Breaking down the tape from the Vikings' win over the Cardinals
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Here's the tale of the tape from the Minnesota Vikings' 21-14 win over Arizona, with grades on a scale of 0 to 5 in parentheses:
Pressure may be mounting to keep defenses honest and make some plays down the field, but Christian Ponder (52 snaps) needs to reset the clock in his head. His first interception to ILB Paris Lenon was just a bad throw across his body that came 5.1 seconds after the snap. The second to ROLB Sam Acho was an attempted throwaway affected by LOLB O'Brien Schofield's hit, but the risk was too high in holding the ball 5.7 seconds with seconds remaining in the half. There's nothing wrong with using his feet to extend plays. That's one of Ponder's strengths. He just needs to know when to say when. Completing just 8 of 17 passes (47.1%) for 58 yards, two turnovers and a 35.5 rating may have been the wakeup call he needed. Despite a 14-point lead, OC Bill Musgrave dialed up pass plays on five consecutive first-and-10s to open the second half against Arizona's persistent eight- and nine-man boxes. One yielded Ponder's lone completion in seven second-half attempts, a bubble screen for 4 yards. Another completion was wiped by an illegal formation penalty. The Cardinals rushed five or more nine times in Ponder's 21 dropbacks (42.9%), not including four bootlegs, sprintouts and one-step passes. The diverse blitz package contributed to three sacks, 10 total pressures and diminished confidence in the pocket. The second half's opening series went south after the pocket held on a deep play-action on first down and Ponder drifted right for no reason -- directly into Schofield, who smacked him as he threw the ball away. Ponder misfired in the face of pressure on the next two snaps and the Vikings didn't get another first down until the game's final play. ILB Daryl Washington timed Ponder's snap count perfectly for the first sack in 1.2 seconds and added another on a cleanup job in 4.5 seconds when the ball should have been out. Ponder's long completion gained 14 yards as he repeatedly (and correctly) passed on forcing the ball into downfield coverage. Only one of his eight completions was targeted more than 5 yards downfield. His receiver did all the work on a 3-yard touchdown. The Vikings will need more from Ponder than this, absolutely. Step one is hammering home the importance of knowing the situation.
Running backs (3½)
The Cardinals put SS Adrian Wilson in the box 36 times (69.2%) and still couldn't stop HB Adrian Peterson (41 snaps) from averaging 6.7 yards on his 23 carries, including "explosive" gains of 27, 13, 17, 12 and 22 yards. He broke six tackles and gained 80 of his 153 yards (52.3%) after contact. The 13-yard touchdown was a zone-left play with a designed cutback after the Cardinals flowed over the top. Peterson ran over Wilson at the goal line and stretched the ball across the plane with FS James Sanders hanging on him. Musgrave caught the Cardinals in a bunch of blitzes that left big creases at the line, but Peterson did the dirty work, keeping his legs moving and moving the pile. It's amazing how he seems to get better each week. Peterson did have some issues in protection -- most notable, getting caught in between on Wilson's blitz that flushed Ponder on the first interception. Splitting him wide for the bubble screen was a new wrinkle. HB Toby Gerhart (11) played in a couple of packages, gained 1 yard on third-and-2, ran a different route than Ponder expected on third-and-4 in the red zone and had little chance of stopping Washington's explosion through the A-gap on the first sack. Peterson has been so effective there really hasn't been much reason to get Gerhart more snaps. FB Jerome Felton (24) clipped ROLB Quentin Groves on Peterson's 17-yard run, missed CB William Gay to scuttle the screen and was just OK overall.
Jerome Simpson (39 snaps) caught a hitch for 8 yards against CB Jamell Fleming on the second series, drew a 29-yard interference penalty against Gay on a "go" ball the next play and wasn't targeted again. It wasn't for lack of trying -- Ponder looked Simpson's way several times but didn't pull the trigger, whether because of Wilson bailing out over the top, CB Patrick Peterson playing underneath or Lenon getting pressure that congested the passing lane, as he did on the second interception. At least Arizona paid Simpson some attention. Peterson mostly worked against Percy Harvin (31), who juked him at the goal line for a 3-yard touchdown after sliding through the backfield. Harvin almost-singlehandedly led that drive, taking a pair of passes for 14-yard gains and drawing two penalties -- defensive holding on DT Darnell Dockett, who grabbed Harvin coming out of the backfield, and interference on Peterson, who rode his back on a slant. Harvin might have scored on second-and-goal, too, but Simpson didn't finish his block. No question, Musgrave was going to get the ball to his playmakers in the red zone this time. Take away that drive, though, and Harvin had only one catch for 6 yards and one run for 5. Wilson jammed him on third-and-12 early, but the double rate wasn't extraordinary. Harvin wasn't on the field for nine of the Vikings' last 10 plays. Michael Jenkins (20) caught a quick out for 7 short the sticks, had another third-down pass bounce off his hands and didn't block well. The Vikings kept motioning Stephen Burton (15) toward formation like an extra formation and ran 11 times when he was on the field. That's why he keeps being up. He had a false start. Devin Aromashodu (two) was a nonfactor.
