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Vikings at Titans preview: Stranger Things

Can the Vikings get back from “the upside down” of the Teddy Bridgewater injury and start the 2016 season with a win?

Eric J. Thompson (terrible Photoshop)

One minute you’re living in a nice, decent Midwestern town. Not much is happening, but you like it that way. Lots of folks have some pretty dark pasts so this quaint and quiet life suits you and everyone else just fine. You’re finally in a place with some consistency and the promise of a better future.

And then suddenly, without reason or warning, one of the brightest young kids in town disappears. It doesn’t make sense; someone like him doesn’t just vanish out of thin air. There has to be an explanation. Sadly, you’re left with more questions than answers.

After a while, folks that are usually smart and level-headed appear to start losing their minds. Some go against all reason and logic, destroying the homes they worked so hard to build because they believe it will somehow help them find what they’re looking for.

Their outlandish beliefs are bolstered by the unanticipated arrival of a slender stranger with short brown hair. This visitor is quiet and seems haunted by strange events that have happened in the past. Yet this small group of locals thinks that the stranger possesses powers that could help erase the despair that has fallen upon the town. They have hope that this newcomer can make everything feel normal again.

Just about everyone else in town still thinks these people are delusional. How is aligning with this outsider going to help them replace what they’ve lost? Do they really believe in their wild theories or are they just doing anything they can to cling onto hope?

The fallout from this bizarre event has seemingly changed the fortunes of everyone in town forever. Nothing makes sense anymore. Nobody can be trusted. Lifelong friends are at each other’s throats. A community that was once united and hopeful has suddenly turned against itself over the disappearance of one young man. Everything has gone upside down.

Or should I say, gone to the upside down.

If you have watched Netflix’s latest smash hit Stranger Things, hopefully you appreciated the parallels between what’s happening with the Minnesota Vikings and what went down in the 1980’s fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana. If you haven’t watched the show, you should. Like, now. It’s really good.

Seriously. I’ll wait.

[Waits about 7.5 hours]

OK I’m back. Told you it was good!

But seriously, if you haven’t seen it yet, don’t stop reading. I promise there won’t be any spoilers and the rest of the article will be mostly about football. I just wanted a catchy pop culture reference to introduce the 2016 season—and the chance to create that masterpiece of crappy Photoshop you see in the header picture above.

That said, “stranger things” is a pretty apt description of what has gone down with the Vikings lately. Just over a week has passed since Teddy Bridgewater’s horrific knee injury. It has been only five days since the Vikings traded a 2017 first round pick and a 2018 fourth round pick to the Eagles in exchange for Sam Bradford. To be honest, I’m not sure I have totally come to terms with either event, for very different reasons. Since I have already offered my thoughts on the former, I’ll share some high-level thoughts on the latter before digging into the Week 1 preview.

I think Rick Spielman treated the days leading up to the Bradford deal like a lot of the single guys in my college fraternity treated the days leading up to the annual Homecoming party. If you didn’t have a date this close to the big event, you knew that none of your options were going to be that great. It was probably going to cost you way more than you could afford for an evening that might turn out to be mediocre at best, but it sure as hell beat the thought of missing out altogether.

That’s obviously a silly analogy but I think it summarizes what happened with the Vikings pretty well. Late August/early September is never a good time to be searching for a starting quarterback. The Vikings are a very deep team in a lot of positions but quarterback was definitely not one of them. The worst-case scenario happened, as it has before in so many different forms throughout the course of this franchise’s history. Rick Spielman and the Minnesota front office did their best to turn chicken sh*t into chicken salad.

Did the Vikings give up too much to get someone who may be the wrong guy? Of course they did. I realize that first round picks are far from a sure thing, but they certainly represent the best chance at building long-term talent at a relatively affordable price. Spielman went against everything he’s known for with this trade because he had to. He even admitted that there were no good options in Peter King’s excellent retelling of the trade in MMQB this week. With his other options looking like a perpetual conveyor belt of turds, I understand why Spielman pulled the trigger on Bradford. It probably didn’t raise the ceiling of the Vikings season to where it was before the Bridgewater injury, but it might just stop the house from collapsing altogether.

Will Bradford actually play this week? Mike Zimmer certainly isn’t telling. Personally I’d be surprised if Shaun Hill started on Sunday. Bradford has experience in Norv Turner’s style of offense and has had to learn new offenses throughout his career. Plus, like Titans head coach Mike Mularkey told the media this week, "they wouldn’t give up a 1 and a 4 to have him sit." I don’t expect the Vikings’ game plan to be significantly different for either quarterback. We’ll likely see a heavy dose of the run game with some play action and maybe a couple deep shots thrown in just to keep the Titans’ front seven (or eight...or nine) honest.

Being run-oriented doesn’t mean you have to be predictable though. The Vikings have the depth of pass-catching personnel to line up in a lot of different formations and remain effective. I’d love to see heavy formations with multiple tight ends mixed in with three-wide sets. I’d really love to see the Norv Turner calling both runs and passes out of any formation he rolls out. For instance, calling a play action pass to Kyle Rudolph up the seam out of 13 personnel or running Adrian Peterson off tackle from an 11 package. And since Jarius Wright appears to be buried in the bowels of the depth chart, pleeeeeeease line up Stefon Diggs in the slot as much as possible. He was an absolute matchup nightmare for opponents from what we saw in the preseason:

Of course to find Diggs on routes like this out of the slot, you’ll need a quarterback that can consistently make those passes and an offensive line that can protect long enough to execute those routes. Both of those prerequisites are still unknown quantities as the Vikings open the 2016 season. The blocking for Bradford or Hill should be better than what Bridgewater had to endure last season, mostly because it can’t get a whole lot worse. Exactly how much better remains to be seen. The performance of the O-line—both pass blocking and creating lanes for AP—might be he biggest factor to the success of the Vikings offense in Week 1.

