Breaking down the film from the Vikings' loss to the Lions
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With grades on a scale of 0 to 5 in parathenses, here's a summary of each position's involvement in the 34-24 loss to the Detroit Lions.
Christian Ponder (56 snaps) looked like he was in his midseason form from last year, the type of play that got him 11 interceptions in eight games in 2012. He came out firing, completing on throws for 9-, 21- and 44-yards on three of his first four attempts. But his decision making waned down the stretch behind a porous offensive line. His 18 completions on 28 attempts (64.3%) gained 236 yards through the air (8.4 per attempt) for one touchdown and three interceptions. A positive takeaway is Ponder's willingness to throw downfield. Nine of his 28 throws were targeted more than 10 yards, completing five for 138 yards. But for every good throw, Ponder followed it up with a couple poor choices. Most of Ponder's yards came through receiver Jerome Simpson, who lined up against Lions' rookie CB Darius Slay. Ponder picked on Slay when he had time to throw, targeting Simpson eight times for seven catches and 140 yards. Ponder's lone touchdown pass went to Peterson in the third quarter as he was behind the line of scrimmage and ran for the four-yard score.
Ponder attempted at least 123 passes before throwing his first interception last year, but after a bad route by Simpson, Ponder's first pick came on his second throw. Simpson tripped coming into the slant route, putting him behind the ball and the finger-tipped pass landed in the arms of Lions' linebacker DeAndre Levy. Ponder's second interception was on him. After intense pressure, he rolled to his left and threw a prayer to receiver Greg Jennings as he was hit. Ponder's third interception came with less than two minutes in the game. His team down 10, Ponder launched a pass that was too high for tight end Kyle Rudolph and ended up another turnover. Under pressure, with the game on the line, Ponder needs to complete those throws or check down to a less dangerous option, but instead he is still committing turnovers.
Another Ponder mistake turned out to have no consequence as he locked on to receiver Jarius Wright on a hook route that Lions' cornerback Bill Bentley should've intercepted and returned for a touchdown. But the ball bounced off Bentley's hands as he sat on Wright's route.
Ponder finished 4-for-7 for 26 yards on third down, but that was deceiving as the team converted 2-of-10 attempts and gave up two sacks on pivotal downs. Ponder escaped another sack on third down when he scrambled for two yards on the team's second drive.
The throws downfield are to be expected of Ponder in his third season, but now he needs ample protection from his offensive line and to perform better under pressure. Maybe even a crisper game plan from OC Bill Musgrave, one similar to Lions' quarterback Matthew Stafford, who orchestrated a flurry of screens (to backs, tight ends and receivers) that got the ball out of the quarterback's hands quickly and moved the chains. Those adjustments will likely come as the Vikings surely didn't expect inept blocking from the start.
Running backs (2)
Adrian Peterson (51) looked human after torching the Lions' defense on the Vikings' first offensive snap, leaving everything but his ankles untouched for a 78-yard run. In total, seven of Peterson's 18 carries (5.2 avg.) went for a loss as he gained just 15 yards on his next 17 attempts (0.88 avg.). Peterson's second longest run went for seven yards along the left tackle in the third quarter. The NFL MVP didn't find any room until the final drive, when the Lions played soft to protect their 10-point lead, allowing Peterson to grab gains of eight and nine yards on routes out of the backfield. The threat of Peterson kept Lions' safety Glover Quin inside or near the box on every play. Quin came untouched on a play in the first half to wrap Peterson up for no gain in the middle. Peterson couldn't do much behind inept blockers, but the Vikings still gained just 27 yards on the ground after his initial touchdown run.
Ponder was the only other Vikings player to run the ball, leaving HB Toby Gerhart (5) in a blocking-only role. Ponder's 11-yard scamper in the third quarter outran the entire Lions' defensive line, showing he's got capable speed when needed. FB Zach Line (17) struggled mightily when lead blocking for Peterson, allowing a tackle for a loss by Lions' linebacker DeAndre Levy in the second quarter. Line caught his only reception for seven yards on the next play, but has an uphill battle in moving oversized defenders out of the hole. FB Jerome Felton returns from suspension on Sept. 23 and is eligible to play in the Sept. 29 game in London against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Vikings mainly worked out of two-WR sets, but mixed in three-WR and bunch formation sets, which were still mainly used for run and screen plays. Jerome Simpson (42) turned in his best game as a Viking, with his team-high seven catches for 140 yards, including 34 yards after the catch. After a sack-fumble in the third quarter that brought Ponder to the turf, but was called back because of encroachment, Ponder threw up the 47-yard bomb to a leaping Simpson. Simpson's only incompletion came on Ponder's first interception, which also happened in the preseason against the Houston Texans. Simpson needs to adjust accordingly if he can't get to the catch, which simply means not tipping the ball into the air. It appears, though, that Simpson has his legs back after a tumultuous first year with the Vikings that was haunted by a mysterious back injury.
