First came a delay of game, a penalty charged to Case Keenum. Then came pressure from his left on the third-quarter drive, forcing a run to his right while dodging Packers defensive linemen on third-and-13.
The Vikings quarterback, now bound by the right sideline and an incoming Packers linebacker, completed a throw that might have made Fran Tarkenton blush. A backpedaling Keenum found tight end David Morgan, who slipped four Packers defenders for the night’s biggest play of 23 yards and led to a field goal in the Vikings’ 16-0 victory.
“I’m actually in protection and the play kind of busted,” Morgan said. “I knew Case was looking for somebody, and I just had to let my guy go in hopes of getting open. And he saw me and we made something happen.”
A key to Keenum’s career-best production — and the Vikings’ Super Bowl hopes — has been his ability to create in pressure situations. Keenum is pressured roughly 35 percent more than he is sacked, which is a league-leading differential among the likes of Philip Rivers and Russell Wilson, according to Pro Football Focus.
In part because of his ability to make something positive happen, the Vikings’ passing game has allowed only 25 sacks, which is the franchise’s fewest in a season since 1998 (25). Keenum’s mobility can be “a lifesaver” for the offense, said right tackle Mike Remmers, but it’s not something the offensive line necessarily wants to rely upon for success.
“A lot of times he’s extending the play because something broke down, and he’s making you right by fixing something you screwed up,” guard Joe Berger said. “It’s great to have a quarterback who’s mobile back there, who can extend the play and get the ball down the field.”
Keenum’s athleticism previously might have been overlooked. He came to the Vikings with 163 career rushing yards in 26 games. He already has 160 rushing yards this season in an offense predicated on keeping the quarterback clean by moving him around, which is a nice fit for Keenum’s game.
“I think [offensive coordinator] Pat [Shumur] does a good job of mixing the run and pass and moving the pocket,” Keenum said.
Shurmur, in his first full season as the Vikings play-caller, likely will be a coveted head-coaching candidate this offseason because of his work with Keenum. The transition after Sam Bradford’s knee surgery to Keenum included a heavier emphasis on quarterback movement, asking Keenum to create off play-action and keep both himself and plays alive with his feet.
The Vikings play designs sometime set up Keenum to create on the move. Other times, he’s dodging blitzing defenders such as when he ducked 5-9 former Viking Captain Munnerlyn in Carolina. Keenum is one of the league’s best against the blitz with a 108.9 passer rating, ranked second among all NFL quarterbacks. A handful of traits have helped Keenum’s ascent, Shurmur said, including his vision and feel in the pocket.
“I think it’s super important that you move the pocket for the quarterback,” Shurmur said. “I think he moves in the pocket well, where he clears his sightlines so he can make a throw. Those are the elements of mobility.”
They’re also the elements that keep a team alive in the playoffs.
The last time the Vikings had a quarterback this evasive and well-protected, they were a field goal away from the Super Bowl in 1998. Now Minnesota’s dreams rest in part on the arm and legs of Keenum, who is hoping to catch even more people by surprise next month heading into February’s kickoff at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“I didn’t know he could move around like he does,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “I think that’s part of the things teams have started to have to prepare for now — the possibility of him running.”