Don’t Blame Bradford, Blame the Turnstile OL

Without a doubt, Sam Bradford deserves some of the blame for the Minnesota Vikings’ loss on Sunday afternoon. In his return to Philadelphia, he was inexplicably inaccurate, careless with the football, and surprisingly incompetent from the pocket — when there was a pocket.

When a quarterback fails to recognize disguised coverages, as Bradford did against the Eagles, he automatically puts an offense at a disadvantage. Even worse, though, is when an offensive line blatantly misses blocks or free rushers. Minnesota’s front-five hurtled back to Earth last week, giving up six sacks in their ugliest performance of the season.

Head coach Mike Zimmer didn’t mince words when describing the unit’s play. “They didn’t block anybody,” he said, per Brian Murphy. “We were soft, got overpowered. It was a little bit of man-on-man and we got whipped.”

Sunday’s game represented a chance for Minnesota’s offense to grow, to build on the progress they’d made since losing Adrian Peterson in Week 2. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner had changed the system dramatically, employing a heavy dose of shotgun formations and quick-hitting passes that allowed Bradford to pick apart opposing defenses behind a shaky line.

But against the Eagles, Turner reverted to the tendencies that led to 43 Teddy Bridgewater sacks in 2015 — seven-step drops, slow-developing play action passes, and predictable runs on first down. His playcalling choices compounded the struggles of the offensive line, which had been masked to this point by Turner’s clever adjustments.

It’s not unreasonable to expect offensive tackles to block defensive ends one-on-one; they’re paid to do so without sacrificing the structure of an offensive scheme. A coach like Turner shouldn’t have to provide extra help from running backs and tight ends in pass protection to compensate for bookend deficiencies.

Often times in 2015, Turner used Kyle Rudolph and Rhett Ellison in such a role, asking them to chip ends at the snap. This disrupts the timing of a defender’s rush, giving the offensive tackle another split second to take control at the line of scrimmage. But doing so also limits the passing game, eliminating certain formations and matchup advantages created by splitting a tight end wide.

On Sunday, Turner chose to forego the extra protection at times, and that hurt the Vikings. Despite T.J. Clemmings’ up-and-down play, the relative inexperience of Jeremiah Sirles, and Jake Long’s cinderblock feet, Turner left all three on an island when it mattered most.

Twice in the red zone, where the Vikings failed to capitalize on touchdown opportunities, Turner entrusted Bradford’s health and the success of the offense with his trio of tackles. The results, as all Vikings fans know, were disastrous.

Play No. 1

Bradford’s first turnover of the year was a highlight, but for all the wrong reasons. Minnesota squandered an opportunity to capitalize on Andrew Sendejo’s first quarter interception, giving the ball right back to the Eagles at a critical juncture of the game.

Facing a third-and-goal, Bradford lined up in the shotgun with three receivers split right and Adam Thielen split to the left. It was an obvious passing situation, and one the Eagles countered by putting Brandon Graham in a Wide-9 alignment.

Graham’s wide start is an immediate advantage, allowing him to beat Clemmings to the edge with a steep angle. When Clemmings does engage Graham, he lunges forward and stands almost completely upright. Graham, a veteran end, easily tosses Clemmings to the side and accelerates toward Bradford.

Brandon Fusco can’t recover quickly enough, but it’s almost impossible for him to do so because of Graham’s alignment. The Wide-9, combined with the 3-technique from Fletcher Cox, creates the matchup that unfolds in the video above. Cox’s pressure is enough to hold Fusco inside, and the lack of another rusher to the right allows Graham to work the inside move on Clemmings.

Had Clemmings held up in protection, Bradford would’ve thrown an easy touchdown to Thielen. But Graham’s dominance on the edge speeds up the process, leading to a quarterback hit, a duck of a throw, and a giveaway interception in the red zone.

Turner isn’t fully to blame here, but Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz outmaneuvered him on the snap. It doesn’t help that Clemmings, who started every game at right tackle in 2015, looks as though he’s made little progress in a year.

Play No. 2

Later in the game, and faced once again with a chance to score, Turner reverted to the “seven deadly drops.” While the play action did its part in holding eight defenders in the box, Bradford only had two receivers running routes down the field. His running back and fullback stayed in to block, but that didn’t make a difference to Philadelphia’s pass rush.

Running play action is perfectly acceptable when an offense has success running the football. But the Vikings have been a subpar rushing team all season, minimizing the effectiveness of Turner’s favorite red zone play calls.

Despite this obvious lack of production, the Eagles showed respect for Minnesota’s run game. Turner’s formation in the video above forced Schwartz to counter with eight defenders in the box, which saw all three linebackers fall for Bradford’s play action fake.

For the most part, Minnesota’s offensive line held up, giving Bradford enough room to step up and throw Thielen open in the corner. But it was the backside, and the play of Jake Long, that forced another critical turnover from the quarterback.

