EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Vikings Week 10 bye offers a chance to see where the team is at in the ranks and hear from GM Rick Spielman, who held his annual session with reporters this week, on how the team has fared and glimpse into the future.
When the Vikings (4-5) return next week, they will have seven games remaining against opponents that are a combined 26-33-1 and four games against NFC North foes starting with a Nov. 16 trip to Chicago in a noon (CT) game that will be cross-flexed to air on CBS.
The offense has dealt with injuries that have disrupted continuity and the absence of Adrian Peterson the past eight weeks. The unit, however, has come through in the clutch with game-winning drives the past two weeks to erase fourth-quarter deficits.
Spielman said he's been impressed by the way that Head Coach Mike Zimmer has moved the team through the adversities encountered during his first year at the helm.
"Just watching Coach 'Zim,' we've dealt with a lot of adversity through the first part of the season, and to see his leadership and to see this team take his mental approach to the game, where there's no excuses, there's resiliency," Spielman said. "You're seeing this young team with a lot of young guys stepping up and growing. We're nowhere yet where we need to be but as you watch us continue to grow and see all these guys, you also have to take the approach that a lot of our vets that have been here, this is all new to them, too, from the techniques being taught to the style of coaching to what's expected of them.
"I can say from watching afar how all of our players bought into what 'Zim' is preaching and what this coaching staff is teaching," Spielman added. "We're starting to see some results. We've still got a long way to go and a lot of things to work on, but it's nice to see the direction we're headed.
Stats/Rankings: 316.4 yards per game (29th in NFL); 119.3 rushing yards per game (12th); 197.1 yards per game (31st); 18.7 points per game (27th)
It's never an ideal scenario to start three different players at the sport's most important position, but a season-ending injury to Matt Cassel in Week 3 accelerated the debut of rookie Teddy Bridgewater. The first-round pick made a splash in his first start on Sept. 28 against Atlanta when he set franchise records for yards passing (317), completions (19) and passer rating (98.9) by a player in his first career start.
Bridgewater helped lead the game-winning drive against the Falcons but suffered an ankle injury that sidelined him the following week at Green Bay. Bridgewater returned to the lineup against Detroit Oct. 12, but the offense struggled to put points on the board until a 29-point performance Sunday. Bridgewater has led come-from-behind drives in the fourth quarters of each of his three wins and already set a franchise record for victories by a rookie. The poise and playmaking abilities he's shown in two-minute situations are high for a rookie, and Zimmer said he's seeing signs that point to Bridgewater developing into a "franchise quarterback."
Quarterbacks stats: Bridgewater: 119-of-197 passing (60.4 percent) for 1,321 yards, with three touchdowns and five interceptions for a passer rating of 74.9; 19 rushes for 95 yards with one touchdown; Cassel: 41-of-71 passing (57.7 percent) for 425 yards, with three touchdowns and four interceptions for a passer rating of 65.8; Christian Ponder: 22-of-44 passing for 222 yards with two interceptions for a passer rating of 45.8
Spielman's take: "I think Teddy is continuing to grow each week. He had a pretty easy — I don't want to say an easy game — but a pretty good opportunity to start when he got the opportunity to play against Atlanta. Then all of a sudden, he started seeing some different things and had to grow through that process, but each week, you see him doing things differently. Each week it's something new he's seeing that he's growing into. Even talking about this past week, I know you guys were all over him about the deep-ball accuracy and things like that, but that all comes.
"What he's doing on third downs, what he's doing against the blitz, all those things, there were signs that that's what he did well in college, and I think the more he learns, the more he progresses, it's just going to continue to grow," Spielman added. "I know (offensive coordinator Norv) Turner and Coach Zimmer are not afraid. They're going to keep taking those deep shots down the field because eventually that timing is going to click as well. I think continuing to progress. You see what he did in the Tampa game, two minutes before the half, and game on the line to take us down and tie the game. Then you saw this week (against Washington). He didn't start out smooth, but nothing rattles the kid. Then, we get the big interception by Captain before halftime, and Teddy all of a sudden takes us down and we score and it swings the whole momentum of the game and we come out in the second half.
"Teddy wants to prove he's not just a runner and that he's a pocket passer, and a couple of times, you say, well, maybe he could have run there, and all of a sudden in the second half, you start to see him run a few times and pick up first downs and not force the issue," Spielman continued. "You just want to keep him coming along the way he's coming. He's going to see new things and different things as we go through the season, but we're very excited about him taking steps each week. The one thing you can say about Teddy is no matter what's happening, there's a calmness or demeanor about him that you can't coach. I think that shows up, especially in critical situations of the game."
Bridgewater has shown an ability to spread the ball around to receivers, tight ends and running backs but most recently locked in with veteran Greg Jennings, whose 120 regular season games played are nearly double the combined appearances of all other Vikings receivers (Jarius Wright, 32; Cordarrelle Patterson, 25; Adam Thielen, nine; Charles Johnson, 4). Jennings led Minnesota with six catches for 76 yards against Washington and reeled in a well-thrown TD against Tampa Bay. Patterson had six catches for 86 yards against the Buccaneers.
