All week long, the Minnesota Vikings fielded questions about their inability to stretch the field deep and settling for a shorter, quicker passing game.
With an offensive line that has three starting tackles on injured reserve and a center that missed Thursday night’s game, Minnesota is faced with the simple problem that their pass protection just isn’t good enough to hold up for too many deep shots. Balance is likely the key and they tried to get there against a team that entered U.S. Bank Stadium with the 31st-ranked pass defense.
Quarterback Sam Bradford took his deep shots but also took too many shots to the body, being knocked out of the game for two plays at the end of the first half when he was planted in the ribs.
“I think it kind of knocked the wind out of me and they’re a little sore,” Bradford said. “But I just came in at halftime and I think just the time to take a deep breath, after that they were really a non-factor.”
Bradford didn’t get X-rays and was able to return for the start of the second half and finish the game.
Clearly, however, the Cowboys saw an opportunity to get after the quarterback with a struggling Vikings offensive line and made the most of it.
The Dallas defense blitzed Bradford on 34.5 percent of the Vikings’ pass plays, according to Pro Football Focus, with an average time to the passer of 2.22 second. Against the Detroit Lions a week earlier, Bradford got rid of the ball in 2.12 seconds on average, but looking to develop some downfield plays, this week that number increased to 2.5 seconds.
“I thought Sam did a great job tonight, I really do. He proved once again how tough he is,” Vikings interim coach Mike Priefer said. “I thought he did a great job scrambling for us and getting a huge first down for us.
“I think we’re getting close and with the leadership that Sam provides on the offense, like I said, the more I see him play the tougher I know he is.”
Bradford was feeling the heat, even more than usual.
Against the Lions, Bradford targeted receivers beyond 10 yards just three times. Against the Cowboys, he took shots more than 15 yards downfield 11 times. He completed passes of 25 yards to Charles Johnson and 23 and 18 yards to Adam Thielen. A 31-yard completion to Cordarrelle Patterson was negated with a tight offensive pass interference calls that drew the ire of Vikings fans at U.S. Bank Stadium.
But, in order to attempt some of throws, he needed more time in the pocket. Over the previous three games, the Vikings had given up 24 total pressures. Against the Cowboys, Vikings blockers gave up 21 total pressures, according to PFF, including four sacks.
Despite that, Bradford said his ribs were doing OK after the game.
“You know, they feel pretty good right now,” he said. “I’m sure tomorrow, like any game, I’ll be sore. But I think obviously with extra rest and the extra couple of days before next Sunday I think that’ll help.”
Bradford said he wasn’t sure how the number of hits he has taken this year compared to previous years, but there have been too many games where he has taken violent hits and managed to keep coming back for more.
One of the biggest culprits on Thursday was left tackle T.J. Clemmings, who had been looking like he was settling in more comfortably at left tackle prior to facing the Cowboys. Clemmings was the lowest graded Viking on offense, according to PFF, which credited him with allowing eight pressures. He also had three costly penalties.
The good news for the Vikings is that they have 10 days in between games now with time to heal.
“(My body) actually feels pretty good right now, to be honest with you. I really haven’t taken that many big shots, especially the last couple of weeks. To have played 12 games I think my body feels pretty good,” Bradford said.
“Obviously, it’s been a tough stretch for us here. And I think there’s still a lot ahead of us, but obviously there’s a lot of improvements that we’ve got to make, a lot of corrections that have to be made. Hopefully after this break, you know, we can kind of get away, regroup, come back, focus and finish the season strong like we know we can.”