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' 34-24 win over the Detroit Lions on Sunday, with grades on a scale of 0 to 5 in parentheses:
A strike for 54 yards to the post on his second throw might have been just what Christian Ponder (70 snaps) needed to loosen up. He just looked more comfortable while moving in and out of the pocket, going through his progressions and delivering the ball with authority, even in the face of pressure. He finished 24-of-32 passing (75%) for 221 yards, two touchdowns and a 114.2 rating. All but five of Ponder's completions (80%, including one negated by penalty) were targeted less than 10 yards downfield, and he didn't throw another ball more than 15 yards downfield after the early bomb. But he was an efficient 5-of-8 passing (62.5%) in the intermediate game, didn't let himself get rushed into poor decisions and took only one sack -- an ankle grab by DT Nick Fairley in 4.6 seconds. OC Bill Musgrave appeared to give him more crossing patterns and layered slants to help receivers uncover more quickly. When Lions DC Gunther Cunningham did send pressure (eight times in 33 dropbacks, 24.2%), Ponder always seemed to have someplace to go with the ball. The crowd booed when the offense settled for a several field goals, but what was he supposed to do? LE Chris Avril's deflection put the ball back in Ponder's hands for a 15-yard loss, so he took the outlet for 8 on third-and-23 instead of going deep again to make sure they got three. One of three drops left the Vikings facing third-and-7 in the red zone and the post-corner took too long to develop, so Ponder checked to the flat and gave his back a chance to break a tackle. A lineman's misstep on first-and-goal from the 3 left the Vikings at the 10, the screen was covered up on second down and everything in the end zone was covered on third, so Ponder checked down twice more. That's not a lack of guts -- that's what the Vikings want him to do. He turned the corner on a 20-yard scramble, was flagged for a delay of game when the play clock expired and took a hit from DT Sammie Hill that brought out a flag, sealing a decision. This was the only way for Ponder to quiet calls for his job, even if the Vikings were never going to give in. Now he needs to build on that over the next six games -- and continue finding more plays down the field to give opposing coordinators pause.
Running backs (4)
Forget comeback player of the year -- HB Adrian Peterson (61 snaps) might have a case for MVP if the Vikings somehow ride him into the postseason. He set up his blocks perfectly on a lead-right play and fought FS Ricardo Silva off his ankles for a 61-yard touchdown. He had four other "explosive" runs, of 15, 14, 19 and 21 yards. He forced seven missed tackles and finished with 171 yards on 27 carries (6.3 average), including 54 yards (31.6%) after contact. Peterson's straight-line speed actually appears improved since left knee reconstruction. He sure had some gaping holes to run through, too, despite the Lions' extensive deployment of eight- and nine-man fronts. They lined up a safety in the box 31 times (44.3%) and rolled one down on the snap numerous times as well. Peterson kept his legs moving to power in a two-point conversion. He caught three passes for 5 yards and dropped another. He lost his balance and missed a delayed blitz by OLB Justin Durant, who slammed Ponder into the turf. Otherwise, Peterson was fine in protection, although HB Toby Gerhart (nine) handled most of the third downs. Gerhart didn't have a carry for the first time since last Nov. 14 at Green Bay, came up short of the sticks on two checkdowns for 15 yards in the red zone and gave up pressure to Durant that led to a Ponder scramble and a punt. FB Jerome Felton (27) blocked up SS Erik Coleman on Peterson's long run but struggled all day with the Lions' linebackers. He missed OLB DeAndre Levy on a draw for no gain, let Durant off the hook on a lead play that lost 1 and just didn't lead well overall. The first pass of the game went for 5 yards on a one-step route to Felton, who was flexed wide in an empty formation that ensured the Lions wouldn't cover up everybody at the line.
Next time Jarius Wright (29 snaps) takes the field, it's a safe bet the defense will pay a little more attention to him. He was the inside man in a trips-right formation and got a clean release on third-and-10. MLB Stephen Tulloch let him run past in Cover-2, leaving a one-on-one situation with Coleman, who let the rookie get behind him as Ponder stepped away from pressure and put the ball on the money. Two plays later, Wright was inside in trips again, came free behind a pick from Michael Jenkins (46) on CB Jonte Green and tapped his toes for a 3-yard touchdown. He dropped a ball later and caught only one other pass, on a one-step option for 8 yards against CB Jacob Lacey's sizeable cushion. It looked like the aborted first-and-goal play was supposed to be a slide route to Wright, too. He stiff-armed RE Kyle Vanden Bosch to rescue an end-around for 3. He has a long way to go as a blocker. Positions and experience aside, Wright needs to keep dressing once Percy Harvin (ankle) is healthy to help the Vikings balance speed on the perimeter. They're certainly not getting it from Jenkins, who had two catches for 12 yards, dropped another and scares nobody. At least he blocked for the most part. Jerome Simpson (39) didn't, save for the hook on Silva that drew a holding penalty. He had 28 yards on three catches, including an out against Green for 17. Too often, Simpson just seems to sit at the top of his route instead of coming back to the football. Stephen Burton (22) remains the group's best blocker and dropped a slant in the red zone that won't help him get more opportunities. Devin Aromashodu (13) was invisible until he crossed Silva and slipped a tackle for a 31-yard gain through the zone.
