Playing New York football teams tend to bring smiles to franchises filled with frustrated faces.
Just ask the Vikings and Eagles, who meet Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium as cheerful 3-2 teams coming off a combined 59-16 drubbing of the Giants and Jets, respectively.
While the Giants defense was the perfect potion for the Vikings’ constipated passing game, the Jets’ woeful offensive line and third-string quarterback were exactly what Philly’s 32nd-ranked pass rush needed.
Stuck on three sacks through four games, the Eagles had 10 in a 31-6 rout of the visiting Jets. Defensive tackle Brandon Graham had a career-high three — two against right guard Brian Winters — while safety Orlando Scandrick had two, including one in which he simply took the ball from Jets quarterback Luke Falk and raced 44 yards the other way for a touchdown.
“Maybe they’re getting their groove a little bit,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said.
If so, the Vikings’ offensive line will tussle with a revived championship-caliber pass rush from a defense that also leads the league in fewest rushing yards allowed per game (63.0). Mix those two together and it helps hide a beat-up secondary that’s already had its top six cornerbacks miss time because of injuries.
However, like the Eagles defensive line, the Vikings offensive line played its most complete game of the season Sunday. At the center of those consistently clean pockets and 211 rushing yards was, well, the center.
Rookie first-round draft pick Garrett Bradbury, one of Pro Football Focus’ favorite chew toys the first four weeks, bit back. PFF still ranks him 37th among 37 qualifying centers (39.3) but listed him eighth overall (66.7) on Sunday.
Or, as older-school evaluator Mike Zimmer sums up Bradbury’s first five NFL games, “I think he’s had some ‘welcome-to-the-NFL’ moments, but then last week I think was his best game.”
First, Bradbury says he’s not experiencing sleeplessness over the fact PFF has him 34th among centers in run blocking (49.4) and dead last in pass blocking (16.5).
“Our coaches give us grades each week and then we either win the game or lose the game,” Bradbury said. “If I’m worried about things other than those two things, I’m not going to be worth a darn on Sundays.”
Secondly, those “welcome-to-the-NFL” moments the boss mentioned are only part of Bradbury trying to join Hall of Famer Mick Tingelhoff as the only rookies in 59 seasons of Vikings football to start every game at center.
“We’re five games in and there are a handful of plays I want back,” Bradbury said. “I look at the film on Mondays and it doesn’t matter how good the player is that I played against. I feel if I would have been better, it doesn’t matter who I’m playing.
“But part of this year is me trying to build off each game. Like [Wednesday], we’re out here after practice working extra on [direct] snaps [with Kirk Cousins] because we put another ball on the ground Sunday. That can’t ever happen, so you can never get enough reps.”
To understand Bradbury’s value in the Vikings’ zone blocking scheme, it helps to watch some of the teaching tapes put out by Alex Gibbs, the godfather of zone blocking and mentor to Vikings line coach and run-game coordinator Rick Dennison.
Gibbs always stresses the importance of the center and tailback being “on a direct line.” They have to move in unison until the back reaches no more than his third step and plants his foot to go north-south or bounce outside depending on what his target points tell him.
“On an outside zone run, if your tailback is ever behind your center, you have no wide zone play,” Gibbs said in one teaching video. “And if your tailback is way ahead of your center, you have no center. You better go get one.”
The Vikings were so sure they found one in Bradbury, they made him the first center taken in the first round in franchise history. He’s been far from perfect, but then again, Cook is the NFL’s second-leading rusher (108.4 yards per game) on an offense that ranks third in rushing (166.4) and will need to run the ball Sunday to keep the Eagles’ pass rush at bay.
“When we’re running, say, wide zone, at a certain point, they want me and Dalvin to put our foot in the ground and get our pads vertical and be moving them north and south,” Bradbury said. “Once Dalvin puts his foot in the ground and we’re all in unison up front, there’s a lot of green grass ahead. Especially with Dalvin because he’s gifted with a lot of vision, speed, talent and burst.”