The Vikings were trailing the Bears 20-13 in Chicago when Teddy Bridgewater was sacked at his 9-yard line, setting up second-and-17 with 4 ½ minutes left in the game.
Things looked bleak. But Bridgewater could sense before the next snap that he was about to run free for a first down and reclaim the lost momentum.
The Bears were about to rush four defenders and play a coverage scheme that would blanket Bridgewater’s four targets but leave no one to account for Bridgewater’s most underrated strength: His legs. Bridgewater and offensive coordinator Norv Turner have had many discussions about recognizing that particular coverage and knowing what to do and how quickly to pull the trigger and go.
“I just knew this was the coverage we had talked about,” Bridgewater said. “By the time I hit my third step on my drop and the ball wasn’t out of my hand, I just knew I had to make a play.”
When the right defensive end looped wide and high around his blind side, Bridgewater took off and slid safely 19 yards later. The Vikings went on to score 10 points in those closing minutes, which extended the winning streak that has reached five games heading into Sunday’s NFC North showdown with the Packers at TCF Bank Stadium.
“I know that I don’t want to be running,” Bridgewater said. “That’s why we have Adrian [Peterson]. He can rush for 200 yards and things like that. But I know it’s a weapon that I have in my game, and we try to take advantage of it.”
There is the obvious risk. Even when he slides, he’s in danger of an illegal hit knocking him out of the game, as was the case when Rams cornerback Lamarcus Joyner gave him a concussion two weeks ago.
“I think he’s good [at knowing when to run],” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “I think when it’s wide open, I want him to run. But I still want him to be a quarterback and do what he needs to do. But he did make a couple great runs [Sunday]. The run that he made on [third down], he made [an 18-yard run], he juked two guys, stiff-armed one. No, I’m comfortable with how he’s doing things.”
Bridgewater has run the ball 26 times for 116 yards (4.5 yards per carry), second highest on the team. Of those 26 runs, 13 have gone for a first down and two for touchdowns. On third and fourth downs, Bridgewater has more rushing first downs (10) than Peterson (seven).
Bridgewater has talked before about studying and trying to emulate the strengths of different quarterbacks. He’ll never have the cannon arm that Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has, but his ability to extend plays, keep his eyes down the field and run at appropriate times is evolving.
Meanwhile, asked about Rodgers’ ability in that area, Bridgewater said, “It’s off the charts. He’s the best quarterback in this league or one of the best quarterbacks in this league. I’m a huge fan of him. You watch him and see how he’s managing the game, keeping plays alive. He knows when to take off and run the ball and when to get down and slide. You see those things and that’s what every young guy wants to be is what Aaron Rodgers is now.”
As if Rodgers’ reigning MVP-caliber arm and brain weren’t enough to worry about, the Vikings defense also has to be mindful of Rodgers’ elusiveness and deceptive speed.
“Coach has already talked to the scout team guys about extending plays,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “We’ve got to stay in coverage, keep your eyes on Rodgers and compete.”
Even with the Packers and Rodgers in a three-game slump, Rodgers ranks fifth in passer rating (103.4) with 21 touchdown passes and three interceptions. Meanwhile, Bridgewater ranks 22nd (84.6) with seven TD passes and six interceptions.
But Bridgewater has played effectively cautious — going 5-0 in games in which he has thrown for fewer than 200 yards — while serving a complementary role on a team built around defense, Peterson and favorable field position.
“Coach Zimmer doesn’t like the word, ‘game manager,’ ” Bridgewater said. “He says I’m a playmaker. Hearing that from him speaks volumes.
“But we have a system here. My job is to play at a high level and try to protect the football. I think we’ve been doing a good job not putting our defense in bad situations. And the bright side is we’re 7-2, we’re winning football games and that’s all that matters.”