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Searching for answers to Sam Bradford’s third-down woes

Dec 18, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford (8) passes an interception to the Indianapolis Colts but also gets roughed and keeps the ball on a play in the fourth quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Colts win 34-6. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

It doesn’t matter which statistical category you prefer – whether it’s points per game, yards per play, total yards, touchdowns, scoring percentage etc. – the Minnesota Vikings are consistently at the bottom of the list in every offensive ranking. While their 32nd ranked run game certainly played a role, the Vikings’ struggles sustaining drives and putting up big point totals can be traced back to failures on third down.

The most difficult question about third down success is whether it was just one part of a wholly bad offense which can be improved as the team gets better or if there is more to the problem. In the case of the Vikings, there might be more to it.

In third down passing, the only quarterbacks in the NFL with a lower Yards Per Attempt than Sam Bradford (all stats per Pro Football Reference) were Brock Osweiler, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Blake Bortles. The top quarterbacks in the NFL on third down were Tom Brady (10.5 YPA), Aaron Rodgers (9.1) and Ben Roethlisberger (8.4). Bradford averaged just 5.8 yards per attempt on third down.

What tips us toward third downs being a specific issue is that the Vikings were quite good on first and second down.  Have a look at Bradford’s stats compared to the league on all first and second downs:

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That’s right. Bradford had a better quarterback rating and Yards Per Attempt than Rodgers, Brees, Stafford, Roethilisberger etc. on the first two downs.

Why would the passing offense fall so far from first and second to third down? Most of the Vikings’ issues stem back to the offensive line in some way or another and Bradford was sacked 17 times on third down, tied for the third most in the NFL.

But last year, Bradford’s back side was protected by should-be future Hall of Famer Jason Peters and he averaged just 5.5 Yards Per Attempt. In fact, for Bradford’s entire career, his YPA on third downs is the same as this year at 5.8 per throw.

Part of the answer comes in who Bradford targeted on third down.

All third down receiving

Receiver Targets First downs First down % Yards Yards per target
Kyle Rudolph 41 15 36.6% 185 4.5
Adam Thielen 27 12 44.4% 255 9.4
Stefon Diggs 24 12 50.0% 144 6.0
Cordarrelle Patterson 22 6 27.3% 109 5.0
Matt Asiata 15 5 33.3% 97 6.5
Jerick McKinnon 10 4 40.0% 30 3.0
Charles Johnson 6 2 33.3% 21 3.5
Jarius Wright 3 3 100.0% 30 10.0
Laquon Treadwell 3 1 33.3% 15 5.0
Rhett Ellison 1 0 0.0% 6 6.0
Zach Line 1 0 0.0% 0 0.0
Receiver Targets First downs First down % Yards Yards per target
Diggs + Thielen 51 24 47.1% 399 7.8
Everyone else 102 36 35.3% 493 4.8

When Bradford was able to connect with his No. 1 and No. 2 wide receivers, his numbers were very strong. When he went to his other options, the results were abysmal, especially to tight end Kyle Rudolph and No. 3 receiver Cordarrelle Patterson.

Diggs’ numbers stack up pretty well compared to Steelers star Antonio Brown, who catches 46.2% of third down throws for 6.8 Yards Per Target and a 41.0% first down percentage. So it isn’t an issue with the No. 1 target, although Roethlisberger threw in Brown’s direction 39 times on third down to Diggs’ 24 times.

But why were the other Vikings’ receivers/tight ends/running backs so bad on third down? Because they were often the “right” play.

If you’ve ever heard football coaches say, “We’re going to take what the defense gives us,” well, Bradford takes that sentiment to the extreme. Vikings opponents began approaching third downs the same way most teams would play in the fourth quarter up by two touchdowns. They rarely blitzed, played two deep safeties and on third downs longer with more than five yards to go, they dropped linebackers into zone coverage.

Here is one example against the Indianapolis Colts. On 3rd-and-7, the Colts drop both safeties and only have one linebacker on the field. Rudolph is open underneath because the dime corner was playing far off the line of scrimmage. It’s an easy completion, but not close to a first down.

Notice that Bradford was not enduring a collapsing pocket or pressure off the edges.

On third downs between 7-10 yards, Bradford completed 69.2% of his passes, but only gained 17 first downs in 53 total plays. Notice below that passes to Rudolph between 5-10 yards on third down were only successful for a first down three times.

