Film Room: Minnesota Meltdown

Film Room: Minnesota Meltdown
Film Room: Minnesota Meltdown
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Cian Fahey

"The appropriate question is no longer if the Vikings season is over. The appropriate question now is if the Vikings are the best team in the NFL."

That was the key statement from a Film Room column at the end of September. The Vikings were undefeated at that point of the season. They had beaten the Tennessee Titans, Carolina Panthers, and Green Bay Packers. Mike Zimmer's team would continue to win until their bye week. A 5-0 record put them atop the NFL, but then four consecutive losses from Week 7 onwards brought them back to earth. A win over the Arizona Cardinals in Week 11 offered a reprieve, but two more consecutive losses essentially ended the Vikings season. At 6-6, the Vikings know how it all went wrong. It's just so unprecedented that it's difficult to truly comprehend.

Everyone in the NFL is hurt once December comes. The inhumane scheduling and brutal nature of the sport itself combine to make it impossible for anyone to be close to 100 percent at this time of the year. The Vikings were hurt in September. Even when they were at 5-0, they were missing key pieces, including quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, left tackle Matt Kalil and running back Adrian Peterson. The outstanding play of Sam Bradford behind an offensive line built out of backups allowed the offense to do enough to get by while the defense acted as the protagonist for the team's success.

Norv Turner had played a key role in allowing Bradford to have success. He didn't force his preferred style of offense onto the available personnel. Instead he adjusted and ran an offense that allowed the Vikings to get the most out of what they had. At least, he did until the bye week. After that, Turner's play calling went away from packaged plays and short drops. The offense regressed, and Turner abruptly resigned.

Turner's scheme and its relationship with his personnel was a hot topic entering the season. Charles Robinson of Yahoo! suggested that was one of a few reasons leading to the offensive coordinator's resignation. Pat Shurmur took over and made necessary adjustments to set the offense up for success once again. Alas, timing is everything, and Shurmur's impact would be drowned out by another wave of injuries that would decimate the team's offensive line.

At its peak of health way back in the offseason, the Vikings projected to have a below-average offensive line at best. That line would have started Matt Kalil at left tackle, Alex Boone at left guard, Joe Berger or John Sullivan at center, Mike Harris at right guard, and Andre Smith or Phil Loadholt at right tackle. Brandon Fusco would provide decent depth, along with whoever lost out in the competitions at center and right tackle.

Harris and Loadholt were lost immediately. Loadholt decided to retire instead of returning from the injury he suffered the previous season. Harris was diagnosed with an unknown illness and lost for the year. Sullivan couldn't win his job back from Berger and was subsequently released rather than kept as a backup. Berger suffered a concussion on Thanksgiving day and was absent for the Vikings against the Dallas Cowboys last week. That meant that Alex Boone was the only original starter remaining on the interior.

It's the offensive tackle spots that have turned a bad offensive line into probably the worst unit in the league. Loadholt's retirement wasn't a big deal at the time, but it became a big deal when Smith landed on IR. Smith started four games before being lost for the year, two more than left tackle Matt Kalil. T.J. Clemmings was left to play right tackle, Jake Long was signed to start at left tackle. Long subsequently tore his Achilles, so Clemmings was then forced to move from the right side to the left. The Vikings were left without their preferred starter at left tackle, preferred backup at left tackle, preferred starter at right tackle, and preferred backup at right tackle, and their preferred third-string right tackle was now their starting left tackle.

Expecting to run a functional passing game with this offensive line is simply irrational.

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Clemmings isn't the only reason why the Vikings can't throw the ball downfield but he is by far the biggest weakness in the attack. The above GIF shows the Vikings' second dropback of the game against Dallas. The GIF initially focuses solely on Clemmings. In that sequence you can see how Clemmings lunges and reaches for Demarcus Lawrence instead of establishing his base beneath him and dropping back into a position where he can react to repel the defensive end. By lunging forward and striking out for Lawrence, Clemmings makes it easy for the defender to slip past his outside shoulder. Lawrence is immediately closing on Bradford in the pocket at that point. Because Clemmings isn't even in position to recover, Bradford can't hold the ball and look to extend the play with his movement. The ball has to come out at this point.

