NFC North champs need Teddy Bridge­wa­ter to do more than hand off.

Last year’s play­off loss pro­vides mo­ti­va­tion

Packer Plus - - Commentary - MIN­NESOTA VIK­INGS

There are heart­break­ing ways for a sea­son to end. Then there is the way 2015 ended for the Min­nesota Vik­ings: a missed 27-yard field goal at­tempt with 22 sec­onds re­main­ing in a 10-9 NFC wild-card loss to the Seat­tle Sea­hawks.

But the Vik­ings re­turned to work this spring de­ter­mined not to let that de­fine their fu­ture or over­shadow the tremen­dous progress they made last year, when they ended the Green Bay Pack­ers' four-year reign atop the NFC North.

The Vik­ings head into 2016 think­ing they will have one of the league's best de­fenses — Min­nesota al­lowed the fifth-fewest points last year — and an im­proved of­fense in quar­ter­back Teddy Bridge­wa­ter's third sea­son and that these strengths could pro­pel them deeper into the play­offs.

Run­ning back Adrian Peter­son said there was a dif­fer­ent feel­ing around the team's train­ing fa­cil­ity this off-sea­son.

While ev­ery team might spend those April weightlift­ing ses­sions and vol­un­tary prac­tices think­ing they could make the post­sea­son, the Vik­ings spent those months not just talk­ing about the play­offs but also talk­ing about the Su­per Bowl.

“It's great for peo­ple to be able to en­vi­sion it and then speak those things into ex­is­tence. But also put the work in,” Peter­son says.

“Every­thing hasn't been per­fect, but the one thing I like is guys right here are work­ing hard and putting their best foot for­ward to im­prove. You know guys are not go­ing through the mo­tions, and you know, this early, to see that type of en­ergy and that type of com­pet­i­tive­ness from the guys and the young guys as well has me pretty ex­cited.”

How at­tain­able the Su­per Bowl is de­pends in large part on the con­tin­ued devel­op­ment of Bridge­wa­ter and the rest of the of­fense.

Bridge­wa­ter was ef­fi­cient and mostly ef­fec­tive in his sec­ond sea­son, throw­ing for 3,231 yards and 14 touch­downs with nine in­ter­cep­tions. But the of­fense was rarely dy­namic, and that's some­thing the team is look­ing to change.

Part of that evo­lu­tion in­cludes a more di­verse run­ning game, with Peter­son be­ing asked to take hand­offs not just when Bridge­wa­ter is un­der cen­ter.

But a lot of it is on Bridge­wa­ter, who has been given a green light from coaches and team­mates to be more ag­gres­sive, par­tic­u­larly in try­ing to throw down­field. He av­er­aged 4.92 yards per com­ple­tion (based on how far his passes are trav­el­ing in the air) last year, less than all but two other quar­ter­backs (the Detroit Li­ons' Matthew Stafford and the St. Louis Rams' Nick Foles).

“He just seems to be cut­ting it loose a lit­tle bit more,” coach Mike Zim­mer says. “He sees it and he lets it go. He's shown some re­ally nice deep balls. He seems like he's ma­tured and he's more com­fort­able in every­thing that he does.” QUAR­TER­BACK

There's no quar­ter­back con­tro­versy here: The Vik­ings are Bridge­wa­ter's

team. But that doesn't mean they don't need more from their 2014 first-round pick in or­der to achieve a more bal­anced of­fense. That doesn't nec­es­sar­ily mean Bridge­wa­ter rou­tinely needs to be throw­ing for more than 300 yards per game, but it will be im­por­tant that he con­tinue to im­prove his con­nec­tion with re­ceiver Ste­fon Diggs and quickly build rap­port with rookie Laquon Tread­well. RUN­NING BACK

Af­ter miss­ing most of the 2014 sea­son and then last off­sea­son, Peter­son has been a reg­u­lar fix­ture around the team fa­cil­ity dur­ing this spring and sum­mer. More time work­ing with Bridge­wa­ter and of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Norv Turner should help di­ver­sify the of­fense. “A lot of times dur­ing the spring­time you look at dif­fer­ent things and then you find out what's good and what's bad and you throw some stuff out or you add on to things that look good and you come up with some more ideas,” Peter­son says. It is ex­pected he'll be joined in the run­ning back room by Jer­ick McKin­non and Matt Asi­ata, Peter­son's back­ups since 2014. WIDE RE­CEIVER

