The Vikings have reached their bye week and will take a few days to rest and recharge for the final seven-game stretch of the 2014 regular season schedule. The break in the action provides an opportunity to assess what's transpired during the first part of the season. Here are three lessons and three questions we can take from the first nine games of the Mike Zimmer era.
1. Teddy is G.U.M.P.There are many ways to dissect quarterbacks and analyze and young quarterback's development. One of them is to assess performance in crucial situations. In that regard, Vikings QB Teddy Bridgewater is passing the rookie test. He is 3-2 as a starter and as you can see from the chart below, all three of his wins were in comeback fashion.
In all three wins, Bridgewater engineered two-minute and or 4th-quarter scoring drives to help secure the victory, and he's also been sharp on 3rd downs. For the season, Bridgewater is 26 of 40 for 305 yards with one touchdown and one interception for a passer rating of 85.9 in the final two minutes of the first half and of the game. And for the season on 3rd downs, Bridgewater is 35 of 53 for 465 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions for a passer rating of 90.5. This kind of production in pressure-packed situations is par for the course for Bridgewater and validates the nickname he received in college while playing for Louisville – GUMP (Great Under Major Pressure).
2. A rebuilt defensive line may be strongest part of the teamThe Vikings rebuilt their defensive line last offseason but the new-look group has hit the ground running together and may be the strongest part of the entire roster. Of the team's 30 sacks, the defensive line has contributed 23 of them, led by DE Everson Griffen's 9.0. Part of the rebuilding effort was the signing of two free agent defensive tackles – Tom Johnson and Linval Joseph. Together, they have 8.0 sacks and Joseph has also played well against the run. Veteran Brian Robison has also been stout against the run and now has 2.5 sacks on the season, while second-year DT Sharrif Floyd is in the midst of his best stretch as a pro and enters the Week 10 bye week with 25 quarterback hurries, 6.0 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. Going deeper, seventh-round DT Shamar Stephen has been a regular part of the rotation and free agent DE Corey Wootton has also played valuable snaps.
3. The offensive line is playing wellMuch-maligned this season, the Vikings offensive line has played better of late and was the catalyst for the Vikings second-half surge against the Redskins. The Vikings scored 22 points in the final two quarters last Sunday, an outcome based largely on the running game churning out 86 of its 100 yards and Bridgewater enjoying clean pockets and no sacks in the final two quarters. On the Vikings first touchdown drive in the second half, RB Jerick McKinnon had gains of 15 and 9 yards on consecutive plays while running behind the left side (LT Matt Kalil and LG Charlie Johnson) on the first play and the right side (RT Phil Loadholt and RG Joe Berger) on the second play. Also, the three Matt Asiata touchdown runs were made possible by a road-grading effort from the Minnesota Moving Company. They have not played perfectly this season, but they have played much better of late and they go into the bye week having gained confidence and momentum.
1. Will Kyle Rudolph return after the bye? And what does it mean for Chase Ford?TE Kyle Rudolph hasn't played since Week 3 because of an abdomen/groin injury, but Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said it's possible he'll return to action for the team's Week 11 contest in Chicago, the Vikings first game following their bye. Rudolph, who signed a contract extension during training camp, figured to be a prominent weapon in Norv Turner's offense and will be a welcome addition for a Vikings offense that is steadily improving. Chase Ford has seen the bulk of the snaps and targets in Rudolph's absence, and it'll be interesting to see how Turner chooses to use Ford once Rudolph returns. Now that Ford has experience playing and Turner has seen what Ford can do, perhaps the veteran play caller will find way to utilize both pass catchers in the offense.
2. Can the Vikings return game get back on track?Last year the Vikings had the best kickoff return-punt return groups in the NFL, with Cordarrelle Patterson ranking No. 1 in kickoff return average and Marcus Sherels ranking No. 2 in punt return average. This year the production hasn't been the same, as neither is averaging close to what they did last season nor does either have a touchdown. Football is a team game, though, so the dip in production is a product of the entire return group, not just Patterson and Sherels. Special teams has been a team strength since Mike Priefer's arrival in 2011 and it won't be a surprise to see marked improvement from both phases coming out of this week's bye.
3. Who are the most underrated Vikings through the first nine games?Barr, Bridgewater and Griffen have received the bulk of attention when it comes to individual acclaim so far this season. But there are many more Vikings who've played well through the first nine games. Here are three who've played particularly well while remaining under the radar:
CB Josh Robinson: Now playing primarily outside CB in Zimmer's defense, Robinson looks much more comfortable on the field than he did a year ago playing in the slot. He is second on the team with seven pass breakups and also has two interceptions.
DT Sharrif Floyd:An underclassmen who entered the draft, was selected in the first round and played in the trenches as a rookie, Floyd caught his fair share of criticism last year and the pressure was on for him to have a bounce back sophomore season. Floyd has certainly answered the bell. His athleticism and technique allows him to be a disruptive force on a weekly basis, and through nine games he has 6.0 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.
TE Rhett Ellison:The kind of guy every team needs, Ellison is a jack of all trades and master of none who is an integral part of everything the Vikings offense does and he's also a core member of the special teams group. He's a reliable blocker in the running game, he can pass protect as an in-line blocker or in the backfield, he has the athleticism and hands to be an effective target in the passing game and Priefer can use him in multiple phases of special teams.