The second angle in the above GIF is a freeze frame of the coverage at the point when Bradford releases the ball. His outside receivers are both blanketed. His running back in the flat to the left is also covered and not an option because of where Lawrence is coming from. That leaves his two tight ends. Bradford diagnoses this coverage very quickly to give himself a chance to release the ball.

Kyle Rudolph had drawn single coverage against Sean Lee. Lee stumbles slightly in coverage, but he is right there on Rudolph's back shoulder through the route. Bradford would have preferred to hold the ball for a moment longer to let the route develop further across the field, but Clemmings' failure forces him to rush the pass, and he can't fit the ball into a tiny window before absorbing the huge hit from Lawrence.

Clemmings does everything you don't want your offensive tackles to do in pass protection. His inability to move his feet and keep his weight back leads him to thrust forward and make some wayward attempts at punching defensive ends to the ground. He is essentially a boxer who has to knock his opponent out with one perfectly timed, perfectly placed punch without ever being touched. In this game, he was repeatedly beaten around his outside shoulder because of his poor technique.

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On a couple of occasions the Cowboys attempted to aggressively chase Bradford with disguised and heavier blitzes. Bradford instantly found his outlet on those plays. The Cowboys quickly realized that the optimal strategy was to continuously rush five defenders to force the offense into keeping one of its five eligible receivers in to block, or risk Clemmings holding up in a one-on-one matchup. Clemmings was relatively recently converted from being a defensive lineman, and it's hard to point to any areas where he has developed since being drafted. One notable draft analyst and offensive line expert, Lance Zierlein of, suggests that Clemmings has actually regressed since he entered the league.

Clemmings hugs the line of scrimmage at the start of the above GIF. He is actually further upfield than his left guard. For a lineman who is repeatedly beaten around the edge, this doesn't make much sense. He again fails to match Lawrence's first action as the defensive end pushes upfield before Clemmings leans forward and offers a meager arm as an attempt at stopping the defensive end. Lawrence beats his teammate in the race to the quarterback and hits Bradford as he releases the ball.

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If Clemmings was the only liability on the offensive line, the Vikings would have a chance to scheme their offense around his flaws. The problem is that Clemmings is just the worst of the bunch.

The time a quarterback should hold the ball in the pocket isn't the same on every play. In the era we live in, average time in the pocket is a common measurement. Average time in the pocket or average time to throw is useless, though, without understanding the design of the offense and the play call from the defense. A quarterback such as Cam Newton or Carson Palmer holds the ball in the pocket longer than a quarterback such as Russell Wilson or Tom Brady because the designs of their offenses are all different. It's easy to talk about the schemes and how things are supposed to work with hypothetical players. When matchups between actual players have to be taken into account, you have to treat everything case-by-case.

When Bradford played with the St. Louis Rams early in his career, his numbers were never impressive because he played behind an offensive line that couldn't hold up against four-man rushes. Counting the number of rushers against the number of blockers on a given play is a crucial aspect of evaluation. It's how you determine how long the quarterback should hold the ball and how long you should expect his pass protection to hold up. Like when he was in St. Louis, Bradford is once again in an offense where matchups against his linemen prevent the offense from functioning as designed.

The below play is the quintessential example of a broken offense.

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Long before the ball is snapped, the Cowboys make it known that they are only rushing three players. They have three down linemen and nobody in position to blitz from the second level. It's third-and-4. Against a three-man rush, your quarterback should get time to get to the top of his drop, hold his position, survey the coverage from sideline-to-sideline, and then hold the ball to allow his receivers to extend their routes if he has to. Bradford doesn't get any of that. Both of Bradford's offensive tackles fail to play the pass rush. Neither sets wide enough to take away the speed rush around the edge. That means neither can get help from their guards. When the above GIF freezes midway through, you can see that both guards are standing in space with nothing to do while the tackles futilely turn with the edge rushers who have already beaten them.

Stefon Diggs catches a 7-yard pass on this play. He gets a first down. Bradford managed to throw an accurate pass because of his acumen to immediately diagnose the defense, his lightning-quick release, and his poise to stand in and take a hit.

Bradford got hit a lot in this game. He left for a couple of plays at the end of the first half but never reacted negatively to the pressure. He couldn't always make plays, but there were rarely plays to be made that he missed.

