One play after another, Sam Bradford, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs heard their names called by announcers throughout Monday night’s 29-19 season-opening victory over the Saints.
Not heard from much was the Vikings’ retooled offensive line, which means it passed the first test of the 2017 season even though the lineup of left tackle Riley Reiff, left guard Nick Easton, center Pat Elflein, right guard Joe Berger and right tackle Mike Remmers didn’t play a single preseason snap together.
That didn’t seem to matter as the five mostly kept Bradford upright, not allowing a sack until midway through the third quarter, and only surrendering one hit by the Saints until that point.
“They played unbelievable,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “They played huge all night, getting the run game going, just wearing them down for four quarters and keeping Sam clean.”
Pass protection was the concern going into this season, but Bradford was given time in the pocket to ignite the Vikings offense. Bradford’s career-high 143.0 quarterback rating was made possible because he took only two hits — both by Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan. The faster tempo, starting with the three-play, 74-yard scoring drive before halftime, was a difference-maker, Bradford said.
“They played fast, they played confident,” Bradford said of the offensive line. “I thought our tempo was great. We were getting to the line early. I think we put pressure on them.”
Only a couple of hiccups made the Vikings offensive line noticeable. A holding call on Remmers negated a third-down conversion by running back Jerick McKinnon. And the Vikings overcame a red-zone false start from Easton to score a touchdown.
Newman the nickel
The Vikings gave second-year cornerback Mackensie Alexander a chance to be the nickel back this season, but he didn’t win over the coaching staff. Coach Mike Zimmer decided to start with veteran Terence Newman, the 39-year-old corner, in the slot.
Alexander found himself in the game for a handful of snaps, spelling corners when Xavier Rhodes needed a break because of heat exhaustion and when Trae Waynes briefly exited. He was targeted at least once in the end zone, which fell incomplete on a poor Drew Brees pass.
Bradford’s WR connections
Bradford’s connections with Diggs and Thielen surged Monday night. The two receivers consistently beat the Saints’ coverage schemes as they combined for 16 catches for 250 yards and two touchdowns.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in those guys,” Bradford said. “If they’re singled, there’s a good chance I’m probably going to throw it their way.”
Sixth-year receiver Jarius Wright caught a 21-yard pass in the second quarter to set up the Vikings’ first touchdown. Last year, Wright played in only eight games, and he didn’t have a catch until the fifth game.
Laquon Treadwell, the 2016 first-round pick who started in the Vikings’ three-receiver set, matched his rookie season reception total by catching a 7-yard pass in the third quarter.
Pass rush harasses Brees
The Vikings forced Brees to keep his trajectory fairly short as the Saints limited the damage to only two hits and one sack from Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen.
But two Vikings sacks were negated by penalty. Griffen jumped early and defensive tackle Tom Johnson was called for roughing the passer when he took down Brees around the legs. NFL officials are emphasizing hits at or below the quarterback’s knees this season. Johnson disagreed with the call, saying afterward he’ll “be thinking about that until next week.”