MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL: Bradford, Vikings cruise past Saints, 29-19

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MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL: Bradford, Vikings cruise past Saints, 29-19

MINNEAPOLIS -- Sam Bradford set the NFL record for completion percentage for Minnesota last season, his accuracy aided by the volume of short passes under heavy pressure.

With protection from the rush, he showed Monday night he can throw the ball down the field with the best of them.

Bradford started his second year with Minnesota in style, passing for 346 yards and three touchdowns to help the Vikings beat New Orleans 29-19 and spoil Adrian Peterson's first game with the Saints.

"When I've got time to sit back there and kind of evaluate things, I've got all the confidence in the world that our guys outside are going to win," Bradford said.

Stefon Diggs had seven receptions for 93 yards, two for scores and all in the first half, and Adam Thielen racked up 157 yards on nine catches as Bradford carved up a Saints defense that looked again like one of the worst in the league despite a major renovation. Rookie Dalvin Cook rushed for 127 yards on 22 carries in the formal takeover from Peterson.

Peterson was limited to 18 yards on six carries, in a time share with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara and an afterthought once the Saints fell behind. Drew Brees was quiet, too, with 291 yards on 27-for-37 passing padded by the late push to catch up.

"We didn't do anything different or try to out-trick them," Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr said. "You know, line up and play, do your job."

Coby Fleener caught the only touchdown toss, after the 2-minute warning. Will Lutz made four field goals, three under 25 yards.

"The bottom line," Brees said, "is you've got to score touchdowns."

Brees and Bradford are both in the final year of their contracts, with the same agent, Tom Condon, who is sure to cash in on both clients. Brees has by far the better resume, nine seasons further into his career, but Bradford stole the show on this prime-time stage.

Behind mostly clean pockets created by a remade offensive line, Bradford completed 27 of 32 passes without a turnover. With three rookies and three free agents in the starting lineup, the Saints tried hard to better a defense that has held Brees and company back since the Super Bowl title eight years ago. The first performance left a lot to be desired, with Diggs and Thielen consistently finding favorable matchups underneath and along the sideline.

"I just try to run a route, catch the pass, but Sam, you know, he's a slinger," Diggs said.

FLAGS FLY

The Saints had three unnecessary roughness calls in the first half. Two of the personal fouls extended a drive that ended with one of three field goals by Kai Forbath. The other 15-yarder was on safety Kenny Vaccaro for head-hunting Diggs during an acrobatic catch in the closing seconds of the first half. Diggs came right back with another highlight-reel grab to give the Vikings a 16-6 lead at the break after a 10-play, 95-yard drive.

Cameron Jordan and A.J. Klein each had their hands on a tipped pass in the end zone that fluttered off Cook's hands, missing a critical opportunity to thwart that drive and keep the deficit at four points.

DECENT DEBUT

Cook became the first Vikings rookie running back to start a season opener since Michael Bennett in 2001. Despite trouble hanging onto a couple of passes thrown his way, he helped salt away the game in the second half. Bradford and Cook were the primary beneficiaries of the work done by an offensive line with four new starters and plenty of old external skepticism after a lackluster 2016 performance.

"In the building, we felt great about those guys," Bradford said. "We've seen what we're capable of doing."

BACK AGAIN

Ten years and two days after Peterson made his NFL debut in purple with 103 yards rushing and a 60-yard touchdown reception on this same block of downtown Minneapolis, albeit in a different stadium, he returned in black, white and gold as a part-time player for the pass-first Saints.

The crowd was really fired up for the reunion with another former Vikings great. Former wide receiver Randy Moss, already on site as an analyst for ESPN, became the 22nd member of the team's Ring of Honor in a halftime ceremony punctuated by a passionate speech and shout-out to the fans.

TACKLE TROUBLE

With Terron Armstead still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, rookie Ryan Ramczyk started at left tackle for the Saints. Then right tackle Zach Strief injured his left leg in the second quarter, forcing Senio Kelemete into action. Vikings defensive ends Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter caused havoc.

UP NEXT

The Saints play Sunday against New England, their only home game in the season's first five weeks.

The Vikings visit Pittsburgh on Sunday, their only road game over the first four weeks of the schedule.

Belichick on poor NFL offensive line play: It's hard when you can't practice

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Belichick on poor NFL offensive line play: It's hard when you can't practice

FOXBORO -- When the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and NFLPA limited the number of padded practices that teams could organize, it was seen as a win for player safety. And it probably was. But the shortage of padded reps has had other ramifications that is hurting the on-the-field product. 

When Patriots coach Bill Belichick was asked about what is becoming billed as an offensive-line-play epidemic in the NFL, he told reporters on a conference call Wednesday that it's hard to expect linemen to be able to execute their techniques when the amount of time they have to practice those techniques is so limited.

"I just think in general, fundamentally it’s difficult to play on the offensive and defensive line," Belichick said. "You’re playing a contact position with pads, and you’re practicing it without pads the majority of the time. That usually develops a lot of bad habits, and a lot of the techniques that a player would have the chance to work on and improve with pads, that opportunity just isn’t there without pads. So, it’s hard to improve at those positions when, a lot of times, you’re practicing techniques that are really not the ideal technique or, in some cases, incorrect, and it just develops bad habits, especially on the offensive line.

"I think that . . . without being able to practice, favors the defensive players a little more, whereas the offensive unit has to work together and be able to block things at more of a game tempo with pads and penetration and combination blocks and things like that. It’s just hard to simulate those and hard to get the timing of those when you’re just standing up watching each other without pads on a lot."

The Patriots are in pretty good shape. They have an offensive line unit that returned all five starters from last year's Super Bowl-winning squad. They have two experienced tackles. They have three athletic and intelligent interior offensive linemen. The results in 2017 haven't been perfect, but how many teams around the league would get on their hands and knees and beg for a group like the one in New England?

Take a look at Seattle, where one of the best quarterbacks in the game resides. According to Pro Football Focus, he has the third-worst offensive line in the league when it comes to pass protection, and in two games the Seahawks have scored 21 points. 

The worst pass-blockers in the league? They currently reside in Houston, where starting left tackle Duane Brown is still holding out for a new contract. 

There are multiple factors that are impacting line play in the NFL. Coaching could be one. College players coming into the league from spread programs with no pro-style offense experience could be another. 

But practice time is right up there near the top of the list, if not right at the top, according to Belichick.

"I mean, look, we’re all coaching under the same rules, but I think it’s harder, especially at that position, to improve when you really can’t practice your skill," Belichick said. "It’s like, you go out to the driving range and hit drives and hit balls, but you can’t go on the putting green. And then, to think that your putting is going to be at the same level as your driving when you can’t really practice it, it’s not really realistic.

"But, again, all teams are operating under the same set of rules, so it is what it is. But, it’s hard. It’s hard at that position. It’s hard to tell a guy, ‘This is what you should do,’ but he really can’t go out and practice it."