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Updated: November 28th, 2011 10:35pm
Breaking down the tape from the Vikings' loss to the Falcons

Breaking down the tape from the Vikings' loss to the Falcons

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

Here's the tale of the tape from the Minnesota Vikings' 24-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, with grades on a scale of 0 to 5 in parentheses:

Quarterbacks (2)

Christian Ponder's numbers -- 17-of-25 passing (68%) for 186 yards, a touchdown, no interceptions and a 103.1 rating -- were his best since the win at Carolina. But he directed only one sustained drive all day, took some blame for the lack of rhythm in an awful first half and kept getting off his spot in the pocket, whether from pressure or the anticipation of it. The best pass of Ponder's day found a mismatch up the seam for a 39-touchdown on fourth-and-13. He set up the Vikings' other touchdown with a 20-yard strike to the corner on third-and-10 that somehow got past CB Chris Owens, who took over the nickel after starting LCB Brent Grimes (knee) departed. OLB Stephen Nicholas dropped another potential interception after buzzing under a route on third-and-9. Two of four sacks were at least partly on Ponder, the latter on first-and-goal late when he didn't see the open man in the flat. A third was the product of an extended stumble after he got stepped on departing center. Ponder successfully extended several other plays, picking up first downs on completions of 11, 18, 14 and 5 yards after getting flushed. He also scrambled twice for 9 yards. Four incompletions were well off the mark. The Falcons rushed more than four sparingly (four times in 30 dropbacks, 13.3%) but generated pressure on 16 of 32 designed pass plays (50%), using straight rushes as well as a variety of zone blitzes that confused protection and a rookie who plainly has a lot of learning to do.

Running backs (1½)

When HB Toby Gerhart (39 snaps) catches a crease, he's a load to bring down. He can't create his own crease the way HB Adrian Peterson does, though, and that can be trouble -- particularly in short-yardage situations Gerhart's 6-foot, 231-pound frame seemingly is built for. Seven of his carries (41.2%) went for loss or no gain. That included zero-yard carries on second- and third-and-1 early, as well as a 2-yard loss on the fourth-and-goal play that sealed the decision. None of those are Gerhart's fault, but Peterson at least has a chance to bounce a play outside when he gets hit behind the line. Gerhart doesn't. He finished with 44 yards on 17 carries (2.6 average), including a 12-yard steamroll through three defenders that epitomized his game. A 1-yard touchdown was blocked perfectly. He had two catches for 19 yards and a third correctly wiped out after review. Pass blocking remains a surprising weakness for Gerhart, who had a hand in two sacks and allowed four total QB pressures. That's not acceptable. Even with Peterson out, HB Lorenzo Booker (six) can't get on the field. He allowed a QB pressure and didn't touch the ball. FB Ryan D'Imperio (nine) led well in limited chances. DT Letroy Guion got another snap as a lead blocker and wiped OLB Sean Weatherspoon on Gerhart's score -- about the only time anyone got the best of Weatherspoon all day.

Receivers (2½)

Percy Harvin (39 snaps) plays so much bigger than 5-11. He took away the corner from Owens for 20, slanted through MLB Curtis Lofton's zone for 19, beat Lofton again up the seam for the 39-yard touchdown and finished with 95 yards on eight catches (11.9 average) despite netting minus-8 on a snuffed-out screen to open the game. He also gained 11 tough yards on five carries (2.2 average). If Ponder had seen him alone in the flat on first-and-goal, it wouldn't have mattered the pileup kept officials -- and Vikings coaches -- from seeing Harvin extend the ball across the plane on third. Two of Ponder's misfires were sideline throws for Michael Jenkins (48), who caught two others for 25 yards (12.5 average). Jenkins' blocking comes and goes -- look at how he let CB Domonique Franks off the hook on a power-right play to Gerhart that got zilch. Devin Aromashodu (45) was targeted five times, caught one for 18 yards on a scramble play and had no prayer of beating coverage on a pump to the post. What else is new? The Vikings burned a timeout on first-and-goal because Greg Camarillo (two) couldn't get lined up. His days seem numbered.

