Breaking down the tape from the Vikings' win over the Lions
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Here's the tale of the tape from the Minnesota Vikings' 20-13 win over the Detroit Lions, with grades on a scale of 0 to 5 in parentheses:
Christian Ponder (58 snaps) had his least productive performance, but his decision-making and fight-another-day mentality continues to keep the Vikings out of tough spots. His 16 completions in 26 attempts (61.5%) yielded only 111 yards (4.3 per attempt). Not including two throwaways, only eight of his 26 throws (30.8%) were targeted at least 7 yards downfield, and six of those were incomplete. However, two of those misses brought defensive pass interference calls against Lions RCB Bill Bentley, whom Ponder kept targeting in man coverage and attacked again with perfect touch for a 27-yard gain in the 4-minute drill. His 7-of-10 finish on third down (70%) was somewhat deceiving because only two of those completions converted on a day the Vikings were just 3-of-12 (25%). Another drive stalled at the 9 when Ponder saw a crease and RE Kyle Vanden Bosch shut it for a sack in 3.1 seconds. Perhaps OC Bill Musgrave would have told Ponder to turn it loose if the Vikings defense hadn't had things so under control. The Lions clearly game-planned to take away the short passing game, but Ponder still completed 9 of 12 attempts (75%) within a yard of the line. On a couple of occasions, he seemed to make his decision to check it down before things came uncovered downfield. He kept flushing to his right and finding nothing at the sideline. There will be days the Vikings need more from Ponder than this. But 123 pass attempts (and counting) without an interception is nothing to sneeze at.
Running backs (4)
HB Adrian Peterson (46 snaps) just keeps getting better. He broke 10 tackles, racked up 71 of his 102 rushing yards (69.6%) after contact and had the Lions so frustrated MLB Stephen Tulloch spiked Peterson's left shoe after pulling it off on a power-lead play that went for 5 yards on third-and-1 in the fourth quarter. Peterson had "explosive" runs of 12, 18 and 15 yards among his 21 carries (4.9 average), all between the tackles. Eight of them (38.1%) went for a first down. If he regains the burst to get the edge, watch out. Peterson caught four passes for 20 yards, too, and held up well when asked to protect. So did HB Toby Gerhart (10), who got only three carries for 8 yards (2.7 average), caught one pass for 8 and had a couple broken tackles of his own. At one point, the Vikings handed off to one of them on eight consecutive plays -- and gained 43 yards (5.4 average) while chewing nearly 6 minutes of the clock, even though SS Erik Coleman was rarely far from the box. The Vikings ran a lot of gap-scheme plays and FB Jerome Felton (23) led well overall, although it didn't always matter with the way Peterson was cutting. Felton did surrender one QB hit to OLB DeAndre Levy. RB Matt Asiata (one) remains a bit player.
The Lions had their ends jumping in the passing lanes and their whole defense rallying to the ball to combat Percy Harvin (44 snaps), who had a season-low three catches for 22 yards (7.3 average) in six targets and 12 yards on three carries (4.0 average). LCB Chris Houston blew up one screen for a 2-yard loss on third-and-2. LE Cliff Avril batted down another. Coleman fired down to drop Harvin on an end around for a loss of 3. He did settle in the zone for 17 to convert another third-and-2. Musgrave unveiled another new wrinkle, with Harvin taking a direct snap on second-and-goal from the 8. It might have worked better had Ponder not been pretending to be in the shotgun behind right tackle. Devin Aromashodu (five) disappeared with the return of split end Jerome Simpson (46), who gave the hard sell on those interference calls against Bentley for 57 yards combined to set up a pair of field goals and elevated over Bentley on another "go" ball for 27 late. Balancing the speed on the perimeter should pay dividends in itself, especially if teams keep doubling Harvin in key spots. The Vikings had some more shot plays called for Simpson, too, but the opportunities weren't there. At least he has a better shot to beat somebody than Michael Jenkins (34), who remains the No. 3 receiver and got four targets from Ponder even though he appears to be running those double moves under water. He caught one for 4 yards underneath the zone. There's just not much there. Aromashodu isn't substantially better, but he might be the best blocker of the bunch. It's a little odd he might not have played at all had Jenkins not dropped out with a bruised rib.
