Breaking down the tape from the Vikings' loss to the Lions
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Here's the tale of the tape from the Minnesota Vikings' 34-28 loss to the Detroit Lions on Sunday, with grades on a scale of 0 to 5 in parentheses:
Hindsight makes this an easy call -- Christian Ponder (44 snaps) shouldn't have been on the field. The hip pointer didn't appear to have a substantial impact on his mobility. But the mistakes Ponder made and some of the throws he missed sure looked to be those of a rookie who only got a handful of reps in practice all week. Why put the future of the franchise in a position to fail? Ponder did complete 8 of 11 passes for 64 yards and two touchdowns on scoring drives of 80 and 60 yards. He connected on only 3 of 10 passes otherwise and served up three interceptions that, combined with Ponder's early fumble, led to 17 Lions points. CB Eric Wright caught the cross-body heave that got Ponder the hook. The ball CB Alphonso Smith drove on early probably was more disturbing to coaches, given that Ponder handed Denver a pick-six on a similar route against the same coverage one week earlier. The other pick was just an inside throw on a square out that sent Smith to the races. Double-clutching on the first play helped DE Cliff Avril get home for the strip, but it's tough to hammer the quarterback when his arm gets hit in 2.6 seconds. The same thing happened from the other side later. At times, Ponder could feel the pressure better and step up in the pocket. He held the ball for 3.7 seconds and stumbled into the third sack. Two other potential interceptions got dropped. Backup Joe Webb (41) didn't have much idea what he was doing and it didn't even matter. Three scrambles in as many third downs evoked the fetal position from Lions DC Gunther Cunningham, who played the spy game and didn't blitz again until the game's final play. If the protection held up, Webb had a play to make on the fade, too. His mistake was trying to make something out of nothing one more time. Seven carries for 109 yards will do that. OLB Stephen Tulloch knocked the ball free before catching a piece of Webb's facemask, but it still should've been called. The 65-yard touchdown scramble was something special, if for no reason other than the distance by which Webb outpaced the entire defense. A 2-yard touchdown pass was child's play. Only a handful of Webb's 23 pass attempts (12 completed for 84 yards) were rhythm throws. The rest was improv. Seven throws were off-target and several others were poor decisions into coverage, which Webb plainly struggles to read. There just has to be a way to utilize his athletic gifts every week. He played one snap at receiver before taking over at quarterback with 8 minutes, 2 seconds left in the third quarter.
Running backs (2½)
HB Toby Gerhart (68 snaps) showed again how his physical style can wear on opponents when given the opportunities. He carried 19 times for 90 yards (4.7 average), breaking seven tackles and racking up 51 of those rushing yards (56.7%) after contact. A lot of factors were involved, but it's hard to argue with rushing 35 times for 269 yards (7.7 average) as a team in All-Pro HB Adrian Peterson's absence. Gerhart also gained 19 yards on three receptions, including an unguarded 2-yard touchdown off a bootleg when Levy got stuck inside. The Lions played predominantly single-high coverage with a safety in the box until Webb blew things up in the second half. Gerhart kept getting hit at or behind the line and finding ways to churn forward. He fought through MLB Stephen Tulloch on fourth-and-2 and DT Sammie Hill on fourth-and-1. He recovered a Ponder fumble. He probably could have done more against Levy on the last play, but inside pressure flushed Webb into that rush in 2.1 seconds. Will HB Lorenzo Booker (seven) ever learn? He fumbled on two of his three carries for 17 yards (5.7 average) -- the latter on a shotgun handoff he never really reeled in, setting up the Lions for a field goal before halftime. That's a good way to never touch the ball again, but the Vikings went back to him on another shotgun draw on the final drive. FB Ryan D'Imperio (17) looked confused all day. He had a hand in three runs for loss, got bailed out by Gerhart on several other occasions and surrendered a QB pressure.
Even when his numbers aren't sensational, Percy Harvin (58) seems omnipresent. He gained 69 yards on 10 receptions (6.9 average), including a 16-yard stop in the zone and a 6-yard touchdown from Ponder on a slant. He gained 40 yards on four carries (10.0 average), including a 32-yard burst past RE Kyle Vanden Bosch on an end-around. He blocked well, too, and OC Bill Musgrave increasingly is exploiting the misdirection Harvin can create as a decoy. Devin Aromashodu (81) had four receptions for 47 yards, including a post-corner for 28 against the zone. He also was open on a pump-go Ponder overthrew while getting hit and took a slightly tipped "go" ball off the chest from Webb on the last drive. Aromashodu's blocking wasn't up to his usual standard. Once Stephen Burton (four) sprained a knee, Greg Camarillo (58) took over as the third receiver and absorbed a big hit on one of his two catches for 31 yards (15.5 average). His best play probably was batting down Webb's mindless floater, with Smith camped underneath it. Why Musgrave keeps using him as a lead blocker is a bit of a mystery, but Camarillo mostly held up well. Too often, two receivers ended up drawing coverage to the same area. That shouldn't be happening in Week 13.