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Take this play for example. It's third-and-long. The Vikings keep two backs in next to the quarterback to offer chip options to help their offensive tackles. Both tackles hold up in protection because of the help they get, but the Vikings only have three receivers running routes downfield as a trade-off. Bradford has three vertical routes. His interior blocking collapses instantly as a simple stunt sends a defensive tackle running free at him in the pocket. Bradford's process hastens. He correctly diagnoses the coverage by locating the deep safety and attacking the wider side of the field. He needs to drop the ball into the area highlighted in green deep down the left sideline. Doing that gives his receiver a chance. His receiver has to win his route to get to the ball for the big play.

Bradford's throw isn't perfect, but it's good considering the hit he was confronted with and the time he had to let the route develop. He gives Laquon Treadwell a chance at getting to the ball. Treadwell doesn't get close to making the play because Brandon Carr is easily able to stay on top of his route and shield him off towards the sideline.

Minnesota general manager Rick Spielman received a lot of criticism at the time and will receive even more retrospectively for the Bradford trade. It's easy to jump on him now because the Vikings' season has fallen apart, but Bradford hasn't been the reason why. When the offensive line was simply problematic and not disastrous before the bye, Bradford was a legitimate MVP candidate. His ability to negate pressure and throw receivers open so consistently was spectacular. His play as an individual has suffered the more of a beating he has taken as the season has gone on, but he is still elevating his teammates and making the situation better than it realistically should be. You could see that against the Cowboys.

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On this play he converts a third-and-long with pressure coming in his face by perfectly flighting, perfectly timing, and perfectly placing a pass into the soft spot of the Cowboys' zone coverage.

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The Vikings commit eight players to the initial play-fake here, meaning there are only two receivers running into a flood of coverage downfield. Bradford leads Charles Johnson into space for the big gain.

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He created two big plays out of nothing on the final drive of the game.

If the Vikings had more talented receivers, ball-winners, or even just receivers who could get consistently open at different levels of the field, Bradford would be capable of masking the offensive line issues to be more productive. This game showcased the limitations of his pass catchers on a number of occasions. Besides Diggs, and Adam Thielen to a degree, the Vikings have receivers who need to be thrown open. And even when they are thrown open, they can't be relied upon to catch the ball.

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Cordarrelle Patterson has provided more value this year than in previous seasons, but he's still just a gadget player who shows off technical incompetence too often. In the above GIF Bradford recognizes the safety rotation immediately and gets rid of the ball quickly because of that. He neutralizes the pass rush with his process in the pocket and throws a perfect pass for Patterson to win. Patterson extends his arm to push off because he wants to body catch the ball instead of winning it strongly against a defensive back who isn't in position to locate it as it arrives. He makes the catch, but it's negated for the obvious penalty.

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Thielen is a talented receiver, but not a ball-winner against tight coverage. Thielen would thrive in an offense that wasn't constantly facing eight- and nine-man coverages where the receivers don't get time to extend their routes. He and Bradford have developed a great rapport this year on back-shoulder throws and timing routes, but Thielen couldn't win a well-placed ball in the above GIF when Bradford again made the smart, accurate throw.

Patterson and Thielen have their flaws, but they do at least help the offense in other ways. The same can't be said for Charles Johnson, and it's hard to argue at this point that Kyle Rudolph's good outweighs his bad.

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Johnson had an opportunity to score a touchdown in this game, but he tried to body-catch the ball against contact when he needed to be aggressive attacking it in the air. That was an egregious error, but not as big of a miss as the above play. Again, Bradford's process in the pocket is impressive. He quickly manipulates the outside cornerback with a pump fake to free Johnson down the right sideline. The quarterback's pass leads Johnson away from the safety and hits him in the hands. Maybe it was slightly overthrown, but it would not have been a fingertip grab for the receiver -- it literally hit the top of his hands. Regardless, it was a huge play that the receiver left on the field at a pivotal point of the game.

When you have limited talent on offense, it's harder to overcome inconsistency. Leaving big plays on the field isn't something that can be overcome. It's especially bad when those inconsistencies show up when your better players create big-play opportunities.

Hello, Kyle Rudolph.

