Breaking down the tape from the Vikings' win over the Rams
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' 36-22 win over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, with grades on a scale of 0 to 5 in parentheses:
The Vikings can live with this from Christian Ponder (59 snaps), whose legs got him off to the start his arm hasn't too often this season. He scrambled 3 yards for a first down on fourth-and-1, then survived a headshot from RE Robert Quinn to scramble for a 5-yard touchdown three plays later. Ponder mostly threw the football well, too, completing 17 of 24 passes (70.8%) for 131 yards in a game plan designed to utilize play-action and get the ball out of his hands. He targeted only one pass more than 12 yards beyond the line of scrimmage and missed. Eight of the completions were screens and flats behind the line, with the rest a mix of shallow crosses, slants and checkdowns. He put a few into tight windows, though. An out to the sideline for 11 yards on third-and-3 was as good as it got. Ponder seemed more comfortable in the pocket as well, though not without incident. He chopped his feet and drifted a few times. He wobbled into a sack in 3.9 seconds instead of throwing up the seam on third-and-7. He let the ball get loose on a hit from behind, yielding a 21-yard loss. Facing third-and-29 on the next snap, Ponder stared down a slant and almost got picked off by CB Trumaine Johnson, who was squatting on the route all the way. He was 3-of-7 passing on third down but converted only one. He has a long way to go, but this was a reminder the arm and athleticism are there if he can figure out everything else.
Running backs (4½)
It's not just the 212 yards HB Adrian Peterson (40 snaps) racked up on 24 carries (8.8 average) -- it's when he delivered his two biggest bursts of the day. The lead draw after the Rams' first touchdown was a perfect call against a zone blitz and Peterson raced 82 yards untouched, save for bumping into FB Jerome Felton (27). That momentary stall actually cleared the way to the end zone, since FS Craig Dahl overpursued the first cut. After the Rams cut a 26-point deficit to 11, another lead play was going nowhere until Peterson cut it back, stiff-armed WLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar 5 yards behind the line and made Dahl miss for a 52-yard gain. Maybe playing SS Quintin Mikell in the box the whole game wasn't such a great idea. The Rams tried 4-4 and 5-3 fronts, too, but Musgrave countered with surprise alignments from his two-tight sets and kept them guessing. In all, Peterson forced eight missed tackles, gained 76 yards (35.8%) after contact and left his slow start -- 8 yards on his first eight carries -- a distant memory. Running over CB Janoris Jenkins to finish one run at the Rams' sideline was downright intimidating. If anything, Peterson just seemed a little antsy at times. He probably could have done more to slow up a blitz by Mikell, whose backside strip-sack of Ponder in 2.3 seconds led to the big loss. Felton covered up MLB James Laurinaitis on the first big run, let SLB Rocky McIntosh stonewall him to help redirect the second and was just OK overall. HB Toby Gerhart (19) lost 5 yards on five carries and caught two passes for 21. RB Matt Asiata (two) played the kneeldowns.
Jerome Simpson (35 snaps) sure talks a lot for a guy who hasn't made many plays all season. He did lead the Vikings with four catches for 27 yards, including a sliding grab for 11 on a shallow cross against Jenkins and a curl for 13 with CB Cortland Finnegan on his hip. He also seemed to break at the wrong depth on a couple third downs, blocked as lazily as usual and got bailed out when his fumble bounced of bounds. It seems a given the Vikings will wring what they can from him the next two games and then say goodbye. Ditto Michael Jenkins (33), who caught the long out for 11 on third-and-3 and didn't have the ball thrown his way again. Ponder might have gone to him on the corner if pressure hadn't arrived so soon on third-and-goal. Credit Jenkins and Devin Aromashodu (10) for doing enough downfield to keep Peterson clean all the way to the end zone on his long run. Jarius Wright (22) didn't have any separation against Finnegan on the go ball that fell incomplete and caught a drag for 11. The most positive development was Stephen Burton (17) showing some unexpected juice, at one point making Finnegan miss and jump-cutting past Laurinaitis to take a one-step route for a tough 4-yard gain. He finished with 22 yards on a career-high three receptions, more than doubling his season totals.
