Vikings-Cardinals In Review: Touchdown Teddy
Image courtesy of Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY SportsWith all the storylines that could have emerged from the game, one dominated. Teddy Bridgewater led the second-team offense against a third-team defense with 1:11 remaining to score a touchdown in the waning seconds to put the Vikings over the top to win a meaningless preseason game after one of the most bizarre plays the press or the crowd can remember gave the Cardinals a lead.
The immediate aftermath doesn’t need to give way to specifics. Vikings fans saw the future they wanted to see and it was exciting. With all the incongruence between preseason performance and regular season football ability, drawing excitement from a glimpse into What May Come might be more valuable than any specific scouting report.
Because Teddy sure looked good, didn’t he?
That said, he hasn’t closed the gap on the quarterback battle, if there ever was one. Head Coach Mike Zimmer has a date in mind that he said hasn’t changed yet, but we don’t know his decision yet. And the player ahead of Teddy on the depth chart, presumed starter Matt Cassel, looked pretty good himself.
Or rather, he looked good as soon as the second-team defense was out there. Vikings fans shouldn’t forget the stalled first drive after four plays, or the march downfield only to see a drop ruin a drive from Kyle Rudolph.
The difference between those two drives has more to do with surprising runs than it does well-placed passes, and Cassel’s stellar second quarter was helped along by an anemic Cardinals second-string—in many cases composed of third-string players due to injury.
And Teddy, he looked good, too.
Cassel started off the game with some errant throws, throwing behind Cordarrelle Patterson and Jerome Simpson on two occasions, and overthrowing Cordarrelle on another. But he also carried qualities that the Vikings faithful have been missing from their quarterbacks. Cassel consistently moved through his progressions, and did it quickly. He avoided pressure well. His pre-snap reads of the defense were spot on.
With him were an offensive line whose best players from last year—John Sullivan and Brandon Fusco—continued their absolutely stellar play on the interior, creating space on running plays and keeping the passing lanes clear. Matt Kalil had a slightly rougher outing, but it was by no means bad and Phil Loadholt was a little more questionable. Once again, unfortunately, questions at left guard allowed several hurries and hits to come through the interior, and Charlie Johnson’s topped-out play can limit the offense.
Greg Jennings is drawing the attention of defenses when he’s on the field, yet still finds himself open fairly often. Cordarrelle Patterson was usually targeted when open, and plays he wasn’t thrown the ball, he sometimes struggled to get open; specifically he couldn’t keep defenders out of position on breaks. That said, his deception and handwork have been consistent improvements from him and the surprise is good. Jerome Simpson continues to find occasional work with the first team, and though he doesn’t receive many targets, his intelligent route-running is a reason to keep him on the field. Though imprecise, he keeps finding soft spots in zone coverage and makes the right decisions in-route. That he reels in only the circus catches but drops the routine ones is one reason he’s lower on the depth chart and in the progression.
Of the running backs, Matt Asiata took the most reps with the second team, and though he is generally a good decisionmaker, his plodding style was unsuited for some poor decisions he ended up making in the game, and that may have set him back—vision was his biggest advantage over Joe Banyard and Jerick McKinnon. Asiata also needed to do better in pass protection given that it's supposed to be his calling card. It looked like though his instincts were correct in identifying the pass rusher he needed to block, but he couldn’t sustain the block for any period of time.
And McKinnon himself didn’t have a bad night. He did only have one carry for a loss, but he did stuff that doesn’t immediately jump off the page that helped. His blocking was good and diagnosis was great. It was his block that set Rudolph to score the first Vikings touchdown. It’s a shame we didn’t see more of him as a runner.
Kyle Rudolph had an up-and-down night. Even after taking out that drop, his run blocking was below its usual standards and he let some defenders go free to make plays. On the other hand, we’re coming to more fully realize what it means to be a tight end in a Norv Turner system. Rudolph showed off improved route-running abilities that let him clear traffic, and his routes seem fluid now.
As usual, Rhett Ellison was played primarily as a blocker, and this time he wasn’t stellar. He’ll get better, but his pass protection as a tight end needs work, and he’s expected to hold DEs in the run game. He had some issue with both in the Saturday evening game, but it’s unlikely to be a lingering issue by any means.
