Why Sam Bradford has been so successful with Vikings

Following a late-preseason trade, expectations for Bradford in Minnesota were tempered. Through five weeks, though, he's starred.

| 9 months ago
Vikings QB Sam Bradford

(Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

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).

Sam Bradford vs. Pressure
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.

Third downs

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.

Red zone

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.

Season outlook

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.

Sam Bradford

| Analyst

Zac Robinson is a former three-year starting QB for Oklahoma State. He was drafted by the New England Patriots in the seventh round in 2010, and spent time with the Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions before finishing his pro career with the Cincinnati Bengals.

  • Joe Doe

    What amazed me against Houston was how many times Bradford got smoked right as he was releasing the ball, only for it to be a perfect throw to an open receiver. I have to compliment Bradford and the system for this, but is their offensive success sustainable with the offensive line struggles?

    • crosseyedlemon

      I think everyone probably agrees that the Vikings go as far as their defense takes them (which could be a long way). Their offense really doesn’t have to do anything different that what the Chiefs offense did last season, which was protect the ball well. The Vikes currently have the best turnover ratio in the league and having that edge can compensate for much of the weakness in the OL.

      • tps

        I largely agree, with this caveat: The offense is getting slowly better, and with any consistency along the OL gong forward, the offense may (MAY) be very solid by the time we enter the last third of the season.

  • Thinkaboutit

    Lets hope Jake long works out.

  • David Nathaniel

    I can’t help but get the feeling that this OL is 1 injury away from completely crumbling. This may seem fatalistic, but realistically, there is a a saturation point on any team for the amount of catastrophic injuries that they are able to absorb. Looking at their roster it seems pretty clear that they are nearing that point. If we end up with Long, Beavers, and Easton starting (or playing any significant time), look for the offense to simplify, or to simply implode. Jake Long might be exciting in name, but he is far from a sure thing. If he were, he’d have been signed to a contract this off season. He has some upside, but the potential risk is glaring. I think the hope is that we never have to see him play, bc that would mean that Clemmings and Sirles are holding up well. I’m still holding out hope that Kalil makes it back this season. He looked good last year, but was hampered by an injury for the first two games this season. I’d like to see him healthy for the final playoff push. I can’t help but wonder if the Vikings would have made a push to trade for Joe Thomas if they had the cap room. Would have been an interesting play.

    • David Nathaniel

      The best case scenario is that we roll with our current roster of Clemmings, Boone, Berger, Fusco, and Sirles (assuming Fusco clears concussion protocol) until hopefully Kalil is healthy enough to return (the soonest would be after week 11 or 12 I think). If that works out, I think the middle of the line will be strong. Hopefully we can also get Rhett Ellison and David Morgan back from injury to help with blocking schemes. The Eagles are the toughest defense that we face during that time period, but it’s right after the bye, so I have some hopes for the team being recharged for that game in Philly. It’ll take some grit, but I think the Vikings can finish out the season with their current situation.

      Also, as an aside, I know the stats are telling, but I like the direction our rushing game is heading. The stats are looking especially poor bc of three horrendous games to start the season. In the past 2 weeks the Vikings have rushed for 104 and 96 yds against NYG and HOU, respectively. Those are not world-beating numbers, but they are a significant improvement against respectable defenses. I look for this number to improve. I am interested to see how they incorporate Ronnie Hillman after the bye.

      • cka2nd

        I’m not worried about injuries at center or guard because Easton is a quality center and Zac Kerin has shown that he can start at any of the three interior positions. The depth is thinner at offensive tackle, but it would take at least two more injuries and maybe three or four for Willie Beavers or Carter Bykowski to see any significant playing time.

  • Tom Jones

    Its a strong possibility Adrian Petersen will return right? Either way the article eluded to the idea that there are weapons not yet incorporated into the offense and in way, that is good. It makes it harder for good teams to game plan for them because the Vikings themselves are being forced to adapt and add and change each week. Once there is a wider variety of options and audible reactions for Sam to use I just hope they maintain that unpredictable side to the scheme.

  • tps

    I will broach the elephant in the room: Do we want AP back? I know, I know, but it s an important question.

    AP is not effective out of the shotgun; Bradford is; AP does not catch balls well out of the back feld; McKinnon and Asiata do; An active AP means a different offensive mindset than the one we now have, and are improving.

    I love AP, don’t get me wrong. And having him does give us another weapon. But at what cost? I don’t know, just asking.

    • cka2nd

      Judging strictly by the numbers, Peterson’s receiving stats are slightly better than Asiata’s and considerably better than McKinnon’s. Over the course of his career, Peterson has caught over 72% of all of the passes thrown to him, averaged 8.1 yards per reception and one touchdown every 48 catches. Asiata catches passes at a 75% clip but averages only 7 yards per catch and has only one TD in 76 receptions. McKinnon has so far caught just under two-thirds of every pass targeting him and averaged only 6 yards per reception, with one TD among his 55 catches. So far, McKinnon is no better an option out of the backfield than Peterson, while Asiata’s only advantage is that he is a more consistent blocker than the capable but erratic Peterson, an admittedly significant advantage with an offensive line that struggles so much to protect its quarterback.

      Ideally, Peterson would make it back this year and Norv Turner would continue the more varied play-calling with him. To me, the real danger would be going back to the same predictable offense we had last year: effective against many teams, but not the best of them. If the offensive line continues to improve and the running game finally gets some juice, especially if the Vikes do make a deep playoff run, I can’t see keeping Peterson next year, especially at his salary.

  • Backinmd

    This is the Bradford I expected coming out of OU …Too many fans said he was a bust but right when he got his mojo going he was injured for like two years in a row .he showed flashes with the Eagles toward the end of the season ..If and buts .. Just thing of the year he would be having if Adrian Peterson was playing …

  • Backinmd

    The Vikings … This goes to show you that GOOD teams start at the top … How many teams would be as good as the Vikings if their star RB was out for the year ..? Coaching matters more than you think ….