Tight ends (2½)
The Vikings surely didn't think when they gave John Carlson (12) a five-year, $25 million contract in March he'd end up playing on the punt team. But that's where Carlson was when he apparently suffered a concussion on an illegal blindside hit by S Rashad Johnson. He wasn't targeted before departing and was up and down in the blocking phase, cleaning out Acho on Peterson's 27-yard run and letting Acho beat him for a stop on third-and-2. Now the Vikings figure to shift extra work to Rhett Ellison (16), who was solid in the blocking phase with the exception of one lost lead. Kyle Rudolph (49) seems to have more wild passes uncorked in his direction than anyone else. Maybe that's because his 6-foot-6 frame makes him easy to spot whenever Ponder breaks the pocket. Rudolph stood no chance on the first interception, saw two other balls sail over his head and had a 19-yard catch wiped out by penalty. The only other catchable ball was a third-and-2 slant Wilson played perfectly for the breakup, completing the shutout. At least Rudolph seemed to wall off everyone he crossed as a blocker. That's a step in the right direction.
Offensive linemen (3)
The Cardinals' blitz scheme put a lot of heat on this group, too, but the pressure numbers are somewhat misleading. Barring a protection adjustment on Washington's first sack, the only takedown of Ponder that really fell on the line was the last, as DT Nick Eason came free a stunt. It appeared C John Sullivan (52 snaps) wanted to pass off Eason to LG Charlie Johnson (52), who stayed with his man as Eason made the hit in 2.7 seconds. DE Calais Campbell beat Johnson for the initial hit before Ponder's first interception and Lenon popped RG Brandon Fusco (44) to clog the passing lane on the second. Fusco otherwise played a clean game -- perhaps taking a hint from the continued rotation with Geoff Schwartz (eight), who moved well in his three series. Johnson gave up one additional pressure, worked the combo blocks well with Sullivan and could have finished better at the second level. Sullivan took a rare holding penalty for hooking Washington on the first snap and otherwise was his usual, steady self in the run game, pancaking Eason on the touchdown run and handling big DT Dan Williams, too. He surrendered two additional pressures. RT Phil Loadholt (52) keeps getting better, especially in the run phase. Schofield only got him once for a pressure with an outside rush and Dockett got inside him a third-and-1 dive. LT Matt Kalil (52) let Campbell scuttle a toss-sweep for a 3-yard loss and always can finish better in the run game. His protection was flawless.
Defensive linemen (4)
The Vikings' game plan mirrored their approach three weeks earlier at Detroit: rush four, play extensive two-deep coverage and prevent the big play by keying on the opponent's top receiver. DC Alan Williams took it one step further here, never sending a single extra-man pressure in QB John Skelton's 43 dropbacks, and the line responded in a big way. LE Brian Robison (60 snaps) set the tone by chasing down Skelton for a strip-sack in 3.3 seconds to halt a 14-play drive. He also cleaned up another play for a sack in 3.2, helped chase Skelton into a fourth-down sack in 4.3, spun past RT Bobby Massie for another sack in 2.7 and had three additional QB pressures. No wonder the Cardinals were chipping him even more than RE Jared Allen (59), who spun on LT D'Anthony Batiste for a sack in 2.5, chased down Skelton for another in 7.4 and had 11 total pressures. UT Kevin Williams (48) finished things off with a sack in 2.6 seconds on the front end of a stunt against C Lyle Sendlein and added another QB hit after faking a zone drop on the final series. Robison finished with eight tackles (seven solo). He and Allen each took an offsides penalty, thanks to Skelton's unscouted triple head bob. And Allen made some mistakes in the run game -- most notable, getting trapped inside on a counter HB LaRod Stephens-Howling took for 22. NT Letroy Guion (34) had his motor running and got one pressure against Sendlein but kept getting washed around against the run, including on Stephens-Howling's 3-yard touchdown run. DL Everson Griffen (43) had five QB pressures, three of them on plays that ended in sacks. DT Christian Ballard (23) also had a QB hit and drew a holding call on RG Rich Ohmberger, who replaced injured Adam Snyder. NT Fred Evans (17) made the most of his limited turns.