Tight ends (3)
Kyle Rudolph (58 snaps) just can't seem to get regular touches. He wasn't targeted once in the first half, released to the flat for 7 yards to open the second and caught another for 1 well short of the sticks to end the drive. That was it, save for three incompletions Ponder threw in his direction while rolling right that weren't going anywhere regardless. Rudolph does seem to be making progress as a blocker -- which is good news for the Vikings, considering how much they continue to play him on the strong side. He played seven snaps in the backfield, nine more detached from the formation and the rest inline. John Carlson (14) finally caught a ball, took forever to turn upfield and lost a yard. Musgrave tried him on the wheel route again late, but just like the 49ers, the Lions covered it up. Carlson never has been a one-on-one matchup threat. He's not finding the soft spots in the zones right now either and barely got more chances in this one than rookie Rhett Ellison (nine), who keeps acquitting himself well in limited turns.
Offensive linemen (3)
Rookie LT Matt Kalil (58 snaps) was practically invisible, which is about the best compliment he could earn against the veteran Vanden Bosch. He was OK in the run game, couldn't have done much more on the first sack once Ponder broke pocket and didn't give up another pressure to Vanden Bosch all day. The Lions mostly relied on a four-man rush, rushing five or more only seven times in Ponder's 26 dropbacks (26.9%, not including five bootlegs). The only major breakdown came on the other side when DT Ndamukong Suh and Avril whipped RG Brandon Fusco (58) and RT Phil Loadholt (58), respectively. Avril also had the pressure that set up the first sack against Loadholt, who was asked to block down repeatedly while Fusco kicked out. Loadholt missed OLB Justin Durant to thwart Harvin's red-zone sneak but otherwise wasn't bad in the run game. Fusco seems to be going the wrong direction. His punch keeps getting beat in pass protection, he looks awkward trying to get to the second level in the run game and he's getting beat at the point of attack more frequently, too. Even with a challenging matchup against the likes of Suh, three QB pressures and a hand in two runs for loss are too many. Suh and DT Nick Fairley each muddied a run play late against C John Sullivan (58), but he keeps getting movement with his combo blocks, sticking linebackers on draw plays and keeping the inside clean in protection. Ditto LG Charlie Johnson (58), who probably played his best game yet.
Defensive linemen (4)
Determined to prevent the big play, the Vikings played deep zones most of the day and rushed four an incredible 54 times in QB Matthew Stafford's 59 dropbacks (91.5%). One of their two blitzes came at the perfect time -- fourth-and-goal with seven rushing against a five-man protection. LE Brian Robison (70 snaps) leaped to take away the swing pass to open HB Joique Bell and DE Everson Griffen (39) came untouched off the edge for a sack in 1.9 seconds. It was a productive day for Griffen, who only was on that field for fourth down because RE Jared Allen (73) was cramping. He split time inside, had two other QB hits against RG Stephen Peterman, beat LT Jeff Backus to drop HB Mikel Leshoure for a 5-yard loss on a run play and sacked Stafford again in 4.9 seconds to end it. The Lions kept bringing in backup T Riley Reiff as a sixth lineman and chipped Allen and Robison all day, giving the line protection help 33 times (56.0%). But Allen still registered five pressures, including a cleanup sack in 5.0 seconds after UT Kevin Williams (51) kept Stafford in the pocket. He also made Backus miss to scuttle a draw to Leshoure that lost 3 for one of his line-high six tackles. Robison, who continues to play with a huge elbow brace, brought next to no pass rush but held his ground against the run. Williams had two pressures, including a hit on Stafford off a T-E game. Taking an offside penalty on the first play gave Stafford a free play to set up the Lions' longest gain of the day. NT Letroy Guion (33) helped the Vikings hold Detroit's halfbacks to 2.0 yards per carry while playing mostly six-man boxes and added two sacks to boot. He countered Peterman for one in 2.8 seconds and finished off Stafford in 4.3 late after DL Christian Ballard (24) brought some heat. NT Fred Evans (17) batted down a pass and impacted the run in limited chances. This easily was Ballard's best effort, too. DL D'Aundre Reed (five) didn't see the field until the final 5 minutes, got some turns as nickel rusher and didn't do much.