Between 3rd-and-5 and 3rd-and-10:

Receiver Targets First downs First down % Yards Yards per target
Adam Thielen 18 8 44.4% 158 8.8
Kyle Rudolph 15 3 20.0% 71 4.7
Cordarrelle Patterson 11 3 27.3% 35 3.2
Stefon Diggs 9 4 44.4% 42 4.7
Matt Asiata 8 2 25.0% 51 6.4
Jerick McKinnon 5 2 40.0% 21 4.2
Jarius Wright 3 3 100.0% 30 10.0
Charles Johnson 3 2 66.7% 21 7.0
Laquon Treadwell 2 1 50.0% 15 7.5

Going through the Vikings’ third downs this year, there are plenty of times in which Bradford is pressured, but far too many where he has time to extend the play by moving within the pocket and instead he chooses to check down.

On this third down against Dallas, Bradford looks to his first read, then dumps off immediately without realizing that he not only had a clean pocket, but a lane to step up in the pocket and make a throw.

Now, without making this a Bridgewater vs. Bradford battle, the difference in the two on third downs is noticeable. In 29 games between 2014 and 2015, Bridgewater threw 240 passes on third down and averaged 8.2 yards per attempt.

Here is a similar play to the GIF above in which Bridgewater works his eyes across the field, steps up into the pocket and finds Adam Thielen instead of checking down to Kyle Rudolph.

The difference shows up in those 3rd-and-7 to 3rd-in-10 situations. Bridgewater converted 39.2% and averaged 9.5 Yards Per Attempt compared to Bradford’s 32.1% and 6.7 YPA.

The funny thing about the Vikings’ third down stats is that their success rate was 37.0% overall, which was dead on league average. A big part of that is because Bradford converted 62.1% of third downs under five yards, the second best in the NFL behind the Patriots. Anything over five yards, the Vikings were 27th in conversion percentage.

You might wonder if a running game would have helped create more 3rd-and-5 or less situations, but they were 15th in that category with 66, which was 13 more than in 2015 when Adrian Peterson won the rushing title.

So what have we learned from all of this?

The first takeaway is that the offensive line probably played some role in the Vikings’ struggles on third down and long, but they were not the entire problem.

The other is that new full-time offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s biggest challenges is to find ways to counteract opponents dropping into deep zones and rushing four against Bradford. And maybe it’s just the reality of who Bradford is as a quarterback that he isn’t going to take a risk and throw downfield into double coverage or move around in the pocket so he can get to his third read. Maybe it’s something to consider as the Vikings go forward.

  • Wilbur One

    Thanks for shedding light on what was a persistent, frustrating and all too evident deficiency throughout the season. There’s room for improvement here, and it starts with Mr Spielman in the off-season.

    • Jeeves

      Lot more indepth articles than we are used to at the old site.

  • BT

    Good article! How many times was Bradford led offense in no hurry down several points? His hurry up offense was horrible letting both game and play clock tick away with that awful stare seeming to not care about situation

    • Tim Keating

      Excellent call BT!! No one seems to mention this? They were quite a few times that we never really seemed to be “hustling” when we should’ve been & I believe that has to fall on the coaches & preparation along with Bradford!!

      • Gordon Guffey

        BT ~ How many times was Bradford led offense in no hurry down several points?

        This would come back to the OC and the time it took them to get the next play in ~ Has nothing to do with Bradford ~ Now if Bradfrod was slow to get back to the line and spike the ball to stop the clock thats another subject but we saw none of that ~ Its not like Sam was calling his own plays in a no huddle offense ~

        • BT

          How many years have Bradford and OC played together? Waiting for OC to calls plays in two minute offense/hurry up is absurd we’re not talking rookie QB. Bradford has plenty of work this offseason but history shows he is who he is and more chances than not we will see the same next year. I sure hope slick Rick takes a chance on a gun slinger this year late round maybe hmmmm Chad Kelly!????

          • Jordan Musser

            I just said the same thing on the most recent post about comparing the Vikings to the Chiefs. With Teddy just being announced that his return has no timetable and Sammy on the last year of his deal it is time to draft another QB. Cut Hill and let Heineken and Rookie battle out for #2 this year with the intention on the better of the 2 starting in 2018.

  • Topgunn

    Excellent article and good comments. The better we are able to use FA to to shore up the O-Line the more flexibility we will have in the draft. Having a back like Darren Sproles who can make something out of nothing on occasion is always a big help.

    • Gordon Guffey

      Just a tidbit that might highlight just how McKinnon will be used in 2017 ~
      He could be very comparable to Sproles in a lot of ways ~ Sadly with the state of the OL many of his passes where caught at or behind the LOS ~ Just a thought ~ Also when McKinnon was running behind a better OL in 2014 he had almost as many yards as he had this year while missing 5 games with a back injury in the weight room that help lead to the firing of the weight coach ~ Mckinnon had 538 in 2014 in 11 games on 111 carries compared to 539 on 159 ~ McKinnon also averaged 4.8 a carry in 3.4 this year ~ McKinnon did improve in the number of catches this year and average this year ~

      Notable number
      After Shurmur became interim offensive coordinator, McKinnon was third in the NFL in receptions by a running back from Week 9 to Week 17. Only David Johnson and Le’Veon Bell had more receptions in that span. McKinnon was seventh in receiving yards (226) by a running back in the final nine weeks of the season
      http://www.vikings.com/news/article-1/Season-Rewind-Running-Backs-Find-Late-Stride/4fb80796-55b9-4a12-9d89-b52302081d6d

      • BT

        McKinnon is a solid complimentary RB his hesitation before hitting holes this year killed us. He has had 3+years to try to show us more but not shown he is anything more than complimentary. The numbers your using Gordon are just as wishful thinking for next year as Bradford completion % unless a miracle happens we’re going to be in someplace better O line or not!
        McKinnon not our answer but solid depth.

