Breaking down the tape from the Vikings' loss to the Packers
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Here's the tale of the tape from the Minnesota Vikings' 23-14 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, with grades on a scale of 0 to 5 in parentheses:
Pin this one squarely on the slumping shoulders of Christian Ponder (55 snaps), whose two awful turnovers in the third quarter were precisely the type of mistakes the Vikings couldn't afford. He waited 6 seconds to come up short across his body from the Green Bay 8, rather than living to fight again on third-and-6. He was off-balance as he threw late and behind on a cross into traffic, rather than setting his feet or going to another read. Packers SS Morgan Burnett intercepted both, changing a game the Vikings seemed ready to control where they intended: on the ground. Ponder completed only five passes for 36 yards over the Vikings' first nine drives, all on the possession that ended in a 7-yard touchdown pass. He finished 12-of-25 passing (48%) for 119 yards and a 41.9 rating that reflected many of the same old issues. He takes false steps in the pocket, bails after one read, hesitates on timing routes, aims the ball and just isn't accurate in the intermediate to deep passing game. The wheel route Ponder underthrew was one of 12 passes targeted at least 10 yards downfield. Only two were complete, both with the Packers playing softer coverage late in the fourth quarter. Granted, several throws were impacted by pressure and Ponder isn't working with much at receiver. But that's no excuse for two critical errors from a player who is being asked to be little more than a caretaker. He scrambled five times for 32 yards (6.4 average) and a first down. He lost 4 yards by running into his fullback with the ball. When Ponder stands tall and delivers the ball with conviction, he's fine, especially on in-breaking routes. Everything else is out of whack right now, though, and even his supporters in the building know this week is critical to getting things right.
Running backs (4½)
Does anyone in the NFL strike more fear in opponents right now than HB Adrian Peterson (45 snaps)? He ran for 210 yards on 21 carries (10.0 average), all in the first three quarters. He broke eight tackles, including two on the sweep that went for an 82-yard touchdown and three on the lead play that went for 48. Peterson also had a 23-yard run, gained 155 of his yards (73.8%) after first contact and caught a pass in the flat for a 10-yard gain late. He could have done more to come back for the underthrown ball up the sideline, but he's not exactly accustomed to running patterns 30-plus yards downfield. FB Jerome Felton (27) had some excellent turns, pancaking Packers BLB A.J. Hawk and MLB Brad Jones on separate plays and driving the former 4 yards backward before finishing the job. He got enough of Hawk to help spring both of Peterson's long runs, but Hawk beat him to the spot to stop a third-and-1 sweep late. The way Felton moved with Ponder and found a soft spot on his 13-yard catch is how it's supposed to be done. HB Toby Gerhart (10) curiously played the final series of the first half and otherwise was limited to third-down duty again, finishing with one carry for 2 yards and a catch for 7. He gave up a QB pressure to S Jerron McMillian on a blitz and drew a 15-yard penalty when CB Tramon Williams made helmet-to-helmet contact on a pass at the sideline.
So much for getting the ball in the hands of Jarius Wright (25 snaps). The speedy rookie barely saw the field, was targeted only twice and caught one pass -- a meaningless slant for 13 yards on the game's final play. Instead, the Vikings continued to roll primarily with Michael Jenkins (42) and Jerome Simpson (39), who finally got the group's first catch on a slant for 18 with less than 3 minutes to go. The Vikings still have nobody who can beat man coverage, at least not until Percy Harvin (ankle) returns, and the lack of separation showed all day. Simpson was targeted five other times and caught one, for 7 yards on a curl. Jenkins had Burnett tracking him all the way on the first interception, didn't stand a chance on the two "go" balls Ponder threw his way late and was up and down in the blocking phase. Devin Aromashodu (12) got mugged by CB Davon House on his only target, which fell incomplete on third-and-4. His borderline block on CB Casey Hayward was a hustle play that helped spring Peterson for 48. Stephen Burton (13) couldn't make a play on Ponder's low throw on third-and-7 and let ROLB Dezman Moses beat him backside for a stop in the run game. He might be the odd man out when Harvin returns.
