 200 just four times this season, and over 300 yards just once, in a 28–19 win over Detroit's massively underperforming defense. That Detroit game was also the only game this season in which he's thrown more than one touchdown pass. Bridgewater currently ranks 26th in FO's opponent-adjusted per-play metrics for quarterbacks, and 27th in those same season-cumulative stats—just below veterans with down seasons like Andrew Luck and Joe Flacco, and just above younger quarterbacks like Colin Kaepernick and Nick Foles who have found themselves benched for poor performance.
Not that anyone's suggesting benching Bridgewater. Part of the problem is that the Vikings haven't surrounded him with great targets. Rookie receiver Stefon Diggs leads the team with 30 catches on 47 targets for 507 yards, and only tight end Kyle Rudolph has more touchdown receptions than Diggs's two. Speed receiver Mike Wallace has had an up-and-down season, and nobody else has really stepped up. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner has still not been able to find a role for receiver Cordarrelle Patterson in this passing game, which leaves the 2013 first-round pick as little more than a return threat. And because of a porous offensive line, no quarterback has been pressured more than Bridgewater this season—per Pro Football Focus, he's seen pressure on 45.9% of his dropbacks. That's due to a lot of things: Bridgewater's still-developing pocket awareness, unimpressive edge blocking, receivers who struggle to get open at times and Turner's system, which incorporates a lot of deep drops. Zimmer has been careful about Bridgewater avoiding the hero syndrome, and at making sure his quarterback doesn't run when he doesn't have to.
“I thought Teddy played very well yesterday,” Zimmer said on Monday, one day after the Vikings beat the Raiders, 30–14. “We had 59 plays on offense. There was 10 of them that he took what could have been really bad plays and made them into manageable plays. We did want to throw the ball down the field, so we had some maximum protection things in, which you’re going to hold the ball a little bit longer. You also have less receivers in the routes, so if they get covered, there’s less places to go, and if the protection breaks down and looks worse than what it was, but I didn’t feel that.
“I want him to run, but I still want him to be a quarterback and do what he needs to do. But he did make a couple great runs... I’m comfortable with how he’s doing things.”
‘How he's doing things’ is managing the game while Peterson runs wild. That's how this offense works. Against Oakland, Bridgewater completed 14 of 22 passes for 140 yards and a touchdown while Peterson shredded the Raiders' defense for 203 rushing yards on 26 carries. In Turner's offense, receivers are tasked to get downfield on vertical routes that break over time—the Vikings run a lot of motion and backfield action, but you don't see a lot of routes that develop quickly and take advantage of defenses underneath. When you combine that with a bad line, what you wind up with is a lot of Bridgewater running around to extend plays, and some big plays created outside of structure. It certainly helps that defenses have to bring extra men down to deal with Peterson, but there isn't a consistently defined and rhythmic element to Minnesota's passing game.
“He does not make very many negative plays,” quarterbacks coach Scott Turner recently said of his star pupil. “He's a very smart player, and he understands what it takes to win. We've played some very good defenses in the first half of the season, and we've had opportunities that we didn't make the most of. Some of that's on Teddy; some of that's on some other people. But I see the progress, and I feel like a lot of things, we're really close. If we keep pushing, we're going to make some of those plays.”
Norv Turner has revealed the balance between wanting Bridgewater to do more, and understanding how this team has been able to win to date. it's very much an old-school approach, and it makes sense. When you have a dominant running game and a tremendous defense, why take risks you don't need to take? The 49ers and Seahawks, the NFC's last two Super Bowl entrants, built their success on very similar paradigms. Still, Zimmer is smart enough to know that if you have a limited quarterback, or if you limit your quarterback too much, the margin for error can be oppressive. Especially when the games get bigger, the opponents are tougher, and the air gets thinner.
“We trust that Teddy's going to make the right decisions,” Turner said. “I think, for the most part, he does. I agree with Coach Zimmer that he needs to turn it loose. I do think, though, that there is a fine line. We've played some good defenses; our defense is playing unbelievable. We're not giving the defense the ball in plus territory by making mistakes. With a guy like Teddy, who we do really trust, you can take the shots, and if they're not there, check down, be smart, and [don't] just force something.”
Right now, that's alright, because the Vikings are winning. It can take the time it needs to take. Victory tends to take the edge off a lot of issues. But as this team goes further down a road not that many expected it to be on, it will be up to Bridgewater to step up and make bigger plays, and up to the coaches to create those opportunities.