On an afternoon where defense ruled the day, it was the Minnesota Vikings’ offense that propelled the team to a resounding victory. That may sound insane given the way Mike Zimmer’s unit shut down the Carolina Panthers — sacking Cam Newton eight times and forcing three interceptions — but it’s inexplicably true.
The Sam Bradford-led offense looked stagnant through two quarters, totaling just 34 yards before halftime. Bradford threw two near-interceptions, the run game faltered in the face of Carolina’s front seven, and plays broke apart behind a still-shaky offensive line.
Down 8-10 heading into the locker room, the Vikings needed to make serious adjustments to keep their winning hopes alive. Defense and special teams carried Minnesota to the end of the half, but that’s not a formula for long-term success. To stay competitive in any environment, against any team, an offense needs to do the little things right; convert third downs, protect the football, and sustain drives.
Minnesota struggled to do two of the three in the first half, but miraculously found its groove at the start of the third quarter. The offense’s opening drive, a 10-play grind down the field, put the Vikings ahead for good and ensured an undefeated record heading into Week 4.
The Case for Rhythm
Following the game, Bradford touched on Minnesota’s ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ performances in the first and second halves. “I think in the first half we just never really found the rhythm, ” he said. “You look at the second half and we were able to come out and kind of get in that rhythm. Once we clicked and found that rhythm, it was good for the rest of the day.”
There are major issues on Norv Turner’s offense, some that could keep this team from making a deep playoff push in January. The run game, in particular, makes it especially difficult for the Vikings to sustain drives and create the rhythm Bradford mentions. Last season, the team was middle of the pack in average time of possession per game, holding the ball for 30:26. Through three games this year, the Vikings are 22nd, possessing the ball nearly two minutes less.
Much of that falls on a ground attack that averages 51 yards per game, currently the worst mark in the league. When a team gains just 2.1 yards per attempt, as the Vikings do, it makes it that much harder to convert third-and-long situations. And in turn, offenses that convert just 32.5 percent of their third down opportunities don’t possess the football long enough to establish important offensive rhythm.
Fortunately for Turner, Minnesota’s standout drive flew in the face of statistical analysis. Running backs found creases between the tackles, Bradford located open receivers on third down, and Minnesota chewed time off the clock. Aided by Turner’s back-to-basics approach, the offense answered Zimmer’s proverbial bell.
“I basically mentioned, in a nice way to the offense, that we need to get some first downs and they did,” he said following the game.
Think on this — the Vikings totaled 34 yards on six offensive drives in the first half. Each ended in a punt, and two of those drives saw the offense finish with negative yardage (-5 and -1 yards on the final two drives). The first outing of the second half was a different story; Bradford led the Vikings on a 10-play, 79-yard touchdown drive that made the score 15-10 in favor of Minnesota.
Turner relied heavily on 12-personnel, throwing Rhett Ellison and Kyle Rudolph onto the field five times during the drive. He started the second half with three straight 12-personnel plays, keeping Carolina’s defense guessing with a mix of runs and passes in both shotgun and from under center.
Turner loved 12-personnel in 2015, using it on 22.7 percent of Minnesota’s offensive plays last season. It’s generally a run-heavy grouping, as the extra tight end adds another man to the line of scrimmage, but Turner called a pass on four of the offense’s five snaps in the look. On such plays, Bradford completed all four passes for 43 yards and a touchdown.
The Vikings also found success running the football, averaging 6.75 yards per carry on the drive. Jerick McKinnon showed an impressive ability to squeeze through the line of scrimmage and keep his balance for extra yards. He gained a sizable chunk of Minnesota’s share on the ground, picking up 17 yards on three carries. Unlike Adrian Peterson, McKinnon was able to overcome poor blocking up front and turn potentially negative plays into positive gains for the offense.
Even more impressive was the timing of the runs, which put the Vikings in second-and-short or third-and-short situations. McKinnon’s nine-yard carry gave the Vikings a 2nd-and-1 opportunity in Carolina territory, while Asiata’s eight-yard carry the next play nearly pushed the Vikings into field goal range. Some of that should be attributed to Turner, who strayed from his own tendency to run the ball on first down.
