EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. —The Vikings have won three of their four season openers under Head Coach Mike Zimmer.
Ironically, their best end-of-season record in that span was 2015 when Minnesota fell to San Francisco but finished 11-5 and won the NFC North.
There were plenty of things to celebrate this past Monday within Minnesota's 29-19 win over New Orleans, but by Wednesday when Sam Bradford was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week and players returned to Winter Park, the focus was forward-thinking.
The near future for the Vikings (1-0) is a trip to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers (1-0) at noon (CT) Sunday.
There is a strong correlation between teams that make the playoffs having secured a Week 1 victory.
According to NFL stats, since 1978 when the 16-game schedule was implemented and excluding the shortened 1982 campaign through 2016:
- 297 of the 570 teams that won openers (52.1 percent) made the playoffs, and 179 won division titles
- 137 of the 571 teams that lost openers (24.0 percent) made the playoffs, and 79 won division titles
The 2015 Vikings were one of the 79 outliers to win a division title. The 2016 Vikings won five in a row out of the gate but finished 3-8 as injuries mounted.
Kyle Rudolph said that players understand that one week won't determine the next 15 games. The tight end who caught his 30th career touchdown pass Monday said he thinks the 2017 Vikings are "an improved version of the team that started 5-0 as a whole, but especially on offense."
"I think having an entire year together, both quarterbacks, skill players and having [Offensive Coordinator] Pat [Shurmur] around here all offseason to figure out what we did well last year and how can we build on that, how can we make things easier for us and tougher on defenses [has helped]."
The Vikings had a 300-yard passer (346 for Bradford), a 100-yard rusher (127 by Dalvin Cook in his pro debut) and a 100-yard receiver (157 for Adam Thielen) for the 13th time in franchise history, improving to 9-4 when having that combination.
On the line
Rudolph predicted the offensive line would be the "MVP of Monday Night Football" and said the group of five players delivered in its first outing, allowing a balanced attack.
"They went out there and played great in the run game and the pass game," Rudolph said. "When we're balanced like that, I keep saying we're tough to defend, so it's always big for us to get the run game going, and it might not have been easy early, but I think you could really tell throughout the course of the game that it took a toll on their defense."
As for the challenge facing the offensive line this week, Zimmer said the Steelers are "a different type of crew."
Instead of a 4-3 alignment, Pittsburgh uses a 3-4 base defense, and the defensive linemen work to control the line of scrimmage and free up blitzes by teammates.
"They're thicker, more powerful kind of guys," Zimmer said. "So, that's a little bit of an issue. Obviously, the scheme change is different. They've got a lot of fire zones, zone blitzes and things like that. So, those are all issues we're going to have to get acclimated to in a hurry."
Linebackers Anthony Chickillo and T.J. Watt each recorded 2.0 sacks on Sunday against Cleveland. Cornerback Joe Haden, nose tackle Javon Hargrave and defensive end Cameron Heyward each had one apiece.
The Ohio River forms in Pittsburgh before winding its way past Rudolph's hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, and eventually into the Mississippi River. He is one of several Vikings that feels a connection to this game without Pennsylvania roots.
"Growing up in Cincinnati, the Bengals-Steelers rivalry is one that I grew up watching," Rudolph said. "I saw them get the better of the Bengals for about my entire childhood, so it's a football town."
At Notre Dame, Rudolph was a member of teams that played the Pittsburgh Panthers (2008-10). He did not participate in the game that was held at Heinz Field, the home of the Steelers, in 2009 and totaled seven catches in the other two games.
Rookie linebacker Ben Gedeon, who made his first start with the Vikings, grew up in Hudson, Ohio, a little south of Cleveland and about 100 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.
Gedeon, whose parents are heading to Pittsburgh for the game, was aware that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger recorded his 11th win in Cleveland, which is more than any quarterback who has played for the Browns has since 1999. Roethlisberger is 11-2 at the venue. Derek Anderson went 10-6 in home starts with the Browns and is one of 27 quarterbacks to start a game for Cleveland since 1999.
"I watched [Roethlisberger] growing up," Gedeon said. "A great quarterback, a guy that can extend plays and make a lot of throws down the field, so a great challenge for us."
Although Eric Kendricks grew up on the West Coast, he said Roethlisberger "was one of my favorite quarterbacks to watch."
Zimmer also has familiarity with Pittsburgh from his time as defensive coordinator with the Bengals from 2008-13.
"Pittsburgh's a really good football team. They've perennially very, very good," Zimmer said. "They've got a great quarterback, great runner (Le'Veon Bell), great receiver (Antonio Brown). Their defense played really well last week with seven sacks. So, it'll be a tough environment for us to go in to, should be fun."
The first injury report of the week is out for both teams, and Bradford appears on Minnesota's listing with a knee injury.
For the Vikings: In addition to Bradford being limited, Emmanuel Lamur (hamstring) also was limited Wednesday. Anthony Barr (hamstring) did not participate. Danny Isidora (knee) and Tramaine Brock (groin) fully participated.
For the Steelers: T Jerald Hawkins (knee), DE Stephon Tuitt (biceps) and S J.J. Wilcox (concussion) did not participate. LB Bud Dupree (shoulder) was limited.