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Comfortably Bradford's best play in this game came late in the third quarter. The Vikings were trailing the Cowboys 7-3. It was third-and-4 in field goal range. Rudolph doesn't get open on this play, but Bradford throws him open with a precise pass over Byron Jones. Bradford fits the ball into a window that is barely bigger than the ball. He does so while being hit even though the Cowboys rushed three against the five pass blockers the Vikings had.

Rudolph is a physically gifted tight end who fails at the catch point too often. His career has never come close to what it was expected to be because he has never been able to eradicate his inconsistency.

You'll again notice that Bradford recognized the rotation of the safeties to give his tight end a chance to score. Though, ironically, he might have had a chance if he checked down into the flat quickly. It wouldn't have been an easy first down either way.

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This isn't a play your average NFL quarterback makes. Of course it counts for nothing because, as has often been the case throughout his career, Bradford's intended receiver dropped the ball. More often than not when Bradford has made these types of plays over the course of his career they have been ruined by the Brian Quicks, Austin Pettis', Jordan Matthews, Riley Coopers, Charles Johnsons, and Kyle Rudolphs with whom he has played.

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Bradford's play and the defense's dominance justify Spielman's decision to aggressively pursue the quarterback. This team was built to win this year, they just suffered an abnormal amount of injuries. Even Mike Zimmer is out now.

If you want to criticize the general manager for not being able to predict the injuries, you are being irrational. If you want to criticize him for not being better prepared for those injuries, you're still being irrational. Spielman built this team so that it was strong on the defensive side and just good enough on the offensive side. He had limited equity to invest and decided to create a dominant defense before focusing on the offense. That plan worked. The defense is dominant. The franchise is now in position to focus on building on the offensive side as its young, dominant defense continues to grow together. Losing next year's first-round pick won't derail the direction of the franchise. It hurts, but the risk quite clearly outweighed the reward.


32 comments, Last at 10 Dec 2016, 9:42am

1 Re: Film Room: Minnesota Meltdown

While I defend the Bradford trade, my concern with Spielman his is seemingly poor judge of offensive talent in the draft.

Some of the notable early round misses:
Toby Gerhart
Christian Ponder
Rudolph (and his extension...)
Bridgewater (jury still out)

Adrian Peterson

Woof... And I'm not including the offensive linemen that haven't panned out, that were probably viewed as good picks at the time. I know the draft is always a fickle beast, and maybe it is just bad luck, but the guy has an 8 year (or so) track record now. Defensively, though, I think we can all see what kind of talent he has acquired.

3 Re: Film Room: Minnesota Meltdown

I remain convinced that the Ponder draft was forced on him, when ownership broke a tie in an organization that had divided draft day power, and insisted that a 1st round pick be used on a qb, in a terribe year for drafting a qb. It was after that disaster that Spielman was given ful draft authority. It is the Patterson and Treadwell picks that concern me; anybody could have been fooled by Rudolph.

5 Re: Film Room: Minnesota Meltdown

Fooled by Rudolph on draft day, absolutely. Fooled after 3 years of meh and extending him, though, I did not like.

Like a buddy told me the day of the Bradford trade. The 1st round pick was worthless to Spielman anyway, he doesn't know how to use them. On offensive talent, I have to agree.

7 Re: Film Room: Minnesota Meltdown

If recollection serves, the Red Rifle - a good, if not great, QB enjoying a decent career rejuvenating Cincy - was still available well after the Vikings took Ponder at #12 overall (or somewhere in there).

Yes, I did yell at my computer that day. And then, Treadwell this year. I yelled again.

I fear for the day we develop responsive AI, because if the Vikes don't improve their decision-making, my computer will be one of the first to revolt.

13 Re: Film Room: Minnesota Meltdown

I didn't have a problem with the Patterson pick; he was clearly very flawed, but you can at least hope a guy with that level of athleticism could start to pick up the basics. Patterson has not been able to do that all, to an almost shocking degree, but I think you can pretty easily rationalize taking a WR in the late 20s who just might pan out. Treadwell? The guy didn't even average 12 yards/catch in college, and I'm not sure how he was supposed to find separation in the pros. I mean, sure, possession guy vs. speed guy and all, but, wow, that's a lot of really short catches at the college level. It's not like he's so huge he was going to muscle everybody out of the way.

