Breaking down the tape from the Vikings' win over the Panthers
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Here's the tale of the tape from the Minnesota Vikings' 24-21 win over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, with grades on a scale of 0 to 5 in parentheses:
What a difference a quarterback makes on third down. In his first four chances, Christian Ponder (66 snaps) took two sacks, came up short with a 5-yard scramble and had a shovel pass turn into a conversion of 22 yards. Thereafter, Ponder was 8-of-9 for 81 yards on third downs -- six of them converting on gains of 11 yards or more. The rapidity with which he seems to be learning from his mistakes is encouraging. Fourteen of Ponder's 27 targeted passes (51.9%, minus two throwaways, plus one wiped by penalty) and 10 of his completions went to backs or tight ends for 128 yards. He finished 18-of-28 passing (64.3%) for 236 yards, a 19-yard score on a screen and a 102.7 rating. He only really misfired three times, and two of them looked like miscommunication. Ponder held the ball all day on sacks in 6.9 and 5.9 seconds. He took another on 3.7 seconds when CB Captain Munnerlyn ran him down with a slot blitz and the fourth wasn't really his fault on a deep play-action drop. One of his four runs for 4 yards (1.0 average) was a product of an audible that turned into a broken play. Another went for 5 after the Vikings couldn't get lined up. The Panthers used a spy at least once on third down, but Ponder's legs weren't his best asset in those situations. His hot read and three-quarters delivery against Munnerlyn's blitz late was a veteran move from a 23-year-old who is far from perfect, but poised beyond his years. Though Ponder completed only one pass that traveled more than 15 yards beyond the line in the air, 15 of his 18 completions (83.3%) went for 11 yards or more. Joe Webb (two snaps) was a nonfactor in a couple of snaps split out as a receiver in the four-wide package.
Running backs (4)
It took OC Bill Musgrave awhile to find the right combination to run the ball. Once he did, the Panthers couldn't stop it, even with a safety down 27 out of 37 plays (73.0%) after halftime. That was up from 15 of 29 snaps (51.7%) in the first half as the Vikings tried to spread out with extra wides. Carolina countered by lining up a safety over one of the receivers, keeping seven in the box and holding HB Adrian Peterson (45 snaps) to 14 yards on eight carries (1.8 average). The tide turned midway through the third quarter, when the Vikings loaded up with tight ends and fullbacks, gaining 41 yards on six carries (6.8 average) out of their inverted wishbone look alone. Peterson and backup HB Toby Gerhart (15) gashed the Panthers again and again with inside-zone runs on the equalizing drive and combined for 98 yards on 18 carries (5.4 average) after halftime -- none more impressive than Peterson's tackle-busting dance for a 9-yard score. He just makes so much out of nothing. When the Panthers abandoned the short middle in coverage, Peterson took advantage to the tune of 76 yards on five catches, including 22 on a third-down shovel, 20 on a checkdown and 19 on a screen for another score. SS Charles Godfrey read a late shovel perfectly, stopping Peterson after a gain of 3 on third-and-5. Neither back stayed in much to protect on a day the Vikings used five-man protection 19 times in Ponder's 28 dropbacks (67.9%, not including four bootlegs and a one-step screen). Gerhart's cut block on third-and-6 was a nice one, though. There was one bad exchange between Ponder and Peterson, who was lucky to recover the ball on the second try. FB Ryan D'Imperio (21) nailed his backside cutoff block on Gerhart's 9-yard run and mostly led OK. He can be more aggressive at times when he's tag-teaming the edge with a guard.
The Panthers used single-safety concepts on all but seven plays (89.4%) and the Vikings' perimeter group couldn't hit a big one. The closest they came was a corner Ponder floated for 24 yards to Michael Jenkins (50 snaps), who caught the only other ball thrown his way for six. Devin Aromashodu (62) played the most of anyone, was targeted six times and caught only two, including a dig for 15 against zone coverage late. He was on a different page on one incompletion, couldn't run down the day's lone "go" ball against nickel CB R.J. Stanford, drew a defensive holding call against Munnerlyn in the red zone and did the job as a blocker. Percy Harvin (28) is just so tough. He cut back a zone run for a 10-yard touchdown, spun off LCB Chris Gamble's tackle for an 11-yard gain on third-and-7, took a drag for 22 later in the deciding drive and finished with 74 yards on seven touches (10.6 average) -- all while battling rib pain that at least twice had him doubled over on the sideline. His block on SLB James Anderson helped spring Peterson on the shovel pass, too. Letting Munnerlyn strip him at the 5 was inexcusable. Slamming Munnerlyn into the Panthers' bench was worth a personal foul penalty, but what was Harvin supposed to do after getting driven 10 yards off the field? So much for Greg Camarillo (six) getting more involved. Rookie Stephen Burton (one) got to block DE Charles Johnson on his first snap. Welcome to the NFL.
