Breaking down the tape from the Vikings' win over the Texans
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Here's the tale of the tape from the Minnesota Vikings' 23-6 win over the Houston Texans on Sunday, with grades on a scale of 0 to 5 in parentheses:
It's this simple for Christian Ponder (74 snaps) -- reduce the bad, increase the good. For the third consecutive week, he did that, completing 16 of 30 passes (53.3%) for 174 yards, a touchdown and an 81.8 rating. That included 9-of-13 passing for 101 yards on third down, with five conversions. Ponder converted two more on scrambles of 21 and 29 yards, exploiting a man-heavy coverage scheme that left defenders with their backs to the line. OC Bill Musgrave called four bootlegs and even an option play to utilize Ponder's legs. But there were more chances to make plays in rhythm from the pocket in the intermediate passing game, too. Four of Ponder's completions traveled at least 14 yards beyond the line in the air, though none more than 17. He just seemed more confident with his reads, letting him set his feet and wing it instead of aiming. The fumble was at least partly on Ponder for not securing the ball. One of his five throwaways was dangerously close to an interception for ILB Tim Dobbins -- and another somehow yielded a 17-yard gain when Ponder's arm got hit. It was one of those days, and at this point, he'll take it.
Running backs (2½)
Now this is "famine, famine, feast." HB Adrian Peterson (51 snaps) gained 20 yards on a counter to open the Vikings' first possession, made DE Antonio Smith in the backfield to take a zone run for 21 and snuck out for 20 again on a lead draw. His other 22 carries netted 25 yards (1.1 average), with eight for loss and six more for no gain. The Texans kept firing safeties off the edges, rallying to spill outside runs and letting star DE J.J. Watt disrupt things on the interior. Peterson seemed a little desperate at times and had a hand in a couple of the minus runs. The power sweep that gained 10 might have been Peterson's most impressive run all day, just because he showed such patience. He played more than usual on third downs, allowing a QB hit and two pressures in protection. His only catch went for 4 yards on a checkdown with ILB Bradie James on his back. Battling abdominal soreness, Peterson gave way late to HB Toby Gerhart (20), who ran through FS Glover Quin for a 3-yard touchdown and finished with 31 yards on eight carries (3.9 average). Musgrave called the same run play four straight times on the final drive and Gerhart gained 4, 3, 6 and 3 yards. That's exerting your will. RB Matt Asiata (four) got the final carry and gained 1. FB Jerome Felton (33) seemed confused at times against the Texans' 3-4 front, bounced off a couple of leads, didn't do much to slow James on the strip-sack, popped WLB Connor Barwin on the sweep and destroyed ILB Darryl Sharpton late.
Finally, Jerome Simpson (51 snaps) seems engaged, even if Ponder did have to bail him out after a potentially pivotal drop. Simpson withstood a blast from S Shiloh Keo for a 17-yard catch to get both feet down on the ball Ponder meant to throw out of bounds. He finished with four catches for 32 yards and did his part in the run game, too. Too bad Simpson -- like everyone else -- couldn't fool the Texans' corners on all those double moves Musgrave kept trying to run outside. Michael Jenkins (52) came out of a stack and ran a terrific out for 32 against CB Brandon Harris' inside-leveraged coverage on third-and-6 early. He also settled into a rare zone look for 9 on third-and-4 and blocked well, save for letting Quin defeat his block and ruin a toss play. The Vikings clearly wanted to manufacture some touches for Jarius Wright (23), who caught five passes for 53 yards and got lit up by LCB Kareem Jackson the second time they tried to run the reverse-motioned swing pass to the flat. Wright went down to snare the in for 15 on third-and-1, took a facemask at the sticks to convert on third-and-6 and accelerated a long-threatened end-around for 8. Devin Aromashodu (23) took some snaps off Simpson at split end and had no prayer of beating RCB Jonathan Joseph on the stutter-go Ponder wisely threw over his head.
Tight ends (2½)
The Vikings used shifts from the opening play to make the Texans flop their front -- and Kyle Rudolph (71 snaps) immediately took a false start. He made up for it by sticking SLB Brooks Reed, releasing and beating Manning to the pylon for a 3-yard touchdown. Rudolph finished with three catches for 39 yards, drew a holding penalty on James in pattern and blocked OK overall. John Carlson (24) seemed to misjudge a pass on an out-breaking route and had no chance on the other two balls thrown his way. He just can't seem to get any momentum going. Rhett Ellison (18) took care of NT Shaun Cody on Peterson's first long run and did enough to slow Sharpton on Gerhart's score.
Offensive linemen (3)
With Watt the No. 1 threat on the Texans defense, it was telling the Vikings decided to return RG Brandon Fusco (74 snaps) to a full-time role for the first time since Week 5. He has been playing with more aggression and confidence and needed both against Watt, who nonetheless seemed to wear down Fusco (and everyone else) as the game went on. In the second half, Fusco gave up two QB hits and another pressure, not including Watt's strip-sack in 3.3 seconds. He let James run past for the initial pressure, looking for an inside blitz, and then failed to pick up Watt, who'd slid off RT Phil Loadholt (74). Not helping in those sorts of situations have been an issue for Fusco all season. But that was the only sack on a day Houston rushed five or more 17 times in Ponder's 28 dropbacks (60.7%). Fusco also had a hand in two bad runs, as did Loadholt, who was beaten into the backfield several times by Watt but was clean in protection. So was C John Sullivan (74), whose ability to sustain against Cody and NT Earl Mitchell gave some of those inside runs a chance. LG Charlie Johnson (74) gave up one hit to Barwin with a slow reaction to a T-E game and probably shouldn't have let DE Antonio Smith go for another. He also let Smith ruin two run plays. LT Matt Kalil (74) allowed Watt to ruin two others, was solid in protection, had a false start and took a silly personal foul for jacking Smith after Gerhart hit the ground on a screen.
