Why Teddy Bridgewater Has Struggled This Season
Teddy Bridgewater was the recipient of much optimism heading into his sophomore second professional season. Current company was just as guilty as anyone in setting expectations high for the Minnesota quarterback. Even as the Vikings sit with a record of 7-3 through 11 weeks of the regular season, those expectations have not been met, and Bridgewater’s play has been largely underwhelming.
Per our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data, Bridgewater ranks 32nd in Passing NEP per drop back among 38 quarterbacks who have done so at least 100 times this season.
That's not just underwhelming. It's just bad.
There must be a reason, though.
Bridgewater did enough in his rookie season to be named the Pepsi Offensive Rookie of the Year, whatever that award means. Some group, somewhere, thought his rookie year was better than Odell Beckham’s and gave him an award for it, even though Beckham won the official Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Maybe many were wrong in placing too high of expectations on Bridgewater too soon, but it seems unlikely he just became a bad quarterback all of a sudden.
The problem here isn’t just with the quarterback but a series of things involved with the offense that have made life on Bridgewater and the rest of the passing offense difficult. All of this was evident against the Green Bay Packers in Week 11, and the plays when Bridgewater was sacked give a pretty good look at what’s been going wrong with the passing game.
Deep Drops and Max Protect
Offensive coordinator Norv Turner is known for favoring a vertical-based passing game. With the return of Adrian Peterson in the Minnesota backfield, it was assumed defenses would load more players in the box to defend the running back, leaving fewer defenders in coverage and allowing Bridgewater to take advantage. That hasn’t really been the case this season. Even as Peterson leads the league in both rushing yards (1,009) and attempts (208), defenses haven’t stacked the box as the consensus had expected.
That’s left some strain on the quarterback and some flaws in the scheme when slow-developing plays are still called with ample defenders still in coverage. Take the below play from the second quarter of the Packers game.
Seven players are in to block, seven defenders are in coverage, and no receiver is close to open when Bridgewater completes his seven-step drop. With nowhere to go with the football, and even with max-protection, Bridgewater took a sack on the play. (Photos courtesy NFL Game Pass.)
This helps illustrate a few things that are hindering the Vikings this season. Minnesota keeps seven players into block initially because that’s the type of help the offensive line needs during pass protection. This isn’t exactly all Minnesota’s fault. The line has been without right tackle Phil Loadholt and center John Sullivan all season. Continuity is great for an offensive line -- all five starters have played at least 99 percent of Minnesota’s offensive snaps -- but continuity works a lot better when the players along the line are also good.
Bridgewater has been sacked on 9.3 percent of his dropbacks this season, which is the fifth highest rate in the NFL this season. The quarterbacks in front of him -- Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Johnny Manziel and Tyrod Taylor -- are all more prone to scramble around and take sacks on broken plays than Bridgewater has this season.
Now, Bruce Arians runs a vertical-happy scheme in Arizona with Carson Palmer, and let’s not compare Bridgewater to Palmer, who leads all quarterbacks in Passing NEP per drop back, but there are parts of Arizona’s scheme that help out Palmer more than Bridgewater gets helped in Minnesota.
Arians calls for these deep routes, but more often than not, there’s an intermediate route that acts as a safety valve for Palmer if the vertical options are not open. Turner provides Bridgewater with checkdown options -- and Bridgewater will smartly use them when nothing is open -- but there’s a lack of secondary intermediate routes that could also help. However, it’s hard to run those types of concepts when only three receivers are running routes on a given play.
Minnesota isn’t oblivious to these problems, and it’s not as if the Vikings are hanging out their quarterback to dry with seven-step drops and max-protect on every play. But even when plays are supposed to develop faster, there’s still a lengthiness to the setup that can cause problems.
On the below play from the third quarter, the Vikings run a three-step drop, which should allow the ball to get out quickly. However, when Bridgewater reaches the top, no receiver has really done much of anything. The only options are Kyle Rudolph crossing the middle of the field and Adrian Peterson at the bottom of the shot, but both have defenders closing in on them. With no viable option when the pass is supposed to be thrown, the blitzing Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is able to get a quick sack.
Part of this problem is also the lack of receiving talent the Vikings are throwing out on a play-to-play basis.
Stefon Diggs has been a revelation coming out of the fifth-round of the draft, but he’s not the type of receiver that can carry an offense. Diggs ranks fifth among wide receivers with at least 50 targets in Reception NEP per target, but among the top 20, only Danny Amendola has a lower Reception Success Rate -- the percentage of plays resulting in positive NEP.
Outside of Diggs, the receiving options are not all that desirable. Jarius Wright is a usable third receiver in the slot, but he hasn’t been on the field enough to make an impact.
Instead, the majority of the snaps are going to Mike Wallace, who continues to be a shell of what he was once expected to be. Wallace’s speed was supposed to be a perfect fit with Turner’s vertical concepts, but the match has been less than stellar this season. 52 receivers in the NFL have been targeted at least 50 times through Week 11 and only six of them have performed worse than Wallace by Reception NEP per target.
Former first-round pick and supposed playmaker Cordarrelle Patterson has been banished almost exclusively to special teams duty this season.
Minnesota still technically runs a functional offense, 14th overall in Adjusted NEP per play. That’s aided greatly by the second best rushing attack with the passing offense falling to 28th. That overall average ranking might be enough justification for Turner to keep doing what he’s doing, even as it leaves the passing game in positions where success is difficult to achieve.
The good news is this is a fixable problem, and Bridgewater has shown the flashes that made him the favorite among many in the draft class last year, but when or if this gets addressed could have a major impact on how good the Vikings can be for the remainder of the season.