        • Gordon Guffey

          As for MaKinnon hesitation at the LOS ~ To me it was because there was no whole ~ I do believe the OL will be much improved next season ~ I believe this area will be at the top of Spielman and Zimmer’s to~do list ~

          BT I agree that McKinnon is not the whole answer ~ But he can be a part of the fix ~ You dont have to have a AP kind of RB to win in the NFL ~ Heck just look at what the Packers have done at RB and the players number of players they have used ~

  • David Prestin

    Nice job. Yes some of the blame goes to Bradford, but sometimes the guy catching the ball needs to make a play. Far too often our checkdown guys lose the 1 on 1 battles. It’d be nice to see them break a tackle and get the yardage for once. For his size, Rudolph has to be the easiest te in the league to bring down. What’s he rank in yac I wonder? McKinnon is the only checkdown guy that’s nimble enough. Asiata and klien go down at first contact far too often. Asiata makes some good plays but far to often a shoelace is all that’s needed to bring him down.

    • Gordon Guffey

      Well said David ~ Fix the OL and fix the offense ~

    • Madderton

      The skill position players on roster aren’t good at breaking tackles or making people miss nor do they create matchup problems. Diggs, Thielen, Rudolph, Asiata, Treadwell, McKinnon don’t scare anyone in a 1 on 1 battle.

      • Jordan Musser

        yep you guys nailed it. Instead of YAC we should find out what our players yards after contact was. Thilen and Diggs are actually very good in the open field at making the first person miss. We don’t know enough on Treadwell yet and Mckinnon I think would have ben better if the routes and passes allowed him to catch the ball with movement, far too often he was catching passes while he was in a dead stop or balls thrown behind him where he had to stop and adjust to the pass. As for McKinnon why don’t we ever have him run a route from the backfield to the sideline and then up the sideline in a fly route? Rudy is soft as Dave mentions constantly going to the ground on contact, it also appears in some circumstances he actually just goes to the ground before the contact even occurs. The one I don’t understand is Asiata. The dude runs like a bulldozer but then goes down like he ran off a cliff.

        We have covered this in past articles but the Vikes need to be more creative in play calling and also we need a new back that can make people miss. Danny Woodhead, Dion Lewis, Kenneth Dixon, Gio Bernard are all examples of some small guys that can catch a pass on the outside and make the first guy miss and grab good chunks of yards without having to throw the ball downfield.

  • GordonGekko

    This analysis is very funny and overdone. I do appreciate the effort but Sammy Sleeves, China doll Bradford is a chuck and duck, dink and dunk QB that is afraid to go downfield and the opposition knows that. This is the way he has been and always will be. However, with a very good OL, running game and WRs along with a very good “D” Bradford could win the SB because it has happened before with the likes of Brad johnson (TB) and Dilfer (Balt). I would still look for a QB to draft despite them not having a 1 st rounder because Bradford is what he is and injury prone and Teddy may not ever come back again. Look what WASH did when they moved all those picks for RG3 and drafted Cousins in the 4th rd. People questioned it but it worked out.

    • Chip Toof

      The writer gave an excellent analysis, but yours sucks. “Bradford is injury prone”?, but he didn’t miss a game? Your thinking is a mess just like your lizard.

      • GordonGekko

        You know very little.

        • John H

          Bradford has been super strong physically the last 2 seasons after suffering 2 torn ACL’s. he took a beating in Phllly last season and stood strong (minus a shoulder & a concussion for 2 games). he is tough. enough of this ignorance, bradford hater.

          • GordonGekko

            I can see you are upset and want to cry over this Bradford slight. Make sure you go to bed early, you have first grade tomorrow.

          • John H

            wow. dude. you seriously have no, NO, credibility. bradford’s not the best, but he’s above average.

          • GordonGekko

            You don’t know SH*T. Go to bed little boy. You are a dope, idiot, and moron.

          • John H

            uh, be quiet punk. maybe try shock treatments. nutjob.

          • GordonGekko

            Go cry little sissy over Bradford.

  • GordonGekko

    Deer in the headlights Bradford is a joke.





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