Tight ends (2½)
It was tough to blame John Carlson (21 snaps) for making a show of signaling first down after catching a slant for 7 yards against Mikell early. He's been waiting for a day like this, pedestrian as it was. Carlson also drew a defensive holding call against LB Mario Haggan on fourth-and-1, caught a screen for 4 yards and nodded behind Janoris Jenkins for a 14-yard gain. Musgrave worked the flat game with Carlson and Kyle Rudolph (53) just like he did in Chicago, with Carlson blocking down and Rudolph spinning to the flat. Two of Rudolph's three catches for 22 yards came there, with another incomplete when Ponder threw before he came out of his break. Rudolph made a good adjustment to convert into a blocker on fourth-and-1 and floored Jenkins in space to help spring Peterson's big cutback. Too bad Rudolph can't convert that into movement inline. He had a hand in three runs for loss or no gain. Rhett Ellison (16) had a hand in two, played a handful of snaps in the backfield and was a mixed bag.
Offensive linemen (3½)
No one could have been happier when Ponder crossed the goal line than LG Charlie Johnson (59 snaps), who got caught looking at Laurinaitis wrapping around the edge and let Quinn run right past him. Quinn split Johnson and LT Matt Kalil (59) for one other pressure but otherwise was quiet, as was LE Chris Long, who managed just two pressures against RT Phil Loadholt (59). The Rams tried to manufacture some pressure, rushing five or more nine times in Ponder's 20 dropbacks (45%), and three got home. C John Sullivan (59) was clean in protection. Remarkably, so was RG Brandon Fusco (49), who sustained his run blocks as well as he has all season and even made some things happen at the second level. The Vikings have been waiting for this. Backup RG Geoff Schwartz (10) picked a good spot for his first snap, following LDT Kendall Langford upfield on the zone drop that helped open the door for the big draw. The Vikings unveiled a couple gap-scheme plays that involved kicking out Sullivan, who got Dunbar on the ground to help spring the 17-yarder. He had a hand in three "bad" runs, but one was really the product of a Peterson cut and another kickout gave him a tough path. Kalil let Dunbar, RDT Michael Brockers and Laurinaitis clutter runs plays that went nowhere and was flagged for being illegally downfield on a screen. Loadholt was formidable as usual in the run game, with the exception of letting Long shoot him inside to stuff Gerhart on third-and-7. He took an unnecessary roughness penalty for clumsily bumping Mikell near a pile.
Defensive linemen (4)
Give DL Everson Griffen (70 snaps) credit for taking advantage of his opportunity once LE Brian Robison (seven) dropped out with a right shoulder sprain. QB Sam Bradford missed the hot route as the Vikings brought the first in a series of overload blitzes that gave the Rams fits. Griffen dropped to the middle, reached up to snare the cross for TE Lance Kendricks and stiff-armed WR Chris Givens on his way to a 29-yard touchdown. He also got three hits on Bradford -- including one with a nasty spin move on RT Barry Richardson, who earlier surrendered a sack to Robison in 2.8 seconds. RE Jared Allen (81) was there, too. He made his presence felt with three QB hits and seven total pressures against LT Rodger Saffold, who was flagged for holding Allen twice. HB Steven Jackson had no chance on the third-and-1 dive with the way Allen fired off the ball but finished with a 5.6-yard average on 13 carries. UT Kevin Williams (63) flowed too far on a zone play that went for 15 and otherwise held up well, registering four pressures and batting down a pass. DT Christian Ballard (40) finally seems to be coming on. He beat LG Rob Turner for a sack in 2.8 seconds, hit Bradford two other times, had some positive turns in the run game and got his first five snaps of the season at end. C Scott Wells seems to be in steep decline with the way NTs Letroy Guion (34) and Fred Evans (29) moved him at times. Guion also had a pass-breakup.