Tight ends (3½)
All Visanthe Shiancoe (41 snaps) does is convert third downs. He dragged against LB Thomas Williams for 12 on third-and-9, sat down in the zone for 12 on third-and-10 and fought off Godfrey for 13 on third-and-10. Shiancoe was open on his only other target, too, but FS Sherrod Martin batted the ball from his fingertips. His presence helped clear out the middle of the field -- look no further than MLB Dan Connor following him up the seam on the big checkdown to Peterson. Blocking remains up and down, but Shiancoe sure set the edge on the toss sweep Peterson took for 12 on the last drive. A thin cut yielded a quarterback hit for LE Greg Hardy. The ability of Jimmy Kleinsasser (29) to shift between inline and "F" blocking is an asset in Musgrave's offense. But he split time equally with rookie Kyle Rudolph (29), who caught two passes for 15 yards and didn't have a chance on the other three thrown his way. The square-in he worked against Godfrey for 13 on third-and-6 was precisely the type of mismatch coaches want to create by detaching him from the formation. Backside cutoffs remain the strength of Rudolph's blocking.
Offensive linemen (3)
Four sacks is a deceiving number for the line, which was directly responsible for only one -- Charles Johnson's outside rush that beat LT Charlie Johnson in 4.0 seconds. Another Johnson-on-Johnson rush generated pressure in 3.1 seconds, forcing Ponder from the pocket to set up a sack for DT Terrell McClain. Considering how little help the group got, allowing pressure on only six of 33 total pass plays (18.2%) isn't a bad day's work. Three of those plays came on one stalled drive early in the fourth quarter, capped by McClain's rush against LG Steve Hutchinson that forced Ponder to step up and uncork his wildest incompletion. Charlie Johnson allowed one other pressure and moved DT Ronald Fields on Peterson's TD run. Peterson's run that Connor dumped for minus-5 might have been on Hutchinson, who otherwise blocked well and worked McClain on the screen that went for a score. C John Sullivan returned from his concussion, handled McClain on the big shovel and sustained well all day in one of his finer efforts. RG Joe Berger started in place of injured Anthony Herrera (knee), had his hands full whenever a linebacker slammed into the gap, allowed one pressure and was just OK. He and RT Phil Loadholt got the backside moving a bunch of times on those inside-zone runs, though. Loadholt gave up three QB pressures to Hardy, who also batted down a screen after a mediocre cut block.
Defensive linemen (3)
RE Jared Allen (67 snaps) isn't dominating the way he did early in the season, but he keeps making the plays that count. He picked up QB Cam Newton's early fumble to set up one score. He set up another by torching LT Jordan Gross with a hesitation move for a strip-sack in 2.5 seconds. Allen had only one other pressure, forcing Newton to scramble on third-and-2. He also batted down a pass, made five solo tackles, had his hands full against Gross in the run game and lost contain on Newton's option run for 24. LE Brian Robison (62) drew a holding call with one of his two QB pressures against RT Byron Bell, who otherwise made Robison invisible, particularly in the run game. Is he wearing down? UT Kevin Williams (63) is trying -- the plays just aren't coming. He submarined Gross on first-and-goal for one of his four solo tackles. HB Jonathan Stewart dragged Williams once for a conversion on third-and-3 and again on a counter that gained 8. The Panthers did a good job of accounting for Williams on the manufactured draws and options they're running with Newton, whose 53 yards on six carries (8.8 average) boosted Carolina's 5.2 average (27 attempts, 140 yards). That's not tough when NT Remi Ayodele (17), NT Fred Evans (19) and DT Letroy Guion (23) are getting shoved around next to him. Maybe it's the bum ankle, but Ayodele isn't anchoring the way he needs to against double teams. Evans got washed some, too, but at least he made a couple of plays -- tripping up Newton on that third-and-2 scramble and smashing into C Geoff Hangartner to alter an incompletion on the final drive. What has happened to Guion? He got wiped out on consecutive run plays from the nose early and was mostly just an ineffective nickel rusher after that. DL Everson Griffen (14) and rookie DL Christian Ballard (seven) played multiple spots and just blended in.
