On Friday morning, the 29-year-old backup quarterback was leading first-team reps in Minnesota’s final practice before it hosts Tampa Bay on Sunday.
“I prepare every week like I’m going to play,” Keenum said. “If I’m not actually getting the rep, I’m behind working the same footwork, the same reads, doing the same thing, just maybe not handing it off or throwing it.”
That mindset played to his benefit as Keenum was thrust back into the starting lineup for a second straight week with Bradford ruled out against the Bucs.
Bradford was absent from practice on Friday and will receive a second opinion on his injured left knee from orthopedic specialist Dr. James Andrews, team and league sources told ESPN’s Chris Mortensen.
Keenum was 20-of-37 passing for 167 yards in a Week 2 loss at Pittsburgh and struggled throughout to get in a rhythm. Eleven team penalties, the Steelers’ exotic defensive pressure filled with various blitz packages and a fast, physical scheme didn’t help matters, either.
Throughout the week, Minnesota preached the need to start games faster, regardless of who’s under center. Rookie running back Dalvin Cook, who is averaging 5.6 yards per carry by picking up the majority of his yardage in the second half, shoulders that responsibility.
“That’s what I’m working on,” Cook said. “Start faster and get a good jump at that because starting in the third quarter can’t help my team. I have to start faster in the first quarter.”
With Bradford’s status uncertain up until Friday, Minnesota went through the week with its plan on how to attack the Bucs' defense with the idea that it could be altered to fit the strengths of Bradford or Keenum.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer downplayed the challenge posed to players as they prepared not knowing who will start at quarterback.
“There’s no challenges,” Zimmer said. “Just go out and do their job.”
Players tend to agree, especially those who are on the other end of passes.
“Everybody throws different,” wide receiver Stefon Diggs said. “As far as being where you need to be, when you want to be there, when they want you to be there, of course. As far as like how they throw and that type of thing, it doesn’t really matter. They’re throwing to a spot, anyways, not a guy.”
Keenum’s previous success against the Bucs puts him in rare air. He enters Sunday’s game looking for his third straight win over Jameis Winston, a feat no other opposing quarterback in the league has accomplished. Two of the best games he’s played in as a starter with a 9-18 career record have come against the Bucs.
In 2015, Keenum posted a 158.0 passer rating, completing 82 percent of his passes (14-of-17) for 234 yards and two touchdowns. Last season, he was 14-of-26 for 190 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Three of those four touchdown passes traveled at least 43 yards.
Conceptually, the Bucs’ defense is similar to what Keenum remembers. Defensive coordinator Mike Smith schemed against the quarterback last season. Tampa’s final injury report lists linebacker Kwon Alexander (hamstring) out for Sunday, with top defenders Gerald McCoy and Brent Grimes listed as questionable.
While that may end up helping individual matchups, Keenum’s job doesn’t get any easier.
“It’s hard to compare years,” Keenum said. “It’s a great defense. We’re going to have to be at our best as well.”
Newly signed quarterback Kyle Sloter will continue his role as Keenum’s backup. The 6-foot-4 quarterback, who spent the preseason with Denver and recently was on the Vikings' practice squad, is still learning the playbook, but he feels prepared to step in if his name is called.
“I’m not a master of it quite yet like Case and Sam are, but I can get in there and I can definitely run the basic plays that we have,” Sloter said. “I would say I can probably run 70 to 80 percent of the playbook successfully. That’s going to come with time. I think here in the next couple weeks I’ll have it down pretty good.”