After Sam Bradford’s left knee injury, the Vikings have used Case Keenum and Bradford as their starting quarterbacks. But this really has been, and most likely will continue to be, Keenum’s season in that role. He has taken 72.4 percent of the snaps, while Bradford has taken only 27.6 percent.
This week brings another huge challenge as the Vikings have a chance to take over the NFC North lead if they can beat the Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday.
Keenum came in for a clearly hobbling Bradford against the Bears last Sunday and completed 17 of 21 passes for 140 yards and a score in the Vikings’ 20-17 victory in Chicago. He said that with each snap, he gets more comfortable with the offense and his teammates.
“That’s what experience brings, and I think experience is priceless,” Keenum said. “Experience within the offense that you’re running with the guys you’re running with.
“We have some good experience, good things that we’ve put on tape. We have a lot of things to work on, too. We have to go to work this week and get better.”
When asked to explain how his comfort grows each week, Keenum said it’s in the little parts of the game.
“I go out every day and work on something different,” he said. “Sometimes I work on the same thing. I’m always trying to perfect my craft, pursuing excellence rather than perfection, that’s a phrase I like to use rather than being a perfectionist.”
After starting in Weeks 2-4, Keenum replaced Bradford late in the first half against the Bears. He said the coaching staff makes sure all the quarterbacks are on the same page so they are ready for any game situation.
He also said that preparedness helps when it comes to calling audibles at the line of scrimmage.
“That’s a big part of the game as a quarterback,” Keenum said. “It’s something I’ll always try to work on.
“We see the defense with the same set of eyes. We have different experiences and different things so we see some things differently, but the more we’re in the same quarterback room, we see the same things lining up.”
This will be Keenum’s first game against the Packers and his first chance to face Aaron Rodgers, whom Keenum admires.
“He’s a special quarterback,” Keenum said. “He can do a lot of things not only with his arm but with his feet, too. … We’ll watch plays and there’s no words to describe the kinds of plays he can make. I have a lot of respect for him, and what he does and we have to keep him off the field [by controlling the ball] on Sunday.”
While Rodgers ranks fifth in the NFL in passer rating at 104.1, Keenum isn’t far behind, ranking 10th at 97.6.
When asked if he’s ready for the pressure that comes with a Packers/Vikings game, Keenum said there’s no added pressure.
“That’s the pressure every week in the NFL,” he said. “I know that it’s a division game so that adds more to it, but it’s another game and I treat every game the same.
“I put everything I’ve got into every week and I’m going to put everything I’ve got into this week. I’m not going to have anything left Sunday after the game. Are we a 12 o’clock kickoff? By 3:30, I’m going to be drained. That’s how I feel and that’s how I compete. I’m going to be the same me this week.”
While Rogers and the offense get a lot of the credit, the Packers defense seems to be much improved this season.
After finishing with the 22nd-ranked defense in 2016, allowing 363.9 yards per game, Green Bay is 11th this season at 321.2. The Vikings defense is ranked seventh at 309.2.
Keenum, ranked this week by Pro Football Focus as the ninth-best quarterback in the NFL, knows the game will be another challenging NFC North battle.
“They mix up coverages, mix up fronts — they have a great front up there,” he said. “Then [in the secondary], they play a lot of guys and they’re all in the right place. We have to be able to identify who is in and who’s what, and we have to be able to execute.”
Fleck remains patient
Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck knows leading a new program sometimes means slow progress, and if the team can’t get healthy, it might be some time before they start putting a lot of victories together.
“At Western Michigan we were 1-11 [in 2013], and three years later we were in the Cotton Bowl,” he said. “I understand the process. When you take over a program after the former coach is dismissed, you have to be able to take that head on and that’s what we’re doing.”
With the team having to pull redshirts off players this year because of the number of injuries, Fleck said you can expect to see freshman playing not only this season but next year, too.
“When I first got the job, I said the same thing, ‘We’re going to get a lot younger before we get better and more experienced in Year 2,’ ” he said. “That’s what we have to do to build the program and dig the foundation to get it back to where we all know it can be one day.”
Still, Fleck acknowledged that the Gophers were one or two plays away from being 5-0.
“We’ve had our opportunities to win,” he said. “We’re three minutes away from being 5-0, but who cares? That’s the thing. We’re not 5-0, we’re 3-2 and 0-2 in the Big Ten. That just shows what we have to do to get to that level: how we have to be able to finish games, why aren’t we finishing games, and it’s costing us.”
And here’s the worry for the Gophers: Their first five opponents are now a combined 13-15; their remaining opponents are 24-13.
“We have tough games every week,” Fleck said. “That is what the Big Ten is about. That’s why you play Big Ten football every week. It’s a grind. Every week you have a tough opponent but that’s fun, too, that’s what you want.”
On Saturday night, the Gophers face Michigan State, a defense Fleck really respects. The Maxwell Club, in their weekly football release, named Spartans sophomore middle linebacker Joe Bachie as one of the hottest players in the country. Bachie had 10 tackles, an interception, a sack, a forced fumble and a pass breakup in the Spartans’ 14-10 victory over then-No. 7 Michigan at Ann Arbor last Saturday.
The Spartans, who are surprisingly only a four-point favorite, have held four of their five opponents to 14 points or less.