Connor Barwin took one step to set up Long, then planted and sprinted upfield, easily beating the newly-acquired tackle around the edge. There’s a reason Long hadn’t played in nearly and year, and Barwin exposed it in one snap. The rest, unfortunately, is history; Bradford fumbled the football and missed another scoring opportunity.

Many of the line’s issues were individual failures, but Turner didn’t do the offense any favors with his play-calling. Often times, he left his subpar tackles alone in difficult protections, making Bradford’s job more difficult against an Eagles defense looking for blood.

In situations where an outlet receiver would’ve made a difference, Turner kept that player in to block. And in obvious passing situations, Turner left his tackles alone. It was an afternoon of missed opportunities, and hopefully, an afternoon the Minnesota Vikings can learn from moving forward.

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Austin Belisle

Austin Belisle is the West Coast's biggest Vikings fan, a football diehard cheering on the purple and yellow from sunny California. After graduating from San Jose State University in 2014, he began working full-time in corporate marketing and blogging on various sports websites. Austin's passion for the Vikings led him to Vikings Territory, where he hopes to share his lifelong enthusiasm for the team with readers on a daily basis. You can follow him on Twitter @austincbelisle

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  1. on that last one Bradford took an extra step at the top of his drop, if he hadn’t done that he would have had room to slide up in the otherwise nice pocket and make the throw. it wasn’t the only time he drifted too deep.

  2. Ol garbage true, but the INT in the end zone was a poor decision. Pressure does not excuse poor decision making. He also airmailed several passes over receivers. Ridiculous cannot gold Sam accountable for his poor play. No doubt OL did him zero favors, bit he is capable of having a bad game in his own right which he did.

    1. Zim pointed out in his presser that Diggs was 10 yards short in his route so the ball went where he was supposed to be. Sam did look off early. I think he was the same last week early but then straightened out later.

      back to the drawing board with this offensive line. Personally, I don’t like Norv’s play calling. We’ve been at the bottom of the league for three years and it doesn’t look like we’re going to get out of the cellar this year. Vikes gotta make a change if we are going to take advantage of a pretty good defense… Is Shurmur the guy??

  3. Two other off field issues need addressing, are players uneasy about difference in punishment for coaches vs players in recent DWI cases- hypocrisy may have taken something away from guys. Second, reports indicate Zimmer & Co cut up and left arouyn the facility stuffed animals in some off beat motivation attempt, WTF??!!who’s idea was that? Sometimes somebody’s got tell you no, did he run that one by Parcells?

  4. The running backs were also awful in pass protection, especially Asiata.

    Austin, would you care to comment on the bizarre OT rotation that shifted Clemmings from left to right tackle whenever Jake Long was brought in? It’s one thing to rotate two players through a single position but to move one player – a raw second-year player still learning the position, to boot – back and forth between LT and RT from play to play disrupted both positions needlessly. This was especially frustrating since Sirles, at least, had played well so far in relief of Andre Smith.

    It’s awfully easy for a fan or journalist to say something like “It’s not unreasonable to expect offensive tackles to block defensive ends one-on-one,” but we are talking about two back-ups and a rusty, oft-injured, long-ago All-Pro here. Sirles has rotated between all four guard and tackle positions over the course of his short career and Clemmings came out of college with only two years of experience at OT. He was thrown into the deep end last year at RT and then again this year at LT, yet the coaches seemed to expect him to play both positions on the same series?!? That was just insane, and should have been obvious to Zimmer whenever the idea was presented to him.

    I think Zimmer deserves much of the blame for this loss because the three-man/two-position OT rotation was unnecessarily complicated and disruptive and resulted in some spectacularly bad plays, including Bradford’s interception, and he’s the one who had to green light the scheme.

    1. Personally, I was confused by the move. I know Long was the big signing a couple weeks ago, but two weeks isn’t enough to get back into football shape, learn a system, and expect to play at a high level. Long looked completely unprepared for the speed of Philly’s edge rushers and seemed slow in his drop. Clemmings, unfortunately, wasn’t much better.

      I don’t know who made the decision to rotate tackles like that, but it was disastrous. I put a lot of the blame (as misguided as it may be) on Norv Turner…the scheme looked completely different from what we’ve seen in previous weeks and set the offense up to fail. All in all, I think it was a poor coaching performance from the entire staff.

      1. I don’t know who had the idea of shifting Clemmings to RT and sitting Sirles down when Long came on the field, whether it was Sparano or Turner, but I can’t believe they didn’t run it by Zimmer for his approval, and the buck does stops with him.

    2. My feelings exactly ck, well put. I can see rotating Long and Clemmings, but to move TJ over to the other side instead of coming off the field? I just don’t see how they could expect any continuity by doing what they did.