If MLB Jasper Brinkley (76 snaps) keeps playing like this, the Vikings may have a decision to make about the nickel mike once Erin Henderson is healthy. Granted, Brinkley was in deep drops most of the day as part of the Vikings' plan for making the Lions throw underneath. But look at the lick he laid on WR Calvin Johnson just short of the sticks on third-and-7. Even if Stafford gets that ball in front of Johnson, Brinkley's reaction has him in position to make the play. He had good trail coverage on a deep slant for TE Brandon Pettigrew, too, and really only ran into trouble when Leshoure crossed his face out of the backfield for a 15-yard gain. Those plays will happen. He cluttered the failed third-and-1 plunge by Leshoure and finished with a season-high 13 tackles (six solo) -- two fewer than SLB Chad Greenway (78), who quietly had another solid day, save for the personal foul he drew for a high hit on Johnson. Whether Johnson makes that catch or not, leaving your feet in that spot is a mistake that will cost 15 yards and some cash. At least it put Johnson on the sideline for a while. Greenway hit Stafford on the Vikings' other blitz and just kept chasing down plays. SLB Marvin Mitchell (10) barely saw the field because the Vikings played so much nickel.
Defensive backs (4)
This is why the Vikings drafted FS Harrison Smith (78 snaps). With Stafford heating up late in the second quarter, there wasn't a bigger play in the game than Smith sticking his right shoulder into Johnson's stomach, causing an incompletion in the end zone on second-and-13. It might not have been a coincidence Pettigrew short-armed one in the back of the end zone on third down with Smith closing in. The tone was set. Smith also played a post to Johnson perfectly for another break-up and slammed into the line with his blitz to set up Griffen's red-zone sack. He was in the box on the first play when SS Jamarca Sanford (78) got flagged for a 56-yard interference penalty. DC Alan Williams didn't press his luck again, playing tons of two- and three-deep coverages rolled Johnson's way. On the final drive, CB Antoine Winfield (78) rerouted Johnson almost every snap. Stafford connected with him only five times in 12 targets for 54 yards, none longer than 19. That was a victory in itself. Winfield couldn't always get depth off his jams, giving up a deep slant for Johnson's long catch of 19 and letting WR Nate Burleson release cleanly on a seam route for 26. He took a pass interference call on third-and-6 for wrapping his left arm around Johnson's waist, too. But Winfield just kep battling, making nine tackles and tipping two passes late. What an example for a young team. CB Josh Robinson (58) tried to jam Johnson with little success, skidded on his shoulder pad after getting juked by Leshoure on a swing pass and took a weak unnecessary roughness penalty when he finally got someone on the ground. The rookie had some bright moments, too -- most notable, tight coverage on TE Tony Scheffler to that forced a third-and-8 incompletion early. He had eight tackles. CB A.J. Jefferson (12) played a couple of snaps in dime and filled in without incident when Robinson went to the locker room for a hydration issue. Sanford provided reminders of why the Vikings always have liked him near the line, coming off the edge to stop Leshoure on third-and-1 and coming up with the football after stripping Leshoure on another play. Had Sanford not grabbed Johnson for the penalty, CB Chris Cook (78) would have been kicking himself for letting an interception go through his hands. The Vikings kept dropping Cook into a deep third as an extra safety in longer passing situations, but he held up fine covering off the line, too -- smothering WR Titus Young in man coverage on third-and-5 and carrying Burleson deep on a "go" ball late. Officials could have kept the clock running after Cook knocked Pettigrew backwards out of bounds in the final seconds, but it was borderline.
The "bounce" return was a perfect call on the opening kickoff by the Lions, who overpursued and didn't even come close to laying a finger on Harvin. He got Jonte Green all turned around at the point, followed the double team by Tyrone McKenzie and Robert Blanton on Doug Hogue and was off to the races for a 105-yard touchdown. Marcus Sherels' 77-yard score on a punt return was even more impressive because he had to make so many people miss -- beginning with Kassim Osgood's hit the moment he caught the ball. Cook missed the block on Osgood and actually stopped to clap his hands in frustration as Sherels busted that tackle. Tahir Whitehead ran into Cook, Coleman couldn't clip Sherels' heels, Ashlee Palmer missed at the waist and Bell blew probably the best chance before the ball got outside. Asiata pancaked P Nick Harris and six men escorted Sherels to the end zone. Just the way Mike Priefer drew it up. P Chris Kluwe grossed 43.2 yards, netted 37.3 and averaged 4.5 seconds of hang time on six punts -- none better than 47-yard moonshot that hung 5.1, bounced sideways at the 4 and left the Lions with 98 yards between them and a tying score. Smith's missed tackle sprung Stefan Logan's 27-yard return along the sideline. PK Blair Walsh was 5-for-5 on touchbacks with 4.16 hang time, converted both his extra points and hit 49- and 27-yard field goals before missing from 46 in the fourth quarter. Mitchell had two tackles.