NFL Wire News

Rookie coach and QB point Vikings in right direction

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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — One less loss. Technically, that’s all that separated the 5-10-1 Vikings team that got Leslie Frazier fired in 2013 and the 7-9 team that got Mike Zimmer a universal pat on the back after a 13-9 victory over the Chicago Bears on Sunday in the season finale at TCF Bank Stadium.

Amazing how confidence in a coach and a young quarterback can change a team’s outlook.

A year ago, general manager Rick Spielman headed into Black Monday knowing he would need to assemble and direct a couple of country-wide searches for a coach and then a rookie quarterback to replace the swing and miss he made on Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick in 2011.

After interviewing and/or showing interest in 10 coaching candidates, Spielman gave the 57-year-old Zimmer his first head-coaching opportunity. Zimmer took control, vowing to fix a defense that ranked last in scoring (30.0) and 31st in yards allowed (397.6). A year later, with a more aggressive and diverse approach, he gets high marks for a defense that ranked 11th in scoring (21.4) and 14th in yards allowed (344.7).

“(Zimmer) said he wants to keep this going, finish games out defensively like we did (Sunday),” defensive end Brian Robison said, referring to a defensive performance in which the Vikings didn’t allow a touchdown and protected a four-point lead with Chicago’s offense on the field in the closing minutes.

“If we’re able to play the way we did today next year, I think the sky is the limit for this team.”

Once Zimmer was hired, he hired Norv Turner as offensive coordinator. Then, the two of them and Spielman scoured the country trying to figure out which quarterback to select in the first round. When it was determined that Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater could be had at the bottom of the first round, Spielman went ahead and took linebacker Anthony Barr ninth overall and then crafted a plan to trade back into the first round and select Bridgewater 32nd overall.

Bridgewater didn’t start until after Matt Cassel broke his foot in Week 3. Even with the face of the franchise, Adrian Peterson, exiled from the team because of a child-abuse case, Bridgewater still developed steadily from week to week.

Bridgewater finished with a 6-6 record while throwing for 2,919 yards, 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He completed at least 70 percent of his passes in Weeks 13-16 and then 68 percent in Sunday’s season finale.

His 64.4 completion percentage is the third-highest by a rookie in NFL history, while his 85.2 passer rating is the seventh-best by a rookie.

“The more that we can win, I think it gives everybody (hope),” Zimmer said after Sunday’s game. “I think the way that Bridgewater played gives (fans) some hope. Hopefully they’ve liked how we compete. And we’re definitely not perfect. We’ve got a long way to go, but there are some good positives to take out of this season.”

Stability and good vibes about the quarterback and the coach are the most important by far.

NOTES: LB Chad Greenway didn’t play because of a knee injury. It was the fourth game he missed this season, yet he finished second on the team with 115 tackles. Harrison Smith had 120. Greenway remains tied with former LB Scott Studwell with a franchise-record six consecutive seasons of leading the team in tackles. … LB Audie Cole got his first start of the season. He stepped in for Greenway and posted game highs in tackles (14) and solo tackles (11). Cole made five tackles in Chicago’s first seven snaps. It was just the seventh start of Cole’s career. He had 18 tackles in his NFL starting debut last year at Green Bay. … WR Cordarrelle Patterson’s disappointing season ended with him playing only six offensive snaps before being sat down when he had a ball bounce off his hands for an interception. That was the only ball thrown to Patterson on Sunday.

REPORT CARD VS. BEARS

–PASSING OFFENSE: B — After four straight games of completing at least 70.4 percent of his passes, Teddy Bridgewater completed 68 percent against the Bears. He threw for only 209 yards but made enough plays on third down and threw a perfect strike to Adam Thielen for a 44-yard touchdown against a busted coverage. The 22-yarder to Thielen on third-and-9 one snap earlier was more impressive because it came against pressure, forcing Bridgewater to move and locate Thielen in the middle of the field. The only interception came when struggling receiver Cordarrelle Patterson had a ball bounce off his hands.

–RUSHING OFFENSE: C — Matt Asiata had his two longest runs of the season, a 19-yarder and a 16-yarder, during a 91-yard, 19-carry performance. The downside of the running game, however, came in the closing minutes. Lined up in a jumbo formation with two tight ends, three tackles and a fullback, the Vikings couldn’t gain a yard on third-and-goal and fourth-and-goal from the 3. That forced the defense to protect a four-point lead for nearly three minutes.

–PASS DEFENSE: B-plus — Cornerback Xavier Rhodes shadowed Alshon Jeffery, who caught 11 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown while matched up mostly against 5-foot-10 No. 3 corner Josh Robinson in the first meeting in Chicago. With Rhodes locked on Jeffery for almost the entire game, Jeffery caught two balls for 34 yards and wasn’t even looked at by Jay Cutler in some critical moments, such as third-and-9 at the Vikings’ 12-yard line. Cutler finished with a 75.2 passer rating and only 172 yards. Running back Matt Forte also had only 23 yards receiving on eight catches.

–RUSH DEFENSE: B — The only runs allowed longer than nine yards were scrambles of 17 and 22 yards by Cutler. Forte averaged only 3.0 yards on 17 carries. Receiver Josh Morgan had a 9-yard carry. The Bears couldn’t muster any strength when the situation screamed for it. When their defense handed them the ball at the Vikings’ 9-yard line following an interception, the Bears still moved the ball just two yards before settling for a field goal.

–SPECIAL TEAMS: C — Marcus Sherels made a nice move to shake a gunner while gaining 31 yards on a field goal to midfield. That enabled the Vikings to kick a field goal that made it a 13-6 game. The kickoff coverage unit surrendered a 67-yard return before Adam Thielen made a touchdown-saving tackle at the Vikings’ 35-yard line. Punter Jeff Locke averaged just 35.3 yards with the same net average. Blair Walsh made both of his field goal attempts of 44 and 37 yards.

–COACHING: B — Yeah, the Bears were on the road three days after Christmas. And they knew their coaching staff and front office were about to be blown to smithereens. But the Vikings’ coaching staff still gets credit for keeping the players motivated for a season finale that had no playoff implications. A week after the defense gave up four consecutive touchdown drives in the second half at Miami, the defense held an opponent without a touchdown for the first time since the season opener. Offensively, it was a struggle, but coordinator Norv Turner and Bridgewater once again worked well together on a game plan designed to spread the defense out and have Bridgewater make quick decisions and throws.


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