Breaking down the tape from the Vikings' loss to the Broncos
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Here's the tale of the tape from the Minnesota Vikings' 35-32 loss to the Denver Broncos, with grades on a scale of 0 to 5 in parentheses:
The Vikings put the game on the shoulders of Christian Ponder (85 snaps), whose production -- 29-of-47 passing (61.7%) for 381 yards, three touchdowns and a 90.8 rating --would be phenomenal if not for two pivotal interceptions. The Broncos rushed five or more 22 times in Ponder's 49 dropbacks (44.9%) and six of his first seven. So, it's no surprise he expected SLB Mario Haggan to join a four-man rush instead of dropping into Cover-2 on the early pick-six. The read, decision and throw all were lousy on the second interception, which CB Andre Goodman sank to snare on a smash route and set up the winning field goal. Late throws like that to the perimeter always are dangerous, and there was no reason to try it in that situation, especially without pressure from a three-man rush. The Broncos sacked Ponder three times and hit him six more, one leaving him with a hip pointer that limited his mobility. But Ponder hit a bunch of plays against their mostly man blitzes, completing 9 of 18 passes for 212 yards and three touchdowns, plus a couple of pass-interference calls. Seven of those completions went for 14 yards or more. His most notable slip-up against pressure was the batted strip-sack by veteran SS Brian Dawkins in 2.8 seconds that shifted possession and field position after the Vikings had driven to the Denver 8. He stumbled into another red-zone sack late in 3.8 seconds. His only scramble was good for 12 yards and a first down. Two of seven off-target passes resulted from miscommunication and two others from getting hit on release. One of two passes batted at the line probably saved Ponder from another fourth-quarter interception, because CB Chris Harris had jumped the checkdown. He also took a grounding penalty and could have been called for another. Joe Webb (eight) took two snaps from center and the rest as a receiver, gaining 4 yards on an option keeper and completing his only pass into the flat for 8. A pass-interference penalty wiped out a 29-yard catch. It's tough to get benefit of the doubt against CB Champ Bailey.
Running backs (3½)
This is what HB Toby Gerhart (64 snaps) can do. Churning through tackles and almost always moving the pile, the second-year pro gained 91 yards on 21 carries (4.3 average) -- including 42 yards after contact -- on a smart mix of power, zone and isolation plays that got him going downhill in a hurry. He added another 42 yards on eight receptions. He even showed a little wiggle in space, cutting around WLB D.J. Williams on a checkdown for 14. It's worth wondering if OC Bill Musgrave is skittish about using Gerhart in certain situations, though. He was off the field for every third down after halftime and all nine of the Vikings' red-zone snaps were pass plays. Gerhart's protection mostly was OK, although he lost vision too soon once and got Ponder hit on a delayed blitz by MLB Joe Mays. HB Lorenzo Booker (15) picked up some of the third-down work, carried twice for 3 yards and caught a swing pass for 8 that came up short of the marker. For as quick as he is, Booker spins his wheels too long sometimes. FB Ryan D'Imperio (18) picked off Williams on Gerhart's long run of 16 and showed great vision to change directions and pop Bailey on the first of WR Percy Harvin's catch-and-run touchdowns. His decision-making has improved significantly. He just needs to keep getting stronger and play with more consistent leverage.
Is there anything Harvin (54 snaps) can't do? He beat Harris' jam and turned a quick out upfield for a 52-yard touchdown. He dragged past Bailey and escaped S Kyle McCarthy's grasp for a 48-score. He finished with 156 receiving yards on eight receptions, going to the ground on multiple occasions to bail out Ponder's balls. He rushed five times for 19 yards, playing 11 snaps in the backfield as the Vikings patched things together in HB Adrian Peterson's absence. There simply aren't many NFL receivers who can do the things Harvin can do in space, even after he misses two days of practice because of illness. He did take a false start. He made no effort to save the last interception, but he didn't have a chance anyway. Devin Aromashodu (81) manhandled Goodman on Harvin's second score and had an impressive day of his own, catching six of 15 passes thrown his direction for 90 yards. That included a slant for 20 against man coverage from Goodman and whirling grab at the sideline on an out against WLB Wesley Woodyard for 14 on third-and-7 -- as good a catch as Aromashodu has made in a Vikings uniform. He also drew a pass-interference penalty. Let's see if he can do it again. Stephen Burton (42) got his first NFL reception on a deep in-cut for 21 against the zone and his second on a leaping corner for 17 against Goodman. Ponder was expecting a different route the other two times he threw his fellow rookie's way. Burton's run blocking needs a lot of work, too, but at least he's a big body and he competes. Greg Camarillo (nine) just was good for a blow.
