Breaking down the tape from the Vikings' win over the Titans
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Here's the tale of the tape from the Minnesota Vikings' 30-7 win over the Tennessee Titans, with grades on a scale of 0 to 5 in parentheses:
The Vikings seemed determined to attack the Titans through the intermediate passing game. After Christian Ponder (66 snaps) threw interceptions on consecutive attempts, though, it's no surprise OC Bill Musgrave went back to the short passing attack that continues to be so effective. Of Ponder's first 23 throws, 11 were targeted between 10 and 19 yards downfield -- including the tipped ball Titans S Robert Johnson corralled late in the first half and the deep in-cut S Jordan Babineaux sunk under for a pick early in the third quarter. Ponder's next seven passes were completed zero, 2, zero, minus-2, zero, 6 and minus-2 yards downfield. The only times he tried to go over the top the rest of the way were a fade that sailed out of bounds in the red zone and a perfectly thrown corner for a 15-yard touchdown to ice the decision. He also dropped a "go" ball in the bucket for 45 to set up the first touchdown and got a 10-yard scoring throw on a bubble screen. Ponder finished 25-of-35 passing (71.4%) for 258 yards and an 87.6 rating, plus 31 yards on three scrambles that confirmed his balky knee wasn't exactly crippling. He took only one sack, a zero-yard scramble on third-and-10. He made a couple other dangerous throws in the red zone, but Babineaux couldn't handle one and CB Ryan Mouton flat dropped another. At least Ponder took those chances against a team that had next to no chance for turning them into points. Backup Joe Webb (three) got his first action, tried one kneeldown and then had to hand off twice because Titans coach Mike Munchak wanted to prolong the humiliation.
Running backs (3½)
If HB Adrian Peterson (44 snaps) hadn't kept getting up slowly, it would have been tough to tell he tweaked his left ankle on the first of his 17 carries for 88 yards (5.2 average). Six of those carries (35.3%) went for loss or no gain and Peterson looked tentative at times, particularly on the rare occasions Musgrave tried to stretch the field horizontally. But he also exploded through huge holes on draw plays for 22 and 34 yards -- his two longest runs since undergoing left knee reconstruction on Dec. 30 -- and slipped DT Sen'Derrick Marks' tackle to gain 17 on a zone run. He caught three passes for 15 yards, once diving through two Titans for a first down, and held up well in limited protection opportunities, too. HB Toby Gerhart (22) converted on third-and-1 despite getting hit in the backfield, tackled Johnson after the interception, gained 22 on a lead play and finished with 41 yards on six carries (6.8 average). FB Jerome Felton (18) got fewer turns than usual but made the most of them, save for letting SLB Akeem Ayers bounce off one lead block to drop Peterson after a 1-yard gain. He really has a knack for knowing when to peel off and help someone at the second level. RB Matt Asiata (three) had 5- and 3-yard carries as the Vikings tried to kill clock late.
Percy Harvin (46 snaps) just keeps doing things few in the NFL can. Sending him on the go ball that gained 45 early was a stroke of genius from Musgrave, since it made CB Alterraun Verner and the rest of the Titans think twice on all the screens and one-step routes from that point forward. Harvin slammed through Mouton and S Michael Griffin on a shotgun draw for a 4-yard score. He ran a deep slant for 18 against the zone. He took one bubble screen for 14 and another for an otherworldly 10-yard score, using separate jump cuts to avoid Babineaux and MLB Colin McCarthy before bouncing off Ayers and into the end zone. He once again led the Vikings with eight catches for 108 yards (13.5 average) in 10 targets, ran twice for 8 yards and sustained in the blocking game, too. It didn't really matter Jerome Simpson (24) was a nonfactor while battling a mysterious leg/back injury that almost forced the Vikings to deactivate him. Ponder threw his way three times and none connected. Michael Jenkins (39) picked up some of the slack, settling in the zone for three catches and 35 yards -- none bigger than an out-breaking route for 12 on third-and-10 in the red zone. Even a double move worked for once, if only because Griffin wailed him with a helmet-to-helmet shot after Jenkins short-armed Ponder's good ball at the sideline. In another new wrinkle, Jenkins lined up nine times as an inline tight end. He still doesn't finish many blocks. Devin Aromashodu (40) got back into the mix, too, catching three of balls thrown his way for 34 yards, including a 19-yarder on a blown coverage. Hanging on for 6 at the sticks with Verner drilling him showed some guts. Stephen Burton (15) was active because of concern over Jenkins' ribs and caught the only ball thrown his way for 6 on a pivot.
