Vikings' protection issues keep Teddy Bridgewater from a defining win

Protecting Teddy Bridgewater was an issue for the Vikings in Sunday's loss. Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

DENVER -- Teddy Bridgewater walked out of Sports Authority Field on Sunday with 16 NFL starts to his name: eight of them wins, eight of them losses. What Bridgewater did in the final quarter of the Minnesota Vikings' 23-20 loss to the Denver Broncos on Sunday suggested his next 16 starts could include many more wins.

Trailing 20-10 and backed up against his own goal line at the start of the fourth quarter, with one of the league's more vociferous fanbases behind him and the game's best defense so far this season in front of him, Bridgewater hit on four of his next five throws. Then he overcame a sack and a false start, finding Adam Thielen for 16 yards on third-and-17, before Adrian Peterson ripped through a gaping hole in the Broncos' front for a 48-yard touchdown that triggered the Vikings' comeback.

Bridgewater would finish the fourth quarter 11 of 13 for 127 yards. He'd keep another drive alive, at least momentarily, by scrambling for 10 yards and spinning off a tackler for a first down on third-and-10. He outdueled Peyton Manning, helped the Vikings erase a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter and walked off with a loss only after T.J. Ward jarred the ball loose on the Broncos' seventh sack of the game.

"That's what we expect," wide receiver Mike Wallace said of Bridgewater. "When you come in and you play great early on, people are going to expect you to keep that level up. Early in the game, we got behind, got some sacks and we couldn't get too much going on offense early. But we kept fighting. That's what we expect from our quarterback. He's going to lead us to where we're going to go. If everybody keeps playing the way they played in that second half, we're going to be a good football team."

They certainly have the potential to be. They proved as much on Sunday, when they fought back in a game that appeared on the edge of getting away from them. But until -- or unless -- the Vikings can fix their protection issues, they're going to spend more time than they'd like wondering how close they got.

The Broncos sacked Bridgewater on 14 percent of his dropbacks -- the third-highest percentage of his career, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Seven players had at least half a sack. The Broncos sacked Bridgewater on four of the eight blitzes where they sent a defensive back, the most such sacks any team has had in a game this season. And they hit Bridgewater a total of 11 times.

That's too wide-ranging a performance to put solely on one facet of the Vikings' offense, and the Broncos used a variety of strategies to torment the Vikings on Sunday. Rookie right tackle T.J. Clemmings spent plenty of time matched up one-on-one with Von Miller, who zipped around him in 2.3 seconds to sack Bridgewater on the Vikings' final drive. Then Ward hit Bridgewater after 2.76 seconds on the decisive fumble. Peterson released to the flat as Miller worked to Clemmings' inside, and the Broncos brought Brandon Marshall and Ward to the outside of Clemmings. It's difficult to know whether Peterson could have chipped Ward, or whether Bridgewater should have found Peterson on a hot route once he felt pressure. In any case, the Broncos' aggressive blitzes, combined with the speed of Miller and Demarcus Ware around the edge, helped them control the game.

"They had a stack alignment," Ward said. "We had been playing a lot of man coverage, so I tried to show that to [Kyle] Rudolph and at the last minute I tried to move outside and came around the edge and the tackle missed me, so I snuck up under there and got to Bridgewater.”

Said Bridgewater: "It was a look that we just didn’t pick up. Denver did a great job of scheming us up in the two-minute drill and we just didn’t execute on that play.”

The Vikings might not see a defense as fast and aggressive as Denver's the rest of the year, but protecting Bridgewater isn't a new problem. He's been sacked 12 times in two losses this year, and has been dropped 50 times in his first 16 starts.

With formidable pass-rushing teams like Kansas City and St. Louis coming to town in the next month, the Vikings will have their hands full. Unless they can fix the protection issues, they could see their potential hit a familiar roadblock.