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As Sam Bradford sits, Vikings' D gives reason for hope

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The extent of Sam Bradford's throwing on Sunday came under a beautiful Tennessee sky about 45 minutes before Minnesota's season opener began. In the moments prior to Vikings team stretches, their newest addition did some light tossing to defensive teammates while Drake and Future's "Big Rings" pumped on the stadium loudspeakers.

It might have seemed like a luxury, just having Bradford stand there on the sidelines pulling down the collars of his shoulder pads for the better part of 60 minutes as the Vikings trounced the Titans 25-16 in a Week 1 victory that wasn't nearly as close as the score indicated, but the moments that unfolded on the field completely legitimized his presence.

Eight days before Sunday, in an act of apparent desperation, Minnesota dealt a first-round pick and a conditional mid-round pick to the Eagles to secure a starting-caliber quarterback after Teddy Bridgewaterwent down with a gruesome knee injury that might keep him out for more than just one season. The general consensus was that the Vikings believed their offensive line and defense were so special that they had to go for it, that even the most marginal upgrade from backup quarterback Shaun Hill would hoist them right back into the conversation for a second consecutive NFC North title.

After one week, Plan B is working just fine.

"They really came up big," Hill said of the Vikings' defense, which ended up outscoring the Titans in the second half with a pick-six and a fumble return for a touchdown. "They held them the whole half till the very end there, and put some points on the board. Two defensive touchdowns, there aren't many games you get that, so that was huge. They came out that second half with a mission."

As for the offensive line? Hill wasn't sacked once despite the Titans stuffing the box to take out Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. Despite head coach Mike Zimmer not being sure if he would bench Hill after halftime, the quarterback finished 18-of-33 for 236 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions.

The Vikings will likely hand the reins to Bradford this week as they prepare to host the Green Bay Packers in their home opener in Minnesota -- also the debut of the Vikings' $1.09 billion, glass-enclosed stadium in downtown Minneapolis. This will undoubtedly be the best team Bradford has ever led in five years with the Rams and one with the Eagles, and it probably took him just a few quarters to realize it.

To understand the move the Vikings made for Bradford, one needed to watch the Titans roll out their new "exotic smashmouth" offense on Sunday. Tennessee quarterback Marcus Mariota commanded an ever-shifting scheme that could, on one play alone, take the formation from a full-house backfield with two blocking backs and a tailback to an empty set, with two of those backs becoming receivers matched up against linebackers or defensive linemen.

Mariota ran juke-fake Statue-of-Liberty style bootlegs, perfectly staged quarterback draws, college-style speed options and Chip Kelly-inspired power spread plays. On certain calls, he would shift his running back three or four different times before the snap.

Facing that kind of challenge with little to no film on Tennessee's new rookie power back Derrick Henry and a much improved DeMarco Murray was akin to a baseball team facing a previously unknown knuckleball pitcher in the playoffs -- everyone needed to band together and make adjustments in-game.

"They run the same plays; it's window dressing," Zimmer said. "But, you know, each week, they're going to have different shifts and motions, so until you can get those down and get them understood, then it's going to be a little bit hectic at first.

"But they do a good job. Wherever [Titans head coach] Mike Mularkey has been, it's the same."

In the third quarter, Minnesota held the Titans to just 13 total rushing yards, with Henry held to minus-4 in that stanza. A bruising defensive line started to advance, and by the time Mariota rolled out on a blind bootleg with 1:24 left in the third quarter, he was entirely swarmed. Knowing that the Titans had tried -- and succeeded -- on a similar outlet pass earlier in the game, linebacker Eric Kendricks jumped ahead of a panicked Mariota throw, pocketed the ball and sprinted 77 yards for the touchdown. A few drives later, defensive end Danielle Hunter plucked a fumbled handoff off the ground and, without even a consideration to falling on the ball, bolted 24 yards for the score. A 10-6 Titans lead in the third quarter turned into a 22-10 Vikings advantage (with a Blair Walsh field goal thrown in), putting the contest entirely out of reach for Tennessee.

This Tennessee team has the tools to finish the season among the top five rushing teams, just like the Vikings have the tools to pound them into 64 total yards on 22 carries. The only difference as the season wears on will be at quarterback. Can Bradford, seemingly the Vikings' ultimate luxury, turn this great defense into a great team again?

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