Receiver Greg Jennings (48) caught three passes on seven targets for 33 yards, including a 20-yard catch on a "go" route that landed on his back shoulder as Ponder faced pressure. Ponder's pass was a wobbling duck, but in the best location possible as Jennings was covered ahead of him. Jennings was targeted second-most on the team, but was the victim of off-targeted passes, some caused by quarterback pressure.
Wright (26) didn't see much action as the Vikings played in multiple tight end sets and with heavy backfields. Wright saw two targets for no receptions. Quarterback-turned-receiver Joe Webb (6) was utilized mainly in run and screen blocking. Webb combined with Kalil to each miss their blocks, forcing Peterson out of bounds for a three-yard loss early in the game. Receiver Cordarrelle Patterson (5) barely saw the field. Patterson's one catch came at the line of scrimmage as the rookie made a couple defenders miss on the way to a 10-yard gain.
Tight ends (2.5)
Kyle Rudolph (55) continues his feast or famine production with a dry performance on Sunday. He was targeted four times, catching two passes for 27 yards, including a 21-yard catch-and-run off a play-action to Peterson as the entire defense jumped left and Ponder rolled right. The Vikings stacked Rudolph and tight end John Carlson on the left side to sell the run, with Rudolph releasing up field and crossing right for the seven-yard completion and 14-yard run after the catch. Don't think the blocking issues stopped at the line. Rudolph missed a block on Lions' safety Glover Quin, who blitzed to take Peterson down for a loss of three in the first half. The Vikings opened multiple series in their double-split, pistol offensive formation, putting Rudolph and Carlson in the backfield with Peterson behind Ponder. Along with those sets, Rudolph mainly set inline, but was split out wide for a few plays. Carlson (14) was target once, seeing the bulk of his duties in run blocking (nine). Rhett Ellison (10) laid the lead block for Peterson's 78-yard run and has become a bigger piece to the Vikings' blocking puzzle with Felton out. Ellison split time with, and outperformed, Line in lead blocking and was placed inline to crash block for pulling linemen on certain plays.
Offensive linemen (1)
LT Matt Kalil (56) may have started off his sophomore effort with the worst game of his brief NFL career. Kalil set the edge for Peterson's 78-yard touchdown run, allowing Ellison to block the linebacker out of the hole, but it was downhill after that for Kalil. On third-and-11 during the second drive, Kalil was blown back by Lions' rookie defensive end Ziggy Ansah, forcing Ponder up the gut after 2.5 seconds, where defensive tackle Nick Fairley spun off his block to end the two-yard run. Kalil was hit and miss in run blocking. In the first half, Peterson received a pitch wide left, as Kalil pulled he chipped a Lions' linebacker, but didn't stick to his block as Peterson was driven out of bounds for a three-yard loss. On the next play, Kalil was flat out beat by Ansah, who drove inside to tackle Peterson in the middle for no gain. Kalil was the culprit of the sack-fumble in the third quarter, which was called back because Ansah was too eager to attack him again and jumped offside.
The Lions stacked the box, but relied heavily on their four-man rush, blitzing six times on Ponder's 34 dropbacks (17.6%). Still, Ponder felt pressure on 17 dropbacks (50%). Guard Charlie Johnson (56) didn't have any glaring mistakes, but was pushed off the line by Fairley on a consistent basis. The only way Fairley and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh were removed from the play was through double teams, which left linebackers open in the run game. Guard Brandon Fusco (56) muffed a stunt by Fairley, who came under Suh to sack Ponder for a three-and-out to start the second half. Fusco, who allowed three QB hurries on top of the sack, was also at fault for stepping back on a run block assignment in the fourth quarter. Ponder tripped over Fusco's foot and delivered a bad handoff to Peterson, who fumbled it away with the Vikings down 27-24.
