Breaking down the tape from the Vikings' loss to the Buccaneers
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Here's the tale of the tape from the Minnesota Vikings' 36-17 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, with grades on a scale of 0 to 5 in parentheses:
It's not all his fault, but Christian Ponder (60 snaps) really looks like he's pressing. Take his last pass of the first half -- a ridiculous heave into double coverage on a crossing route when he had a man open in the flat and 25 seconds to go in the half from his own 25. CB Eric Wright couldn't hang on for the interception, but that's not the point. No wonder OC Bill Musgrave called a play with no route longer than 8 yards on third-and-17 in the third quarter with a 13-point deficit. Right now, Ponder can't be trusted. The passing game mostly consisted of low-percentage fades and underneath throws, all designed to get the ball out of Ponder's hands quickly. He was 10-of-22 passing (45.5%) for 134 yards before the Bucs went into their prevent defense midway through the fourth quarter. He finished 19-of-35 (54.3%) for 251 yards, with nine of his completions (47.4%) behind the line of scrimmage and only three completions in 12 passes targeted at least 10 yards downfield (25%). A couple of fades drifted out of bounds, two quick-hitters behind the line were off the mark and Ponder simply misread coverage at least once, throwing a go ball when his receiver correctly ran a hitch against Cover-3. He didn't get help from a protection unit that hemorrhaged three sacks and 14 pressures against a Bucs blitz plan designed with confusing Ponder in mind. His consistent cadence may have given Tampa keys for when to shift up front. He continues to drift right at times instead of stepping up. His best throws yielded an 18-yard touchdown and a 33-yard completion, both on corner routes. He scrambled four times for 12 yards and threw an interception to CB Leonard Johnson that didn't really matter in the final minute. What does matter is Ponder is stuck in a rut and coaches need to help him get out of it.
Running backs (2)
HB Adrian Peterson (47 snaps) finally got one out the gate, busting arms tackles by Wright and DB Ronde Barber on a power-right run that went for a 64-yard touchdown. He also made one of the game's pivotal errors, spinning into a strip by Barber on a draw play. SLB Quincy Black recovered to set up the touchdown that pushed the Bucs' lead to 13 in the second quarter. It was a rare mistake by Peterson, who has fumbled only four times since the start of the 2010 season and hadn't lost one since Dec. 28, 2010. That ruined a night on which he ran for 123 on 15 carries (8.2 average), including 88 yards after contact (71.5%), and forced five missed tackles. The ankle didn't seem to bug him at all. His only catch went for 4 yards. He gave up one pressure on a blitz by SS Mark Barron but otherwise was OK in that phase. FB Jerome Felton (11) was weak in his pickup of Black, who cleared the way for MLB Mason Foster to follow through and sack Ponder in 3.0 seconds. Those overload pressures gave the Vikings trouble all night. Felton otherwise was solid in limited turns, pancaking Foster on a lead draw that went for 11, knocking back DT Gerald McCoy on the play Peterson fumbled and getting to Black on the long touchdown. HB Toby Gerhart (13) gained 6 yards on his only carry and caught two checkdown passes for 10 each.
Jerome Simpson (58 snaps) swears he's 100% healthy. So, does that mean he's just incapable of getting vertical separation? He elevated over CB E.J. Biggers on a corner for 33, let LE Michael Bennett poke the ball free after catching an option slant and otherwise was a nonfactor, though not for lack of trying. Ponder threw Simpson's way eight times, with six of them (75%) targeted at least 15 yards downfield. Perhaps those deep balls would stay in bounds if Simpson could actually get a step and give his quarterback some room to work. Simpson's borderline block on WLB Lavonte David on Peterson's touchdown might have been unnecessary but looked legal. The Bucs did roll some safety help Simpson's way, but that's not a tough choice when he's the only man in deep pattern. Percy Harvin (49) made a fantastic adjustment to the ball on the 18-yard touchdown against Wright and did the rest of his damage (seven catches total, 90 yards, 12.9 average) near the line. He beat Wright on a pivot for 13, took a bubble screen for 32 and let Johnson rip the ball out of his hands on a go ball that would have gained at least 15. His only carry lost a yard. It was one of those days. When will Musgrave give up on the double-moves to Michael Jenkins (40)? Ponder threw for Jenkins on those plays twice, one incomplete and the other picked off. Johnson also had Jenkins blanketed on a short pivot route that had no prayer on third-and-12. His routes seem to be getting lazier, he moves like he's in a vat of syrup and he slid instead of taking a hit on the slant that gained 28 after Tampa called off the dogs. Jenkins finished with four catches for 78 yards (19.5 average), all on the final two drives. He mostly blocked well in the screen game and let Wright beat him inside to stop a run for minus-2. Stephen Burton (13) continues to block well but hasn't been targeted in three games. Devin Aromashodu didn't even get on the field. No matter their reservations, the Vikings may be better off activating Jarius Wright going forward just to put some more speed on the field.
