Breaking down the tape from the Vikings' win over the 49ers
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Here's the tale of the tape from the Minnesota Vikings' 24-13 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, with grades on a scale of 0 to 5 in parentheses:
Five times, Christian Ponder (79 snaps) faked a handoff on a seven-step drop and looked for the deep ball. Five times, Ponder settled for an intermediate pass (twice), checkdown (twice) or scramble (once) on plays that netted 49 yards combined. That sums up the way Ponder kept the Vikings offense moving on a day his receivers once again struggled to create separation downfield. Only five of his 35 targeted pass attempts (14.3%) were thrown at least 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, and four of those were incomplete. He completed eight balls behind the line and racked up only 198 yards on 21-of-35 passing (60%). It didn't get any better than his backpedaling floater to convert on fourth-and-goal early. He had S Dashon Goldson in his face and put it on the money anyway. The second touchdown was one of Ponder's few questionable decisions, since another receiver wide open, but that's a hot throw he'll make every time against Cover-0. The 49ers were in man-to-man when Ponder saw his two reads covered, broke pocket immediately, evaded S Donte Whitner around the 10 and then dived through Goldson's arms at the goal line for a 23-yard score. He kept several other plays alive until receivers could settle into the 49ers' zones. He's so athletic, yet he also threw away the ball from inside the pocket a couple of times when he felt the clock ticking and didn't take a sack. That's progress. Whitner dropped an easy interception that could have turned the tide in the fourth quarter, though. Every now and then, it's OK to go down.
Running backs (3)
The Vikings know HB Adrian Peterson (49 snaps) doesn't have his burst back yet, so they keep running him between the tackles, where his power and quick-cut ability can keep the chains moving. Most of the zone plays went to the right -- Peterson's strong side as he continues to come back from left knee reconstruction and away from 49ers RDT Justin Smith, who was largely a nonfactor in the face of persistent double teams. San Francisco had Goldson at least halfway down on most running downs. Peterson made a jump cut past ILB NaVorro Bowman for 3 yards on third-and-1, powered for first downs on a couple of checkdowns and finished with 107 yards on 27 touches (4.0 average). He threw the key block on Ponder's touchdown run, too. Peterson did drop one of four passes thrown his way and fumbled -- although that was forgotten after the way HB Toby Gerhart (23) clowned it up in traffic at the end. Gerhart's progress was stopped on referee Ken Roan's clueless (and illegal) overturn, but what's the excuse for coughing it up on two of his next three carries? No wonder coaches wouldn't even put Gerhart on the field for the kneeldowns. He finished with 18 yards on eight carries (2.3 average) and 20 yards on two catches, dropping another. His pass protection was solid in limited turns. FB Jerome Felton (36) surrendered one QB hit to OLB Ahmad Brooks to force an incompletion and was just OK all around. RB Matt Asiata (five) had a red-zone catch for 1 yard wiped out by a penalty.
Few NFL players are giving coordinators more headaches right now than Percy Harvin (53 snaps), who actually had his quietest game with nine catches for 89 yards (9.9 average) and one carry for 9. Five of those receptions came behind the line of scrimmage. Only two were even intermediate routes, for 17 yards on a corner and 13 yards on a cross after the play broke down. OC Bill Musgrave just keeps designing ways to get him the ball in space and Harvin is willing to crash into anything in his path. He played five snaps in the backfield and motioned through there plenty more, forcing the 49ers to adjust and tip their hand. It speaks volumes Ponder was willing to throw Harvin the ball at the numbers with 9 seconds left in the half and no timeouts. Not many guys can get out of bounds when the edge block gets blown up. Harvin also recovered Peterson's fumble, bailing out his star halfback on another day he bailed out the rest of the receivers, too. Michael Jenkins (64) ran a couple double-moves and barely even got out of his breaks before the ball sailed well over his head. He was targeted five times, caught one for 8 yards and fell down on the ball Whitner should have picked. Jerome Simpson may end up taking more snaps off him than Devin Aromashodu (39), who stayed alive on a cross for 13 and found a soft spot in the zone for 11 on third-and-9, one play before Ponder's TD run. Stephen Burton (10) ducked out of the way of an option throw on the opening drive and didn't see another target. LCB Carlos Rogers got called for holding him in the end zone to extend one red-zone possession.