Tight ends (3)
The Titans kept bringing Babineaux down in coverage against Kyle Rudolph (52) and leaving Griffin high, which gave Ponder some chances to exploit the boundary. Rudolph's first six targets yielded only three catches for 10 yards and the interception on a cross that sailed high and behind him. But Rudolph got the last laugh, getting a step on Babineaux's man coverage and elevating between the safeties for a 15-yard score to the corner. The checkdown Ayers ripped out of his hands could have been called a fumble instead of an incompletion as Rudolph turned upfield. He needs to put that one away. He allowed one QB pressure and continued to show progress in the run game, particularly blocking down to free up kickouts. More was asked of him than usual in protection even though the Titans rushed five or more just six times in Ponder's 34 dropbacks (17.6%, not including bootlegs and option throws). In his most extended action, rookie Rhett Ellison (22) motioned all over the field, lining up 12 times in the backfield and eight times inline, mostly on run plays. He missed a couple of cut blocks that ruined plays and caught two passes for 35 yards, including a 29-yarder sprung by McCarthy's inability to wrap him up. John Carlson (20) made his only catch on a route behind the line for 2 and otherwise blended. They keep running the wheel to try to spring him, though.
Offensive linemen (3½)
Week after week, rookie LT Matt Kalil (69 snaps) keeps holding his own against the pass rush, giving the Vikings flexibility with their protections that just weren't there a year ago. He gave up one pressure each to DT DaJohn Harris and DE Kamerion Wimbley, who clipped Ponder's heels but couldn't get him on the ground. Though the Vikings used chips or extra protectors 17 times (50%), the help rarely was to Kalil's side. Failing to block anyone on a toss left that lost 2 yards was an example of how far he has to go in the run game. Kalil's kickouts in particular never seen to connect. He did get a piece of Ayers on the draw that went for 22. LG Charlie Johnson (66) wasn't as good as usual in space and had his hands full at the point with Marks, who beat him for a QB hit and drew a holding call against C John Sullivan (69), too. Sullivan sustained long enough against Marks to help spring Harvin's touchdown run and had a hand in some crushing combo blocks. But he had more hiccups than usual in the run game, getting beaten by DT Mike Martin to stop a red-zone run that lost 1 and almost letting Marks scuttle Gerhart's third-and-1 plunge. RG Brandon Fusco (66) gave up two QB pressures, let Marks shed him on another run for loss and otherwise held up well. The Titans' predictable rush angles made easy work for the whole interior on those big draws. RT Phil Loadholt (69) surrendered three QB pressures, all on failed third downs. Getting blasted back by DE Derrick Morgan off the initial punch is the sort of thing that isn't supposed to happen anymore. Loadholt's run and space blocking was as good as it's been all season. Geoff Schwartz (three) and Joe Berger (three) played the final series at right and left guard, respectively. One coverage sack and 5.6 yards a carry usually means a solid day for the line no matter how you slice it.
Defensive linemen (4)
UT Kevin Williams (45 snaps) set the tone on the opening series, when he penetrated to muddle the second of 15 handoffs to HB Chris Johnson that gained only 24 yards (1.6 average) and almost wrapped up QB Matt Hasselbeck for a sack off a loop past LG Steve Hutchinson. That Williams didn't finish off either play didn't matter much -- the physical war already had been won. He later batted down two passes, got push against a double team that led to Johnson's cut before the fumble and had two additional QB pressures, including a big hit after beating RG Leroy Harris. RE Jared Allen (60) had five total pressures, drew a holding call on LT Michael Roos, broke up a pass and was barely touched on a sack in 2.3 seconds once Hutchinson let him go. That came on one of the 12 extra-man pressures DC Alan Williams sent in Hasselbeck's 50 dropbacks (24%), one week after blitzing Lions QB Matthew Stafford only twice. The Titans used chips and extra protectors 13 times (26%), though that skewed because they had everyone out in pattern during desperation mode. Allen was solid in the run game, too. So was LE Brian Robison (63), who torched RT David Stewart with a stutter move for a sack in 2.2 seconds, had two more QB pressures and tipped a screen to TE Craig Stevens that lost 4. NT Letroy Guion (30) had a tackle for loss but otherwise was quiet. Backup NT Fred Evans (17) picked up the slack, whipping C Fernando Velasco to ruin a run to Johnson on his first snap, penetrating to force cuts on a couple other snaps and walking back Hutchinson for a QB hit. DL Everson Griffen (40) had two hits against Roos and a pressure against Hutchinson while continuing to get lots of time inside and out. He also drew a holding call on Stewart. Hasselbeck sure sold the personal foul, but Griffen probably did take one step too many. DL Christian Ballard (25) returned to invisibility.
