Chants of “Ted-dy, Ted-dy” cascaded from the seats at TCF Bank Stadium as Vikings fans tossed verbal bouquets at the rookie quarterback.

Now Teddy Bridgewater should pay it forward and treat his offensive line and fullback Jerome Felton to an expensive steak dinner. Those guys made the rookie’s first career start a nice, comfortable experience.

Bridgewater’s name will be illuminated on the marquee after a 41-28 victory against the Atlanta Falcons, but the grunt work of his protectors made it all possible.

“That’s the game we’ve been waiting to have,” maligned left tackle Matt Kalil said. “We know what we’re capable of. We’re big, we’re powerful, we’re fast. It didn’t surprise me at all.”

Actually, he’s probably in the minority on that one.

Kalil’s struggles highlighted a general unhappiness over the play of the offensive line the past two weeks. Repeated breakdowns created real concern over how Bridgewater would survive in place of Matt Cassel and without Adrian Peterson as a security blanket.

Criticized from all angles, the line responded with its best collective performance in some time to pave the way for 558 yards of total offense, the fourth-highest total in team history.

Offensive linemen by nature are a tight, prideful group. They don’t ever reveal too much about themselves or their performance. But it wasn’t hard to discern a sense of satisfaction from them Sunday evening.

That position group had underperformed recently. And losing guard Brandon Fusco to a season-ending injury only raised the concern level. If the criticism stung, none of them was willing to acknowledge it.

“We don’t really pay attention to that,” Kalil said. “We’re our toughest critics. There’s a high expectation level for us and how we should play.”

They finally demonstrated that Sunday. Kalil went largely unnoticed in pass protection, which meant he did his job effectively. Center John Sullivan controlled the middle, clearing wide lanes on inside runs.

Vladimir Ducasse looked steady in place of Fusco. And Felton pummeled linebackers to allow for extra rushing yards.

Their ability to win the line of scrimmage allowed the Vikings to rush for 241 yards and average 5.5 yards per carry with Matt Asiata and rookie Jerick McKinnon.

“We’re a power running team, and we weren’t living up to that the first couple of weeks,” Felton said. “We got back to it. When you have success like that, it gives me a lot of joy. It’s cool when we’re all clicking, and we’re moving the ball and shoving it down people’s throats.”

One play punctuated that mind-set. On fourth-and-goal from the Falcons 1-yard line in the fourth quarter, the line generated a strong push, allowing Asiata to plow into the end zone for his third touchdown. That gave the Vikings the lead for good.

The Vikings needed this performance from their line to ease the burden on Bridgewater, who wasn’t sacked once and, for the most part, enjoyed a clean pocket. He wasn’t forced to run for his life every time he dropped back to pass.

“When we were coming off the sidelines, everybody was saying that he has all day to throw,” Sullivan said.

Their run-blocking set the right tone. The Vikings pounded the ball up the middle behind Sullivan’s lead, over and over, with enough success that it kept the Falcons honest.

Asiata won’t win many footraces, but he runs hard and can be effective if given openings.

“Getting that many inside runs called lets you get into a rhythm,” Sullivan said. “Generally, if you only run it a couple of times and they’re inconsistent, it favors the defensive line. But if you really start pounding on a defense, they wear down a lot faster than we do. That was what we were able to do.”

Sullivan looked a little exhausted himself.

“We’re feeling it right now,” he admitted. “I know we’ve run the ball inside a lot over my seven years here, but that was a lot in one game. We appreciate it though.”

They all should, especially Bridgewater. His offensive line gave him a chance to have a successful debut as a starter.

“I just think the message was clear: The team was leaning on us,” Kalil said.

They didn’t stumble this time.

 

Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@startribune.com