Center John Sullivan (56) played well to start, but looked tentative after taking an illegal low block to his left knee by Suh in the first half. Communication broke down at times when the Lions brought pressure, which is on Sullivan. Right tackle Phil Loadholt (56) fared better than his counterpart on the left, allowing just one QB hit and three hurries. Loadholt looked more comfortable run blocking than he did in pass protection, but still allowed the least amount of pressure along a porous offensive line.
Defensive linemen (2)
Playing without veteran Kevin Williams for the first time since 2011, the Vikings kept in middle-to-deep zone coverage most of the game, converting to man-to-man when the field was shortened. They rushed just four on 40 of Stafford's 45 dropbacks (89%). They still got to Stafford, who felt pressure on 13 of his dropbacks (29%). However, three to five-second releases spelled trouble on a bevy of screens, slants and checkdowns. The ultimate struggle for the defensive line was reading screens, which the Lions executed mostly in the middle of the defense (without Williams). No matter who was lined up in the rotation, Lions' offensive linemen shed cleanly to move to the second level, even after it was obvious of the game plan.
Defensive end Jared Allen (78 snaps) altered Stafford through pass deflections, compiling four along the defensive line with Allen's two and Sharrif Floyd (44) and Fred Evans (44) getting one. Defensive tackle Letroy Guion (50) motioned into the A-gap with Evans and the pair pushed center Dominic Raiola into Stafford on a Lions' drive in the second quarter. Evans got his hands up and tipped the pass that ended up a linebacker Erin Henderson interception and the Vikings' second turnover. Floyd held his own in pass rush, but was often caught deeper than the ball when the Lions ran. Floyd's pass deflection came on a 3rd-and-5, when Stafford looked to check down to running back Joique Bell and came up empty. Evans and Guion consistently had a good push, but the pair were too connected, often within a yard of each other as Bush or Bell bounced around to find the opening.
On 3rd-and-19, the score 27-24 in the fourth quarter, Stafford threw an incomplete pass and it looked like the Vikings would get another chance with 10 minutes left in the game. Guion's spin move stunted Lions' rookie right guard Larry Warford and he came clean to Stafford, but after he released the ball, Guion's hands came down onto Stafford's helmet, which is an automatic penalty in the modern NFL. Instead of Vikings' ball, the Lions finished the drive with the touchdown and the 10-point lead.
Allen and Brian Robison (62) had solid outings, but were expected to produce more against inexperienced tackles, especially after Lions' right tackle Jason Fox left early in the game with a groin injury and was replaced by Corey Hilliard, who has started five games in his five-year career. Robison applied pressure through Hilliard (six QB hurries), but made it easy on him against the run. Hilliard often carried Robison out of the play on runs because of Robison's eagerness to chase the passer on the outside or crash the line inside.
The Vikings stayed in nickel the majority of the game, but mostly kept cornerback Josh Robinson in the box. On a few third downs, they busted out the 3-3 nickel formation with defensive end Everson Griffen (49) at nose tackle. Griffen didn't look in midseason form, disappearing at times behind a young offensive line. He lined up at virtually every position: in place of Robison at left end, at nose and at undertackle sometimes with Floyd at nose. Overall, the line surrendered a 3.5-yard average on the ground. Allen was the lone bright spot, registering a sack, two QB hits, two QB hurries, two pass deflections and three tackles, including a chase down of running back Reggie Bush after an 11-yard gain in the first half.
The Vikings sent six blitzes: three from SLB Chad Greenway (83), two from MLB Erin Henderson (82) and one by safety Jamarca Sanford. Both Greenway and Henderson were abused by the Lions' running back tandem. If it wasn't in the screen game, it was Henderson blowing through the offensive line on 1st-and-goal, getting his hands on Bush and letting him slip by as Greenway and Sanford also missed Bush on the way to the endzone. Bush was eventually ruled down before he broke the plane, so on the next play, Bell spun away from Henderson as the two met in the backfield and the Lions took their first lead, 20-14 in the third quarter.