Tight ends (3)
Yep, Kyle Rudolph (22 snaps) really caught that ball. S Quinton Carter had fine position, but Rudolph reached over and around his head to pull it in for a 19-yard score. Rudolph also drew pass interference on that play and another play deep in Denver territory, yet he spent six of the Vikings' other seven red-zone snaps on the sideline. That can't happen, even if the quadriceps limited Rudolph's practice time. He'll never have elite speed or quickness for the position, but his hands and catch radius make him a matchup nightmare on a short field. Visanthe Shiancoe (68) caught four passes for 36 yards, dropped another and had his hands full blocking Haggan, who shed him for a couple of stops. Jimmy Kleinsasser (44) got a lot more work than usual, played 29 snaps (65.9%) in the backfield, threw two key blocks on an end-around to Harvin for 13 and was as good in protection as he's been all season.
Offensive linemen (3)
A year ago, NT Brodrick Bunkley probably would have destroyed C John Sullivan. But this is a different Sullivan, whose power is improving so much along with his technique that no matter what he's asked to do -- combo blocks, picking off linebackers, sorting through traffic in space -- he finds a way to do it. Bunkley finished with only three tackles (two solo) and was so frustrated by the end he took a penalty for jamming Sullivan in the face. Sullivan did give up a rare pressure on a swim move by DT Mitch Unrein and could have finished better against Unrein on a coverage sack Ponder took in 4.1 seconds. But even those plays weren't egregious. RG Anthony Herrera didn't make any huge errors in his return from a knee injury either, although he did let DT Marcus Thomas off the hook to snuff a red-zone shovel pass and seemed a little tentative when asked to pull. There's no questioning his toughness. LG Steve Hutchinson rebounded from a couple of awful performances and mostly acquitted himself well. Bunkley threw him once to drop Gerhart for no gain. Hutchinson stumbled a couple of other times and let Mays make plays at the line. RT Phil Loadholt gave up three QB pressures and took a holding penalty -- not a bad day at all against RE Elvis Dumervil, whom Ponder might have caught a glimpse of before taking the late sack in the red zone. Loadholt's run blocking was solid, too. He can really move people when he keeps his pads down. LT Charlie Johnson gave up five QB pressures, one of them contributing to a sack, and couldn't keep Haggan from dropping Gerhart for a 6-yard loss on a bad-idea sweep into a run blitz. It always could be worse there, considering Johnson should be playing guard.
Defensive linemen (2½)
It had been a while since RE Jared Allen (50 snaps) was this active. He took the edge before TE Daniel Fells to drop HB Willis McGahee for a safety on the Broncos' first play. He hustled for a sack in 4.1 seconds after a hard chip and had the presence of mind to fall on Tebow's borderline fumble. He registered two other QB pressures against LT Ryan Clady, who got flagged for jamming Allen in the face on a bull rush. Another sideline blowup was evidence of just how frustrated Allen is with how things keep crumbling behind him. The pass rush could have been more consistent, though. The only other pressure generated by the line came on a blind-squirrel sack in 2.4 seconds by NT Remi Ayodele (24 snaps), a couple of counters by UT Kevin Williams (49) and hits by DL Christian Ballard (17) and NT Fred Evans (four) after the ball was gone. LE Brian Robison (25) went nowhere against RT Orlando Franklin before his concussion and backup DL Everson Griffen (20) wasn't much better. Giving QB Tim Tebow 8.6 seconds to find WR Demaryius Thomas for a 41-yard touchdown on the scramble play was inexcusable. The Vikings might have blitzed more often (six times in Tebow's 19 dropbacks, 31.6%) if they weren't too depleted in the secondary to play much man coverage -- and if the Broncos weren't gashing them on the ground. Ayodele had a couple of impressive turns against C J.D. Walton and got in on four tackles (two solo). But he was no match for Denver's combo blocks as McGahee (7.1 average on 12 second-half carries) got going after halftime. Williams kept getting into the backfield and ending up with nothing to show for it. He got off the ball well all day. Griffen beat Franklin once to dump McGahee and drew a holding call on Fells. DT Letroy Guion (21) just blended in.