Tight ends (3½)
A steady diet of crosses and out-breaking routes helped Kyle Rudolph (68 snaps) to one of his most productive days. He finished with seven catches for 64 yards (9.1 average), including a 20-yard touchdown when Levy let him into the void, Silva missed a tackle and Jenkins got away with mugging Lacey at the sideline. The route Rudolph ran against Levy on third-and-3 looked like he was boxing out for a rebound -- which he should be his game, though Levy still almost made the play. It's no surprise the Lions bracketed Rudolph anytime he tried to work the middle in the red zone. The second-and-goal play from the 10 was supposed to be a screen to him, but Vanden Bosch got in the way and Ponder had to dump off against the rush. Turning his route back into Levy's inside coverage was a costly mistake on third-and-2. The false start on first-and-goal could have been, too. Rudolph's blocking was the best it has been in weeks. John Carlson (12) returned from his concussion and got some opportunities, mostly to stick backside cutoff blocks that doubled as slide routes when the Vikings went to play-action. He got a step on Tulloch to take one for an 11-yard gain. However, Rhett Ellison (24) continued to handle the majority of the "H" movement, lining up or motioning into the backfield on 11 plays. At times, the rookie basically served as a second fullback to help combat all those extra bodies at the time of scrimmage. Ellison fared well, sealing the edge on a toss play for 14 and even mugging up big DT Ndamukong Suh twice.
Offensive linemen (2½)
The Vikings' guards had their work cut out against the Lions' talented defensive tackles, and none of them fared particularly well. LG Charlie Johnson (70 snaps) gave up a hit to Fairley on the first snap and didn't get much better from there in the protection phase, allowing six QB pressures in all. He also got knocked back by Fairley on a zone run that lost 2 early and just seemed a little off balance at times. It's probably no surprise the Vikings kept running those lead plays to the right, although RG Brandon Fusco (49) had his own issues. He allowed four QB pressures, including two hits to Suh and another rush that helped ruin that screen in the red zone, one play after backing up the Vikings by stepping on Ponder. Fusco continues to look confused when he gets to the second level, too. But he was better at the point of attack and stuck his kickout on CB Chris Houston to help spring the big one. Backup RG Geoff Schwartz (21) let Suh off too soon a screen that went nowhere and had some positive turns in the run game. Everyone looks better when they can work combo blocks with C John Sullivan (70), who might have thought Rudolph was picking up Tulloch on the failed third-and-1 draw. He stuck Tulloch on the long run and got shed by Levy on third-and-4 late. LT Matt Kalil (70) was clean in protection again and solid in the run game, save for letting Hill work him back to close the cutback lane on a zone play that lost 3. His athleticism is so impressive in space. He smacked Vanden Bosch out of the way on Peterson's 21-yard run, too. Fairley got the edge on RT Phil Loadholt (70) for the sack, but the ball should have been out. Loadholt gave up one other pressure to DE Lawrence Jackson, was powerful as usual in the run game and took an illegal formation penalty that wiped a third-down conversion, apparently because he wasn't square enough to the line of scrimmage against the Lions' wide front.
Defensive linemen (2½)
The Vikings say Letroy Guion will return as a starter once he's over the turf toe, but NT Fred Evans (40 snaps) sure made a case for an expanded role. He walked back C Dominic Raiola for a stop on the opening snap, kept shedding blocks to attack the ball and snuffed out a screen to HB Mikel Leshoure late. Evans brings minimal pass rush and is always going to be inconsistent, but at least he made an impact. That surely helped UT Kevin Williams (49), who sacked QB Matthew Stafford off a long loop in 3.5 seconds and bulled RG Stephen Peterman to the ground for one of his three other pressures. Williams was quiet against the run, but it's tough to be too hard on a unit that allowed just 60 yards on 17 carries (3.5 average) with mostly six- and seven-man fronts. The lone breakdown came on a trap Leshoure took for 14, with RT Gosder Cherilus opening the hole against DL Everson Griffen (38), who fell on Stafford for the only other sack in 3.6 seconds after one of five pressures by RE Jared Allen (56) put Stafford on the move. Griffen had one other QB hit against LG Rob Sims and took an offside penalty for lining up in the neutral zone. He pushes that line a lot, and the Lions might have told officials to be on the lookout. Allen's bull rush gave LT Jeff Backus some problems, but he never got all the way home and seemed to wear out by the end. So did LE Brian Robison (50), who had a QB hit and batted down another pass. The bye seems to be coming at the right time for those guys. DT Christian Ballard (18) had a QB hit and got washed around in the run game. DE D'Aundre Reed (one) beat Cherilus for a pressure in his only turn.
