Breaking down the tape from the Vikings' win over the Bears
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
Here's the tale of the tape from the Minnesota Vikings' 21-14 win over the Chicago Bears, with grades on a scale of 0 to 5 in parentheses:
Christian Ponder (57 snaps) looked out of sorts in the pocket at times, threw another ghastly interception and finished with only 91 yards on 11-of-17 passing (64.7%). He also completed 6 of 7 passes on third downs with four conversions -- none tougher than a dart he threw with two Bears in his face in the fourth quarter. For all his flaws, Ponder can hit those in-breaking throws at a high rate when he sets his feet. That OC Bill Musgrave took the ball out of Ponder's hands on several other occasions said more about the situation than anything. And the numbers would look better if a beautiful deep ball Ponder launched after absorbing a hit from WLB Lance Briggs hadn't been dropped in the end zone. His one glaring mistake was throwing too late up the seam and gifting an interception for SS Major Wright. He coughed up the ball on a sack by LE Corey Wootton in 2.7 seconds, too, but was saved by a forward progress call. Take away those plays, and Ponder executed the conservative plan Musgrave handed him. He ate one third-down drop in favor of a 3-yard scramble and threw away another before the rush arrived. He targeted only five passes 10 or more yards downfield and didn't complete any of them. He has issues and the Vikings are scheming around them. But Ponder did enough here to help them play keepaway. With a long-shot playoff bid still within reach, they'll take it and worry about the rest later.
Running backs (4½)
Week after week, HB Adrian Peterson (44 snaps) seems to find a way to change the game. He got loose for 51 yards on the Vikings' first snap, capped that drive with a 1-yard touchdown plunge and scored from the 1 again on the next series, crashing through FS Chris Conte and MLB Nick Roach to cross the plane. He had 104 yards in the first quarter and finished with 154 on a career-high 31 carries (5.0 average), doing much of his damage on cutbacks that exploited the Bears' pursuit. He forced seven missed tackles and gained 86 yards after first contact (55.8%). One of his two catches went for 14 yards. If only Peterson were protecting well enough to leave him on the field regularly for third downs, too. He gave up a pressure to Wootton that led to a third-down incompletion and a hit to Roach that caused another miss. HB Toby Gerhart (13) played the rest of the third downs and gained 17 yards on three carries, including a draw play that went for 6 and a first down late in the first half. Another third-down draw had a chance if Gerhart had seen the cutback lane. FB Jerome Felton (26) crushed Wright in the hole on the first TD and was a sledgehammer all day, as long as no other blockers got in his way.
For the first time in months, Michael Jenkins (30 snaps) justified his presence on the field. All four of his catches for 36 yards came on third down -- including the third-and-6 slant he yanked down over CB Kelvin Hayden late. It's no surprise the Vikings wanted to run those zone-beaters for him, given the way Jerome Simpson (15) been struggling. Simpson caught a slant and broke Hayden's tackle for a 13-yard gain early and wasn't heard from again. Even Devin Aromashodu (23) got more opportunities, although that might not happen again after he misplayed what should have been a 45-yard touchdown. The Vikings had the look they wanted and Ponder dropped one in the bucket, only for Aromashodu to stumble instead of high-pointing the football and let it bonk off his helmet. Jarius Wright (24) caught two passes for 29 yards, dropped another on a slide route SLB Geno Hayes snuffed out and had two steps on Roach when Ponder threw the interception. The Bears made a point of taking away the flats, but Wright did beat Briggs once after motioning to an "F" alignment. Getting a piece of DE Shea McClellin downfield on Peterson's big run showed some hustle. It appeared Ponder expected Wright to settle instead of running a slant on the second-and-8 clownshow. Stephen Burton (16) mostly played on running downs and blocked well.
Tight ends (2)
Credit Rhett Ellison (22 snaps) and John Carlson (19) for helping the Vikings open the game on the right foot. From a set overloaded with three tight ends inline right, Carlson worked Hayes to the ground, Ellison got Roach turned around and Peterson exploded between them before bouncing outside. That was the highlight on a day the group's lone catch was a slide route to Ellison that lost 2 yards. Carlson was targeted once, drew a defensive holding call on Conte and blocked well overall. Ellison was a mixed bag -- pancaking Idonije once, mauling Wright on a power run that gained 15 and letting Briggs blow up a lead play for a 6-yard loss. Kyle Rudolph (50) had a hand in three runs for loss or no gain, nearly surrendered a safety by letting Wootton work him down the line and really was only targeted once, on a corner route that had no chance once Ponder got hit. He was supposed to get a screen once, but Hayes wrecked it. He came wide open at least once over the middle, but Ponder went elsewhere. Rudolph has the toughest job of the bunch, especially when he's inline this much. If he's going to play almost every snap, though, he needs to touch the ball to make it worthwhile.