It's a bit of a back-handed compliment, but WLB Erin Henderson (33 snaps) is the best linebacker the Vikings have going right now. A week after returning slowly from a hamstring injury, Henderson knifed through the line for several impressive stops, including a third-and-1 dive to McGahee. He couldn't shed quickly enough to stop McGahee in the hole on a few other occasions, though, and also got stiff-armed by Tebow on the scramble play. Those opportunities can't be missed. SLB Chad Greenway (52) had nothing even before dislocating his right elbow on a Franklin block. He kept getting worked back in the run game, he missed his only chance for a tackle behind the line and his lone blitz got stuffed by HB Lance Ball. When was the last time Greenway made a play in coverage either? MLB E.J. Henderson (52) handled all of the nickel reps, recorded five solo tackles and continued to look just a little slow when trying to adjust and scrape. He needs all the production he can get over the next four weeks as heads into the uncertainty of free agency.
Defensive backs (½)
CB Cedric Griffin (47 snaps) forced a McGahee fumble that SS Jamarca Sanford (52) recovered, CB Benny Sapp (37) roped three tackles in run support -- and that was about all that went right for this patchwork bunch. It was bad enough to let Tebow complete 10-of-15 pass for 202 yards, two touchdowns and a 149.3 rating. But the cluelessness with which the Vikings attempted to execute their most basic coverage was just plain sad. Nobody had a tougher day than Sanford, who blew one tackle on Thomas' first touchdown, blew another on McGahee's 24-yard touchdown run and was the nearest man on three big completions to Thomas. Biting on Tebow's glance to the post and leaving Thomas free for a 21-yard score was a mistake. Jumping the post again on another completion late was at least understandable, considering Sapp and CB Brandon Burton (36) both released their men downfield on the same side. The Cover-2 zone is predicated on the corner getting a jam to throw off the play's timing and then sinking deep enough to take away intermediate routes. Griffin looked so tentative coaches yanked him from the base defense for the final two series. He was back on the field in nickel when Thomas had him beat in man coverage for a go-ahead touchdown and Tebow's pass was an inch too long. Sapp started at left corner, then bumped inside in nickel once the Vikings replaced Marcus Sherels (two) with Burton, who didn't get any sort of jam as Thomas gave him a hard outside step, released inside and ran the go for 40. He also missed McGahee on the TD run and got carried into end zone on Thomas' 41-yard score off the scramble play. It's tough to plaster that long, but why did Sanford and FS Mistral Raymond (51) both take the deep man and leave Thomas all alone? Sometimes, you just have to play football. Grab somebody and make it work. Raymond kept arriving late to fill out the box, missed three tackles and seemed to read everything a beat late -- which could explain why Sanford was stuck in so much space on the back end. If that's coaches' idea of disguise, it needs work.
The sideways hop P Chris Kluwe got on his first punt allowed S Eric Frampton to down it inside the 1-yard line, setting up the safety. That was offset by the 63-yard kick return Quan Cosby busted to the sideline when Sanford and LB Xavier Adibi got stacked at the point. There were no significant issues with newly signed LS Matt Katula, although his first couple of snaps made Kluwe adjust. Kluwe grossed 49.5, netted 44.2 and averaged 4.60 seconds of hang time on six punts. PK Ryan Longwell made field goals of 40, 25 and 39 yards, plus three extra points. Six kickoffs averaged 3.72 seconds of hang time, two were touchbacks and two ended with Longwell bringing down Cosby. That's never a good sign for the coverage. Marcus Sherels averaged 4.7 yards on three punt returns and 22.2 on five kickoff returns. How many times does he have to get tackled inside the 20 before coordinator Mike Priefer moves up the borderline for bringing the ball out? Raymond took two bad penalties.