Shooting an air ball on a free-throw attempt is the only blunder Kyle Rudolph considers comparable to what he did two weeks ago at Oakland.
“But even that is just one point, not six points,” the Vikings tight end said. “So there’s not really anything in my sports career I could compare it to.”
Rudolph was referring to an embarrassing play on which quarterback Teddy Bridgewater rolled right on a second-and-goal from the 2-yard line late in the first quarter and threw a strike to his wide-open target. Fullback Zach Line lifted his arms to signal touchdown. The only problem? Rudolph came down from his leap without the football.
After a week of jokes and punishing himself, Rudolph redeemed himself. He had a career-best 106 receiving yards, highlighted by a career-long 47-yard touchdown reception, on Sunday against Green Bay, although the Vikings lost 30-13.
After the first-quarter scoring pass gave the Vikings a 6-3 lead, Bridgewater jogged 50 yards downfield to celebrate with his tight end. Rudolph reminded his quarterback, “I told him I’d get him back [after that drop].”
“He was still beating himself up all week last week about the missed opportunity in the end zone,” Bridgewater said. “He’s a guy who takes pride in being right and catching the football every time it comes his way, and he made up this week. He played big for us.”
Rudolph, in his fifth year out of Notre Dame, pulled in the over-the-shoulder catch the first time he was targeted and separated from Packers safety Micah Hyde for 29 yards and the touchdown after the completion. Rudolph was targeted nine times in the game and had six catches, including a 33-yarder to help set up the Vikings’ second touchdown.
“He’s a big body who can win matchups vs. safeties, and he’s very athletic,” Bridgewater said, “so when you get him on those matchups with linebackers, it’s an advantage to us. … Kyle not only helps out on the passing game being a big target but also on the run game. He’s down there blocking defensive ends, digging out linebackers and safeties. He’s a huge part of this offense.”
The Vikings signed Rudolph to a five-year contract valued up to $40 million during training camp in 2014 despite a history of injuries. He was the Pro Bowl MVP after his rookie season, and caught a career-high 53 passes in 2012 before injury-riddled seasons in 2013 and 2014.
Rudolph had only 23 catches for 182 yards through the first nine games this season, but coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner found valuable duties for him. The 6-6, 265-pounder has been used on more than half (50.7 percent) of his snaps as a run or pass blocker, according to Pro Football Focus. In the 276 times he’s been a receiver, he’s caught 29 passes, while being targeted 45 times. He leads the team with four touchdown receptions.
“I’m called upon to do a bunch of different things every week, and I’m just happy when my number is called in the passing game to be able to make plays,” Rudolph said. “That’s what I’ve been best at my whole life. That’s what comes natural to me. The blocking, the pass protection, all that stuff is what I have to work on every week.”
When asked how Rudolph was handling his role, Zimmer said: “He’s been good. Kyle is a great kid, he works hard, he understands really what we’re trying to get done. I’m really proud of him, the way he has handled everything this year.”
While most fans will only remember Rudolph’s drop and the field goal the Vikings had to settle for in the Oakland game, he and the Vikings coaching staff were focused on the run blocking provided by Rudolph and fellow tight ends MyCole Pruitt and Rhett Ellison against the Raiders. The Vikings rushed for a season-high 263 yards, highlighted by an 80-yard touchdown run by Adrian Peterson.
“I almost take more pride in [blocking] because everyone says I can’t do it,” Rudolph said. “Everyone knows I can run around and catch balls, but everyone tells me how bad I am at blocking and how bad my pass protection is, so when I go out there and play a big part in 260 yards rushing, I take pride in that. … Just wearing [the defenders] down and seeing that throughout the course of the game when you keep pounding on a team and then [Peterson] breaks an 80-yarder in the fourth quarter and it was directly behind all three of the tight ends. … Not a lot of guys are doing that anymore.”