Tight ends (2)
Kyle Rudolph (46 snaps) continues to be Ponder's preferred target -- although occasionally, it'd be wise to look elsewhere. He finished with six catches for 51 yards, including a 7-yard touchdown on the shallow cross Jones might have defended if he'd located the ball. Ponder also threw his way on third-and-5 early, nearly getting picked off by Burnett when Rudolph correctly adjusted his route against outside-leveraged coverage, and on the cross Burnett intercepted to punctuate a brutal day for the passing game overall. The drag Rudolph pulled down one-handed goes incomplete to almost anyone else in the league. Inline blocking remains a mixed bag from week to week. Rudolph had a hand in two runs for loss, gave Burnett a chance to stop the 82-yard run, let DE Mike Daniels get off to stop Peterson on third-and-1 and gave up a pressure to LOLB Erik Walden. He's still learning on that job. There wasn't much work for the backups with the Vikings playing so much base and three wides -- not that they earned it. Rhett Ellison (eight) mostly worked from the backfield and let Moses pick off Felton's path to ruin a zone play. John Carlson (eight) had a lousy block, too, and went out in pattern exactly once before relieving Rudolph on a hurry-up series late. Not much more to say there.
Offensive linemen (3½)
Without top pass rusher Clay Matthews (hamstring), Packers DC Dom Capers deployed a heavy mix of exotic pressures, rushing five or more 14 times in Ponder's 26 dropbacks (53.8%), not including six bootlegs and sprint-out passes. The Vikings didn't allow a sack and mostly held up fine in protection until Green Bay got on top and could turn things loose, with delayed blitzes providing the majority of heat late. RT Phil Loadholt (55 snaps) allowed one QB pressure to DE Mike Neal and was as physical as ever in the run game. Moses got one pressure against LT Matt Kalil (55), who sustained well in the run game, particularly on Peterson's 48-yard run. C John Sullivan (55) was clean in protection and had no trouble handling the Packers' nose tackles. LG Charlie Johnson (55) helped Sullivan completely wash DT Ryan Pickett out of one play but was just OK overall. Johnson struggled at times with NT B.J. Raji in the run game and had two protection lapses against Neal, who got him for a pressure that forced a scramble and a hit that caused a third-down incompletion. Backup RG Geoff Schwartz (16) sure looked good kicking out to get a piece of Williams on Peterson's long TD run, so why was RG Brandon Fusco (39) back to getting the majority of the work? He got walked back for two QB pressures, whiffed on Raji to ruin a lead play and continues to look comfortable only when he can work combo blocks with one of the NFL's best centers. Schwartz may be on a one-year deal, but he's worth a longer look.
Defensive linemen (2½)
RE Jared Allen (81 snaps) came up with the game's biggest play. Too bad referee Ed Hochuli decided to flex his muscle and wipe it away. The roughing call on DL Everson Griffen (28) was as bogus as it gets, considering he hit Packers QB Aaron Rodgers in the shoulder pads just after release. UT Kevin Williams (59) deflected the ball into Allen's hands for an interception, but it didn't matter -- another near-miss in a season of them for Allen. He did counter inside LT Marshall Newhouse to share a sack with Williams in 3.1 seconds and talked coaches into declining a penalty that would have erased a cleanup sack in 6.5, even though accepting it would have extended a field-goal try for struggling PK Mason Crosby. Allen added two QB hits and six additional pressures, nearly missing another sack after whipping Newhouse early. He was OK in the run game, chasing down FB John Kuhn from the backside for a stop on third-and-1, and took one of five first-half offside penalties by trying to club the center and draw a flag on the spike play that doesn't exist anymore. Williams took the first offside penalty, drew a holding call on LG Evan Dietrich-Smith and didn't do much to impact the run game. Neither did NT Letroy Guion (32), who looked gassed on the long opening series and took the offside penalty that gave Rodgers a free play to hit WR James Jones for a 32-yard touchdown. On the other hand, backup NT Fred Evans (27) repeatedly worked over C Jeff Saturday, held his ground on third-and-1 and exploded past Dietrich-Smith to wrap HB James Starks for loss on a draw. LE Brian Robison (75) got five QB pressures and a holding call against RT T.J. Lang before an ankle injury brought on backup Don Barclay, who got plenty of chip help, took two more holding calls and still gave Robison three pressures. Robison is up and down in the run game, but he always competes. Griffen had a hit and two QB pressures, forced Rodgers to throw late on the failed flea-flicker, was active in the run game, drew a holding penalty and was offside on the next snap. DT Christian Ballard (26) stopped one run off Saturday's block, then immediately took another third-down offside penalty. Those just can't happen.