Tight ends (3½)
This is what Kyle Rudolph (67 snaps) can do, particularly in the red zone. He crossed through the zone for 16. He contorted his body through Whitner's tackle to convert a slant on third-and-10. He lost peeking OLB Aldon Smith at the line and ran the back of the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown. He took a Goldson shoulder to the chest to draw a bogus personal foul, five plays before batting Whitner's facemask with the same right hand he used to bring in a 2-yard TD on a stick-nod route. Rudolph was quiet for a while between the scores and finished with only five catches for 36 yards. But part of that was coaches' willingness to finally give him some breathers and play John Carlson (30), who let Bowman climb his back to break up the only pass thrown his way. Carlson was notably competent in the blocking phase, mostly going against Brooks. Missing Bowman on the throw to Harvin late in the first half could have been a killer. Rudolph's blocking was better than it's been, too, although that's not saying much. He played five snaps in the backfield and was detached from formation 16 times to Carlson's six. Rhett Ellison (19) spelled them some, mostly inline, and held up OK.
Offensive linemen (3)
The Vikings weren't going to let Justin Smith beat them. Time and again, they double-teamed the All-Pro in the run game as well as protection, utilizing line slides and even turning loose other rushers at times to keep him out of the backfield. They moved the pocket with sprintouts and bootlegs five times and used chips or extra protectors 16 times in Ponder's 34 dropbacks (47.1%) even though San Francisco rushed five or more only 11 times (32.4%). The gambit worked -- Smith registered his only QB hit well outside the pocket, had one additional pressure against LG Charlie Johnson (79 snaps) on a seven-man rush and was credited with just three solo tackles. He did muddy consecutive red-zone runs in the third quarter, but that was about it. Johnson had some excellent turns and really only got into trouble when he twice failed to pick up Aldon Smith on a T-E game, leading to pressure on Ponder. He could have finished better at times in space and was tagged with the Vikings' only penalty, a phantom holding call. LT Matt Kalil (79) ran into similar issues with the 49ers' games, at one point giving up pressure to Aldon Smith four times in five snaps while he tried to keep tabs on inside blitzes. Other than that, Kalil avoided any glaring miscues, though he continues to struggle when asked to single block in the run game, even on the backside. C John Sullivan (79) continues to battle on that bum ankle but couldn't stick a couple of blocks at the second level and appeared to wear down late, when he had a hand in three runs for loss or no gain. He was at his best combo-blocking with RG Brandon Fusco (79), who just doesn't look comfortable playing in the bubble. Fusco almost seemed out of control while trying to get his hands on Bowman and ILB Patrick Willis, gave up a pressure to LDT Ray McDonald and didn't block anyone when Bowman blitzed through untouched to hit Ponder on the near-interception. RT Phil Loadholt (79) bounced back from his disaster in Indianapolis, taking a few lumps against McDonald and allowing three QB pressures, but nothing egregious. Musgrave introduced a new wrinkle to his unbalanced package, having Loadholt motion to the left side of the formation.
Defensive linemen (3)
The 49ers game-planned to eliminate the Vikings' best defensive weapon, too, calling a bootleg and two sprint-outs on the first possession alone to get QB Alex Smith away from RE Jared Allen (49 snaps), who missed some time after Smith stepped on his neck in the third quarter. But Allen got the last laugh on his third and final QB pressure, with a strip-sack against LT Joe Staley in 2.6 seconds to seal the decision. LE Brian Robison (53) set it up with his fourth pressure against RT Anthony Davis, recovered Smith's fumble and had his motor running hot as usual. This wasn't his most productive day, though. The big brace Robison was wearing on his tender left elbow might be part of the reason. UT Kevin Williams (40) smacked Smith on the ball he threw high for an opening WR Randy Moss to the pylon, hit him again later and batted down a pass. Like it or not, Williams is benefitting from the lower snap counts. He looks refreshed. NT Letroy Guion (27) held his ground well inside but still just isn't making many plays. The Vikings expected a steady dose of the heavy sets the 49ers rolled out in the third quarter. Instead, the 49ers oddly spent most of the day trying to attack outside and ended up with only 63 yards on 16 carries (3.9 average), not including Smith's four scrambles for 26. DL Everson Griffen (30) got extra work at end in Allen's place and continued to take nickel rushing turns inside, lining up three times in a two-point stance. TE Vernon Davis beat his drop on a slant to convert on third-and-5 and Griffen's pass rush was nonexistent. NT Fred Evans (16) held up well in limited turns against double teams. UT Christian Ballard (19) blended as usual.
