They came into Monday night almost as a subplot, before a game drenched in anticipation over Adrian Peterson’s return to Minnesota and Randy Moss’ official enshrinement among the Vikings’ greats.
With perhaps the two most dynamic offensive players in team history watching only feet away, the members of the 2017 Vikings offense provided a shot of hope they might be just fine, too.
At least on Monday night, in the Vikings’ season-opening 29-19 victory over the New Orleans Saints at U.S. Bank Stadium, the team’s offense was a more suitable complement to a stifling defense than it has been in some time.
“We were very confident in the progress we were making, from OTAs to training camp,” quarterback Sam Bradford said. “I saw it in our guys, every day. I think [Monday] was really the first time it translated onto the field. I think we have the capability of doing that on a regular basis.”
Given a surplus of time behind his reworked offensive line, Bradford turned in the best of his 16 starts with the Vikings, going 27-of-32 for 346 yards and three touchdowns. He found Stefon Diggs for the first two scores, as the third-year receiver became the first Vikings wideout to catch two TD passes in a season opener since Moss — who was inducted into the Vikings Ring of Honor at halftime — did it in 2004.
And while Peterson fizzled on the field and fumed on the sideline, following Saints coach Sean Payton in one heated exchange captured by ESPN’s cameras, the running back the Vikings drafted to help replace their career leading rusher upstaged Peterson.
Dalvin Cook finished with 137 combined rushing and receiving yards, breaking out after halftime as the Vikings put together an 89-yard touchdown drive to effectively ice Peterson for the evening. Peterson had 18 yards on a career-low six carries, coming out of the game on most third downs as he did in Minnesota.
The Vikings’ own run game remained a work in progress early, averaging only 2.94 yards per carry through the first three quarters before Cook’s 32-yard burst opened the fourth. But the team’s new offensive line gave Bradford ample time to stress the continuity of a Saints defense with eight new starters.
Hit only twice all night, Bradford delivered downfield strikes with a frequency not seen in 2016. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Bradford’s seven throws of at least 15 yards downfield were more than he had in any game last season.
In the second quarter, he found Thielen for 35 yards running alone with Manti Te’o on a crossing route. He hit Jarius Wright for 21 yards on the next play, fitting a throw between two defenders as he got drilled. And on the next play, Bradford’s first touchdown of the season was as easy as they come, connecting with Diggs for a 18-yard score after a play fake froze the New Orleans defense.
Thielen exploited gaping holes in the Saints’ coverages for many of his 157 yards, gaining 44 yards on a crossing route late in the first half after the Saints showed a blitz and Bradford changed the Vikings’ protection call at the line of scrimmage. He was wide open again at the end of the third quarter, hauling in a Bradford pass for 27 yards to set up the Vikings’ final touchdown.
“For us as receivers, we know that if we’re open, we’re going to get the ball, and it’s going to be in a spot where we can catch and run,” Thielen said. “It’s pretty awesome to have a guy like that.”
The Vikings will face sterner defensive tests than the Saints as soon as Sunday, when they travel to Pittsburgh. But after the team’s front office devoted much of its offseason to remaking the offense, and after the Vikings put up only three points in 12 preseason drives with Bradford on the field, the group needed to show something to support the idea it had improved after posting the fifth-fewest yards in the league last season.
“A lot of people were down on us because we didn’t score a touchdown in the preseason,” Wright said. “It was good to show people you can sleep on our offense if you want to, but we have a lot of great weapons and we can move the ball.”
The Vikings defense, though, held the Saints to 196 yards through the first three quarters before Brees directed a pair of scoring drives to dress up the final score. A group that’s allowed the sixth- and fifth-fewest points in the NFL the past two seasons provides a firm foundation for an offense that might need only to be competent for the team to make a playoff push.
Bradford and company more than met that standard against the Saints, with two outsized figures in the building and their specters hanging in the air.
The tests will get harder soon, but on a night charged with symbolism, the Vikings passed the first one.
Ben Goessling covers the Vikings for the Star Tribune.