With a top-five scoring defense on the rise and Adrian Peterson somehow still at the top of his game, the Vikings need 23-year-old quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to take the next step to elevate the league’s 29th-ranked offense and make the Vikings a serious Super Bowl contender for the first time since 2009.
Coach Mike Zimmer and GM Rick Spielman have expressed the need for the conservative Bridgewater to trust himself and “let it loose” in his third year. To assist Bridgewater, the team’s top decision makers upgraded the two most important areas around him: pass protection and receiver. The receiver came via the draft when Ole Miss’ Laquon Treadwell was taken 23rd overall. By that time, the line already had been addressed via free agency and a coaching change. The prized signings were left guard Alex Boone and right tackle Andre Smith.
“My text [to Peterson and Bridgewater] was, ‘OK, we got Boone. We got Smith. Now there’s no excuses,’” Zimmer says. “You can’t say we didn’t have this or this. It’s time to go now.”
Indeed. Eleven wins and an NFC North title were no fluke in 2015. The Vikings should expect to improve upon last season, which ended with a 10-9 Wild Card loss to Seattle at home.
When Zimmer arrived in 2014, the defensive line was his primary focus. Today, no unit on the team is stronger or deeper. In January, he and Spielman correctly identified offensive line as the offseason point of emphasis immediately after the playoff loss to Seattle.
A day after the season ended, Zimmer fired offensive line coach Jeff Davidson and put every linemen on notice that no one’s job was safe. No-nonsense coach Tony Sparano was hired to install a more aggressive scheme and instill an attitude that Zimmer said was sorely lacking. Boone in particular brings the nastiness Zimmer is looking for up front. Boone will start at left guard. Battles will be fought elsewhere at center, right guard, right tackle and possibly even left tackle, where Matt Kalil still struggles to find consistency in the fifth and final year of his rookie contract. To enhance the competition, the Vikings have assembled a roster that has nine linemen with at least 16 NFL starts.
Bridgewater has 17 wins, tying Warren Moon and Brett Favre for the most by a Vikings quarterback after two seasons. So he proved he could operate within a team-oriented framework built around Peterson, a stingy defense and field position. Now, offensive coordinator Norv Turner wants Bridgewater to trust himself and play more often like he has in some of his fourth-quarter comebacks.
Last year, Peterson became just the third player to lead the league in rushing at 30 years or older. And he did it almost in spite of a line that allowed him to be hit repeatedly behind the line of scrimmage. If the line steps it up, Peterson, now 31, should be favored to tie Curtis Martin as the oldest player to lead the league in rushing.
If Peterson establishes the run, Bridgewater should have time to hit some big targets. Tight end Kyle Rudolph has a massive catch radius and needs to not disappear from the offense so easily. Receiver Stefon Diggs, an excellent, instinctive route runner, isn’t a big target, but he should improve on last season, when he led the team in receptions as a rookie after being inactive the first three games. And, last but not least, the Vikings finally potentially have a legitimate physical mismatch at No. 1 receiver. Treadwell fell to No. 23 because of a 4.63 40-yard dash time, but the team says he plays much faster, runs strong routes and uses a 6-foot-2, 221-pound frame, long arms and leaping ability to battle for contested deep balls.
An aggressive, pressure-oriented 4-3 scheme has taken the Vikings from last in the league in points allowed per game (30.0) the year before Zimmer arrived to fifth (18.9) last season. And Zimmer, the architect and play-caller, still isn’t satisfied entering Year 3. To reach the next level, the Vikings need to stop the run more consistently. If they do, look out, because no one in the league is better at designing and calling third-down blitz packages than Zimmer. Two staples in his approach are overloading defenders to one side and/or making unpredictable calls out of the Double A-gap look. Free safety Harrison Smith, who plays as well near the line of scrimmage as he does in deep coverage, is an invaluable tool when it comes to the overloaded look. Meanwhile, linebacker Anthony Barr has the size, length, speed and instincts to overpower the A-gap, rush hard off the edge or drop into coverage.
The line provides a solid foundation of pass rushers who play with equal intensity and discipline against the run. Right end Everson Griffen has been a double-digit sack leader and standout run defender. Nose tackle Linval Joseph was dominating en route to a certain All-Pro nod before suffering turf toe last season.
Middle linebacker Eric Kendricks and Barr are the team’s three-down linebackers. Kendricks, a second-round pick last year, overcomes a short frame with instincts, speed and a powerful lower body. He led the team in tackles. Weak-side backer and respected team leader Chad Greenway re-signed for an 11th and final season.
In the secondary, the Vikings continue to search for a strong safety to complement Smith, who is now the league’s highest paid safety after signing a contract extension in early June. The team hopes Zimmer can resurrect 31-year-old Michael Griffin’s slumping career, but if he can’t, special teams leader Andrew Sendejo probably will win the job again. At cornerback, Xavier Rhodes has grown into a shutdown role with the ideal size, length and level of confidence. Terence Newman, who turns 38 early in the season, is the other starter, but if age finally catches up to him, 2015 first-round pick Trae Waynes has been groomed and is ready to go. Captain Munnerlyn is expected to be the nickel slot corner but was put on notice that this might be his last season when the team used its second-round pick on Clemson’s Mackensie Alexander.
Kicker Blair Walsh is young and talented enough to bounce back from how last season ended. But even Zimmer admits he doesn’t want to stress Walsh too much too soon after the kicker hooked a 27-yard field goal far left with 22 seconds left in the 10–9 playoff loss to Seattle. Punter Jeff Locke continues to be an inconsistent performer who should be pinning teams closer to their goal line. For the second time in three years, kickoff returner Cordarrelle Patterson had two touchdowns and topped 30 yards per return. Punt returner Marcus Sherels is as steady as they come.
The Vikings have the coaching, talent and depth to make the playoffs and win a postseason game for the first time since January 2010. The Packers will be the team to beat in the NFC North for as long as Aaron Rodgers is upright and active. But Zimmer’s defensive schemes and Spielman’s infusion of elite defenders at all three levels give the Vikings a chance to stand toe to toe with Green Bay. The offense should be better with an upgraded line, a new big target at receiver and the maturation of a smart young quarterback with an outstanding work ethic.