Teddy Bridgewater isn’t a running quarterback, but his mobility and pocket presence make all the difference for the Minnesota Vikings. Operating behind one of the league’s flimsiest offensive lines in 2014 and 2015, Bridgewater avoided pressure with the savviness of a seasoned vet — spinning, juking, and faking would-be defenders out of sacks.
Sam Bradford isn’t a running quarterback either, but he’s no Bridgewater. Early on in his tenure with the Vikings, Bradford looked like a passer who’d forgotten how to step up in the pocket. Behind the sieve that is Minnesota’s front five — and in Pat Shurmur’s quick-fire offense — his initial hesitation was understandable.
Bradford’s biggest issue, at least early on, was hitting the top of his drop and planting himself in place. That’s fine when the ball’s coming out instantaneously after the snap, but Minnesota’s tackles don’t always give Bradford the time he needs. Often, edge rushers turn the corner and collapse the pocket against the Vikings, forcing the quarterback to initiate what should be a natural “climb” toward the line of scrimmage.
Bridgewater, a product of Norv Turner’s seven-step drops, was accustomed to such “climbs” and made a habit of finding open running lanes between defensive linemen. Part of it was Teddy’s aversion to risk — avoiding throws to “covered” receivers — but most of his escapability was the result of an acute feel for the game. Bridgewater knew when to run and leave the pocket, and how to extend plays to turn nothing into something.
Before the Vikings’ Week 13 matchup with the Dallas Cowboys, Bradford hadn’t shown that same unpredictability or willingness to make plays with his legs. He’d grown accustomed to Shurmur’s three-step drops, hitting his first read, and throwing passes as early as possible; such is the life of a quarterback operating behind a group that’s lost countless linemen to injuries over the season.
Despite the rapid pace of each snap, Bradford’s still been sacked 28 times this year — some his fault, some the fault of his piecemeal protection. There have been times where Bradford’s taken sacks Bridgewater would’ve avoided, and also times where Bradford’s made throws Bridgewater’s never attempted.
A perfect mix of the two quarterbacks would be Bridgewater’s legs, decision-making, and leadership combined with Bradford’s raw arm talent. It’s an impossible “ask,” but as of late, Bradford’s taken a page out of Bridgewater’s book to keep the Vikings competitive with his mobility. He’ll never move like Teddy, but Bradford’s recent play gives hope he can replicate some of that same Bridgewater magic moving forward — at least until No. 5 returns to the huddle.
Trailing 17-9 with almost no time on the clock, Bradford needed to drive the Vikings down the field for a score. While his escapability here is impressive, it’s the circumstances of the situation that elevate this play from routine to extraordinary.
Bradford’s never been an escape artist; if a free rusher slips through the line, he’s more akin to flop like the Peyton Manning of old than spin out and improvise. Here, however, he uses the Cowboys’ tricks against them, conjuring up memories of Tony Romo’s best days under center.
At the snap, the Cowboys’ right defensive end rushes free at Bradford’s back side shoulder. The pressure from the defensive tackle, who attacks T.J. Clemmings’ inside gap, carries Clemmings inside and allows the defensive end to rush unabated to the quarterback. Surprisingly, Bradford senses the pressure and spins quickly to his right, creating just enough separation to extend the play.
He sprints to the left sideline, all while keeping his eyes downfield and on the receivers. Adam Thielen sees his quarterback scrambling and adjusts his route accordingly, making sure to angle back to the line of scrimmage. Bradford gives himself enough time to turn his hips and square his shoulders, making what should have been a difficult throw look rather simple. His pass finds Thielen for the first down, keeping Minnesota’s then hope of a victory alive.
Had Bradford not been wearing a No. 5 jersey, you could’ve mistaken him for Bridgewater. He hadn’t made such a play all season but chose a prime opportunity to get his legs going. It’s
Later in the drive, Bradford made his of his “wheels” again, this time showing patience and pinpoint accuracy while throwing on the run. No one will mistake Bradford for an athlete — Alex Boone called his quarterback “the most awkward slider” ever — but he can get the job done. Even Bridgewater looked a little out of place as a runner in 2014, and now, his legs are one of his greatest assets.
Bradford’s aren’t, and that’s okay. Here, he’s forced to use them and makes the most of a difficult assignment. Kyle Rudolph ends up in a one-on-one situation with Dallas’s left defensive end and as expected, loses the battle. The play appears designed to be a roll-out right, putting Bradford right in harm’s way. He actually outruns the end and gives himself enough time to locate Stefon Diggs down the field.
Diggs, covered by two defenders, recognizes Bradford’s predicament and adjusts his route, sprinting to the sideline to free himself from the coverage. Bradford’s legs allow this to happen, both in giving himself enough time to set and throw and Diggs enough time to work back to the sideline. The pitch-and-catch puts the Vikings in the red zone and stops the clock — once again ensuring the team a chance at the tying touchdown.
Bradford’s efforts didn’t all come in losses. As Andrew Krammer points out, his legs helped lead the Vikings to a win over the Jaguars. They also kept Bradford clean, as Jacksonville finished the day without a sack. The Jaguars don’t have what anyone would consider a threatening pass rush, but keeping the ever-delicate Bradford clean is always positive on a team so ravaged by injuries.
Like the first example, Bradford makes a play we’ve rarely seen from him this season. He identifies a rushing lane, and rather than throw the ball away or force it into coverage, takes off. At the time, the 15-yard gain was the Vikings’ longest rush of the day and a spark for a team in need of another big play.
More than that, Bradford’s willingness to run should serve as an inspiration to the Vikings. No, Bridgewater isn’t coming back this season, and may not be ready for 2017, but Bradford’s a player to rally behind in the young quarterback’s absence. He may not be the leader that Bridgewater is or as publicly beloved, but he’s succeeded in one of the league’s more difficult offensive situations.
The simple fact that Bradford’s adjusting his game, taking chances, and putting even more on his shoulders is commendable. He may not be winning every game, but Bradford’s doing what he can to put the Vikings in the “W” column. Fans know he can throw the ball, but seeing Bradford “turn on the jets” is a positive development in what’s been a disappointing second half of the season.