Bridgewater allaying Zimmer’s early fears

Teddy Bridgewater is going through the learning process and still making some mistakes, but Mike Zimmer is feeling better about putting his rookie quarterback into the fire so early and he should.

As the Minnesota Vikings competed for their first NFC North win under first-year head coach Mike Zimmer, their rookie quarterback threw two first-half interceptions that led to 10 points for the Detroit Lions in a 16-14 final that kept the Vikings winless in the division.

A simple look at those statistics would indicate that Teddy Bridgewater had a bad game. To be sure, it wasn’t his best game, but when his season to date is considered as a whole it stands an eye test that should give the organization and its fans confidence that Bridgewater presents them the best chance at having their franchise quarterback as they’ve had in decades.

In a modern game dominated by passing more with each passing year, Bridgewater has already tied the franchise record for most starts by a rookie, joining Fran Tarkenton and Christian Ponder with 10, and Bridgewater will break that mark with his 11th start on Sunday against the Miami Dolphins.

He didn’t enter the season expecting to start so much, but when veteran Matt Cassel got hurt in Week 3, the call to the calm rookie was placed and he hasn’t looked back, even if there was hesitation from Zimmer to get the rookie involved so heavily so early.

“I know this guy’s got a chance to be the guy for a long, long time here, and what I was nervous about at the beginning of the year is I didn’t want to get him beat up, I didn’t want to get him a bunch of bad outings where he didn’t have that confidence and that attitude that he was going to do the things that he’s doing and I think that things we’re doing offensively is allowing him to do that,” Zimmer said.

Bridgewater’s rookie season hasn’t progressed without struggle. After a strong first start against the Atlanta Falcons, he endured a two-game stretch against top-five defensive units with the Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions. The Bills have the fifth-ranked defense and the Lions the second-ranked unit. In that October stretch, Bridgewater threw five interceptions and only one touchdown.

But his performances of late shows real progress. He had two interceptions against Detroit in his rematch Sunday, and one of those was a bad throw. But even with those two interceptions, in the last three games he has five touchdowns and three interception, including two games with a passer rating above 100 (120.7 and 117.7) and two games with more than 300 yards.

“I continue to think the more that he plays, the better he gets,” Zimmer said. “He had a couple bad plays (Sunday), but for the most part he shows the ability to do what we need to do offensively – getting in and out of the right plays to his accuracy, his composure, all those things. I’m glad that he’s playing and learning. Our offensive line, we had eight sacks last time (against Detroit in Week 6). We’re keeping him upright. That’s important.”

The decrease in sacks – from eight in the first meeting with Detroit to four in the rematch Sunday – is due in part to Bridgewater’s evolution. He is making better and quicker decisions, despite playing against an offensive line that was without three of its starters against the imposing Lions defensive front.

Five of Bridgewater’s 10 interceptions this season have come against Detroit, as well as 12 of his 32 sacks. But while he cut his sacks in half from the first meeting with the Lions, he doubled his passer rating. In that October contest, he finished with a season-low 41.3 rating. On Sunday, despite two interceptions, he finished with an 84.9 rating.

“You try to have short-term memory when you throw those interceptions,” Bridgewater said. “The first one was a bang-bang play. Charles (Johnson) just wasn’t able to make a play for the ball. I think it sailed a little high over his head, but that’s one of those throws that I make nine out of 10 times in practice. The second one, it was just a horrible throw. I was late and you never want to be late during an out route. I left the ball inside.”

Still, Bridgewater has the highest completion percentage (63.5) of the four rookie quarterbacks who have seen significant playing time and the second-highest rating at 82.7 (Zach Mettenberger is at 83.4).

Against the Lions defense and without much of a running game, Bridgewater set the franchise record for most completions (31) by a rookie in a game and he now has three of the top four games for passing yardage by rookie with his three 300-yard performances this season.

He is also the first Vikings quarterback – rookie or not – to have back-to-back 300-yard games since Daunte Culpepper in 2004.

“I think in the long run his playing and going through all of these experiences and getting a chance to play against Green Bay and Chicago and Detroit will be a big factor for us in the future because he’s been through these things now,” said Zimmer, whose early-season fears about playing Bridgewater too early have been allayed. “… I’m really glad that he’s playing; I’m glad that we’re keeping him upright. You can think back, and I know it’s just my belief, you think back on some of the quarterbacks that had to play as rookies or have been playing as rookies and got the heck beat out of them and they haven’t made it. That was the most important thing to start the season is that we take care of him and when it’s time it’s time.”

The time came earlier than expected or hoped, but Bridgewater is proving he is capable, even when he isn’t at his best and doesn’t have anywhere close to a full-strength supporting cast.

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