Tight ends (2½)
The Vikings still can't find a way to get Kyle Rudolph (50 snaps) the ball, but not for a lack of trying. He was targeted four times, caught one for no gain, had another batted out of his hands and was the lone read of the final play, getting a one-on-one matchup against FS Chris Harris. The fade was there if the play hadn't blown up from the snap. Nine snaps in the backfield, 18 split out from the formation and 23 inline shows coaches' trust in Rudolph to handle multiple roles is growing. That or they just don't want to play Jimmy Kleinsasser (10), who mostly was on the field as an extra protector in passing situations. Cunningham rushed five or more on only 10 of 49 total dropbacks (20.4%) and the Vikings utilized chips or extra protectors 16 times (32.7%), not including eight bootlegs and sprint-out passes. Visanthe Shiancoe (64) walked in a screen for a 7-yard score, came open to the corner for 18 and caught one of Webb's few rhythm throws on an out for 8. The whole group blocked well overall. Rudolph sealed off two linebackers downfield on Webb's long TD.
Offensive linemen (1½)
It didn't take the Lions long to figure out they could speed-rush the Vikings' tackles all day. Avril beat RT Phil Loadholt around the edge on the first play, stripped Ponder in 2.6 seconds and watched as Tulloch fell on the ball in the end zone. That was the first of six QB pressures against Loadholt, who was a little better in the run game but just looked sort of disinterested. LT Charlie Johnson gave up five QB pressures on the other side -- none more costly than the instant penetration by Hill that wrecked the final play. Communication seemed to be an issue against the seven-man blitz. Why else would Johnson have been concerned with Levy off the edge? He also gave up two hits to Vanden Bosch, who beat Johnson around the edge for a strip-sack of Ponder in 2.4 seconds. Coaches ask a lot of Johnson in the run game and he mostly held up well, save for missing a cut on Hill that nearly ruined fourth-and-1. RG Anthony Herrera couldn't single-block anybody in the run game. All of the knee problems may be catching up with him. LG Steve Hutchinson allowed one QB pressure to Levy, was tight in his combo blocks with C John Sullivan and pulled well in a couple of crucial situations. It just seems to come and go with him. Sullivan is becoming such a sound technician in the run game. One of his shotgun snaps barely got off the ground, but Webb saved it.
Defensive linemen (3½)
There's nothing like facing Lions RT Gosder Cherilus to revive a dormant pass rush. One week after leaving with a concussion, LE Brian Robison (53 snaps) generated more QB pressures (six) than he'd managed over the previous five games combined, using a variety of moves to get QB Matthew Stafford off his spot and three times contributing to sacks. UT Kevin Williams (56) cleaned up one in 4.9 seconds, RE Jared Allen (57) got another in 5.0 seconds and NT Remi Ayodele (eight) dived to get a piece of the third in 3.9 seconds after Williams got the initial penetration inside. Robison also drew a holding penalty against Cherilus and beat him again to drop HB Aaron Brown for no gain on second-and-1. Maybe Robison should be limited in practice every week. He did take two penalties, for a neutral-zone infraction and a horse-collar tackle that'll probably bring another fine. Allen ran down Stafford two other times for sacks in 4.1 and 4.8 seconds that were more a product of hustle and coverage than anything. He only had one QB pressure against LT Jeff Backus and was quite pedestrian overall. Williams registered five QB pressures, got in on six tackles (four solo), kept defeating blocks off the snap and factored heavily on the final series, shedding to stop HB Keiland Williams on a second-and-1 draw and getting in Stafford's face along with Robison to force a low throw on third-and-2. He took an encroachment penalty. DL Christian Ballard (10) started in Ayodele's place but barely saw the field. DT Letroy Guion (17) beat C Dominic Raiola to stop a draw to Keiland Williams on third-and-2 early and then mostly gave way to NT Fred Evans (12), who didn't even see the field before halftime but came up with a big stop of Williams in a similar spot late. DL Everson Griffen (12) got seven snaps as a standup linebacker in a 3-3 nickel look that gave Detroit some trouble. He almost broke up a slant to TE Brandon Pettigrew on third-and-6 and looked lost later on third-and-5. Why can't he get more consistent opportunities to rush the passer?