The Vikings dared the Cardinals to run the ball and might have held them in check, if only they hadn't tackled worse than they have all season. Behind a power-based attack with a lot of pulling guards, Stephens-Howling averaged 5.2 yards on 20 carries and the Cardinals finished with 126 yards on 26 attempts (4.8 average). MLB Jasper Brinkley (58 snaps) alone missed four tackles, got flattened on a bubble screen to WR Michael Floyd that gained 7 and couldn't bring down WR Larry Fitzgerald at the sticks on third-and-2. He just looked a little weak at the point sometimes. His hesitation on a middle drop let Skelton hit TE Rob Housler on a line for 22 up the seam, too. It's worth wondering if Brinkley's wearing down. That could mean an increased role for WLB Erin Henderson (34), who continues to sit out in nickel. He stopped Stephens-Howling for no gain on a counter and sniffed out a similar play later but couldn't wrap up in the backfield. SLB Chad Greenway (71) bailed out Henderson's mistaken run off the field by defeating Massie's block and stopping Stephens-Howling for only a 1-yard gain with 10 men on the field. He matched Brinkley with seven tackles (five solo), missed two and got beat on a third-down pivot route by WR Andre Roberts for 14 early in man coverage. That's an awfully tough route for linebackers to defend, but better than trying to stop the drags and checkdowns the Cardinals kept running through the voids in Cover-2. The Vikings were willing to concede those all day.
Defensive backs (4)
The Vikings played more two-deep coverage than they have all season -- often rolling help toward Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald, who finished with only four receptions for 29 yards (7.3 average) in seven targets. But it was a single-high concept from which FS Harrison Smith (71 snaps) read Skelton's eyes, dropped in front of Doucet and returned the resulting interception 31 yards across the field for a game-changing touchdown. That more than made up for Smith's four missed tackles, especially on a day the Vikings' defense had to bail out the offense. SS Jamarca Sanford (71) lined up halfway down at times to help against the run, had five solo tackles and missed one. He couldn't come up quickly enough to defend the goal-line hitch to Roberts after CB Antoine Winfield (71) bit inside. Winfield was all over the place as usual, with 11 tackles (10 solo) and the fourth-down sack of Skelton on a doomed bootleg. He simply can get places no one else in the NFL can, particularly from the slot. He also defended a third-down slant for Fitzgerald, who beat CB Chris Cook (68) in press-man on another third-down route but otherwise was frustrated by Cook's jams. Fitzgerald's inability to get off the line for the corner route Skelton threw on third-and-5 late should be a reminder of what Cook can do in that technique. He's at his best when he can put his hands on people. Cook dropped out twice, the latter after he returned an interception on a free play after one of the offsides calls. CB Josh Robinson (39) seems to sink a little too far sometimes in Cover-2, leaving open out-breaking routes underneath. He's a willing tackler, though. CB A.J. Jefferson (12) took most of the dime snaps and held up well again. CB Marcus Sherels (two) replaced him late.
Harvin had at least a chance to beat Alphonso Smith at the point on the opening kickoff. Instead, Marvin Mitchell extended his arms and appeared to shove Smith in the back of the shoulder, drawing a flag that wiped out Harvin's 103-yard touchdown return. That set the stage for a flag-filled performance by Mike Priefer's unit, which also had a holding call on Jefferson and an ineligible downfield call on Tyrone McKenzie impact field position. Those can't happen. Harvin got one other kick return and took it for 28. Sherels fielded one punt at his own 6 and ended up with no gain because of Jefferson's penalty. He fair-caught four others and let one be downed. PK Blair Walsh converted three extra points and had three touchbacks in four kickoffs that averaged 3.9 seconds of hang time. William Powell returned the other for only 13. LS Cullen Loeffler made P Chris Kluwe move to catch several snaps. But Kluwe and the coverage unit mostly neutralized Patrick Peterson, who averaged only 1.8 yards on four punt returns. Kluwe grossed 40.0, netted 39.0 and put one of seven punts inside the 20, with a long of 51 and an average hang time of 3.96 seconds. Matt Asiata made a good, aggressive move to cover up an onside kick that was offsides anyway.