14 Re: Film Room: Minnesota Meltdown

As nutty as it sounds, I would have preferred Spielman taking a interior defensive linemen if somebody was on the board that matched that slot. The defense is very good but Floyd was often hurt, and another dominant player in that spot would have made it a truly great defense.

27 Re: Film Room: Minnesota Meltdown

Which is what they try to do. Against any defense which isn't flat-out terrible, however, this is only going to have very limited success. There's a reason good offensive linemen get paid a lot more that terrible offensive linemen.

4 Re: Film Room: Minnesota Meltdown

Cian, I love the way you've been mixing in pauses, diagrams, and multiple camera angles in your gifs to emphasize your key points. It looks like a substantial amount of work to put together, but it ends up getting more football analysis out of the gif format than I would have thought would be possible.

6 Re: Film Room: Minnesota Meltdown

Thanks, Cian, I think you nailed it. Bradford's been terrific. The trade was entirely the reasonable result of Spielman and Zimmer saying, as Bridgewater was taken to the hospital, "This team, as it currently stands, can still contend for a championship with good qb play. Bradford can provide that, and Shaun Hill can't". You can't make decisions like this with the projection that the injury geyser will keep erupting, but the geyser is still erupting. As it stands, this team might be 2 more yards on an int reurn, a friendlier bounce on a strip sack, a punt fumble, and slightly better kicker performance, away from being 10-2. Even if with the injury avalanche, they almost had a playoff spot locked up before December.

8 Re: Film Room: Minnesota Meltdown

Another element of the trade was Taylor Heinecke's freak injury in July. They really, really, like the undrafted free agent qb, to the point of not being willing to risk putting him on the practice squad, even though they knew he wouldn't play last year. They were going to give him the number 2 spot this year, and cut Hill, if he hadn't tried to gain entry into a condo he had locked himself out of by kicking a door open. If he had experienced another really good traning camp, they may not have made the trade. The fact that they are still protecting him from other teams, now that he has come off of the non-football injury list, tells me that they still think he can be an above average NFL starter.

11 Re: Film Room: Minnesota Meltdown

I guess the big question, assuming this year is lost, is what happens next year. If (and that is a big If) Teddy Bridgewater is recovered.....

I think both make good decisions on where to throw.
I think both have weaknesses in pocket awareness.
I think Bradford's arm is better, if given time he can really make some throws Teddy can't.
While not a running quarterback, I think Teddy (prior to the injury) was more mobile and teams at least had to respect the possibility he could do some damage on the ground.
Teddy is younger and (at least for now) considerably cheaper.
Teddy is kind of whom this team grew up around, and the sentimental choice. The NFL isnt' about making sentimental decisions.

Given what we got into by not having depth at the position, cost aside it would be nice to have both but only one can start.

None of this matters unless the offensive line is somehow overhauled. WHich won't be in the first round next year barring another trade. I can't see Adrian Peterson returning to the team next year (well, maybe but it would have to be at vastly different numbers, and that would mean there being little market for him).

16 Re: Film Room: Minnesota Meltdown

I don't have a clue how veracious the article is, because they don't actually cite any sources whatsoever, but Pro Football Weekly is claiming that the decision has been made -- they're saying it's Bradford even if Bridgewater's back, at least for 2017.

Various other people, apparently including (unnamed) team doctors, have said there's a solid chance Bridgewater never plays again. Adam Schefter's sources are generally considered second-to-none. (On that note, the "doctor who's worked with NFL teams" cited in that article is probably former Chargers team doctor David Chao -- yes, the David Chao referred to by Deadspin as "a drunk quack" -- who discussed the implications of Bridgewater's injury at length in various articles and tweets. Whatever else Chao may be, I have found him to be a very reliable resource on Twitter and in his weekly articles.)

RaiderJoe's suggestion that Bridgewater won't be ready for the start of the year sounds the most likely to me: it's still early yet, but I expect Bridgewater to begin next year on PUP while the team continues with Bradford. If and when he's as fully recovered as he's going to get, then the team can make a determination without potentially upsetting their other, better, but six-years-older option at the position.