Getting hurdled by Pettigrew for a first down on third-and-10 was an embarrassing moment for MLB E.J. Henderson (56 snaps), whose struggles in space aren't dissipating. He only had one solo tackle and was helpless in coverage when Stafford decided to throw checkdowns in front of him. He's still serviceable when he can play downhill, but it's obvious his days as a three-down linebacker are coming to an end. At least SLB Chad Greenway (56) had an excuse this week. Trying to take on blockers with a tender right elbow protected by a brace couldn't have been fun. Six of his team-high eight tackles (five solo) were made at least 5 yards downfield. The others were touch jobs after players went to the ground. Greenway also looked tentative as usual in coverage -- not that Greenway has much chance when matched against the likes of WR Calvin Johnson on a square-in for 14 yards. WLB Erin Henderson (16) was all over HB Maurice Morris on a checkdown that gained 2 and contained to drop Burleson after a gain of 1 on an end-around. He also got home twice on the extra-man rushes the Vikings sent 13 times in Stafford's 33 dropbacks (39.4%). It doesn't make much sense to leave him on the bench in nickel unless he's just not in the Vikings' future plans.
Defensive backs (1½)
Coaches finally pulled the plug on CB Cedric Griffin (seven snaps) after he inexplicably gave WR Titus Young a 6-yard cushion, then failed to get a reroute in a Cover-2 look that depends on it. SS Jamarca Sanford (56) bit to the post and Young sped untouched for a 57-yard touchdown. Earlier, Griffin gave Johnson a 9-yard cushion, prompting Stafford to throw the one-step option on a designed run play for a gain of 6. Until he's willing and able to play the technique coaches want, what's the purpose of letting Griffin get humiliated on a weekly basis? At least CB Asher Allen (55) -- who opened the game as the third corner in the nickel, then moved into the base defense when Griffin got benched -- is willing to compete on every snap. But he bit to the flat instead of sinking underneath Pettigrew's corner that went for a 12-yard touchdown and got shook by Young on an option slant that went for 25. Allen's coverage on a couple of back-shoulder throws in the red zone was superb. He's tackling better, too, although his size makes it easy for receivers to mug him up on the edge. He drew a holding penalty when WR Maurice Stovall took him to the ground. CB Benny Sapp (57) got caught crashing the run on an option screen to Burleson for 14 on the opening play and covered well on a couple of go balls to Young, who still should have caught one of them. He's not afraid to press anybody. CB Marcus Sherels (39) is a pitbull in the slot. Even Johnson couldn't get away after catching an out for 9 with Sherels on his leg. He got his hands on a couple of balls, too. The Vikings played sides in lieu of a shadow against Johnson, who finished with only three receptions for 29 yards. The zone coverage was enough of a mess the first 30 minutes they took a shot and employed more man concepts after halftime. Sanford got in trouble again by leaving his landmark, but that happens when there aren't reroutes to make the quarterback come off his first read. At least he tackled this time, getting in on eight (two solo) without a miss. Johnson got the worse end of their awkward collision. FS Mistral Raymond (46) looks timid when facing a head of steam in the open field. The rookie shoved a couple of players out of bounds and avoided a major misstep in coverage before cramping up and giving way to S Jarrad Page (12), who held up OK in his first action with the Vikings on defense.
It had to bother coaches to see S Eric Frampton pancaked at the point on Lions WR Stefan Logan's two big returns in the first quarter -- 28 yards on a punt and 42 yards on a kickoff. The shelf life is short for special teamers who can't stay on their feet. But Frampton's far from the only problem with a coverage group that also surrendered a 71-yard kick return, only to have it called back because CB Brandon Burton got held. A rotating cast of increasingly young players isn't helping matters. P Chris Kluwe only punted twice -- grossing 48.5, averaging 4.6 seconds of hang time and netting 24.5, thanks to Logan's return and a touchback Burton couldn't keep out of the end zone. PK Ryan Longwell hit four extra points and didn't attempt a field goal. He mixed his five kickoffs, putting two line drives into the end zone and also popping one up with 4.0 hang time that Logan fielded at the 13 on his way out of bounds. The average hang time was 3.8 seconds. Harvin caught a big crease on his 47-yard kickoff return. Sherels returned another for 16 yards and averaged 11.0 yards on two punt returns, fair-catching two others and letting two bounce into the end zone. Jared Allen took an encroachment penalty on an extra point. Booker was flagged for a block in the back on a punt return, and D'Imperio appeared guilty on the same play. The penalties need to abate.