SLB Chad Greenway (63 snaps) has been waiting a long time to make this play. He was in man coverage on third-and-10 when Stafford uncorked a wobbler for TE Brandon Pettigrew, who had little chance of coming back for it on an out-breaking route. Greenway double-clutched and brought in his first interception since the 2009 finale. He deserved it, with the way he was flying around the field. Greenway also snuffed out a bubble screen to WR Calvin Johnson for no gain and drew a key holding penalty against Backus. He lost vision on Stafford's scramble for 9. The Lions played 21 snaps in their jumbo personnel, with backup T Riley Reiff reporting eligible and playing an H-back role. The Vikings countered at times by using a linebacker to create a five-man front and WLB Erin Henderson (46) mostly held up OK taking on Reiff in the hole. Henderson (46) also began rotating into the nickel again, playing 30 of 47 snaps (63.8%) at the mike in that package to 17 for MLB Jasper Brinkley (33), whose best play of the day surprisingly came in coverage -- riding Pettigrew's tail on a long out that went incomplete on third-and-11. Peterman mugged him up on the trap. Brinkley might pay for the helmet-to-helmet shot on Johnson that drew a flag late, but it wasn't vicious by any stretch. The Vikings rushed five or more just four times in Stafford's 44 dropbacks (9.1%) and none of them got home.
Defensive backs (2)
Whether it's the fines, penalties or rookie wall, FS Harrison Smith (63 snaps) hasn't seemed to have the same swagger of late. He gave up a 16-yard touchdown to Pettigrew by missing his jam in man coverage. He seemed a step slow breaking on the football in deep zones. And his missed tackle sprung the trap Leshoure took for 14. Smith might get a fine for the forearm he threw into Johnson's head at the end of the 50-yard post, too, although it didn't draw a flag. That was the right call to beat the Vikings' two-deep zone, as Johnson did again and again while amassing 207 yards on 12 receptions (17.3 average). SS Jamarca Sanford (38) just doesn't have the size to compete for that jump ball. Sanford atoned for the error, though, wrapping up Johnson on a cross late and punching free the ball in the process. CB Antoine Winfield (62) recovered to all but put away the game. SS Mistral Raymond (25) took four series off Sanford, was called for a dumb (though weak) personal foul for hitting Leshoure late and put the initial hit on Johnson that knocked his helmet into Brinkley's, too. Winfield was the only corner willing to get physical with Johnson, who got him on a curl for 11 and nothing more. Stafford was 3-for-7 for 30 yards throwing into Winfield's coverage. WR Titus Young's illegal crackback block backed up a Lions drive, but it's tough to blame him for trying, considering how many plays Winfield was making from the slot in the run game. CB A.J. Jefferson (63) never touched Young on the smoke slant that went for a 1-yard score and otherwise was OK, giving up five completions for 49 yards in seven targets. No. 3 CB Josh Robinson (47) will keep getting thrown at until he shows he can make more plays on the ball. He gave up seven completions in as many targets for 97 yards, capped by the bubble screen Johnson turned into an 11-yard touchdown behind blocks from Green on Robinson, Cherilus on Greenway and Peterman on Smith. Most of that damage came after the Vikings called off the dogs, though. CB Marcus Sherels (1) finished in Winfield's place.
It says a lot about PK Blair Walsh's rookie season that a near-miss is worth mentioning. He sneaked a 48-yard field goal inside the left upright on another perfect day. He also hit two field goals from 23 yards, another from 33 yards, two extra points and eight kickoffs that yielded six touchbacks. His average hangtime -- 4.23 seconds, not including a sidewinder in the fourth quarter -- seems to be discouraging opponents from even trying to bring it out. The two times Stefan Logan did, he failed to reach the 20-yard line. P Chris Kluwe's five punts grossed 48.6 yards but netted only 35.0, thanks to Logan returns of 31 and 15 yards. Griffen appeared to freeze on the 31-yarder, leaving Kluwe to rope down Logan near the sideline. Robinson made an excellent play to get a piece of one inside the 5-yard line, then pop up and make a tackle after CB Alphonso Smith picked up the ball. Sanford drew a flag on Smith as a gunner. Kluwe's average hang time was 4.56 seconds. Sherels averaged 20.5 yards on four kick returns, including a 41-yarder on a bounce play when he broke Houston's arm tackle. Two punt returns averaged 3.0 yards. Tyrone McKenzie and Andrew Sendejo both were productive in coverage.