Why Sam Bradford has been so successful with Vikings
Trading for former Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford has certainly paid off in a major way thus far for GM Rick Spielman, as the Vikings are off to a 5-0 start heading into the bye week. The move that sent a 2017 first-round pick and a 2018 fourth-round pick (that could become a third- or second-rounder, based on conditions) to Philadelphia in exchange for Bradford was a high price on paper, but owning one of the best rosters in the NFL, the Vikings knew the time to win was now. Minnesota is winning with a much-discussed Super Bowl-caliber defense, and some calculated and decisive play from Bradford, who is currently Pro Football Focus’ fourth-highest graded quarterback.
Minnesota’s offensive philosophy
The early-season recipe was laid out upon Bradford’s arrival: heavy dose of the run game from Adrian Peterson, simple, rhythm-type throws, play-action shot plays, take care of the ball, and rely on good defensive play as he gained familiarity and comfort with the system and new teammates. Some of this has played out, with the most important being the Vikings playing complimentary football better than any team, with a +11 turnover margin (the offense is yet to commit a turnover). However, the combination of the Peterson’s injury and shaky O-line play has left this offense reliant on the decision-making and arm of Bradford. Thus far, he’s performed at an extremely high level in many key aspects of the game.
It hasn’t taken long to see the offense become tailored to what Bradford does well. With the absence of Peterson, recent weeks have seen some more shotgun formations with variations in the run game, and added RPO’s (run pass options) to go along with some of the main staples of this offensive system that fit Bradford perfectly.
The Vikings’ running game has simply not been there, with a league-low 70.6 yards per game and a measly 2.5 yards per rush. Minnesota’s coaches have stayed patient offensively—knowing what their defense can provide—by remaining committed to running the ball, as they are still sixth in attempts (28.8 per game) despite the team’s low yards-per-carry numbers. The commitment to the run gives Bradford some room to breath, as well as dictating coverage for some early-down, outside-the-numbers throws—something Bradford executes as well as anyone.
Passing under pressure
The story of Bradford’s season so far has been his efficiency when passing under pressure. Injuries along the offensive line have not helped, as the group currently ranks 31st in the NFL in pass protection, giving up a league-worst 2.71-second average time to sack (eight sacks total). Bradford has been under pressure on 35.6 percent of his dropbacks, the eighth-highest rate in the NFL, but his 108.6 passer rating under pressure is tops in league, as he has repeatedly showcased his ability to stand in and take hits while delivering accurately (74.3 adjusted completion percentage, tied for fourth-best).
Bradford knows the ball needs to come out of his hand quickly for this passing attack to be successful, with his 2.3-second average time to attempt the fourth-quickest release in the NFL. It’s clear watching the tape that Bradford is being required to play a one-hitch type of game after his initial drop.
The Vikings are faring well on third downs, tied for 13th in the NFL in conversions, at 40.0 percent. The offense’s inability to run the ball on early downs has left Minnesota with an average third-down distance of 7.5 yards, 24th in the NFL. Despite this, Bradford has been extremely efficient with some key conversions throughout games. His intelligence has been on display, quickly deciphering coverage in rhythm and finding completions, but also knowing that it’s ok to take sacks and punt the ball away. His stat line on third downs goes as follows: 29-for-41 attempts, 284 passing yards, one passing TD, 18 first-down conversions, seven sacks, one drop, two throwaways, and a 76.9 adjusted completion percentage.
Versus the blitz
Teams are challenging the protection of this offensive line on third downs, mostly with five-man pressures trying to isolate one-on-one matchups, as well as defensive-line stunts to force communication along the line. The Vikings are doing a good job mixing up their protection schemes between 5-man, 6-man, and 7-man to help, as this will be an area teams continue to attack. Bradford’s ability to find matchups and get the ball out quickly may discourage defenses to blitz to some extent, but with the lack of protection shown from line at times, you can bet they will continue to gameplan accordingly. His numbers against the blitz have fared well, with a stat line of: 9-for-15 attempts, 100 passing yards , eight first-down conversions, five sacks, one drop, and a 66.7 adjusted completion percentage.
Also worth noting is that teams trying to “bluff” blitz with walk-up backers near the line of scrimmage—who bail out into coverage on the snap—have not fared well. Bradford is six-for-seven against these plays for 49 yards, five first-down conversions, and one sack, repeatedly recognizing the weakness of the defense and finding the correct receiver accordingly.
Bradford has dominated in the red zone so far, making good decisions and tight-window throws to turn drives into TDs. Kyle Rudolph’s chemistry with Bradford has been apparent, with the two connecting for three of Bradford’s four red-zone touchdown throws. A staple of this offense dating back to Norv Turner’s days in San Diego with Antonio Gates have been corner routes in the red zone, and Bradford throws the corner route as well as anyone, with two touchdowns on corner routes so far (with a near miss to Rudolph against the Panthers added in there). His red-zone stat line goes as follows: 11-of-14 attempts, 80 passing yards, four TDs, one throwaway, and an 84.6 adjusted completion percentage.
Bradford will continue to gain familiarity in the offense, opening more options with the Vikings’ talented playmakers as the season progresses. Minnesota added more ways to find quick-rhythm passes for Bradford last week, with empty/no-back formations. The chunk plays will still need to be there for this offense to move efficiently, and Bradford is throwing the ball as well as anyone down the field, completing 58.3 percent (sixth-best rate) on throws that travel 20+ yards in the air.
This type of play from Bradford is obviously not easy and can be difficult to sustain, as there will be bumps along the way with this offense. The Vikings’ defense appears built to last, though, so if Bradford can continue his calculated approach in the key areas of the game listed above—and make throws under pressure like the play below—Minnesota may be poised for a deep playoff run.