Breaking down the tape from the Vikings' loss to the Packers on Sunday
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Here's the tale of the tape from the Minnesota Vikings' 33-27 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, with grades on a scale of 0 to 5 in parentheses:
Christian Ponder was far from perfect in his first NFL start, but give the rookie credit for bringing some guts to the position. All but one of his 13 completions in 32 attempts (40.6%) generated a first down or a score. Five were "explosive" gains of 16 yards or more, beginning with the 72-yard strike on a stutter-go that had a little too much air on the game's first play. Ponder made up for it two snaps later with a gorgeous end-line strike for a 2-yard touchdown. He was 7-of-13 (53.8%) for 93 yards on third down as the Vikings -- who entered 17th in the NFL in efficiency (36%) -- converted nine of 16 (56.3%). He stared down another third-down throw Packers CB Charles Woodson undercut for an interception, then gave Woodson a second pick by flat-lining a deep cross as Green Bay took control in the third quarter. That Ponder threw at Woodson five more times showed no fear. Completing two of them, including the late 24-yard touchdown against tight coverage, was as good as it got. OC Bill Musgrave called four bootlegs in the first half and only one in the second after ROLB Erik Walden's contain nearly generated an interception. Four other pass plays were sprint-outs, cutting the field in half and protecting a banged-up line. One yielded a zero-yardage sack when coverage held and NT B.J. Raji steered Ponder out. Ponder ran four times for 31 yards (7.8 average), including a 12-yarder on third-and-7, and had a 7-yarder called back on a penalty. He couldn't step out of the pocket quickly enough to avoid the other sack. The big strike early didn't stop the Packers from playing predominantly single-safety coverage, dropping a safety into the box 45 times in 66 snaps (68.2%), and corners kept driving aggressively on short and intermediate routes. Accuracy was improved from Ponder's cameo a week earlier, although six throws could be considered off-target. Of his 219 passing yards, 162 (74.0%) came through the air, as opposed to after the catch, with all but one of his completions traveling at least 5 yards beyond the line. Sixteen of Ponder's 30 non-throwaway passes (53.3%) were targeted at least 12 yards downfield. If that's not proof burying Donovan McNabb will take off the shackles from Musgrave's offense, what is?
Running backs (4½)
Take your pick of which run by HB Adrian Peterson (50 snaps) belongs atop this highlight reel. Was it the jump cut he used to reverse a fullback-lead play for 29 yards? The arm tackle he broke on a power-right play for 25? Or was it the inside-zone play that went for 54 when Peterson made two defensive backs miss just behind the line, then stiff-armed FS Morgan Burnett on his way to the sideline? Woodson still doesn't know where Peterson went after his juke on an inside handoff for 11 either. About the only chance the Packers had of stopping Peterson was to cave the line, as they did on a first-and-goal run that lost 1 early, or jump the snap count, as LOLB Clay Matthews did for a 5-yard loss. Toss out those doomed plays and Peterson's 7.3-yard average on 24 carries jumps to 8.2, with a goal-line grind through SS Charlie Peprah and BLB A.J. Hawk for a 1-yard touchdown tossed in for good measure. Peterson mostly protected well, too, although Hawk's inside blitz might have impacted Ponder's third-down misfire before the half. Peterson's only catch was a screen that went nowhere. HB Toby Gerhart (nine) gained 4 yards on his only carry, getting some extra action late after Peterson limped off. HB Lorenzo Booker (four) couldn't handle a third-down pass at the sideline, had a screen grounded at his feet and laid a great cut block on Walden to give Ponder a chance on third down. FB Ryan D'Imperio (10) twice stuck his lead block on MLB Desmond Bishop to help spring Peterson for a big one. DT Letroy Guion made his debut at fullback in the goal-line package, going nowhere against Matthews on one snap and getting just enough of Burnett to seal the hole on another.