Tight ends (2)
If Kyle Rudolph (57 snaps) could have a defensive end trying to cover him man-to-man on every snap, he'd be unstoppable. But the Bucs learned their lesson after Rudolph easily beat Bennett on a cross for a 12-yard gain on third-and-10. Ponder didn't throw Rudolph's way again until a quick out for 5 on the final drive. Tampa used safeties to match up when Rudolph was detached from formation (20 times) and ran linebackers underneath him in zone. He usually relies on his catch radius in lieu of truly getting open, but Ponder seems increasingly skittish about throwing him the ball when he's covered. Rudolph's blocking mostly was OK. With John Carlson (concussion) sidelined, the Vikings used a true two-tight set on only nine snaps. That meant limited work for Rhett Ellison (12), who ran a slide route for 5 yards and otherwise blended.
Offensive linemen (1)
Tampa's blitzes and presnap shifts put a lot of pressure on the Vikings' protection unit, and the response was unacceptable. The most glaring breakdown came when LT Matt Kalil (60 snaps) failed to follow RE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, who shifted inside just before the snap and then exploded past for a sack in 1.5 seconds. But he was far from the only rusher to get a lick on Ponder as the Bucs mixed four-, five- and six-man pressures, sending an extra rusher 11 times in Ponder's 35 dropbacks (31.4%) before the last prevent series. Barber split Kalil and LG Charlie Johnson (60) with David behind him to scuttle an early third down. McCoy split C John Sullivan (60) and RG Brandon Fusco (45) to scuttle another. Te'o-Nesheim came free on another overload pressure to whack Ponder and ruin fourth-and-7 late. And the Bucs eventually got to RT Phil Loadholt (60), who got beat outside by Bennett for a sack on a thee-man rush in 2.6 seconds -- one of four pressures Loadholt surrendered down the stretch. Kalil showed impressive speed to get out in front of the bubble screen Harvin took for 32 and was decent in the run game, though he had a hand in two runs for loss or no gain. DT Roy Miller took a personal foul for whacking Ponder after getting a push against Sullivan and ruined a draw to Harvin by coming free off a stunt. This probably was Sullivan's worst game, considering how high he has set the bar. Several shotgun snaps were less than ideal, and Ponder wasn't ready for the one that hit his left shin and rolled away on third-and-6. Fusco just seemed slow to react at times. He gave up a hit and a pressure to Bennett on a couple of stunts and had a hand in two bad runs. It's no surprise Geoff Schwartz (15) keeps getting more opportunities in Fusco's place. He kicked out in front of Peterson's big run to block Barron and seems more comfortable each week. Loadholt and Kalil each took a false start.
Defensive linemen (2)
On a night the Vikings struggled to generate pressure, RE Jared Allen (66 snaps) gave them fighting chance by, well, fighting. The only sack of QB Josh Freeman was the culmination of a tense few minutes in which LT Donald Penn ripped off Allen's helmet, bloodied his nose and for some reason continued to instigate him across the line as the crowd roared. DL Everson Griffen (38) got inside pressure against LG Carl Nicks while Allen blasted through HB Doug Martin's chip, got rid of Penn and then sealed the deal in 2.7 seconds. If only the Bucs hadn't shut down the rush so well otherwise. Allen's only other pressure helped scuttle a screen to HB D.J. Ware. Two pressures from LE Brian Robison (66) were just the result of staying home to play the passing lane. He batted down three balls and affected two others. Griffen whipped Nicks for a QB hit, UT Kevin Williams (52) made RG Jamon Meredith whiff for another, DT Christian Ballard (26) came off C Jeremy Zuttah late for a pressure -- and that was it. The Vikings sent an extra rusher 11 times in Freeman's 31 dropbacks (35.5%), though many of those were green dogs based on the back staying in to protect. Robison played well against the run, beating TE Luke Stocker inside on the Bucs' first play and destroying TE Dallas Clark's attempt to wall him off on a draw that lost 2. Allen hustled as usual but made a weak effort to stop Martin on a third-and-2 draw, got turned on Martin's 1-yard touchdown and took a flag for jacking TE Nate Byham in the face. Williams missed two tackles and isn't getting much help from NT Letroy Guion (37), who got doubled back on Martin's cutback run for 41, stiff-armed on the screen Martin took for a 64-yard touchdown and steered out of the way on the last score. Guion is still at his penetrating, as he did on second-and-goal to force Martin cut on a run for minus-1, but his ability to anchor remains suspect. He got nicked up late. NT Fred Evans (30) defeated Nicks to make the tackle on second-and-goal, got his share of penetration and was overpowered by Nicks on the last touchdown. DE D'Aundre Reed (seven) sure hasn't shown much explosion off the ball.