There was another quarterback, too. He was pretty exciting. Back to him in a moment.
The Vikings defense seemed like their old selves. Despite replacing a murderer’s row of starters, it doesn’t seem all that much different than the unit that plagued the team to the tune of 30 points a game in 2013. But all is not lost. After the first scoring drive—one that gave up a 20-yard play, a 51-yard play and a 16-yard play—the first team defense maintained a high success rate with only two other plays gaining significant yardage against them for the whole half. Still, that's unacceptable play and needs to be remedied.
On the other hand, there were some bright spots. Brian Robison continuously found pressure and Sharrif Floyd could really take the heat to the iron this time, despite missing Linval Joseph. He recorded a number of hurries and hits that would really help in changing the outcome of the game. On the other side, Everson Griffen was found to be constantly harassing the quarterback with several hits and pressures.
Neither Fred Evans nor the rotational nose tackle Shamar Stephen looked too bad, and Stephen held up particularly well later in the game (against less-than-stellar competition).
That said, the defense should have continuously found pressure given the state of the offensive line the Cardinals put out there. Aside from missing two interior players in Johnathan Cooper and Lyle Sendlein, the offensive line is clearly an issue for them to overcome given their talent level and history.
The linebackers didn’t seem too frazzled. Unfortunately, a missed gap from Anthony Barr did stand out a little bit, though for the most part, he was very good. He got pressures when asked to rush the quarterback, and one of those rushes resulted in a strip-sack to end the half.
Chad Greenway had good moments in coverage against wide receivers and bad moments against tight ends, and not just the touchdown to Darren Fells that would have been fairly difficult for most linebackers to stop. He was left trailing a few times and made a customary tackle after catch, but he also had impressive positioning at times and even stopped a pass from getting to Larry Fitzgerald. As a run defender he was solid, and his outing was more good than bad.
Jasper Brinkley was allowed to attack downhill, something he's far better at than anything else, and had a few good plays to show for it. When in coverage, he remains a liability but he wasn't tested too often (though was out of position at least once).
While Gerald Hodges isn't really a starting linebacker, he ran with the ones for a bit and was critical in contain at the end of the drive, only to fall short. While he was unfairly held by a Cardinals offensive player on the touchdown run by Jonathan Dwyer, he also didn't widen enough to force the runner into help. Unfortunately for him, he didn't get to redeem himself, as he left the game with an injury that looks minor.
In the secondary, Xavier Rhodes' biggest gaffes were a missed tackle on Jaron Brown that led to the 51-yard catch-and-run and another Jaron Brown catch where he was in position for most of the play and had his head turned around, but found himself in the air without the ability to make a play on the ball. He had good moments otherwise, including a deflection of a pass intended for Fitzgerald and some blanket coverage otherwise.
Captain Munnerlyn saw some targets early on, but they petered off as Carson Palmer chose to target someone else. On those targets, Munnerlyn wasn't stellar, but he maintained good positioning for most of the game.
The bigger issue was with Marcus Sherels, who was out of position more often than the other two and saw a short spurt of passes targeting him specifically for several plays. Though Sherels has had a great camp and did well in the previous game, this is the kind of carryover Vikings fans were worried about.
Harrison Smith was who he is, which is to say he was a heat-seeking missile that was a pleasure to watch. The safeties who rotated in for Robert Blanton didn't stand out in any big way, though Kurt Coleman missed a tackle or two.
That said, this is the same defense that forced two punts and ended a third drive at the half. There were several series of really solid play that get lost in the shuffle of some bigger plays and drives. The difference is that last year's defense was often consistently bad, while here there was one legitimately bad series of plays, followed by one drive with only two bad plays. The other three drives were positive overall.
And there's other reason for hope, too. Teddy Bridgewater looked good.
He didn't have the most impressive start. He needed Joe Banyard to carry him and the offense in the most literal sense to the precipice of the end zone, only so that he would underthrow Jerome Simpson on a fade in pay dirt.