Bernard Berrian's late scratch didn't cause much of an issue for this group, even after a sore rib sent Percy Harvin (18 snaps) to the sideline again. To that point, Harvin had been a decoy more than not -- catching two passes for 15 yards, carrying twice for 8 and making the Packers account for him on three fake handoffs. Michael Jenkins (56) barely left the field after RCB Tramon Williams bit on his stutter and turned him loose on the first play. That 72-yard catch was less impressive than the way Jenkins went up for the 24-yard touchdown on an in-cut against Woodson. He also caught an out for 15 against the zone, giving him a career-high 111 yards on eight targets. He stopped running on another double-move and Woodson almost had a third pick. Jenkins' blocking left much to be desired, particularly when working the edge on the backside of running plays. He just never seems to finish. Green Bay keyed on motion by all the Vikings' receivers, rolling down a safety each time one moved to a tighter alignment. Devin Aromashodu (61) played even more than Jenkins but caught only one pass for 13 yards early. He dropped a tough chance on a slant against Woodson and blocked OK. Greg Camarillo (26) hustled to cut Woodson on a broken play, settled in the zone for a 16-yard gain on third-and-13 and caught a cross for 19 against nickel CB Jarrett Bush on third-and-10. Maybe his rapport with Ponder will get him more chances. Finally.
Tight ends (2½)
It didn't take long for Ponder to connect with Visanthe Shiancoe (49 snaps), who shadow blocked Matthews on second-and-goal and then beat Burnett to the corner for a sprawling 2-yard score. Shiancoe also beat Bishop on an out for 8, Woodson on a stick route for 20 and Walden on a drag for 12 to convert third downs. He stopped running on the first interception and the final play up the seam, but there were other problems there. He dropped another late throw at the sideline. Shiancoe is playing better in the run game -- look no further than his sustain against Matthews on Peterson's first big burst. Something seems off with Jimmy Kleinsasser (29). He couldn't block Bishop on first-and-goal, kept losing his balance in space and let Matthews bull him on the Vikings' penultimate snap. Did he really get old this quickly? Kyle Rudolph (16) was a nonfactor.
Offensive linemen (3)
All things considered, this group held up relatively well. That includes backup C Joe Berger (66 snaps), who had a bunch of impressive turns against Raji in place of injured John Sullivan. He stuck his combo block before taking out Hawk on Peterson's 54-yard run but at other times struggled to get to the second level. Berger also took a holding penalty and had three issues with snaps -- one late to cause a false start, one early to cause a broken play and one high to the shotgun Ponder saved with his fingertips. RT Phil Loadholt (66) had Matthews on his side most of the game and surrendered three QB pressures, including a sack in 3.4 seconds that was partly on Ponder for holding the ball. He caved on first-and-goal but otherwise fought well in the run game. RG Anthony Herrera (53) deserves credit for gritting it out on a bad knee for as long as he did. He let Raji blow up the first-and-goal play and couldn't really pull once he had to drag the leg behind him. Rookie Brandon Fusco (13) made his NFL debut in relief, turned LE Ryan Pickett on one of Peterson's big runs and had no glaring mistakes. LG Steve Hutchinson (66) gave up three pressures and probably had his best performance in the running game. So did LT Charlie Johnson (66), who gave up one QB hit and one additional pressure to Walden. Not bad on a day DC Dom Capers rushed five or more 18 times in 28 dropbacks (64.3%), although the Vikings used chips or extra protectors 22 times (78.6%).
Defensive linemen (1½)
It was fitting C Scott Wells railroaded NT Fred Evans (27 snaps) out of his gap on the third-and-7 run HB James Starks took for 13 to clinch the decision. Wells may be one of the best centers in the game right now, but there's no way he should manhandle Evans and NT Remi Ayodele (11) with single blocks like this. Ayodele set the tone by getting locked up on consecutive runs by HB Ryan Grant for 8 and 7 early. He only got five snaps after that opening series -- enough time for him and Evans to get pancaked side-by-side on second-and-goal. Evans got tossed around some, too, although at least he shed a couple blocks late and got in on five tackles (two solo). Trouble at the nose surely isn't helping UT Kevin Williams (58), who faced a lot of double teams, did enough to disrupt some run plays against RG Josh Sitton and was credited with two tackles (one solo). Guion (19) got flagged for hitting QB Aaron Rodgers late on his only pressure and otherwise was invisible. DL Everson Griffen (17) got some work inside with the nickel defense, too, and continued to make things happen with his nonstop motor. He totaled four QB pressures, including a hustle sack in 5.0 seconds after the play broke down. RE Jared Allen (61 snaps) only hit Rodgers twice, but two of them were sacks in 2.5 and 2.7 seconds against LT Marshall Newhouse, who also let Allen beat him outside to drop Starks for a 3-yard loss on a draw. Too bad neither example nor a speech in the team meeting on Saturday night could get the rest of the defense up to Allen's level. The Packers chipped him a bunch, helping the line on 14 of Rodgers' 31 dropbacks (45.2%). LE Brian Robison (58) had five QB pressures, got wiped out on Starks' early run for 16, dropped Starks for a 2-yard loss and was brought to his knees on the final series by RT Bryan Bulaga, who baited him upfield on the second-and-6 draw Starks took for 20. Six rushes for 55 yards by Starks on the final series pushed the Packers' average to 4.4 yards on 26 carries. DL Christian Ballard (five) spelled Robison.