Receivers stats: Jennings (35 catches for 459 yards, two TDs), Wright (26 for 315 and two rushes for 16 yards), Patterson (26 for 308, one receiving TD and seven rushes for 110 yards that include his season-opening 67-yard TD run), Johnson (six for 60), Thielen (four for 57)
Spielman's take: "Cordarrelle is a very unique athlete. I think the one thing that you have to remember with Cordarrelle — I know you guys (in the media) are killing him as well — is that this is another junior that came out that played one year, six months at a major college, then he learned a new system last year and he's learning a new system this year. He is a unique athlete. I know Norv and (receivers coach) George Stewart are putting in extra time and working extremely hard and Cordarrelle is doing his part to put into it, but it's just these young guys have to learn the nuances of the game. Coach Zimmer has talked to you guys about some of these young guys and the growing pains you have to go through, but they do. They learn, they click, but it does take time and you have to be patient through some of that process.
"I think you're seeing him, he's night and day from where he was a year ago as a route runner, but it's still, OK, you saw flashes of that in the Tampa game and some of the unique plays he made in the Tampa game," Spielman continued. "I think that's just going to continue to come, but there will be peaks and valleys not only with him but a lot of these young guys. Hopefully as they continue to progress, and I know they're being coached very hard, that those peaks and valleys will balance out and they'll start to become consistent."
Kyle Rudolph is close to nearing a return from sports hernia surgery that's sidelined him for the past six games. The Vikings have benefitted the past two weeks from throws to tight ends: 15 catches for 157 yards on 18 combined targets to Chase Ford and Rhett Ellison. Ford recorded his first career TD against the Redskins, and Bridgewater said his chemistry with them is growing.
Tight ends stats: Ford (19 catches for 212 yards, one TD), Rudolph (10 for 96, one TD), Ellison (nine for 111), MarQueis Gray (one for 16 yards)
Bridgewater on spreading the ball around: "I'm very comfortable, and that's what this offense allows us to do: get different guys different touches and allow those guys to make plays. As you can see each week, someone steps up big for this team. Chase Ford, he is one of those guys that's going to make a name for himself. He's been doing great around here and playing some great football."
Preseasons of the past few years are about the only times when Peterson has fewer carries than other running backs have carries, but that's been the case this season. Peterson played in the opener, but then was deactivated by the team after he was indicted on child abuse charges in September. He has been on the Commissioner's exempt list, and just this week, reached a plea agreement in court in Texas.
The absence of Peterson has led to increased opportunities for rookie Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata. McKinnon, a third-round pick, has shown explosive plays, and Asiata just recorded his second game of the season with three rushing TDs.
Running backs stats: McKinnon (90 carries for 446 yards for an average of 5.0 per carry and 20 catches for 106 yards), Asiata (84 for 277 yards with six rushing TDs and 22 catches for 199 yards, one TD catch)
Spielman's take: "There was no question about McKinnon's athletic ability when he came out. The question was how long was it going to take him to learn to play running back because he was an option quarterback. I know that teams, throughout the draft process, looked at him as a potential corner just because he was such a unique athlete, but from where he was from the first rookie minicamp we had to where he is now, and I think (running backs coach) Kirby (Wilson) has done a great job with him, Norv has done a great job with him and how this kid works at it, you're seeing, I don't think people realize, for a little guy, how strong a runner he is and how much balance he does have because Coach 'Zim' every week, when you sit down and listen to the team (meeting), he'll put points of emphasis out there, 'We need to get better at this this week,' and sure enough our guys are responding. One week he mentioned, 'We need to get more yards after contact,' and McKinnon and Asiata both run hard, but instead of maybe trying to make another move and stuff, they're lowering their shoulder and getting three or four extra yards, and McKinnon, all of a sudden, is starting to get balance on contact where he's keeping his feet now and he's learning to run with a low center of gravity."
The offensive line has also had its share of injuries this season. Right guard Brandon Fusco suffered a season-ending injury in Week 3 and was replaced by Vladimir Ducasse, who started four games until suffering a knee injury at Buffalo. Backup tackle Mike Harris stepped in for Ducasse that game because interior backup Joe Berger replaced John Sullivan at center after Sullivan suffered a concussion against the Bills. Sullivan returned to the lineup the following week. Matt Kalil, Charlie Johnson, Phil Loadholt and Sullivan have started each game this season.
The offensive line was heavily criticized after Minnesota's game against Detroit when the Lions recorded eight sacks of Bridgewater, but pass protection has multiple components (receivers beating coverage, the quarterback getting the ball out quickly, tight ends and running backs helping pick up blitzes). In the past two games, Bridgewater was sacked once at Tampa Bay and twice by Washington.
Spielman's take: "I think (the OL) has had some ups and downs, but you have to also understand, as I alluded to earlier, that they're learning a whole new system, whole new pass protections. All of a sudden, we have another young quarterback. That's all that chemistry and stuff that's working, we had a couple of injuries up front, but I think they've really progressed over the last couple of weeks, too, just like most of our team has. I think there is, when different quarterbacks are in, they can get a feel for that guy sitting in the pocket or stepping up because there's different styles. This guy may not be as mobile so that's part of the process as we're learning and growing together."