Defensive linemen (3½)
Not many teams can lose the likes of LE Brian Robison and not miss a beat -- but DL Everson Griffen (51 snaps) makes it possible. He racked up seven pressures, exploiting RT Derek Newton's deep pass sets to keep QB Matt Schaub from getting comfortable in the pocket. Griffen also beat Newton inside to drop HB Arian Foster for a 4-yard loss, defeated TE Garrett Graham's block to ruin another run, batted down a pass and recovered backup QB T.J. Yates' fumble to seal the decision. By comparison, RE Jared Allen (55) was pedestrian on the other side, generating only two pressures against mostly single blocks from LT Duane Brown, though one led to a key holding penalty. The sack for falling on Schaub in 3.0 seconds after a bobbled snap might be changed to an aborted play after review. UT Kevin Williams (43) had a pressure against Graham, batted down a pass and had some good turns in the run game as the Vikings held Houston to 34 yards on 16 carries (2.1 average). That cut into the boot game the Texans had been using to get chunks and made Schaub dodge rushers in the pocket all day. NT Fred Evans (15) pulled him down for a 14-yard loss in 3.3 seconds to cap a critical goal-line stand and had a couple of run stops in limited action. Only a tendency to get washed by double teams on occasion seems to have coaches reluctant to play him instead of NT Letroy Guion (30), who wasn't a liability but was largely invisible. With Griffen playing so much outside, DL Christian Ballard (28) got more nickel turns and had two pressures. DE George Johnson (six), who signed off the practice squad on Saturday, gave Griffen a couple blows on the left side.
DC Alan Williams blitzed on two of the Texans' first three plays and only became bolder as the lead grew, sending at least one extra rusher 15 times in 35 dropbacks (42.9%) by Schaub and Yates -- including the last four in a row. Williams also mixed in some four-man blitz patterns, with WLB Erin Henderson (53 snaps) getting plenty of chances on a day he took all the nickel mike reps instead of MLB Jasper Brinkley (36). It was the threat of Henderson's outside rush against HB Ben Tate that appeared to make Schaub drop an extra step on Evans' sack, with man coverage leaving nowhere to go with the ball. SLB Chad Greenway (55) rushed eight times and never got home. But he was active in the run game, shooting gaps to disrupt a couple of runs in the backfield. It appeared he expected Brinkley to pick up WR Kevin Walter on the slant that put Houston at the 1-yard line before the big stand. On second-and-goal, Greenway and Brinkley combined to cave Smith's pulling block in the A-gap, allowing teammates to rally and stop Tate for no gain. Brinkley also stripped Foster to halt the Texans' other extended drive, ran over Tate to hit Schaub, abandoned the middle on a cross to WR Andre Johnson for 17 and didn't scrape on Tate's run for 13. The Vikings can live with the mistakes if Brinkley makes enough plays. LBs Tyrone McKenzie (one), Marvin Mitchell (one) and Larry Dean (one) handled the kneeldown.
Defensive backs (3)
The Vikings were cautious with the workload on CB Chris Cook (39 snaps) in his first game back from a broken arm -- but not about letting him go against the Texans' best weapon. Schaub targeted Andre Johnson three times against Cook's coverage and connected twice for 33 yards. The other was a stutter-go route Johnson won, only for Schaub's pass to graze his fingertips. Cook missed a tackle but otherwise was fine in run support. Having him back probably made Williams more confident mixing in some man calls on first down, too. CB Antoine Winfield (53) started on the other side and finished despite a broken hand. He sacked Schaub in 2.6 seconds on a slot blitz, had a couple of run stops and dropped Johnson short of the sticks on third-and-6 the only time Schaub completed a pass on him. The timing just wasn't there in Houston's passing game, and drops hurt as well. CB A.J. Jefferson (33) took some snaps off Cook in base and was the third corner in nickel. He was flagged for pass interference to extend the opening drive, broke up an in to Johnson to end it, recovered the fumble Brinkley forced and allowed three completions for 40 yards in seven targets. Struggling rookie CB Josh Robinson (four) was the odd man out. FS Harrison Smith (55) was all over the field, beginning when he took away TE Owen Daniels at the sideline on a third-and-1 boot and nearly intercepted Schaub's late throw. He did enough to stop Walters at the 1, tackled Johnson short of the sticks on third-and-3, took a bogus personal foul for drilling Schaub in the chest on one of his blitzes and sacking Yates in 4.2 seconds on the other three plays later. The ball popped out and that was that. SS Jamarca Sanford (31) may be on the verge of returning the starting job to SS Mistral Raymond (24), though neither is doing much to distinguish himself in coverage. Somebody needs to cover up those crosses on the backside. S Andrew Sendejo (one) and Robert Blanton (one) handled the kneeldown.
No wonder the Vikings believe PK Blair Walsh can be used anytime they cross midfield. He had plenty to spare on the 56-yard field goal that split the uprights. He also was good from 41 and 39 yards, plus two extra points, and had two touchbacks in six kickoffs with an average hang time of 4.15 seconds. Disciplined coverage units make those almost unreturnable. Sendejo got mugged by James Casey to erase the one that got out. P Chris Kluwe grossed 45.5, netted 41.5 and averaged 4.4 seconds of hang time on four punts, including a short-field boot Robinson showed great feel to down at the 1. LS Cullen Loeffler made Kluwe work for a couple of the snaps again. Marcus Sherels averaged 8.3 yards on six punt returns, including a 19-yarder, and 27 yards on two kickoff returns.