SLB Chad Greenway (63 snaps) isn't playing badly -- he's just not making a whole lot of plays. He submarined to stop FB John Kuhn on a second-and-goal dive for no gain. He got home on one of two blitzes. He was in on 11 tackles (five solo) and couldn't wrap up on five others. He gave up an 11-yard completion to TE Jermichael Finley on one of the few snaps the Vikings played in man coverage and was too deep to stop Rodgers from checking down anytime they were in deeper zones. Back in a full-time role after a week off, WLB Erin Henderson (63) shed TE Tom Crabtree to drop Grant for no gain on the first play, let Kuhn cross his face unopposed on a 2-yard touchdown, got mugged up by Sitton on the draw to Starks for 20 late and was in on five tackles (two solo). MLB E.J. Henderson (32) still looks so slow in space. He let Finley run the end line for a 2-yard score, couldn't scrape on Starks' 10-yard run opening the final series and failed to record a solo tackle. The bye can't come soon enough for him.
Defensive backs (1)
For the second consecutive week, FS Husain Abdullah (62 snaps) botched coverage on a game-changing throw. Losing sight of WR Greg Jennings on the scramble play yielded a 79-yard touchdown and the Packers never trailed again. Abdullah also was a step late on Kuhn's touchdown catch, blew a tackle on WR James Jones' 27-yard catch-and-run and whiffed on Starks at the sticks on the final drive. At least SS Tyrell Johnson (63) avoided a bust in coverage. Kuhn totally upended him in the hole late. With Antoine Winfield hurt and Chris Cook in jail, the Vikings scrapped their dime package and tried to protect their depleted cornerback group in zone coverage. It didn't work against Rodgers, who only threw one ball over the top all day while completing 24 of 30 passes for 335 yards, three touchdowns and a 146.5 rating. Eleven of those passes went at LCB Asher Allen (62), who gave up eight catches for 101 yards and took a questionable pass-interference penalty. He might have saved a touchdown by wrapping up Grant early. RCB Cedric Griffin (63) surrendered 19 yards on a pass-interference penalty and 41 yards on three completions, including one of three option throws Rodgers completed when he saw one of the corners bailing out in Cover-3. It appeared Griffin was limping a couple of times -- a bad sign, given everything he's gone through with his knees. A hurdling hit on Starks was one of the best things Griffin has done all year. Jennings' 26-yard catch early was threaded perfectly between Abdullah and nickel CB Marcus Sherels (31), who held up OK with minimal preparation. None of the six blitzes DC Fred Pagac sent on Rodgers' dropbacks (19.4%) involved a defensive back. Why were both safeties 10 yards deep on the first play of the Packers' final series?
Penalties continue to be a problem, although the Vikings seemed to get a raw deal at least twice. Abdullah was flagged for what looked like a shot on Bishop's shoulder on one punt. Later, Packers TE Ryan Taylor blatantly shoved LB Kenny Onatolu in the back to spring PR Randall Cobb's 42-yard return and officials missed it. Another illegal block tagged to rookie FS Mistral Raymond actually was on Asher Allen and looked like the right call. Allen also was flagged for running into PK Mason Crosby after an extra point. LG T.J. Lang put a little mustard on his block of Robison in midair, but that's no excuse for spiking the family jewels -- and Robison will pay for it. P Chris Kluwe grossed 40.3 yards, netted 29.8 and averaged 4.23 seconds of hang time on four punts. Gerhart's one-hop recovery of Cobb's muff set up a touchdown drive. Griffen was on the spot, too, but then again, he seemed to be everywhere. He was credited with two special-teams tackles, including the saving stop on Cobb's long return. PK Ryan Longwell converted field goals from 52 and 46 yards, plus three extra points. His kickoffs were improved, too. Three were touchbacks, two others were fielded at least 3 yards into the end zone and the average hang time was 3.7 seconds. Sherels fielded one punt over his shoulder at the 8, then let the next one drop near the 25 and roll to the 2. For all the positive things he's done with the ball in his hands, Sherels is bordering on becoming a liability. Harvin averaged 27.5 yards on two kick returns and Booker returned one for 21 yards. The rest sailed over their heads.