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A Tale of Two Progressions

Everyone wants to know if Teddy Bridgewater’s passing game will take a step forward in 2016, but that step may hinge on the retooled offensive line’s progress.

Minnesota Vikings offensive linemen practicing with the “chute.”
Allison M. Lamon

Normally, when I have to be up early on a Sunday morning I require a vat of coffee and a cinnamon roll to get going. Since this is Minnesota Vikings training camp, I can, grudgingly, do without.

Yep, we’re in the midst of that annual ritual of hype and cliche that marks the start of preseason and the beginning of real football. Almost as one, 90 alpha males seeking to make the final 53-man roster will say they are in the best shape of their lives, that competition makes everyone better, that they have a great group of guys, that they don’t listen to the media, that they don’t give in to hype, that this team is focused on winning, and that their ultimate goal is to win the Super Bowl. If I missed your favorite camp cliche, I’m sorry, there are just so many.

It’s part of what I love and loathe about NFL Speak, that generic optimism at the start of training camp. But it is something of a necessary evil—if a team isn’t optimistic about a new season, something is wrong with that team.

And the Vikings have good reason to be optimistic, they are the reigning NFC North champions. They came within one 27-yard field goal of winning a postseason game for the first time since...(checks notes)...2009? Damn, that’s a long time.

However, the Vikings seem to be a team on the rise with a dominant defense, a coach who, through a strange quirk, is both a hard ass and a players’ coach, and a running back who seems impervious to age.

The key thing everyone wants to know though is whether or not the Vikings have a true franchise quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater. Will Bridgewater progress from game manager to the focus of the offense?

Under Pressure

The Vikings’ offensive line struggled in 2015 with the loss of right tackle Phil Loadholt and center John Sullivan. While Joe Berger played well in Sullivan’s place at center, rookie T.J. Clemmings had a harder time as did Brandon Fusco who had been moved to left guard. Those struggles resulted in Bridgewater facing pressure, according to Pro Football Focus, 46.7% of the time.

Given that statistic, it seems Bridgewater’s progress must be viewed as being intertwined with the progress of the offensive line. If the offensive line can’t improve his protection and give him the opportunity to make throws, how will we know with any certainty whether he can take that next step in his development?

However, getting a gauge from the Vikings’ head coach on how both quarterback and offensive line are progressing isn’t easy.

According to Zimmer

During his Sunday talk with the media following the morning walk-through, Mike Zimmer fielded questions with his usual detail-dodging flair that has me wondering if he writes horoscopes and fortune cookie fortunes in his spare time.

When asked what factored into Zimmer’s assessment that Matt Kalil is playing the best the coach had seen him play, he said it had to do with changing Kalil’s technique. “I don’t want to get too complicated, but he was turning too soon a lot. It’s about staying square. He’s doing a better job with that.”

Zimmer went on to say that technique is something that line coach Tony Sparano has been working on, “We try to get the offensive linemen to do this, turn the shoulders and then you can beat him underneath, or, if they’re slow off, beat them on the corner. It’s about timing and when they punch and which hand they punch with first.”

There was a moment of intrigue from what Zimmer didn’t say when asked about running backs in pass protection. While he said Matt Asiata did “a good job in protection” and Jerick McKinnon was “getting better”, all he said about Adrian Peterson was that he “keeps working at it.” While Zimmer qualified those assessments, explaining, “there’s a lot of things about knowing who to block and then also there’s the technique of blocking them.”

Zimmer likes to occasionally tease the media, knowing what will make for a good quote and he had his chance when he was asked whether they were emphasizing the deep ball during camp. “Well, we knew we had all you guys here so we wanted to make sure you saw some.”

He went on to say that it is based on the coverage and “different things”, but that Bridgewater has been working on throwing the deep ball—just as he’s worked on screens and crossing routes and quick, short throws.

Teddy Talks

Taking the podium after Zimmer, Bridgewater was asked about the deep ball as well. Bridgewater said it is about being responsive, taking what the defense is giving him. He continued saying, “You know I’m physically relaxed, but my mindset is to be aggressive and attack and take what the defense is giving me.”

On the question of playing in rhythm there was an interesting answer that may play into the success (or not) of the deep ball this season. “You’ve got to anticipate those throws and trust that your guy is going to be in the right place at the right time. That’s what it all comes down to.”

This summer Bridgewater hosted two sessions of the “Teddy Two-Gloves Passing Academy” to work with his receivers and tight ends. The Florida sessions gave Bridgewater and his targets more time to build chemistry and work on their timing—both of which can contribute to on-field trust.

Perhaps just as important as what Bridgewater learned about his targets this summer may be what the receivers learned from each other. Bridgewater said that, because all the receivers have a slightly different experience and skill set, the time together allowed them to learn from each other.

Despite running for his life a lot in 2015, Bridgewater threw no shade on the offensive line, just saying, “I can’t wait to see those guys compete.”

A specific question about Coach Zimmer speaking well of Matt Kalil was met with this quote that would do Bridgewater’s cagey head coach proud.

“If you heard from Coach Zimmer, then he’s obviously doing a good job. I’m not here to—like I said in the spring—I’m not here to judge players or anything like that, but if it’s coming from the head coach, then it obviously means something.”

Let’s hope it means something good for both the offensive line and the young quarterback whose development is linked to it.