WLB Erin Henderson (19 snaps) barely saw the field because the Vikings were in nickel for 72.9% of the snaps, including the last 37 in a row while the Titans tried to play catchup. That was enough time for Henderson to clean up two tackles for loss on run plays and force a fumble that rolled out of bounds. It wouldn't be a surprise if his role increases sooner than later. The fumble MLB Jasper Brinkley (70) forced on Johnson proved pivotal -- scuttling a Titans possession and stealing back momentum moments after a fourth-down conversion out of punt personnel put them in Vikings territory. He also broke up a drag to TE Jared Cook, who later froze him with a nod and kept running for a 10-yard touchdown. Just one of Brinkley's nine blitzes got home. SLB Chad Greenway (70) blitzed eight times and only got near Hasselbeck on a screen. He led the team with nine tackles, dropped an interception after jumping a checkdown to Stevens and remained active as ever.
Defensive backs (3)
It says a lot about the impotence of the Titans' air attack that this was the game the Vikings decided to give extra rest to veteran CB Antoine Winfield (63 snaps). The difference ended up being negligible, though, since the Vikings spent most of the game in nickel. And Winfield came up with one of the game's biggest plays, hanging on to a wayward Hasselbeck pass for WR Nate Washington that hit him in the chest -- his first interception since last season's opener. Ten other balls thrown at Winfield generated 50 yards on five completions, including a 17-yarder in man coverage after Hasselbeck broke pocket. Rookie CB Josh Robinson (58) got the start in Winfield's place and was targeted nine times, with seven complete (one wiped out by penalty) for a net of 58 yards. Robinson is conceding a lot underneath and receivers know they can outmuscle his jam, but he's not giving up the big play. Neither is CB Chris Cook (68), who allowed five completions for 40 yards in nine targets, mostly late. The way he drove to break up a curl to Washington was encouraging. It's still odd how rarely he presses at the line, though. The personal foul for yanking Hasselbeck off a pile would have been less defensible had the quarterback not dived in well after the whistle. Robinson's hard, clean takedown in the flat probably ended HB Javon Ringer's season. He and Winfield had seven tackles each. Cook's run support seems to be improving, too. CB A.J. Jefferson (two) replaced Cook late. FS Harrison Smith (18) blew up WR Kendall Wright on third-and-7, recovered the fumble Brinkley forced and got ejected for pushing aside back judge Steve Freeman while jawing with Washington after Winfield's pick. No matter the circumstances, that's a no-no. Fellow rookie S Robert Blanton (52) was remarkably serviceable in Smith's place, and Alan Williams didn't seem to back down from the game plan, putting Blanton in some man-to-man situations. He even stayed home to stop Johnson on a fourth-and-1 draw. Not bad for a guy who only had played defense in a game once, in the preseason finale. SS Jamarca Sanford (70) continued to impress in his second start, too -- breaking up two passes, tipping Hasselbeck's pass on his only blitz and sticking Johnson short of the sticks late. What's gotten into these guys?
PK Blair Walsh continues to be an underrated weapon -- not just with another perfect place-kicking performance (field goals from 42, 36 and 26 yards, plus three extra points), but his ability to put the ball through the end zone on kickoffs, too. He did it five times in seven chances, prompting Darius Reynaud to set up with his heels inches from the endline on the one he did bring out. Reynaud had a crease, too, before Jefferson made him cut and he stumbled to the ground. Griffen chased down the other return. Not including one squib, Walsh's average hang time was a robust 4.2 seconds. P Chris Kluwe grossed 46.0, netted 37.7 and averaged 4.3 seconds of hang time on three punts. Reynaud busted Robinson's tackle on one return for 14. LS Cullen Loeffler seems to have straightened out his early-season inconsistencies. Marcus Sherels had three fair catches and lost 1 yard on his two punt returns, although a 26-yarder got wiped by a Robinson holding penalty. Harvin never got a chance to return a kick. The Vikings brought up Ellison as an extra front man on what ended up being an onside kick out of bounds early in the fourth quarter. Next time, bringing on the hands team probably would be wise. So would calling a timeout when Titans P Brett Kern lines up at tight end in a shotgun formation. The Vikings had no chance to stop Babineaux on a seal the edge play once Tyrone McKenzie got doubled back at the point. McKenzie had two tackles.