There wasn't much SLB Chad Greenway (77 snaps) could do on the big screen that changed the dynamic of the game. He was in quarters coverage, keeping him outside long enough for Nicks to get a piece of him as Martin flew by. Greenway had decent coverage on the third-and-10 post to WR Vincent Jackson, too -- Freeman just put the ball in a place no one else could get it. He was typically active and productive against the run, although Martin stiff-armed him on a lead play that gained 16. The Bucs' success pounding the football (159 yards on 41 carries, 3.9 average) sucked the linebackers to the line of scrimmage and left the middle of the field exposed. They used a lot of base personnel with a backfield including FB/TE Erik Lorig, who kept sticking WLB Erin Henderson (47) in the hole. Henderson abandoned the cutback lane on Martin's 41-yard run -- the type of misplaced-eyes mistake he has made too many times before. He otherwise was OK against the run and covered well. At some point, the Vikings have to consider reinserting Henderson into the nickel for MLB Jasper Brinkley (73), who increasingly looks like he's just a guy. Brinkley made several plays in the run game but also missed two tackles and looked as stiff and slow in coverage as ever. Larry Dean (two) and Tyrone McKenzie (two) came on for the kneeldowns.
Defensive backs (1½)
For the third consecutive season, the Vikings are going to have to figure out how to adjust to the loss of CB Chris Cook (41 snaps), who broke his right arm trying to tackle Martin on a counter play in the third quarter. The result might have been different had the Vikings not lined up with 12 men on the field, forcing CB Antoine Winfield (68) to run off at the last second -- abandoning the slot where Cook got hurt. Cook had played well to that point, blanketing WR Mike Williams on a third-and-3 fade to the end zone that fell incomplete. Williams ran a similar route later against No. 3 CB Josh Robinson (70) and tapped his toes for a 3-yard score against a zero-blitz. The Vikings didn't want Winfield trying to cover Jackson, to the point they moved Robinson into the slot at times instead. They rolled single-safety coverage Jackson's direction, too, and held him to two catches for 40 yards. But there was plenty of damage done elsewhere. Four of the Bucs' five third-down conversions on the 16-play, 87-yard touchdown drive late came through the air: an out to Jackson for 14 against CB Marcus Sherels (two), an out to WR Tiquan Underwood for 12 against Winfield, a go ball to Williams for 34 against CB A.J. Jefferson (20) and a slant to Williams for 11 against Robinson. Jefferson acquitted himself well overall after taking over as the third corner in nickel, avoiding the rub to break up a wheel route to Jackson in the red zone and covering up Williams on a 2-point conversion. Freeman was 3-of-5 for 20 yards throwing into Robinson's coverage and 4-of-7 for 34 yards throwing at Winfield, who nearly had a pick on an out-breaking route for Underwood, appeared to guess wrong several times in zone and was unusually silent against the run. FS Harrison Smith (77) played more deep coverage once DC Alan Williams started bringing down SS Jamarca Sanford (76) for run support. Smith took a lousy angle on Martin's long run, could have been more aggressive on the jump ball to Jackson, let Lorig trickle into the flat for a 1-yard touchdown, hit Martin just short of the sticks on third-and-4 and got blocked downfield by Zuttah on the screen that went all the way. He needs to use his arms when he tackles, not just try to shoulder everyone to the ground. Once Cook departed, Smith drew the coverage assignment against Jackson in goal-line situations. Sanford watched Clark settle in front of him for 10, blasted Freeman after his release on the Williams touchdown and kept effectively cleaning up piles. S Andrew Sendejo (two) and S Robert Blanton (two) came on for the kneeldowns.
P Chris Kluwe heard the boos after shanking a 20-yard punt out of bounds, and rightfully so. He seems to be rushing to the ball at times. He ended up grossing 37.8, netting 37.7 and averaging 4.25 seconds of hang time on six punts, with a long of 55. Throw in Sendejo's failure to recover the punt Roscoe Parrish muffed, and it was a night of missed opportunities in every phase. The Bucs apparently had no interest in returning PK Blair Walsh's four kickoffs -- all touchbacks, even though none of them went deeper than 6 yards into the end zone. Walsh hit a 51-yard field goal and at this point that's not even news. He also converted two extra points. Harvin only could return one of Michael Koenen's eight kickoffs and caught a crease for 43 yards. Sherels averaged 10.3 yards on three punt returns, with a long of 16. Cook took an unnecessary roughness flag for hitting Leonard Johnson out of bounds, and Marvin Mitchell had a false start on a punt. That's inexcusable. Sanford drew a holding call while gunning against Johnson on a punt.