WLB Erin Henderson (54 snaps) seems to have remembered he can be a free agent again in March -- or perhaps he just needed a game plan like this to get him going. DC Alan Williams rushed five or more 14 times in Bradford's 60 dropbacks (23.3%), ramping up the zone-blitz game while trying to stop the Rams' hurry-up offense late. Henderson came eight times, got home three and bumped past Kendricks for a sack in 3.0 seconds. SLB Chad Greenway (81) sacked Bradford as well, bouncing off HB Daryl Richardson for the takedown in 2.9 seconds. He unofficially was credited with a team-high 14 tackles (13 solo), missed another in the backfield and stopped Richardson short of the sticks late. Taking on two blockers to let someone else make the play on a screen is the sort of thing that never shows up on the stat sheet. RG Harvey Dahl pancaked Greenway on another screen that went for 18, though. The Rams kept running them because the Vikings were backing off so far in their zones. Coverage remains an issue, particularly for the combination of Henderson and MLB Jasper Brinkley (43) at the mike. Neither seems capable of getting enough depth, as evidenced by how Bradford could attack the seam late. WR Danny Amendola caught one for a 26-yard gain behind Brinkley, who let Richardson circle past him for 13 on the next play, got shaken by Kendricks for a 6-yard touchdown and then abandoned the middle on the two-point conversion to Amendola. Henderson settled too shallow to stop the deep in to WR Austin Pettis for 23 and was the closest man on a seam strike to TE Cory Harkey for 21. No question, the Vikings will have to take a hard look at the position in the offseason.
Defensive backs (1½)
If Chris Cook is ready to return this week, there will be a case for giving him snaps at the expense of No. 3 CB Josh Robinson (65 snaps). The rookie was targeted 13 times and gave up six completions for 57 yards, including touchdowns of 4 yards on a fade to WR Brian Quick and 6 yards to Amendola sitting down in the back of the end zone. Robinson also took a 29-yard interference penalty for grabbing Pettis' jersey and nearly gave up a third TD on a fade that slipped through Givens' fingers. He just doesn't seem to be playing with a ton of confidence. The decision would be more clear-cut if the Vikings were getting more consistency from CB A.J. Jefferson (81), who surrendered six catches for 80 yards in nine targets with another interference call. Most of those completions came on underneath routes, which is understandable, given the way the Vikings' zones are structured. But they need to find someone who can make a play on the football, and Cook did it better than anyone else early in the season. CB Antoine Winfield (58) didn't practice all week because of his knee, hit Bradford's arm on one of his three blitzes and was pulled shortly after he all but conceded an out to WR Brandon Gibson on fourth-and-1. CB Marcus Sherels (23) took over, got his own hit on Bradford to ruin fourth-and-10 and allowed two catches for 14 yards. FS Harrison Smith (81) spent his share of time near the line of scrimmage and fired off the edge to drop Jackson for a 3-yard loss. SS Jamarca Sanford (56) missed two tackles and seemed to be a step late all day. SS Mistral Raymond (25) cramped up again and took an unnecessary roughness penalty for responding to Gibson's taunts with a slap to the facemask. He just can't seem to stay on the field.
What's left to say about PK Blair Walsh? He hit field goals of 50, 38, 42, 53 and 51 yards, plus three extra points. He mitigated the Rams' return game with six touchbacks in eight kickoffs and an average hang time of 4.2 seconds. He is changing the way the Vikings can play in certain situations because they know Walsh can bail them out. It helps to have a holder as good as P Chris Kluwe, who rescued a low snap by LS Cullen Loeffler on the 42-yard field goal. Kluwe grossed 45.5 yards, netted 41.5 and averaged 4.27 seconds of hang time. Andrew Sendejo made an excellent play to strip Jenkins off a throwback, although it probably wasn't going anywhere. Larry Dean just couldn't cover it up. Sherels returned a punt for 15 yards and a kickoff for 24. Robert Blanton had two stops.