NFL Preview – Atlanta (2-1) at Minnesota (1-2) (ET)

By John McMullen, NFL Editor

(SportsNetwork.com) – Teddy is ready to take over in Minnesota.

As least that’s what Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer believes as he prepares
his rookie quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, for his first NFL start against the
Atlanta Falcons.

Minnesota was hoping to have much more time to groom its prized freshman
behind veteran bridge quarterback Matt Cassel, but fate rarely cares about
anyone’s plans.

Cassel’s broken foot, suffered in a 20-9 loss to the Saints in Week 3, has
accelerated the learning curve for Bridgewater dramatically and the Louisville
product, who was once regarded as the top overall prospect in the 2014 draft
class, will be taking over a desperate team coming off perhaps the worst week
in franchise history.

Zimmer, the Vikings’ first-year head coach, has had to deal with the Adrian
Peterson child-abuse scandal which robbed the organization of perhaps the best
pure runner in the profession, a receiver in Jerome Simpson who can’t stop
drinking and smoking marijuana even when he is suspended for those very
things, along with season-ending injuries to Cassel and what has been the
club’s best offensive lineman, right guard Brandon Fusco.

“I never envisioned that,” Zimmer said on Wednesday. “But it’s part of
football. Last year in Cincinnati (where Zimmer was the defensive
coordinator), we lost our best defensive tackle, our best corner, one of our
best linebackers, our very good defensive end. Things happen in the NFL, so
this is a survival-of-the-fittest game.

“It’s always a marathon. The toughest teams always go. I think we have good
coaches here, so we’ll continue to coach the guys that are playing as hard as
we can and keep moving.”

Things are so bad in Minny, the fact that emerging tight end Kyle Rudolph is
likely on the shelf for only six to eight weeks after having sports hernia
surgery on Tuesday in Philadelphia is considered a positive for the
organization.

“We’re hopeful that he’ll be back soon,” Zimmer said. “We’re anticipating it’s
not going to be (eight weeks).”

Like most rookies playing on the road, Bridgewater left some plays on the
field against the Saints, but he also made some plus throws and the innate
ability to extend plays with his athleticism. He ended up 12-of-20 for 150
yards with no touchdowns or interceptions, and added 27 more yards on the
ground.

“I thought he did some good things, obviously it was a tough situation with
him going in there,” Zimmer said.

Matt Asiata tallied 35 yards on 12 totes in place of Peterson, who missed his
second straight game since allegations of child abuse surfaced against the
star running back.

The Falcons, meanwhile, are coming off one of the best performances in their
franchise’s history, a 56-14 beatdown of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

It was a record-setting night for Atlanta wide receiver/kick returner Devin
Hester, who passed Hall of Famer and former Falcons cornerback Deion Sanders
for most return touchdowns in NFL history with a 62-yard punt return for a
score in the second quarter, his 20th.

Hester paid tribute to Sanders with an extended high step into the end zone.
Sanders, now a television analyst, was in attendance at the Georgia Dome.

“He was so happy,” said Hester. “He said he almost pulled a hamstring
sprinting toward the end zone with me. I love that guy, man. He was very
emotional as well.”

Earlier in the game, Hester also took an end around and went 20 yards for the
first rushing touchdown of his career.

Matt Ryan completed 21-of-24 passes for 286 yards and three touchdowns for the
Falcons, who bounced back from a 24-10 loss to the Bengals. Julio Jones caught
nine passes for 161 yards and two scores.

“Even as good as tonight was, I think there were areas where we can improve
and get better,” said Ryan. “But all in all, it was a pretty good effort. We
had good energy.”

Steven Jackson carried the ball 14 times for 54 yards and a touchdown for
Atlanta, which racked up 488 yards of total offense. Antone Smith rushed for
50 yards and a score on four carries.

The Falcons scored the second-most points in team history and did so without
wide receiver Roddy White, who sat out with a hamstring injury.

The Vikings are 15-10 all-time versus Atlanta but the Falcons have won three
of the past four in the series including a 24-14 win the last time the two
teams met back on Nov. 27, 2011. Ryan threw for three TDs in that one,
including a 27-yarder to Harry Douglas, while White has 120 receiving yards
and a TD.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

So to summarize, when Bridgewater, the 32nd overall pick in May’s draft, makes
his first start for the Vikings on Sunday, three of the team’s top-five
projected playmakers will either be banished (Peterson), released (Simpson) or
injured (Rudolph), meaning “Teddy Ballgame” will be asked to matriculate down
the field with players named Asiata, Adam Thielen and Rhett Ellison.

“I don’t think he’s thinking, ‘Woe is me,'” Zimmer said. “I think he’s
thinking about his opportunity and what he has to do to help this football
team.”

Well, he’s thinking a little bit.

“It’s a challenge,” Bridgewater admitted. “You’re talking about some great
football players (being out). It’s all about taking advantage of what we
have.”

Many believed that Bridgewater was the most polished and NFL-ready signal
caller in this year’s draft class and sure enough he didn’t look nervous or
overwhelmed after replacing Cassel last week in one of the most difficult
places to play in the NFL, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and Zimmer believes
there is much more to come.

“He’s ready,” the coach surmised. “Honestly, I think he’s been ready since the
day he walked in.”

Others agree.

“We should win every single game we play with him at quarterback,” Vikings
center John Sullivan said.

Falcons coach Mike Smith, meanwhile, admitted his game plan changed with the
move to Bridgewater.

“We’ve got a challenge in my mind with an athletic quarterback to be able to
keep him in the pocket,” the coach surmised.

As good as the Falcons have been as a whole, the defense hasn’t really been
carrying its own water, surrendering 387 yards a game, 27th in the NFL.

Of course Ryan and Co. can outscore just about anyone and the veteran QB set
club records with an 87.5 completion percentage (21-of-24) and a 155.9 passer
rating in the rout over Tampa Bay in Week 3.

Meanwhile the receiving group of Jones, White, Douglas and Hester looks
untenable for a Minnesota defensive backfield with only one real difference
maker in safety Harrison Smith.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

The insertion of Bridgewater gives what was looking like a moribund team some
life but this is just not the week it will pay off. Atlanta just has two many
weapons and the Vikings won’t be able to keep up.

“It’s not all about me. I don’t have to do it my myself,” said Bridgewater.
“There are 10 other guys out on the field with me, so we’re expecting those
guys to play well for us and just excited to get back out there Sunday.”

Sports Network predicted outcome: Falcons 24, Vikings 13