The Vikings missed six tackles on paper, but it appeared to be much more than that as Henderson missed two on consecutive plays at the goal line. Henderson also had Bell behind the line when the Lions went for it on 4th-and-1 in the first half, but missed the tackle. Henderson struggled mightily covering the middle in zone, allowing Burleson's 27-yard catch over him, the longest catch of any Lions' receiver. He took part in a team-high 11 tackles, registered a pass deflection and his first career interception, but his mistakes were glaring whereas his benefits were scattered.
Greenway was caught on the wrong side of a Lions' lineman when Bush exploded for the 77-yard touchdown catch-and-run that put the Lions' up 27-17 in the third quarter. Greenway was the first line of defense, but Bush blasted by safety Harrison Smith, Sanford and Robinson on his way to the endzone.
Linebacker Marvin Mitchell (15) saw limited action and tallied just one tackle assist as the Vikings played so much nickel.
Defensive backs (2.5)
A year ago, safety Harrison Smith laid the hit that jarred the ball loose out of Lions' receiver Calvin Johnson's hands in the endzone. On Sunday, Smith (83) played the ball instead of the receiver as Johnson appeared to catch a 20-yard touchdown in the second quarter. The play was overturned as Johnson bobbled the ball before establishing possession. Johnson had two touchdowns reversed, the one on Smith and another on cornerback Chris Cook (83), who played Johnson man-to-man and was in position, but the freak athletic talent was able to leap over Cook and grab the catch. However, Johnson's second foot landed on the back of the endzone. Cook was simply oversized against Lions' rookie tight end Joseph Fauria, who caught the fourth quarter touchdown with Cook jumping around him.
If it wasn't for Guion's roughing the passer penalty in the fourth quarter, Smith would be hitting himself for not coming down with an interception after Stafford threw to Fauria in double coverage. Smith got his hands on it, but couldn't put it away.
Sanford (83) and Smith both played low in the box at times, Sanford even sent on a blitz once. The safeties kept everything in front of them, with the longest reception to a Lions' receiver going to Burleson for 27 yards, which was in the soft part of their cover 2 -- over Henderson's zone and just under Sanford in the second quarter.
Rookie cornerback Xavier Rhodes (73) saw the most of Johnson, allowing three catches on four targets to Megatron. Due in part to Rhodes' effort, Johnson finished with just four catches for 37 yards on eight targets. Rhodes' physicality kept receivers in check, allowing just nine yards after the catch. But the rookie was flagged for an illegal block on the only punt return of the game by cornerback Marcus Sherels.
Cornerback Josh Robinson was torched on the stat sheet: nine receptions on nine targets for 93 yards (78 after the catch). The Lions targeted Robinson most and used a combination of receiver Nate Burleson and Bell, who combined for six catches and 77 yards on Robinson. However, Robinson made a few impressive plays, including a tipped Stafford pass to Johnson at the end of the first quarter as the Lions sat on the edge of the redzone. The tipped pass forced 3rd-and-10 and the Lions ultimately settled for a field goal. Robinson poked the ball out of Brandon Pettigrew's hands after the tight end was deployed on a screen, forcing the Vikings first turnover after Smith scooped it up. As often as Robinson was burned, he also made a great tackle on Burleson in a 3rd-and-9 during the first quarter. Burleson caught a screen pass and had three blockers in front, but Robinson took him down from behind to force the field goal. Robinson also recovered the would-be goal line fumble by Bush just before halftime, but the play was ruled a touchdown.
Kickoffs have essentially been eliminated with policies that moved the kickoff mark farther up and, in turn, sent nearly every ball sailing through the endzone. Patterson returned two kicks, both from eight yards deep, for 54 yards (27 avg.).
Sherels returned just one punt for six yards after making a couple guys miss, but Rhodes' illegal block penalty negated any gain.
Kicker Blair Walsh converted on his only try from 52 yards, making him 11-for-11 from 50-plus in his brief NFL career. Walsh was also 5-for-5 on touchbacks.
Rookie punter Jeff Locke has probably seen better days than his NFL debut. Locke grossed 42.2 yards, netted 34.8 and averaged a 3.7 seconds of hang time on five punts. His worst was his first. Backed up at his own 21-yard line, Locke got just 36 yards and 3.5 seconds on it before Lions' return man Michael Spurlock took it back eight yards for a 28-yard net for his opening punt, setting the Lions up at midfield.