A defensive three-and-out gave him another chance to impress, however. He followed up that last effort with an 11-play drive, 9 of which were passes. Four of them were first downs, and another one was granted a first down after throwing to a target who was subject to pass interference.
With a series of sharp strokes, Teddy was rewriting the preseason narrative. He was doing it in rhythm and tempo, hitting almost all of his passes at the top of his drop. It seemed that he had listened to Coach Zimmer when told he was thinking too much, and Bridgewater's intuition took over.
The pass to Reisner for a short touchdown was good, but getting Jarius Wright for the two-point conversion to follow felt somehow better, as if he was adding an exclamation point to the new story he was writing.
He was starting to look pretty good.
Shortly after that, the defense forced a punt, and he was given the ball again, only to hand it off five times before getting sacked. Minnesota's four-minute offense didn't look particularly hot, through no fault of his.
Unfortunately, it would have been useful to drain the clock, as a bizarre event that most of the players had never seen before and most of the coaches only remembered as weird legend played out. A "Holy Roller" play with an advanced fumble, or rather "backwards pass", gave the Cardinals new hope to take the game away from the Vikings.
Putting aside the odd state of existence the NFL must posit to exist for someone to attempt a pass with no players ever having possessed the ball, Teddy Bridgewater was perfectly set up not just to ameliorate his performance from the past week, but erase it entirely.
With 1:11 left, Bridgewater strung together five consecutive passes—including a 37-yard strike to Rodney Smith—to get inside the 15 with 34 seconds remaining. An even more impressive effort than the Rodney Smith pass saw Bridgewater get more work done, as an off-platform throw to Kain Colter was completed with a tight window and a hungry defensive back in Eddie Whitley close by.
Shortly after avoiding seven-man pressure and a sack, Bridgewater and the offense benefited from a penalty that gave them a first down and brought them closer to the goal line. It was then that Bridgewater decided he was game enough to try the pass that failed in the third quarter—a fade into the end zone.
It could have been taken as a demonstration of gall, trust or unthinking intuition, but Bridgewater's choice could not have been any more dramatic. The pass to Rodney Smith in the end zone punctuated an oxymoronic memorable preseason win, something Vikings fans will carry with them until Bridgewater does it with more chips on the table.
There were other stellar performances, too. Dominique Williams deserves a lot of credit for keeping the interior of the pocket clean on pass protection for Bridgewater's drives, and his running was generally solid outside of his first play, where there was some questionable decisionmaking. His competition, Joe Banyard, tacked on to his resume of preseason highlights as well.
As mentioned above, Shamar Stephen looked good, and held up well against double teams, while Scott Crichton demonstrated high level awareness. Corey Wootton was a good all-around player, even after taking into account the annoying hands-to-the-face penalty that seems to be getting players on both sides of the line antsy.
Also on the line of scrimmage, but on the other side of the ball, were Joe Berger, Antonio Richardson and Vlad Ducasse, who all looked solid. Ducasse and Richardson made their share of mistakes, but both also performed, as a whole, better than what many might expect of second team linemen.
There's little question that receivers Adam Thielen and Rodney Smith shined brightly in the game, and their near-identical statlines—four receptions for 54 or 55 yards—were among the top at their position in the game.
Their counterparts also had some positive plays. Specifically, Julian Posey had two splash plays after an extremely quiet training camp. At linebacker, Michael Mauti had an impressive run stop from the edge, while Larry Dean shot a gap to kill a play in the backfield.
For the most part though, the night belonged to Teddy Bridgewater. He did run with a second-team offense against a third-team defensive unit for much of his play, and it's difficult to see if he could hit the same throws against a solid defensive unit or if accuracy concerns would crop up, but there were still positive takeaways, even knowing his level of competition.
His confidence in the pocket and ability to play inside of himself are two things that don't seem like they would ramp up much with NFL speed, and recovering from a hit is the same regardless of where someone is on the depth chart. Bridgewater's pocket presence and intuitive understanding of how to get the ball out to make the biggest impact stood out much more than any stat line.
There's still a lot he has to learn in order to fully integrate with a first-team offense as an NFL-ready starter, but for now the takeaway isn't that he had a 139.6 passer rating.
He looked damn good.