Allowing Bradford to drop back and pass worked to counteract Carolina’s aggressiveness in the early downs. The Vikings actually threw the ball six times on the drive, with Bradford hitting every pass as the Vikings drove down the field. Turner didn’t ask his quarterback to challenge the defense, instead giving Bradford simple reads and timed route concepts — hooks, curls, quick outs — to keep the offense moving.
Zimmer believes Bradford knows the entire offensive playbook, and his comfort revealed itself at times on Sunday. His solid, if unspectacular performance in the second half was reminiscent of some of Teddy Bridgewater’s best games. He showed the ability to make the right reads and hit receivers out of the breaks, all within the framework of the original play call.
Below, a look at the entire drive. Plays in bold mark the series’ most critical moments:
- 1st and 10 at MIN 21 (14:54 – 3rd): S.Bradford pass short left to S.Diggs pushed ob at MIN 31 for 10 yards (J.Bradberry)
- 1st and 10 at MIN 31 (14:26 – 3rd): J.McKinnon up the middle to MIN 35 for 4 yards (T.Davis; L.Kuechly)
- 2nd and 6 at MIN 35 (14:01 – 3rd) (No Huddle, Shotgun): S.Bradford pass short middle to J.McKinnon to MIN 37 for 2 yards (T.Davis)
- 3rd and 4 at MIN 37 (13:19 – 3rd) (Shotgun): S.Bradford pass short left to K.Rudolph to MIN 42 for 5 yards (K.Coleman; K.Ealy)
- 1st and 10 at MIN 42 (13:19 – 3rd): J.McKinnon right guard to CAR 49 for 9 yards (K.Coleman)
- 2nd and 1 at CAR 49 (12:02 – 3rd): M.Asiata up the middle to CAR 41 for 8 yards (L.Kuechly)
- 1st and 10 at CAR 41 (11:22 – 3rd): S.Bradford pass deep left to S.Diggs pushed ob at CAR 25 for 16 yards (J.Bradberry)
- 1st and 10 at CAR 25 (10:49 – 3rd): J.McKinnon up the middle to CAR 21 for 4 yards (V.Butler; T.Davis). CAR-V.Butler was injured during the play. His return is Questionable. MIN-D.Morgan was injured during the play. His return is Questionable
- 2nd and 6 at CAR 21 (10:27 – 3rd) (Shotgun): S.Bradford pass short middle to S.Diggs to CAR 15 for 6 yards (T.Davis)
- 1st and 10 at CAR 15 (9:43 – 3rd): Kyle Rudolph Pass From Sam Bradford for 15 Yrds TWO-POINT CONVERSION ATTEMPT. J.McKinnon rushes up the middle. ATTEMPT SUCCEEDS.
Play No. 1
Down two points and in need of a spark, the Vikings went against the familiar grain. Had Adrian Peterson been in the game, Turner may have called a run to open the quarter. But without Peterson, this is a changed offense, one that’s relied more heavily on Bradford’s arm this season than it did Bridgewater’s in 2015.
Turner instead calls a play action pass, which forces the blitzing strong safety (left of the screen) to hesitate on his rush. He nearly overtakes McKinnon in pass protection, but the diminutive running back holds his ground long enough for Bradford to release the ball.
Elsewhere along the line, the unit handles Carolina’s initial surge, with T.J. Clemmings soundly containing the right defensive end. McKinnon recognized the safety blitz before the snap, allowing Bradford to swivel his head and read the coverage on Stefon Diggs. The lack of movement in Bradford’s head suggests he was always going to target Diggs.
While Bradford tried to force feed Diggs early in the game, that wasn’t a problem here, as Diggs beat the cornerback on an out route and easily converted the first down; a route the Vikings would successfully execute later in the drive.
It’s clear Bradford trusts Diggs, and believed he’d win his one-on-one matchup along the sideline. Their chemistry is a positive through Bradford’s first two games and should only grow as the quarterback becomes more comfortable in the offense. More importantly, Turner jump-started the offense by getting his quarterback and top receiver into a second half rhythm.
Play No. 2
Up to this point of the game, the Vikings were 2-for-6 on third down conversions and failed to sustain long drives. Here, two plays after the first completion to Diggs, Bradford delivered to keep the drive alive.
Rather than challenging the defense or forcing a ball downfield, Bradford took what the coverage gave him; sometimes it’s fine to play it safe, especially when your offense can’t afford to leave points on the field.