Offensive linemen (2½)
LT Matt Kalil (57 snaps) was bound to have an off-day eventually. That taking a holding penalty and allowing a hit and two QB pressures to veteran RE Julius Peppers counts as an off-day confirms how good the rookie has been all season. Peppers got the better of Kalil several times in the run game, too, but he was OK overall there. RG Brandon Fusco (41) actually had one of his best days, coming up clean in protection and playing with more power in the run game than he has shown all season. The Vikings pulled and kicked him out a bunch and Fusco seemed to know where he was going, even getting a piece of CB Charles Tillman on a power-left play that went for 16 despite losing his balance. That helps explain why snaps were limited again for backup RG Geoff Schwartz (16), who let Briggs destroy a lead play and otherwise was fine in limited turns. C John Sullivan (57) gave up one QB pressure to DT Henry Melton and mostly was solid at the point in the run game. He got walked back once by NT Matt Toeaina and let Idonije rip him to stop Peterson on third-and-4 late. The Bears did plenty of pre-snap shifting, but it was almost as if Sullivan knew what was coming. The only manufactured pressure in six extra-man rushes (37.5%) came from good timing by the linebackers through the "A" gaps. LG Charlie Johnson (57) showed some guts by playing through a left ankle injury that had him calling for help before he realized no one saw him. He gave up one hit to Idonije and can always finish better at the second level. It's a shame RT Phil Loadholt (57) had to revive memories of his past travails with three false starts, even if at least one of them could have been called on someone else. He otherwise had another solid day, allowing no pressure. He did let Idonije get inside him once to stop a draw.
Defensive linemen (3)
Even RE Jared Allen (72 snaps) hasn't seen this much attention in awhile. The Bears used chips or extra protectors on 44 of 62 pass plays (70.9%), largely refusing to free-release HB Matt Forte even when they needed to gain chunks at the end. Allen saw double teams much of the day and was held to two QB hits, a pressure and a sack in 2.8 seconds wiped away by the latest personal foul on DL Everson Griffen (39). Allen still made an impact, though, drawing two holding penalties against LT J'Marcus Webb and posting a couple of stops in the run game. The personal foul for hitting Forte out of bounds was practically unavoidable but might draw a fine anyway. Ditto Griffen's facemask-to-facemask hit on QB Jay Cutler, who was going down regardless and ended up departing with a stiff neck. Griffen sacked Cutler once in 2.8 seconds, torched Webb inside for a backed-up stop, showed some athleticism by chasing down a screen in space and got away with a flagrant block in the back on an interception return. LE Brian Robison (70) got the other sack and a strip with a long pursuit in 3.7 seconds against RT Jonathan Scott, who made a fairly miraculous recovery at the sideline. Robison had 10 additional QB pressures, one of them on an E-T game that might have impacted Cutler's throw on the second pick. He also took an offsides penalty and couldn't stop a scramble short of the marker on third-and-10 after UT Kevin Williams (54) let Cutler off the hook. Williams missed a chance to drop Forte for loss on a draw and just seems to be stuck on near-misses. He drew a holding penalty on backup James Brown and batted down a pass. So did NT Fred Evans (21), who had a QB pressure against C Roberto Garza and held up OK against combo blocks. It's no surprise NT Letroy Guion (27) had some positive turns against Garza, too, impacting a couple of run plays and hitting Cutler once. Even DL Christian Ballard (28) made his presence felt inside in both phases, beating LG Edwin Williams off the ball to redirect a power run and registering five total QB pressures, one of them a hit Cutler felt came late. Credit this group right along with the coverage for holding Cutler to 22-of-44 passing (50%) before he gave way to backup QB Jason Campbell (6-of-9, 66.7%).