The Titans might not have a ton of household names on their defense, but the guy in charge of them certainly is. Dick LeBeau is one of the better defensive minds in the history of the NFL. He’ll be dialing up blitzes and disguising coverages to make the afternoon as uncomfortable as possible for whoever lines up under center.

When that pressure does get through, how will Bradford fare against it? That depends on who you ask. The folks at Pro Football Focus say that Bradford was one of the most accurate passers in the league when under duress last year. However, Matt Vensel of the Star Tribune points out that Bradford has struggled overall under pressure for most of his career. We’ll see which way the pendulum swings on Sunday.

On the other side of the ball, we know that the Vikings defense should be sound. Scouting the Titans offense might prove to be a little trickier though. At first it might seem like Tennessee’s game plan will be straightforward. A lot of DeMarco Murray:

Add a healthy dose of Derrick Henry:

Throw in a couple option runs with Marcus Mariota and a handful of quick passes to Delanie Walker. Lather, rinse, repeat. The Titans might be even more ground & pound than the Vikings. Right?

Maybe not. It’s Week 1 under a new full-time head coach, a mostly new coaching staff, and lots of newer pieces on the offense. Tennessee is difficult to scout simply because there isn’t much film on this Titans team yet. Rookie wide receiver Tajae Sharpe has held off Andre Johnson for a starting gig opposite Rishard Matthews and has looked impressive in the preseason. Walker quietly racked up over 1,000 yards last season and will get plenty of passes thrown his way again this year. If the Titans were willing to break out something like this in the preseason, don’t be too surprised if they try more trickery on Sunday to catch the Vikings off guard.

Even with all the uncertainty surrounding both the Titans and Vikings as Sunday approaches, I’m pretty sure about two things:

  1. This Minnesota defense is still really good.
  2. Mike Zimmer isn’t going to allow a second consecutive Week 1 road stinker on his watch.

I’m kind of glad the Vikings are facing the Titans early in the season. I think Tennessee has the potential to be a decent team and has some nice pieces in place, but it’s going to take them a while to get everything in order. The Vikings have a more complete team, even if their starting quarterback will be either 8 days removed from Philadelphia or 15 years removed from college. I trust Zimmer and his staff to have the team focused enough to take care of business amidst all the turmoil.

Because if the Vikings lose this one, with two of the NFC’s best teams up next on the schedule, this season’s hopes could last about as long as Barb did.

(OK, so there was one Stranger Things spoiler. Sorry.)


Vikings 22, Titans 17

And now for the rest of my Week 1 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

Panthers over BRONCOS

Yeah, yeah, defense wins championships, but Cam Newton should win against Trevor Siemian making his first start.

Buccaneers over FALCONS

I’m not very impressed with Atlanta and I kinda like this Bucs team as a potential sleeper this year. (I’m sure this opinion will be rendered idiotic by mid-October, but hope springs eternal in Week 1.)

RAVENS over Bills

As many of you have seen on Twitter, the NFL rolled out team-specific emojis for all 32 franchises this week. Buffalo went with the super-creative hashtag of...#GoBills. Really? They couldn’t go with #BillsMafia? Or perhaps even more appropriate for this season, #BannedSubstances?

TEXANS over Bears

Even if J.J. Watt isn’t 100%, Houston should be able to keep the Bears offense at bay, which was very low-wattage in the preseason.

Bengals over JETS

Cincinnati starts another push for inevitable playoff failure.

EAGLES over Browns

Like I’m gonna pick against my boy Carson Wentz in his NFL debut! Go Bison! (OK this has more to do with the fact that I’m not gonna pick Cleveland on the road.)

Packers over JAGUARS

Please oh please oh please let me start the season 15-1 in my picks and have this game be the one I get wrong.

CHIEFS over Chargers

I’m picking Kansas City to win the AFC West this year. So if Andy Reid faces Marvin Lewis in the playoffs, would one team actually win or would the universe collapse upon itself?

Raiders over SAINTS

One of the worst parts about the Teddy Bridgewater injury: we’re going to have to deal with an entire year of "Derek Carr was such a better draft pick" takes with no chance at a rebuttal. Sigh.

SEAHAWKS over Dolphins

My Survivor Pool pick of the week. But take heart, those of you that want Seattle to lose: I was an atrocious 8-9 with my Survivor Pool picks last season.

COWBOYS over Giants

With Tony Romo out, the onus will be solely on Eli Manning to throw the late game-clinching interception that always seems to happen when these two teams meet.

COLTS over Lions

Last year I drafted Andrew Luck in both of my fantasy leagues. I did it again this year, because I’m obviously a slow learner.

CARDINALS over Patriots

I feel like Arizona will either be a legitimate Super Bowl contender or the wheels will completely fall off on Carson Palmer and their season will be a mess. No in between. For now I’ll lean toward contender until Jimmy Garoppolo carves them up.

Steelers over REDSKINS

Have fun losing to that jerk that drafted DeAngelo Williams in fantasy as a three-week rental while Josh Norman keeps Antonio Brown quiet enough to beat you.

Rams over 49ERS

The super late Monday night game on opening weekend always seems to have crazy results. (Exhibit A: Vikings at Niners last year.) But I’m still not crazy enough to pick that mess that Chip Kelly inherited in San Francisco.

Season so far: 0-0
Last season: 160-98