Maybe it has something to do with the big on his left elbow, but WLB Erin Henderson (39 snaps) really doesn't look right. He kept getting eaten up by tight ends and fullbacks at the point. He let Barclay's pull deter him on a toss-sweep Starks took for a 22-yard touchdown. He couldn't chase the cross TE Jermichael Finley caught against him for 12 yards on third-and-5 in man coverage and didn't even react when WR Randall Cobb caught an in for 15 in Cover-2. Henderson did draw a holding call on Kuhn and got a free pressure on a delayed blitz. But he's not close to the guy who appeared to be ascending last season. MLB Jasper Brinkley (65) took most of the work in the nickel package the Vikings played on 62 snaps (76.5%) against Green Bay's three-wide offense. He allowed two completions for 11 yards, got away with a facemask on Cobb, did a decent job taking on lead blockers but couldn't get off to make plays and missed two tackles. SLB Chad Greenway (82) always seems to find his way to the football -- even when he starts the wrong direction, as he did a zone play to HB Alex Green that went for 9. He got caught in traffic on a throw to TE Tom Crabtree that gained 15, got shaken by Finley on an in-breaking route for 21 and unofficially was credited with 16 tackles (13 solo).
Defensive backs (2)
CB A.J. Jefferson (82 snaps) keeps getting in position to make plays on the football. The problem is he doesn't make them. The 32-yard touchdown was a perfect example, with Jefferson in front but seemingly cemented as Jones elevated over him in the end zone. He gave up six completions for 88 yards in eight total targets, including an out to WR Jordy Nelson for 10 yards on third-and-7, a deep slant to WR Greg Jennings for 18 and a 14-yard touchdown to Jones erased by Lang's holding penalty. Why did Jefferson stay in his pedal 3 yards past the marker on third-and-8 late as Jennings cut in at the sticks? The Vikings' relatively predictable mix of coverages, with a lot of man on third downs and minimal disguise, can expose how thin they are at the corners. CB Antoine Winfield (82) gave up five catches for 36 yards in as many targets, couldn't bring down Cobb behind the line on a one-step option route and totally misread the flow on Starks' TD run, leaving the sideline exposed. Rodgers was 2-of-5 for 20 yards throwing against No. 3 CB Josh Robinson (60), who made a nice play to stick Starks in the red zone and missed another tackle. FS Harrison Smith (82) never takes his eyes off the ball when it's in the air, and that's a good thing. He was all over the flea-flicker, along with SS Jamarca Sanford (55), and snared the ball at the highest possible point above Jennings. It appears Smith's working on his tackling technique, too, making a conscious effort to wrap up. Finley got away with jamming him in the face to get breathing room and a 7-yard gain on third-and-5. Sanford had a QB pressure and otherwise blended. Backup SS Mistral Raymond (27) was just trying to play the ball when he took a pass interference call over Cobb's back. Officials gave the Packers 3 extra yards to make it a 23-yard penalty. Later, Cobb crossed Raymond off a pump for 33. Rodgers finished 27-of-35 passing (77.1%) for 286 yards and a 98.0 rating that somehow doesn't seem all that bad.
LS Cullen Loeffler had three wayward snaps, including one that nearly took P Chris Kluwe into a block by House. But there didn't appear to be anything wrong with the operation on PK Blair Walsh's 42-yard field goal, which sliced wide right to seal the decision. The rookie hasn't missed many, but it was a bad time to miss his only try of the day. Walsh converted two extra points and didn't have a touchback in three kickoffs that averaged 4.17 seconds of hang time, none deeper than 5 yards into the end zone. Kluwe's five punts grossed 47.0, netted 44.8 and averaged 4.06 seconds of hang time. Marcus Sherels averaged 26.5 yards on two kickoff returns and 0.5 yards on two punt returns. What was the purpose of having the Packers re-kick late, eating another 7 seconds off the clock only for Sherels to make a fair catch 3 yards deeper? Andrew Sendejo took a penalty for an illegal block in the back. Robinson had two tackles.