EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings didn’t have much time to celebrate their 1-0 start and one of the cleanest, most balanced and most explosive games they’ve played offensively since Mike Zimmer became head coach in 2014.
Antonio Brown. That’s why.
“He’s amazing,” said Zimmer, whose team plays at Pittsburgh on Sunday. “Gets open, finds ways to get open. Tough. Gets the ball in space. He’s tough to tackle. He’s a big play waiting to happen.”
In Pittsburgh’s season opener at Cleveland, the Steelers had only 65 yards through the game’s first 25 minutes. Then Brown became unstoppable. He was targeted 11 times, caught all 11 balls and finished with 182 of Pittsburgh’s 290 yards.
The Vikings hope to change that using a game plan that’s expected to use top cornerback Xavier Rhodes to shadow Brown for most of Sunday’s game. When Brown moves to the slot, they’ll most likely have Terence Newman cover him, although the 39-year-old Newman will be sharing reps there with still-unreliable second-year corner Mackensie Alexander.
Rhodes is familiar with Brown. He played against him as a rookie in 2013 and also is a frequent offseason workout partner of Brown’s. The two went to Miami Northland High School near Miami.
“Every offseason we tend to find time to work out, hang out,” Rhodes said. “We try to find a field and work out together.”
Rhodes isn’t the only key to stopping Brown. As Bengals defensive coordinator for six seasons, Zimmer faced Brown seven times. In those seven games, Brown failed to reach 100 yards receiving each time.
“I haven’t played them in a long time,” said Zimmer, trying to downplay the stat. “They probably have a bigger edge. They play Cincinnati, see their defense twice a year. They probably have an edge that way (since the Vikings run the same defense). A lot of their guys, I know their personnel. That’s about it.”
Obviously, the game hinges on more than one opposing player. To have a chance against Brown, Zimmer knows his run defense will have to contain Le’Veon Bell. Bell had a quiet game last week, while the Vikings slammed the door on Adrian Peterson and the Saints running game early on in Monday night’s 29-19 win.
The offense also will have to play at or close to the level it reached Monday night. Quarterback Sam Bradford completed 84.4 percent of his passes for 346 yards and a career-high 143.0 passer rating. The offensive line gave up only one sack, and rookie running back Dalvin Cook ran for 127 yards.
Zimmer was asked about the matchup and what he knows about head coach Mike Tomlin’s Steelers.
“Well,” he said, “I know they win. A lot.”
That’s enough to get the Vikings’ attention on a short week after a big win.
–Players were about to find out Wednesday who got game balls from Monday night’s win over the Saints. Quarterback Sam Bradford, who threw for over 300 yards with a career-high 143.0 passer rating, had already been named NFC Offensive Player of the Week.
Asked if he was expecting a game ball, Bradford said he’d rather have game balls go to the offensive line that limited his punishment to one sack and only one other hit.
“They played great,” Bradford said. “Like I said after the game, they deserved the game ball. They kept me clean all night. They opened holes in the run game, Dalvin (Cook) went over 100. Those guys just really came together.
“Like I said, I think there’s been a lot of talk outside this building about that group and about those guys, but inside this building I know we’ve got nothing but confidence in them. We’ve seen it during OTAs. We’ve seen it during training camp. Those guys have the ability to play well and to be a really good offensive line and they showed it the other night.”
–Things couldn’t be going much better for Sam Bradford. Besides being 1-0, team captain and playing behind a new line that just gave him the best protection of his 16-game Vikings career, Bradford also is getting more and more comfortable in an offense that he’s run before with a coordinator, Pat Shurmur, that has coached him in St. Louis, Philadelphia and now Minnesota.
Bradford has freedom to change any call he wants. So, the trust between the two is solid.
That, however, doesn’t mean Bradford is going to change a bunch of calls. Asked how many times he changes a play call, Bradford said, “Very rare.
“Honestly, you hope that you call the right play. That’s why you watch film. That’s why you prepare. That’s why you game-plan. You feel like what we’re calling is going to work.
“If for some reason they throw something unexpected at us or we get a look that is going to take away the primary concept and that’s when you get to something. The goal is not to go up there and change every play. That’s going to slow you down. The goal is to only have to do it when you need to.”
–The last time the Vikings had started two rookies on offense in the season opener before Monday night’s game was 1963. Running back Dalvin Cook and center Pat Elflein started against the Saints. In 1963, the rookies who started were receiver Paul Flatley and tight end Ray Poage.
— Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, when asked on a conference call with Twin Cities reporters whether he thinks cornerback Xavier Rhodes will shadow receiver Antonio Brown. “That’s up to Mike Zimmer. I’m sure they’ll put someone on him.”
NOTES: QB Sam Bradford (knee) was limited in Wednesday’s practice, but is expected to play Sunday. … LB Anthony Barr (hamstring) did not practice Wednesday. The Vikings will continue monitoring the injury. … LB Emmanuel Lamur, primarily a special teams player, was limited in Wednesday’s practice. He has a hamstring injury. … WR Adam Thielen had a league-high four receptions over 20 yards in Week 1. Two of them were passes thrown at least 20 yards downfield. … WR Stefon Diggs had seven catches, six of them for first downs. He’s tied for second in the NFL in first downs. … CB Trae Waynes, now the starter on the left side, had 11 tackles against the Saints. That’s the highest among cornerbacks in the league. … TE Kyle Rudolph extended his franchise career record for touchdowns by a tight end. He caught No. 30 on Monday night. … RB Dalvin Cook ran for 127 yards on Monday. The only player to rush for more in his Vikings’ debut was Herschel Walker, who had 148 versus the Packers in 1989.
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