Tight ends (1)

Once Weatherspoon followed Jenkins in motion and settled at the edge on fourth-and-goal, Visanthe Shiancoe (44 snaps) probably should have adjusted to disrupt his path into the backfield. Instead, Shiancoe stepped to block down, turned back too late and watched Weatherspoon slam into Gerhart 4 yards behind the line. The Falcons clearly knew the play and no one else had a chance to save it. At least Shiancoe was willing to play hard on a sore hamstring that limited his practice time all week. He mostly blocked well and caught three passes for 24 yards. Jimmy Kleinsasser (31) got extended action with Kyle Rudolph (quadriceps) sidelined, was helpless on the same cross-dogs that foiled Gerhart, took a false start and didn't get enough of S Thomas DeCoud on second-and-goal. His run-blocking otherwise was just OK. Allen Reisner (six) got his first real chance, elevated over Weatherspoon for a 5-yard gain in the scramble drill and mugged up OLB Mike Peterson on Gerhart's TD. The undrafted rookie deserves a longer look.

Offensive linemen (1½)

The first quarter had to be one of the worst in LG Steve Hutchinson's accomplished career. On the second series alone, Weatherspoon beat him three times to stop Gerhart for no gain -- the last by shooting the gap on third-and-1 while Hutchinson was still disengaging DT Jonathan Babineaux. Hutchinson mostly held up well after that, but the decline has been so obvious the past two weeks. He gave up a pressure on DT Vance Walker's bull rush. His pulling block took out Lofton on Gerhart's well-blocked TD run, which also featured a good seal by C John Sullivan on DT Corey Peters. Has anyone progressed more this season than Sullivan? His combo blocks are almost flawless and while he's not moving bigger noses, he's not getting walked back anymore either. It appeared Sullivan's snap came early on the third-down disaster that brought two flags and left Gerhart running for his life. DE John Abraham smashed Ponder off a stunt Sullivan might have picked up if he hadn't been slipping out to block a screen. Stepping on Ponder didn't help either, but that happens sometimes. DE Lawrence Sidbury got off LT Charlie Johnson to sack Ponder in 2.9 seconds on that play -- although it's tough to fault protection when the quarterback gets that deep. Johnson was better overall. He gave up another QB hit to DE Kroy Biermann on a counter, a pressure to Abraham and a key tackle to Peters, who got inside him to drop Gerhart for no gain. RG Joe Berger had a good day pulling and driving, setting the key block on Gerhart's 12-yard run. Babineaux penetrated against him to force the cutback on third-and-goal, though. RT Phil Loadholt was a beast in the run game, took a false start and gave up four QB pressures, including the rush by Abraham that forced Ponder to scramble on first-and-goal. His inconsistency has to drive coaches nuts.

Defensive linemen (1½)

RE Jared Allen (67 snaps) may finally be getting worn out -- no surprise, really, given how rarely he comes off the field. His old Kansas City Chiefs teammate, backup LT Will Svitek, got the start and shut down Allen with minimal assistance. No sacks. No pressures. No real impact, save for four solo tackles (one yielding a facemask penalty) on a day the Vikings needed Allen's pass rush most. LE Brian Robison (64) fared a little better against RT Tyson Clabo, hitting QB Matt Ryan once and pressuring him two more times. But that's not the level of production the Vikings need from their starting ends on a day they rush more than four only nine times in Ryan's 36 dropbacks (25%). It's time to give those guys a break. Robison had an uneven day in the run game, too. RG Joe Hawley gave up sacks to UT Kevin Williams (64) and backup DL Everson Griffen (nine) in 2.8 seconds and 3.1 seconds, respectively. Williams got the strip, too, but Ryan fell on it before DT Letroy Guion (27) could get there. Griffen's limited role remains a mystery. Persistent double teams largely neutralized Williams in the run game. There were way too many creases as HB Michael Turner and company gashed the Vikings for 72 yards on 16 carries (4.5 average) in the first half. Setting aside three kneeldowns, the Falcons gained only 20 yards on 10 carries (2.0 average) the rest of the way. NT Remi Ayodele (10) had a couple of good turns in the run game but continued to cede the bulk of snaps to NT Fred Evans (15) and Guion, who beat LG Justin Blalock to drop Turner for a 4-yard loss on a sweep. DL Christian Ballard (12) registered two QB pressures, drew a holding penalty and took an encroachment penalty. What would it take for this group to stay onside for one whole game?

