The Minnesota Vikings came into the 2017 season with a massive question mark over their heads. Would the team be able to bounce back after failing to capitalize on their 5-0 start in 2016? Is Sam Bradford really a long-term answer under center? And perhaps the biggest question of all, what would the offense look like after Adrian?
But all of these questions were answered – at least to some extent – with a 29-19 victory over the New Orleans Saints at US Bank Stadium on Monday night. The defense was superb and didn’t allow a touchdown until the game was well into garbage time, while Bradford maintained his accuracy from last season while employing a more expansive playbook.
There’s still plenty of work to do for this team, particularly in the rushing attack, but there’s also plenty to be hopeful about, mostly on the defensive side of the ball, and it looks like the Vikings may yet be competing for a playoff spot yet.
Dalvin Cook is no Adrian Peterson
It’s true, Dalvin Cook doesn’t have the same skillset as the erstwhile Purple Jesus, and he’s certainly not as talented as #28 was when he came into the league, but that’s not to say he’s not a good player and a great prospect. Although he didn’t manage to get into the end zone, Cook managed 127 yards on the ground, breaking Peterson’s franchise record for most rushing yards on debut. Not only that, but Cook would have added to his ten receiving yards if he had managed to hang onto a couple of swing passes.
But one of the keys to Cook’s remarkable debut performance was improved play on the offensive line, which was one of the Vikings’ weakest position groups in 2016. Only Joe Berger remains from last season’s quintet, appearing at right guard instead of center, where rookie Pat Elflein took over snapping duties, the first rookie to start at that position since Hall of Famer Mick Tingelhoff back in 1962. Improved run blocking up front, combined with a talented back in Cook could see the Vikings’ rushing attack become an object of fear for opposing defenses this season.
Sam Bradford is going to give the front office a headache
When the Vikings gave away their first-round pick in this year’s draft to bring in Sam Bradford at the start of last season, it was assumed that he would simply serve as a league-average stopgap until Teddy Bridgewater recovered from injury or the team identified a more suitable long-term replacement. But when he turned out to be a better quarterback than expected, the football cognoscenti started to wonder whether the Vikings might keep Bradford on instead of Bridgewater. Sure, he was working with a reduced playbook to aid his integration into the team, but he still managed to set a new NFL single-season record for completion percentage, while also leading the league on deep throws.
Now that Bradford’s had a full offseason to absorb Pat Shurmur’s playbook, we have more license to judge him on his ability to play the position. And against New Orleans, he looked totally legit, completing 27 of 32 pass attempts for 346 yards and three touchdowns. Furthermore, his stats on passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air were even more impressive, completing all five for 130 yards and a perfect 158.3 passer rating. Not to mention the fact that his connections with his top wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, as well as tight end Kyle Rudolph, are all continuing to flourish.
But again, lots of credit must go to the offensive line for their performance on Monday night. While the interior was largely to thank for Dalvin Cook’s performance, it was the guys on the edge who stood up and kept Sam Bradford on his feet to make those throws. Bradford was only sacked once, but even more impressive was that he was only hit one other time. The biggest area of improvement for the Vikings’ line was at left tackle, where TJ Clemmings had a torrid time last season, prompting the team to bring in Riley Reiff from the Lions on a five-year contract worth nearly $12 million a year. While the upgrade was necessary, the terms of the deal gave some pause, but Reiff showed on Monday night why he was worth every cent.
The Vikings defense is on the verge of greatness
Although the Vikes’ front seven only managed one sack on Monday, the entire defense stepped up and showed why this team could be a dark horse for the NFC North title this season. In the run game, the Saints managed just 60 yards (nine of which came on the first play of the game), largely due to the efforts of DE Everson Griffen and DT Linval Joseph.
Meanwhile, an array of blitzes kept Drew Brees on his toes in the passing game, forcing him to hurry his throws, and he very nearly gave up a pick to Eric Kendricks with his first attempt of the game. Brees did end up with 291 yards passing, but it took him until late in the 3rd quarter to reach the 100-yard mark, and he failed to register a touchdown until deep into garbage time.
Brees is an elite quarterback, but the Vikings defense kept him bottled up for most of the game, and even though he managed to get the Saints into the red zone on a number of occasions, the Vikings were able to hold them to field goals on all but one of their five trips inside the Minnesota 20.
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