MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings started Sunday's game against the Houston Texans without both of their opening day tackles. They lost guard Brandon Fusco to a concussion in the first quarter, and they watched left tackle T.J. Clemmings work his way through a dreadful day against Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus and the rest of the Texans' pass rush.
The Texans blitzed Bradford on 43.8 percent of his dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats and Information. And yet, Bradford was pressured on merely 21.9 percent of them. That leads us to a hypothesis: One of the best things the Vikings have working for them in protecting Sam Bradford is ... Sam Bradford.
The quarterback's quick release already has helped the Vikings on a number of occasions in Bradford's four games as the starter, and on Sunday, he beat the Texans with an even faster trigger than usual. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Bradford had the shortest time before pass in the NFL in Week 5, getting rid of the ball in an average of 2.0 seconds. He tied Tom Brady for the shortest time in the pocket (at 1.98 seconds), and even on the infrequent occasions he looked downfield, Bradford worked quickly: he posted a league-best average of just 2.33 seconds to throw his six passes of 10 yards or more, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Some credit here should be given to offensive coordinator Norv Turner and the Vikings' game plan, as well: Bradford threw 26 of his 30 passes out of the shotgun on Sunday, and had three receivers on the field for 22 of them, as the Vikings found they could spread out a pass defense ranked No. 1 in the league before Sunday. Their approach was reminiscent of what the New England Patriots did during a Week 3 shutout of the Texans, when Jacoby Brissett threw 11 of his 19 passes out of three-receiver sets, at an average target depth of 4.82 yards.
Bradford on Sunday averaged 6.5 yards per target with three receivers on the field, keeping 24 of his 30 passes for the day under 10 yards. As he unloaded quickly and gave Vikings receivers room to run after the catch, he also ameliorated the effects of an offensive line racked by injuries.
Here are some other notes and observations from the Vikings' 31-13 win:
On two of the six occasions Bradford did look downfield, he connected with Adam Thielen on corner routes against Johnathan Joseph. He found Thielen for 23 yards when the Texans appeared to be in zone coverage, and two plays later, Thielen turned Joseph inside as Bradford pumped, then bent back to the outside after Bradford's fake stopped the corner, who played for Mike Zimmer in Cincinnati. The touchdown, on what Bradford said was a designed fake, represented how quickly the quarterback has sharpened his timing with his new receivers. Bradford tried to go downfield to Thielen after another pump fake later in the first quarter, but couldn't connect with the receiver against A.J. Bouye.
Linebacker Eric Kendricks had an impressive afternoon in pass coverage against the shallow routes the Texans tried to use against pressure on two third downs. On a third-and-5 in the first quarter, Kendricks dropped out of the Vikings' double-A gap blitz look and ranged outside to break up a short throw to Lamar Miller. Then, on a third-and-2 late in the first half, Kendricks jumped a short throw to DeAndre Hopkins, nearly coming down with an interception. The Vikings drafted Kendricks in part because of his instincts in pass coverage, and after an uneven rookie year there, he's been impressive in 2016 (remember his 77-yard interception return TD in Week 1?).
On the ensuing play, Everson Griffen was flagged for an offside penalty to give the Texans a first down on fourth-and-2, which wiped out his strip sack of Osweiler. But should he have been flagged? He took his first step right as Texans center Greg Mancz bobbed his head and moved the ball off a silent count, and line judge Sarah Thomas threw the flag. Watching a replay this morning -- as in, a freeze-frame shot of the play -- it appeared Griffen timed his jump so perfectly that it appeared to the naked eye as though he was early. The defensive end is aggressive with trying to time snap counts, to the point where he's still susceptible to offside penalties, but in this case, he appeared to have found the sweet spot.
Six days after getting the best of Odell Beckham Jr., Xavier Rhodes began the day shadowing Hopkins. But the corner, who had only been flagged once this year before Sunday, was penalized three times -- once for a 34-yard pass interference penalty in the second quarter, then for a fourth-and-4 holding penalty on the same drive. He also was called for defensive holding in the third quarter, but the Texans declined it after Hopkins gained 25 yards.
Marcus Sherels’ 79-yard punt return TD was his second of the season, and it came at the end of a big week for his family. His older brother Mike, the University of Minnesota linebackers coach who also played for the Gophers, returned from medical leave this week after a near-fatal bout with a rare intestinal illness. "It means a lot," Marcus Sherels said. "He was really pumped up."