When Teddy Bridgewater lines up across from the Vikings’ defensive front on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, the first Minnesota pass rushers given the opportunity to hit him will have almost no history with him.
Defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson is the only lineman on the Vikings’ roster to have spent a season on a team with Bridgewater. Defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo spent the 2017 training camp with the Vikings while Bridgewater was rehabbing from his left knee injury. Odenigbo’s return to the team in 2018 came after Bridgewater was gone.
The only familiar faces trying to get to the Panthers quarterback on Sunday will be the ones that come after Bridgewater on blitzes. Safety Harrison Smith predates Bridgewater’s time in Minnesota by two years, while safety Anthony Harris and linebacker Eric Kendricks were rookies on the 2015 team that won the NFC North with Bridgewater at quarterback.
To the rest of the group, Bridgewater is just another opponent, the latest target in a season of transition for the Vikings’ defense. Affecting him on Sunday will be a challenge in its own right, not a task tinged with sentiment.
“I love him once there’s zeros across the board on Sunday about 4 o’clock and we win,” co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson said. “Then he’s back to being my favorite Teddy, but right now, I need to find a way to get him on the ground.”
As Bridgewater has settled into a Joe Brady-coordinated offense that emphasizes spread sets and quicker throws, he is proving to be a tougher passer to disrupt than he was during his days in a Norv Turner-led Vikings offense that put him in seven-step dropbacks more often.
He is throwing with the 10th-fastest release in the NFL this season (2.42 seconds, according to Pro Football Focus) and being pressured (31.1 % of the time) and sacked (on 16.2 % of dropbacks) less frequently than he ever was as the Vikings’ starter.
“The number one thing he does is he gets the ball out of his hands so fast,” Patterson said. “When you watch the tape, there’s people that got a guy running free at him in the A gap and B gap right in the middle of his face and he’s able to get the ball out of his hands and complete it before that guy can sack him. Now he gets hit, and he’s tough enough to take the hit, but he gets the ball out of his hands.
“That’s always hard for defensive linemen when you play a quarterback that can get the ball out of his hands fast and is accurate. I used the example with the D-line yesterday that his time in New Orleans helped him a lot. He’s got a lot of Drew Brees to his game right now. That’s what makes Drew Brees special because he gets the ball out of his hands fast. That’s what Teddy’s doing.”
For Patterson’s group, with has been without top pass rusher Danielle Hunter all season, a successful day against Bridgewater won’t necessarily be judged by sacks as much as it is by the frequency of pressure.
While there’s little that can upend a drive like a sack, they don’t come often enough to tell the whole story for a pass rusher. Patterson likens pass rushing snaps to at-bats over the course of a baseball season — “A guy has 450 pass rush attempts through the course of the season; he has 12 sacks. All right?” he said. “He gets paid a bunch of money because he was 12 of 450. There’s nothing else in sport they would pay you a nickel to be 12 out of 450, OK?”
He knows full well that sacks are what get pass rushers paid, though, so for him, the process of teaching his young pupils is to help them develop techniques they can trust and continue to sharpen even in a dry spell between sacks. The metrics on which he judges rushers are more nuanced.
“I look at the combination of pressures and quarterback hits, because the whole world can see he hit the guy, you know what I mean?” Patterson said. “Sometimes some people judge pressure different.”
According to PFF’s pass rushing productivity metric, the Vikings have seen some progress since their bye week with Hercules Mata’afa and rookie D.J. Wonnum, who rank 14th and 18th among NFL edge defenders over the last four weeks in terms of how frequently they turn their pass rushing snaps into pressures, hits or sacks.
Patterson might grade his rushers even more strictly.
“For me, if they affect the quarterback but he completes the pass, I don’t give him a pressure, even though they made him move in the pocket,” Patterson said. “If he completes the pass, I don’t give him a pressure; now some people do. You see what I’m saying? That’s where the differences come in. For me, I look at, [to determine] whether a guy is an effective pass rusher, how many quarterback hits and how many pressures did he have in that game? So if he has great numbers on that, to me that’s a heck of a day as a pass rusher.”
A 4-6 Vikings team that needs a win on Sunday will have a better chance to get one if it can inflict stress on its favorite former quarterback. No one inside the Vikings’ practice facility seems particularly confused about that.
“Teddy is as good a kid as there is, and we love him. I joked with my dad yesterday, he loves him more than me, so [with] as much as he’s been gloating about him this week,” said co-defensive coordinator Adam Zimmer, whose dad, Mike, is the Vikings’ head coach.
“Just after the game, we’ll love him up again, but we want him to be on the losing side of the table this side.”