Preview: Vikings prepare for Bridgewater-led Panthers squad
MINNEAPOLIS — When Dalvin Cook arrived in Minnesota in 2017, the Vikings assigned him a cubicle at the practice facility next to a player recovering from injury who wasn’t certain to see the field again.
Teddy Bridgewater became Cook’s fast friend in that corner of the locker room, with unconditional support from a fellow native of Miami who could relate to being so far from home. The bond only strengthened when the rookie running back became a rehab regular himself.
“He put it all on a platter and just laid it on the line for me of how to be a pro, how to handle your business, how to go to meetings, everything,” said Cook, who tore his ACL in his fourth NFL game.
Bridgewater had wrecked his knee even worse prior to the previous season, needing an ambulance ride to the hospital to avoid amputation. He worked his way back to the active roster in 2017, further cementing his reputation as one of the most popular and respected players in the league. This year, when Bridgewater signed with the Carolina Panthers, he became a starting quarterback again for the first time since that fateful step on the practice field on Aug. 30, 2016.
Bridgewater, who sat out last week’s game with a minor knee injury but is on track to return this week, will visit the Vikings (4-6) with the Panthers (4-7) on Sunday.
“It goes to show that if you put your head down and just work, a lot can come from it,” said Cook, who leads the league with 13 rushing touchdowns and ranks second with 1,069 rushing yards. “That’s what I did with my injury after learning a lot from him. Just put your head down and just work and you never know the outcome of what can happen.”
Christian McCaffrey has averaged 125 yards from scrimmage and has six touchdowns in the three games he’s played for the Panthers this season, but injuries have beset the 2019 All-Pro. He missed six games with a high ankle sprain earlier and will likely sit out a third straight game on Sunday with a shoulder problem.
“We are not really expecting him to play,” coach Matt Rhule said. “We are just trying to get him comfortable.”
Mike Davis, who’s second among NFL running backs with 49 receptions, will again take the lead if McCaffrey is sidelined. Rodney Smith, an undrafted rookie out of Minnesota, follows Davis on the depth chart.
The Vikings lead the NFL in red-zone offense, turning 78% of their trips inside the 20-yard line into touchdowns, and they’re third in the league with a 90% rate at reaching the end zone in goal-to-go situations. That success has left kicker Dan Bailey a little lonelier on the sideline than usual. He has not attempted a field goal in four of the last five games. Even his extra points have been reduced by nine 2-point conversion attempts by Minnesota in 10 games.
“The rhythm still feels good, so who knows? We might have 20 attempts in these last six games. It works like that sometimes,” Bailey said. “So you just have to stay ready and be ready to go.”
The Vikings, who lead the league with an average of 6.55 yards per play, will test a defense coming off a confidence-boosting shutout of Detroit. The Lions played without rookie running back D’Andre Swift and two key wide receivers, but this was still a remarkable turnaround from the 46 points the Panthers surrendered the previous week to Tom Brady and Tampa Bay.
“I think we looked in the mirror right after the game was done. We saw who needed to be held accountable, and guys came in mentally just ready to battle,” Panthers safety Tre Boston said.
ALWAYS A GAMER
Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins first met Bridgewater in 2010 at an elite quarterback camp for high school players that Cousins, then at Michigan State, served as a counselor for. Bridgewater made his mark that week by winning the camp’s college football video game tournament, but the lasting impression went deeper than that.
“I remember him being really the same person he is now. He had a big smile on his face. He had a great positive attitude the whole week,” Cousins said. “He enjoyed going out. He made football fun.”
SAMUEL ON THE LOOSE
Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady has deftly utilized the skills of wide receiver Curtis Samuel, who played some running back at Ohio State. Samuel has been productive on carries out of the backfield and a viable weapon on third downs, using good balance and a trusty spin move to his advantage. He has five touchdowns in the past five games.
“Playing running back mostly my whole life helps me in open-field situations,” Samuel said. “Being able to make people miss, just being able to make angles for myself to get past defenders.”
CAROLINA (4-7) at MINNESOTA (4-6)
Sunday, 12 p.m. CT, Fox
OPENING LINE — Vikings by 4 1/2
RECORD VS. SPREAD — Panthers 6-5; Vikings 6-4
SERIES RECORD — Vikings lead 8-6
LAST MEETING — Panthers beat Vikings 31-24, Dec. 10, 2017, in Charlotte
LAST WEEK — Panthers beat Lions 20-0; Vikings lost to Cowboys 31-28
AP PRO32 RANKING — Panthers No. 20, Vikings No. 17
PANTHERS OFFENSE — OVERALL (19), RUSH (20), PASS (17).
PANTHERS DEFENSE — OVERALL (17), RUSH (17), PASS (19).
VIKINGS OFFENSE — OVERALL (8), RUSH (6), PASS (19).
VIKINGS DEFENSE — OVERALL (20), RUSH (22), PASS (26).
STREAKS, STATS AND NOTES — Panthers QB Teddy Bridgewater, who missed the last game with a knee injury, is on track to start against his original team for the first time. The Vikings drafted Bridgewater with the 32nd overall pick in 2014, and he started 29 games before a severe knee injury sidelined him for 2016. Bridgewater is second in the NFL among qualified QBs in completion percentage (72.1). … Panthers 2019 All-Pro RB Christian McCaffrey has played in only three games but has six TDs. He’s expected to miss his third straight game due to a shoulder injury. Mike Davis is averaging 4.7 yards per touch in his place. McCaffrey averaged 5.9 yards per touch last year. … Panthers WR D.J. Moore has 11 receptions for 223 yards and a TD over the last two games. With Moore and Robby Anderson, the Panthers are the only team in the league with two players with 800-plus receiving yards. … Brian Burns, who had a career-high two sacks last week against the Lions, leads all DEs in the NFL in total tackles with 42. … Carolina posted its first shutout in 82 games since Dec. 13, 2015. … The Vikings are 1-4 at home this season. … Vikings QB Kirk Cousins is one of four players in the league this season with five or more games with a passer rating of 115 or higher, joining Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson. … Vikings WR Adam Thielen, who went on the COVID-19 reserve list on Monday, leads the NFL with 11 TD receptions. He has 10 TDs in his last nine home games. … Vikings RB Dalvin Cook is coming off the most productive four-game stretch of his career, with totals of 750 yards and seven TDs from scrimmage. … Vikings LB Eric Kendricks has an interception in each of the last two home games and is tied for sixth in the league with 94 total tackles. … Fantasy tip: Panthers WR Curtis Samuel has 311 yards from scrimmage and five TDs — two rushing — in his past five games. The Vikings have allowed three or more passing TDs in five of 10 games this season, including last week against the Cowboys.