Linebackers (2)

SLB Chad Greenway (67 snaps) had another active day, getting in on 16 tackles (seven solo). But a bunch of those were cleanup jobs, none of his eight blitzes got home and Ryan completed both passes he threw to TE Tony Gonzalez against Greenway, whose struggles in coverage had coaches game-planning to drop safeties on Gonzalez from the start. MLB E.J. Henderson (67) was more impressive, knifing through the line for several of his 12 tackles (nine solo) and hitting Ryan once. He kept his eyes on Gonzalez a little too long early, then blew the tackle that sprung WR Harry Douglas for a 27-yard touchdown. Changing directions in space remains an issue with that knee. A pedestrian performance from WLB Erin Henderson (19) suggests he isn't healthy either. It's still too easy to pick him off in the hole if he's caught flat-footed.

Defensive backs (1)

CB Benny Sapp (61 snaps) looks every bit like a guy who spent two months on the couch. Granted, coaches set him up to fail by playing him at left corner once improving Asher Allen (15) departed with a shoulder injury in the early going. But this type of performance could put a guy back on the couch for a team less desperate than the Vikings. Sapp dropped coverage too soon on the drag Douglas took for a score. He bit on the pump fake that would have set up WR Roddy White for a 54-yard touchdown if Ryan's throw had hit the mark -- and left S Tyrell Johnson (21) with a significant hamstring injury in the chase. Sapp also bailed out on third-and-4, leaving White wide open past the sticks, then blew the tackle to turn it into a 23-yard gain. He did break up the option fade to White on the next snap. He's just guessing a lot to make up for his lack of speed and conditioning. The Vikings mostly played sides with Sapp and CB Cedric Griffin (67), who managed to stay out of trouble. He drew an offensive interference call on WR Julio Jones and gave up two completions to White -- a slant for 13 in zone that set up a field goal and a back-shoulder play for 7 that let the Falcons run out the clock late. CB Marcus Sherels (39) got turned around on White's 6-yard touchdown, didn't have much chance of breaking on TE Michael Palmer's 3-yard score after rerouting Gonzalez and poked the ball out of Douglas' hands at the sideline to get a questionable incomplete call on third-and-4. S Jamarca Sanford (67) was the nearest man on the corner-post to Douglas that gained 18, bit on Gonzalez's outside step to allow another 18-yard completion up the seam, collided with Griffin while trying to break on the deep cross White caught for 26, got in on four tackles (three solo) and missed two. Johnson was asked to cover Gonzalez a lot before departing and held up well, making sure tackles after catches of 7 and 5 yards. S Mistral Raymond (46) replaced him and was OK, getting in on three tackles (one solo).

Specialists (3½)

Talk about a heads-up play by D'Imperio, who saw P Chris Kluwe's punt take a sideways hop at the Atlanta 44, shoved Franks into the ball and then picked it up without leaving his feet. It set up a touchdown and changed momentum at a time it seemed the Vikings might be done. Toss in a diving tackle that saved a big play early, and this was a banner day for D'Imperio on special teams. WR Kerry Meier's crackback block 10 yards from the play probably ended LS Cullen Loeffler's season. Jared Allen handled snapping duties the rest of the way without incident. If there was one hiccup for Mike Priefer's unit, it was the 42-yard punt return sprung for WR Eric Weems by S Shann Schillinger's questionable block on S Eric Frampton at the point. Allen chased Weems down from behind. Harvin got one kick return and nearly went the distance, juking twice at full speed and getting caught from behind only because he slowed to attempt a stiff-arm on Owens, who took him down after 104 yards. The things Harvin can do in space are absolutely remarkable. Sherels averaged 24.5 yards on two kick returns and 1.7 yards on three punt returns. PK Ryan Longwell converted two extra points and averaged 3.73 seconds of hang time on three kickoffs, one a touchback and the others returned for a 26.0 average. Kluwe grossed 47.3 yards, netted 39.6 and averaged 4.56 seconds of hang time on seven punts, one downed inside the 20. LB Kenny Onatolu had two tackles.

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
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