The Panthers align in man coverage on the boundaries and show a double A-Gap blitz at the line of scrimmage. When Bradford snaps the ball, both middle linebackers feign the blitz and drop into zone coverage. The right defensive end also drops into a zone, mirroring Kyle Rudolph’s movement down the field.
Bradford fits the ball into a relatively small window at the sticks, in a place where only Rudolph can secure the catch. He knows the safety is in man coverage and won’t have time to contest Rudolph’s curl route, firing the ball at the top of his drop. He also recognizes the defensive end’s poor positioning, which creates an even easier pitch-and-catch.
His ball placement, made possible by another rare, clean pocket, highlights everything that makes Bradford a fit in Turner’s offense — quick decision-making, precision accuracy, and the ability to diagnose coverages pre-snap.
Play No. 3
As previously mentioned, Minnesota’s running game is a far cry from the attack that defined the Vikings’ 2015 offense. Backs have been faced with free rushers in the backfield, making it impossible to read blocking or hit the appropriate hole. Peterson suffered behind Minnesota’s porous offensive line this year, but McKinnon escaped numerous breakdowns for positive gains on Sunday.
Here, on a first down following Rudolph’s conversion, the Vikings run McKinnon out of 21-personnel. Zach Line is offset to the right, and at the snap, serves as McKinnon’s lead blocker through the B-Gap (2-Hole). He defeats Luke Kuechly in the hole, but Andre Smith’s missed block nearly leads to a negative play. McKinnon trips on contact, then comes within inches of hitting the ground once he breaks free.
The video above is a testament to McKinnon’s athleticism and freakish balance. Because he’s so low to the ground and so explosive, McKinnon has the natural ability to keep himself upright in situations where most players would fall. The core strength required to lift your knees, keep your momentum moving forward, and nearly stretch for a first down is unmatched. At 31 years old, Peterson doesn’t have that same ability, but McKinnon brings the much-needed dimension to Minnesota’s lackluster rushing offense.
McKinnon’s nine-yard gain puts the Vikings in Panthers territory and sets up a manageable 2nd-and-1 situation.
Play No. 4
If a play works, it stays in the playbook. And if a player can essentially fool-proof the result of said play, it’s worth running multiple times a game. The video above looks nearly identical to the first example, if only because it is the exact same play.
Diggs runs another quick out, Bradford takes another clean drop, and the offensive line provides another clean pocket. This angle highlights Diggs’ vertical stem, which makes it nearly impossible for the cornerback to identify the receiver’s route.
He sells the streak, giving the impression he’ll run a deeper route. At 10 yard, Diggs plants his outside foot to sell another route — the post. This carries the cornerback inside, turning No. 24’s hips to the middle of the field.
Once Diggs feels the corner at his side, he chops his feet and explodes to the sideline. The second-year receiver’s short-area quickness is too much for the cornerback to handle, and Bradford once again hits Diggs in rhythm for the first down.
Play No. 5
Bradford’s touchdown throw to Rudolph wasn’t perfect, but it revealed just how much the quarterback trusts his tight end. Next to Diggs, Rudolph’s is Minnesota’s most dangerous receiver. He’s faster than most linebackers and has the size to out jump most safeties, making him a valuable target in the red zone.
In just 22 days, Bradford’s developed enough chemistry with Rudolph to understand the tight end’s strengths and throw this football. At the snap, he sees Rudolph matched up one-on-one with Shaq Thompson, a six-foot linebacker with little hope of covering “Rudy” in the end zone.
The Vikings run a “pick” to create the matchup, forcing Rudolph to beat the linebacker in a 50-50 jump-ball along the sidelines. He does, adjusting to the under thrown ball and getting both feet in bounds for the touchdown.
It’s hard to tell if Bradford places the ball a tad behind his receiver intentionally, but Thompson’s momentum takes him out of contention for the interception. Had Bradford thrown the ball deeper, Thompson could’ve made a play on the throw; shorter, and Rudolph wouldn’t have had a chance to haul in the catch.
Minnesota’s offense is far from perfect through three games, but it did enough to secure the lead for the Vikings on Sunday. This is a team built to win on the back of its defense, and thus far, it’s done just that. But if a Super Bowl is the goal, Sam Bradford and the Vikings offense need to replicate such successful drives multiple times a game.
If they can do that, expect the Vikings to make a deep playoff run this January.