MINNEAPOLIS – Three plays.
That’s how long it took Case Keenum to establish that Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay was going to be far different from his disappointing debut as the Vikings’ starting quarterback a week earlier in Pittsburgh.
The veteran backup, replacing the injured Sam Bradford against the Steelers, had completed 20 of 37 passes for only 167 yards in that 17-point defeat.
On the third play from scrimmage Sunday, Keenum took the snap from shotgun with the ball at the Vikings’ 35-yard line. He let loose with a pass deep down the left side for Adam Thielen. The receiver had one arm pinned by Buccaneers cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III but still managed to control the ball with his free arm before getting his other arm around it as he went to the turf.
The 45-yard completion put the Vikings at the Tampa Bay 20 and four plays later Dalvin Cook scored on a 1-yard plunge to give the Vikings a lead they wouldn’t relinquish in a 34-17 victory over the Buccaneers at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“I think the shot early to Adam kind of calmed me down a little bit,” Keenum said. “He made a heck of a play. … To be able to do that early and get points on the board early, the first drive right out of the gate, I think that helps everybody.”
Most of all a quarterback who spent last week hearing that if Bradford was going to be lost for any amount of time the Vikings might be wise to explore other options.
The Buccaneers were missing three defensive starters – defensive tackle Chris Baker, middle linebacker Kwon Alexander and cornerback Brent Grimes were all inactive – and in-game injuries depleted the defense even more.
That certainly helped Keenum’s cause.
But, to his credit, the 29-year-old took advantage and completed 25 of 33 passes for 369 yards with three touchdowns and a 142.1 passer rating.
He has made 26 career starts and appeared in 28 games over five NFL seasons with Houston, the St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams and now the Vikings. On Sunday, Keenum established a career-high in passing yards, tied his career-high in touchdowns and had his second-best passer rating to the 158.0 he hung on the same Tampa Bay team in December 2015 when he was with St. Louis.
Keenum, who threw for 226 yards and two touchdowns as the Vikings took a 21-3 halftime lead, was so sharp that coach Mike Zimmer took the unusual step of awarding him a game ball immediately after the victory. “I usually don’t give out game balls after a game,” Zimmer said. “I thought he played great, made great decisions, took care of the football.”
Of Keenum’s 25 completions, eight of them went to Stefon Diggs for 173 yards and two touchdowns. Diggs was targeted 11 times. Thielen was the target of eight passes and had five receptions for 98 yards. A week after being sacked twice and never looking in-sync with his offensive line, Keenum wasn’t sacked and said he ended up on the turf only once.
“He’s a fighter,” Thielen said. “He’s a guy that you want to play for. He comes into work every day and he grinds and we know that we can feel his energy.”
So what does Sunday’s performance mean for Keenum? Not that much actually, other than it will give him a boost of confidence if he starts next Sunday’s game against Detroit at U.S. Bank Stadium.
That is likely but remains uncertain as we prepare for another week of Bradford Watch. A report Sunday said that Bradford will not need surgery on his sore left knee after getting a second opinion this weekend from Dr. James Andrews. But that doesn’t mean he will be ready to return this week.
So is Keenum prepared to accept a return to the bench sooner rather than later after being the hero Sunday? That is, after all, the life of a backup quarterback.
“I don’t know if accepting that is the right word,” he said. “For me, I accept my role on this team. I know I want to be ready whenever my name is called and so that’s why I prepare. Like I said last week, I prepare every week the exact same in order to play, in order to compete and to put this team in the best possible chance to win. I did it last week, I did it the week before and I am going to do it this week. That’s what I’m going to do every week.”