MLB Jasper Brinkley (60 snaps) couldn't have looked much worse in the early going, letting Forte jump-cut past him on a sweep and getting all turned around on a play-action, sitdown slant to WR Brandon Marshall for 12 yards on third-and-4. But Brinkley settled in from there, running down a bunch of plays to the edges and getting a decent drop that might have put more air under the second interception. The one time TE Kyle Adams had Brinkley beaten up the seam, Cutler hit him in the rear end. WR Devin Hester could have made him pay for losing vision on a slant in the red zone, too, but the ball clanked off Hester's hands. The Vikings rushed five or more eight times in 54 dropbacks (14.8%) -- four of them with SLB Chad Greenway (78) and a safety blitzing from the same side. Greenway never got home, but neither Cutler not Campbell completed a pass for a first down against that look. Three of five passes into Greenway's coverage were complete, for 22 yards. WLB Erin Henderson (46) took a bunch of nickel reps, made one good play off Webb's block and was OK overall.
Defensive backs (4)
Good thing WR Alshon Jeffery fell down on the opening series. Otherwise, this would have been a game to forget for CB Josh Robinson (50 snaps), rather than one to remember. In 11 targets, Robinson gave up seven completions (63.6%) for 96 yards and two touchdowns and took a 9-yard pass interference penalty. He gave Jeffery a clean release and didn't sink enough on the first score from 23 yards out, then got boxed out by Marshall on a 16-yarder late. He also whiffed on TE Kellen Davis on a screen. But the pass Robinson intercepted after Jeffery slipped on an in-cut -- perhaps with an unflagged nudge from the rookie -- made up for everything else. Robinson returned it 44 yards to set up a touchdown, narrowly stepping out at the 5. FS Harrison Smith (73) also got one and finished the job, weaving 56 yards for a touchdown after Cutler overthrew Cutler on another in-breaking route. The Vikings did a better job disguising their coverages and were in single-high zone looks on both picks, with a blitz in front of the first. The main problem was dealing with Marshall, who kept settling into voids and outmuscling people for the football. CB A.J. Jefferson (72) allowed completions of 39, 20, 22 and 18 yards in eight targets before suffering a concussion in a collision with Henderson and SS Jamarca Sanford (48). But Jefferson also halted a pair of Bears drives, blanketing Jeffery on a third-and-6 go ball and breaking up an in-cut to Marshall from behind on third-and-8. CB Antoine Winfield (78) pressed more than the others, was targeted six times, broke up one and allowed two completions for 24 yards. He also snuffed out a swing pass to Forte on third-and-5, missed two tackles and lost contain on the counter Forte took for 30. CB Marcus Sherels (six) had to finish in place of Jefferson -- a rare appearance outside -- but Campbell didn't throw his direction. Smith drew coach Leslie Frazier's ire twice before the pick, getting sucked up on a go ball to Marshall that should have been double covered and failing to dive on the fumble Scott instead of looking to pick it up and run. He missed one tackle, hit Cutler twice in four blitzes and sat out a series after the interception because he needed oxygen. Sanford got pulled after dropping what could have been a third interception, giving more time to SS Mistral Raymond (35), who got bailed out by a Jeffery drop at the goal line.
P Chris Kluwe can wear whatever he wants on his jersey as long as he punts like this. He grossed 45.7 yards, netted 37.4 and averaged 4.1 seconds of hang time on seven boots, including one that bounced out at the 3 and another Sanford saved to set up a drive at the 5. Devin Hester had a 21-yard return, but that wasn't a backbreaker. PK Blair Walsh hit three extra points and averaged 4.15 seconds of hang time on four kickoffs. Eric Weems returned them all but averaged only 14.8 yards, with one called back because TE Matt Spaeth got caught holding Robert Blanton's shoulder pads. The coverage units sure seemed to have some juice. Ellison, Marvin Mitchell and Larry Dean each were in on two tackles. LS Cullen Loeffler had a couple of iffy snaps, but nothing egregious. Jefferson got his first shot on kick returns and nearly gave away the game, getting stripped by CB Zackary Bowman after the Bears' first touchdown. The ball sat on the ground for 2.9 seconds before Ballard saved the day. Sherels tied a team record with five fair catches and should have made it six, since Bowman perfectly played the bounce at the goal line. Another Bears drive got backed up because Bowman jacked Sherels in the back on a punt. Rudolph had quite a wall in front of him as he pulled down the onside kick to seal the decision. Ellison took a holding penalty.