If you were asking “Can Sam Bradford lead the Vikings to the playoffs?” just a couple of weeks ago, you were likely experiencing a weird fever dream. But, well, here we are. The Vikings lost Teddy Bridgewater to a horrific knee injury at the end of August, and today the team announced that Adrian Peterson likely won’t be back in action until at least December — if at all — after he undergoes surgery to repair his torn meniscus on Thursday.
So, let’s ask it again: Can Mike Zimmer’s team stay afloat with Bradford steering the gigantic metal ship? It might sound crazy, but there’s a chance the answer is “yes.”
Without Bridgewater in Week 1, Minnesota rode its defense, which scored two touchdowns, to a win in Tennessee despite zero touchdowns from the offense. That seemed like it’d be the Vikings’ recipe for success in 2016: a conservative (if often terrible) offense carried by an elite defense.
Then came Bradford’s Week 2 debut, which was a legitimate revelation: Fifteen days after being acquired from Philadelphia for a first-round pick and a conditional fourth-rounder, Bradford completed 22 of 31 passes for 286 yards, throwing two touchdowns and no picks in a big win over the division rival Packers.
Under Bradford, the Vikings offense looked different — and not just because of his mud flap sleeves. With Peterson, the running game was the team’s identity: Minnesota’s 18 rushing touchdowns in 2015 were tied for second most in the NFL, and their 14 touchdowns through the air were second worst, ahead of only the Rams. Bridgewater had six games without a passing touchdown last year, too, five fewer than any other regular starter. One game in, it looks like Bradford could be an upgrade. He’s not Dan Marino, but he’s quietly been pretty effective recently. Over his final seven starts for the Eagles, Bradford completed 68 percent of his passes for 1,959 yards (280 per game), threw 10 touchdowns and four interceptions at 7.6 YPA, and registered a 97 quarterback rating. There’s nothing eye-popping about those numbers, but you can win with that kind of quarterbacking; the Vikings did it last year.
Of course, it’s easier to throw the ball when the opposing defense is more worried about the Hall of Fame runner standing behind you.
“When Adrian is in the game, everyone is loading the box, trying to stop the run, which gives us a lot of one-on-one matchups on the outside,” Bradford said Wednesday. “It also makes our play-action pretty effective. When they see him coming downhill, everyone is stepping up to stop the run. There are some things we took advantage of with him in the game. We’ll have to see how defenses will play us from here on out.”
Green Bay’s strategy on Sunday was to take Peterson out of the game and put it all on Bradford’s shoulders. Peterson left the game in the third quarter, and the Packers totally shut down the run, as Minnesota rushed for 30 yards on 22 attempts, or 1.4 yards per carry. But Bradford consistently found Stefon Diggs, who had nine catches for 182 yards and a touchdown, and other receivers downfield.
Now that Peterson is out of the picture, don’t expect defenses to give as much respect to the Minnesota running game. Instead, they’ll game-plan to confound Bradford, Diggs, and the Minnesota passing game, dialing up pressure and sitting over the top with an additional safety in coverage. The Vikings’ running game could provide some balance — Jerick McKinnon is an explosive runner who brought a 4.9-yard-per-carry average into this season — but they’ve been legitimately bad through two games: dead last in the league with just 47.5 yards rushing per game and a 1.9-yard-per-carry average. And that’s with one of the best running backs in NFL history.
Unless they can prove that losing Peterson is actually a boost to their ground game — it won’t be — Minnesota’s offense will change from one built around running to one that relies on Bradford’s arm. That means that Diggs, who leads the Vikings with 16 catches for 285 yards through two games, will become the go-to guy. And with a stronger focus on Bradford and the passing game, Minnesota may even give its first-round draft pick, wideout Laquon Treadwell — who didn’t play in Week 1 and saw just two snaps against the Packers — more chances to contribute.
To keep things moving toward the playoffs, the Vikings will have to keep Bradford upright. For his debut, they designed an offensive scheme that enabled him to get rid of the ball quickly. That rapid approach mitigates some of the offensive line’s protection issues: Even though Bradford’s time to throw was fifth quickest in Week 2 (2.4 seconds per dropback), he was still pressured 48.6 percent of the time, most in the NFL. That’s scary, especially with a notoriously brittle quarterback like Bradford — and things don’t get any easier with left tackle Matt Kalil heading to the injured reserve today.
The reality is that with a defense this good, the Vikings don’t need their offense to score 30 points a game; they just have to protect the football, run the clock, and take advantage of the great field position their defense hands them. The defense remains healthy and looks elite. Led by Anthony Barr, Harrison Smith, a tough front seven, and a ball-hawking secondary, the unit has given up fewer than 300 yards per game and has surrendered just 15 points per game. Minnesota travels to Carolina this weekend to take on last year’s highest-scoring offense, but that’s not the concern. In its first game without Peterson, the new-look offense will have to face off against Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. The Vikings have the blueprint to make this work — just look at what Denver’s done in the last year — but no one said it was going to be easy.