Perhaps it's the contract, but it sure seems the Vikings should be getting more from SLB Chad Greenway (67 snaps), who did have 13 tackles (seven solo) and hustled to recover the fumble off Allen's strip-sack. Greenway had two free shots at Newton and couldn't bring him down. He lost vision when TE Jeremy Shockey worked back inside for a 1-yard touchdown catch. His most impactful plays came on Carolina's final two plays from scrimmage -- drawing a borderline holding call on WR Steve Smith and then dumping Smith short on the first-down marker on third-and-7. WLB Erin Henderson (67) only was credited with five tackles (one solo), but he was visible from the first play, when he bulled back LG Travelle Wharton to set up a turnover. He dropped HB DeAngelo Williams for a 3-yard loss on a power sweep, might have thwarted an interception with an instinctive breakup of a seam pass for WR Legedu Naanee, made a sensational diving tackle on Newton to stop a third-and-4 option and batted down a pass for TE Greg Olsen in zone coverage. Henderson's blitzes can be inconsistent, he can get stronger at the point and he has made some costly gap mistakes. But it will be tough to relegate him to a part-time role again even if MLB E.J. Henderson (29) is deemed healthy after the bye. E.J. Henderson took advantage of his brother's pressure for a strip-sack in 3.2 seconds on the first play and disrupted more plays than he stopped (three tackles, one solo).
Defensive backs (1½)
This is what it's come to for the Vikings' depleted secondary -- shadowing one of the game's top receivers with a dime-caliber player because they don't have anyone else with two knees, a neck and an empty rap sheet. Credit CB Asher Allen (65 snaps) with good coverage on the end-zone go ball that fell incomplete early and even the back-shoulder fade Smith whirled to haul in for 26 yards. A deep in-cut for 19, an out for 12 and another in for a 27-yard touchdown were too easy, though. CB Cedric Griffin (67) mostly was protected in zone coverage, took a facemask penalty that looked more like a weak horse collar and held up fairly well in run support (seven tackles, six solo). He just can't run anymore. With CB Antoine Winfield (neck) and Chris Cook (suspended) still out of action, CB Marcus Sherels handled nickel duties again and mostly played cleanup on throws underneath the zones, making two solo tackles. He went to the ground once against Naanee, drawing a holding call. Another bad bust overshadowed an otherwise productive day for FS Husain Abdullah (65), who missed the jam on Olsen and was beaten by two steps up the seam for a 39-yard touchdown. He also couldn't close on a seam throw for 16 to TE Jeremy Shockey early. But Abdullah opened the second half with a sound stop on Naanee's third-and-6 drag, then had good coverage on WR Brandon LaFell's corner and broke up a post to Olsen on the final series. He also cleaned up a sack Greenway missed in 3.9 seconds -- the only time Abdullah blitzed all day as DC Fred Pagac rushed four on 28 of Newton's 35 dropbacks (80%). Abdullah finished with seven tackles (six solo) and SS Jamarca Sanford (50) had three solo stops in his return from a concussion. Sanford seemed a step behind all day, lost a chance for an interception when he collided with Erin Henderson and pulled himself from the game at least once. Fatigue apparently was the reason Sanford wasn't on the field when backup SS Tyrell Johnson (17) was late to the spot on fourth-and-15, then spun his wheels as LaFell turned back to the sideline for what ended up being a 44-yard gain. Johnson has to be running out of chances now, right?
It didn't lead to points, but Sherels' 78-yard burst on his first NFL kickoff return was a shot in the arm for the Vikings' sideline. Aromashodu mugged up Martin on a slow loop, LB Kenny Onatolu sustained well in the hole and Sherels beat PK Olindo Mare to the sideline before Godfrey chased him down from behind. There was no room on Sherels' three punt returns, which netted 2 yards. PK Ryan Longwell pulled a 45-yard field goal wide left early and banged the 31-yard winner down the heart. Three misses in four games is cause for at least a little concern. He kicked off two sidewinders, two touchbacks and 4.0-hang shortie that WR Kealoha Pilares fielded 3 yards deep and had a crease before S Eric Frampton tripped him up at the 24. Rookie S Mistral Raymond missed a golden recovery chance after Griffen stripped Pilares on the Vikings' first kickoff. P Chris Kluwe grossed 44.8, netted 40.0 and averaged 4.6 seconds of hang time on four punts, with a long of 53 and one downed inside the 20. Griffen continues to be everywhere. D'Imperio and Frampton joined him with two tackles each.