15 Re: Film Room: Minnesota Meltdown

Would thonk Bridgewater miggt not be resy even in September
So s. Bradford sitll vilings quaertbacm next season at Starr of season. Maybe if stink or get hurt then Bridgewater maybe could take over layer in seaosn

22 Re: Film Room: Minnesota Meltdown

It is amazing how similar Bradford's creer to this point is to Jim Plunketts at the same time period. Plunket, a #1 overall pick (even similar part Native American) got the crap kicked out of him in NE with some of the worst teams in NFL history, bounces around and then wins 2 SBs as a 3rd and 4th act.
Will the same hold true for Bradford, Raiderjoe?

24 Re: Film Room: Minnesota Meltdown

he definitely could. guy is multi-millionaire but sort fo feel bad for him beucuause gets ripped a lot on internert by casual nfl fans and dopey ones. if cant be Raiders winning super biowl some given year wouldn't mind seeing Bradford's team win ti (as long as it is not being him on Denver rooster or chiefs one or Pates or Steelers)

17 Re: Film Room: Minnesota Meltdown

" When the offensive line was simply problematic and not disastrous before the bye, Bradford was a legitimate MVP candidate."

I respect you Cian. I most sincerely do. But I find this comment most troubling. Is the vikes o line a trainwreck? Sure. But I don't think its true to say that if the line play were average, the uptick in bradford's performance would have us singing mvp numbers. Bradford has been in the league a while and has never been anything near MVP. I don't deny the vikes situation is making him look bad, but mvp?

The hallmark of the great mvps of the past is their ability to maintain a level of performance even while the team around them implodes. There;s been scant evidence to say that about bradford. Remember...we're not saying bradford wouldn't look better with better talent, we're saying MVP here.

20 Re: Film Room: Minnesota Meltdown

The defense of this comment is that this is looking like a down-year for MVP candidacy, where there is no obvious winner. Derek Carr embarrassed himself last night and should surely now be out of the running. Brady has probably played best, but not outstandingly enough to overcome the fact he missed 4 games. Brees has had bad games. Prescott obviously has his life made easier for him than any other QB. I'd lean for Matt Ryan, who's YPA leads the league by a wide margin - but he risks being overlooked if his team don't win some more games (as ridiculous as that is).

It's not impossible to squint and imagine Bradford putting up good numbers behind a healthy O-Line on a team that goes 13-3, which might generate MVP debate in this down year. But in historical terms you are correct - no.

21 Re: Film Room: Minnesota Meltdown

Ryan is a fine candidate, but historically, quarterback MVP's are on teams that are competing for home field advantage. I think the fact that the Falcons are only 7-5 at this point will hurt his case with the voters, who seem to be big on QB wins as a stat (not to mention the pick-6 and pick-2 he threw last week). Of course, if Atlanta takes advantage of their favorable remaining schedule and finish 11-5, and Ryan has a strong finish, then he' could vault right back into the lead.

30 Re: Film Room: Minnesota Meltdown

If the casualties had stopped at Harris and Kalil, I'm almost certain they could have compensated, and maintained an offensive ranking in the high teens, which, paired with that defense, would likely have translated into 12 or 13 wins, and everybody would have been singing Bradford's praises. Especially if Peterson had not been hurt. Once Peterson and Andre Smith went down, followed by stopgap Jake Long, everything went over the cliff, and now Smith's replacement has missed time, and center Joe Berger. It's just untenable.

18 Re: Film Room: Minnesota Meltdown

Great breakdown, of the breakdown. Sam Bradford certainly won some fans this year.
About the Patterson OPI, it seems to me that receivers often get away with exactly that shove about half of the time. (Less glaring shoves are almost never flagged, even though they would be for DB's. Steve Smith is the master of pushing off near the end of a route). Is there any consistency to how OPI is called on those rare occasions when it is?

19 Re: Film Room: Minnesota Meltdown

And yet Minnesota chose not to grab Billy Turner and/or Dallas Thomas, who started a combined 28 games for Miami last year, when they were released after week 5. Last I checked, Thomas had yet to even find a team and neither player has played as much as a single down since being cut. Despite being healthy. And cheap.

I think people severely underestimate how bad Miami's offensive line is at times.

32 Re: Film Room: Minnesota Meltdown

One of the first things I noticed about Bradford in that game is how physically thin he is. It may just have been the slimming effect of the Color Rush jerseys. But I just wonder if it's a factor in why he's been injured through most of the his years in the NFL. Just not physically resilient enough.