Ger­man Moritz Boehringer might have been one of the feel-good sto­ries of the draft, but look for the first rounder, Tread­well, to be the rookie mak­ing the most im­me­di­ate i mpact. Adding Tread­well to a group that in­cludes Diggs and Jar­ius Wright will give Bridge­wa­ter a big, phys­i­cal tool to help im­prove the down­field pass­ing game. TIGHT END

Kyle Ru­dolph took a big step in 2015 when he started all 16 games for the first time since 2012, and he should gen­er­ate buzz this sum­mer as a valu­able f an­tasy tight end and a big part of the pass­ing game. The ques­tion is how he and Bridge­wa­ter can i mprove their con­nec­tion in the red zone af­ter Ru­dolph scored five touch­downs, four be­low his ca­reer high. OF­FEN­SIVE LINE

This is an area in flux, with sev­eral po­si­tions up for grabs head­ing into train­ing camp. The Vik­ings added for­mer San Fran­cisco 49ers guard Alex Boone and Cincin­nati Ben­gals tackle An­dre Smith in free agency, i ncreas­ing com­pe­ti­tion at t hose po­si­tions. The most in­trigu­ing name to watch in Au­gust is Phil Load­holt. The long­time starter at right tackle might have a hard time mak­ing the 53-man ros­ter af­ter miss­ing 2015 with an Achilles tear. DE­FEN­SIVE LINE

The Vik­ings have a solid front t hanks to de­fen­sive ends Ever­son Grif­fen and Brian Ro­bi­son, who com­bined for 15½ sacks last sea­son. Grif­fen is a par­tic­u­larly dan­ger­ous pass rusher, with 22½ sacks over the last two sea­sons. But the Vik­ings are also stout in­side, with de­fen­sive tack­les Shar­rif Floyd and Lin­val Joseph. LINE­BACKER

An­thony Barr is an emerg­ing star af­ter mak­ing his first Pro Bowl in 2015 in his sec­ond year in the NFL. He's quickly x-clinched play­off spot; y-clinched di­vi­sion

SU­PER BOWL 50

Den­ver 24, Carolina 10 prov­ing to be one of t he league's most well-rounded lineback­ers, thanks to his abil­ity to rush the passer (3½ sacks last year) as well as cover (seven passes de­fended in 2015). The Vik­ings re­signed veteran weak side line­backer Chad Green­way this spring to keep their lineback­ing corps in­tact. SEC­ONDARY

Per­haps Min­nesota's big­gest off-sea­son move was lock­ing up safety Har­ri­son Smith to a long-term con­tract (five years, $51.25 mil­lion) that makes him the high­est­paid safety in the NFL. The ques­tion is who will start be­side him at strong safety. The Vik­ings also are look­ing for im­prove­ment from cor­ner­back Trae Waynes, a 2015 first-round pick. SPE­CIAL TEAMS Kicker Blair Walsh's sea- son ended in dis­as­ter, but the Vik­ings don't seem con­cerned about his abil­ity to move past the missed play­off kick. The Vik­ings have one of the NFL's most dy­namic kick­off re­turn­ers in Cor­dar­relle Pat­ter­son, so it will be in­ter­est­ing to see if the new touch­back rule, mov­ing them to the 25 in­stead of the 20-yard line, im­pacts his ef­fec­tive­ness. COACH­ING

Zim­mer's i mprint is all over the de­fense, so it should be no sur­prise that group is rapidly im­prov­ing into one of the NFL's best. He con­tin­ues to sur­round him­self with ex­pe­ri­enced co­or­di­na­tors, no­tably with for­mer NFL head coach Turner in charge of Bridge­wa­ter and the of­fense's devel­op­ment. Fol­low Lind­say H. Jones on Twit­ter @bylind­say­hjones

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