This is the SLB Chad Greenway (58 snaps) the Vikings wanted to re-sign so badly before last season. He led the way with 16 tackles. He blasted Smith outside the pocket in 4.3 seconds for one sack and finished off the quarterback's stumble for another in 5.9 seconds. He rocked HB Kendall Hunter so hard on a blitz Hunter ricocheted into Smith, who threw incomplete. He made two excellent open-field tackles, including a stop of TE Delanie Walker in man coverage on third-and-3. When he brings the fire, it's fun to watch. MLB Jasper Brinkley (52) made some key stops, too -- most notable, an ankle tackle of WR Kyle Williams just short of the sticks on third-and-8. He also had a QB hit and laid a big hit on Hunter at the edge. But Brinkley looks a little lost anytime he's off the line, which he was quite a bit while handling nickel duties in place of Erin Henderson (concussion). WLB Marvin Mitchell (35) replaced Henderson in the base defense had a QB pressure, fought well at the line, was the first man on Gore's fumble and was a little slow to react in coverage -- no surprise, given all the time he has missed. Greenway was the most frequent blitzer on a day the Vikings sent five or more 11 times in Smith's 35 dropbacks (31.4%). The 49ers used chips or extra protectors 13 times (37.1%).
Defensive backs (3½)
Six days after challenging his teammates' manhood in a rare speech, CB Antoine Winfield (57 snaps) showed he's still as tough as they come, even at age 35. His nine tackles came with a high degree of difficulty, whether he was sliding under pulling LG Mike Iupati to stop a toss to Hunter or defeating Gore's block to knock Smith out of bounds on a third-and-3 scramble. He sunk under WR Michael Crabtree to break up a pass late, too. It's quite an example for the likes of No. 3 CB Josh Robinson (23), who picked off Smith's wayward throw for Crabtree on the next play. Earlier, Crabtree caught a pass in the flat and ran over Robinson to the sticks. The rookie is a willing tackler -- he just needs to keep getting stronger. CB Chris Cook (58) lined up over Moss on 16 of 20 snaps (80%) and clearly was under orders to give him whatever he wanted underneath. The result for Moss: three catches in six targets for 27 yards, none longer than 12. Press coverage would have been a safe play, too, but Moss looks so finished it probably didn't matter. Smith threw at Cook eight times and completed five for 32 yards, including a 1-yard touchdown to Davis that Cook lost right off the line. He just looked a little off all day. CB A.J. Jefferson (three) worked in the dime package instead of Marcus Sherels and played Davis well in a man-to-man situation on third down late. Maybe that's part of the answer for offenses that like to spread things out with bigger receivers and tight ends. The Vikings played roughly nine snaps in man coverage and the rest in a mix of zones, with SS Harrison Smith (58) lining up for roughly one-third of the snaps within 8 yards of the line. Only three of Alex Smith's 24 completions (12.5%) were targeted more than 10 yards downfield, and the Vikings gave the vertical threat no respect, at times rolling one safety from the box or a quarters look to the deep middle or half after the snap. Harrison Smith chopped down Walker to break up a screen for one of his nine tackles. SS Mistral Raymond (13) had a zone-left run to Gore played well before his ankle gave out, forcing S Jamarca Sanford (44) into action. Davis got a clean release against Sanford's man coverage on a fade for 20. But Sanford otherwise held up quite well, making a saving tackle on Gore's 12-yard run and stripping Gore on the next series. The Vikings can work with that. Opponents are going to keep going after him in coverage, though.
Kalil got the push and Guion got the block on 49ers PK David Akers' 43-yard field goal, yielding a six-point swing after PK Blair Walsh drilled a 52-yarder at the other end as the first half expired. Two blocked kicks in three games means opponents may have to spend a little extra time figuring out how to hold the line. Walsh also converted three extra points and 3.98 seconds of hang time on four kickoffs, all of which reached the end zone. The outlier hung only 3.2 and Kyle Williams returned it 94 yards through a hole that opened when Ballard ended up on the ground. Larry Dean got doubled and ended up behind Ballard, while Sherels didn't fire off his block on the outside and only the hustle of Robinson and Sanford kept it from going the distance. Walsh last kickoff hung 4.3 down the middle, Ballard got doubled out of the play and Sherels let Williams bounce outside for 50 before Robinson ran him out. Somehow, those two drives only yielded three points. P Chris Kluwe grossed 45.3, netted 34.3 and averaged 4.2 seconds of hang time on three punts, including a beauty that bounced at the 7 and could have been downed inside the 5 if Jefferson had flipped it back a little harder. Harvin's three kickoff returns averaged 24.7 yards. Sherels fair caught two punts. Dean had two tackles.