Breaking down the tape of the Vikings' loss to the Saints
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Here's the tale of the tape from the Minnesota Vikings' 42-20 loss to the New Orleans Saints, with grades on a scale of 0 to 5 in parentheses:
Boos rained down after three bad misses by Christian Ponder (55 snaps), who totaled 88 of his 120 gross passing yards (73.3%) after the Saints had built a 29-point lead and started yanking starters in the fourth quarter. He completed just 14 of 31 passes overall (45.2%). He took four sacks and an intentional grounding penalty. His mechanics and footwork seemed to break down as Saints DC Gregg Williams tested him over and over by rushing one more than the protection could account for. But the lack of production was as much an indictment of the Vikings' personnel shortages on offense as their rookie quarterback's apparent regression. Too many times, Ponder didn't have anyone open or didn't even have time to look. The Saints rushed five or more 21 times in Ponder's 33 dropbacks (63.6%) and got pressure 14 times in 40 pass plays (35%). Two of the sacks were on the protection in less than 3 seconds. Another was forced by an inside rush. Two of those bad misses -- all high -- were plays on which Ponder felt pressure that wasn't there. Taking three more hits on the 2-minute series was a rough way to go out. Ponder did scramble three times for 34 yards. His long completion of 16 was a screen pass and only two of his completions traveled at least 10 yards beyond the line in the air. Both of Ponder's touchdown throws were in essence long handoffs and he heaved up a meaningless interception on the game's final play. Backup Joe Webb (16) got three snaps under center and the rest at receiver. He netted minus-5 yards on two runs, a lone throw that was dropped, two targets and an illegal formation penalty for failing to cover up the tackle. At least OC Bill Musgrave is trying to get him involved. What's less effective, Ponder's play fakes to no one or Webb's play fakes to Ponder?
Running backs (2½)
Even after a three-week layoff, HB Adrian Peterson (23 snaps) got plenty of extra attention from the Saints, who had a safety in box 78.2% of the time the All-Pro was in the backfield. It was obvious Peterson couldn't plant on his injured left ankle to finish the sweep he cut back through an inside crease for 39 yards. But he had three other carries of at least 8 yards (plus a fourth erased by Webb's penalty) and his 6.0-yard average on just 10 runs would've looked better if not for losses of 6 and 5 that were dead from go. Peterson had a right to be upset when LCB Jabari Greer kept twisting his ankle after the whistle. Then again, Peterson has gotten out of those tackles before. HB Toby Gerhart (23) lunged through traffic for a 10-yard touchdown on a shovel pass, scored again on a screen pass for 16 late and finished with 58 combined yards on six touches. His blitz pickup was fine. HB Lorenzo Booker (six) is back to mop-up duty. He caught one pass for 7. FB Ryan D'Imperio (seven) led OK in limited opportunities.
So this is how you stop Percy Harvin (30 snaps). CB Patrick Robinson chopped down an end-around for a 1-yard loss on the second play and it was downhill for the Vikings offense from there. Harvin's four touches netted 7 yards total, with a long of 5 on the only one of three screens that gained anything. He dropped another of the seven passes thrown his way and was visibly frustrated. The Saints played a lot of single-high safety coverage, with a mix of Cover-2 and man coverage behind some empty blitzes. Devin Aromashodu (38) had catches of 14 and 15 yards -- the longest for the Vikings all day -- and couldn't hold on to two others, including the only deep ball that had a chance. DE Will Smith got the inside track against Aromashodu to thwart the end-around, but that's a mismatch all day. Emmanuel Arceneaux (10) made his NFL debut, couldn't catch a deep out at the sideline and stopped at the sticks to convert on third-and-10. Greg Camarillo (26) caught a quick-hitter to the sideline for 5. There's just not much there.
Tight ends (1)
Facing third-and-4 on the second series, Visanthe Shiancoe (36 snaps) shoved Harper to the ground, flailed at Ponder's overthrown pass, argued the pass interference penalty and wasn't heard from again. No wonder he remained frustrated a day after the game. Shiancoe's blocking was a bright spot, but that's not where he earns his money. Kyle Rudolph (37) gave up the inside to Robinson on a bubble screen to Harvin for no gain, let Harper beat him inside to drop Peterson for a loss of 6 and also was in the neighborhood when Smith stopped Peterson for a 5-yard loss, although that just looked like an outstanding read. A dozen of Rudolph's snaps and both of his catches (for 8 and 7 yards) came on the final two series. A rare screen to Jimmy Kleinsasser (23) was overthrown. Too bad -- the veteran deserves one more rumble with the way he keeps doing everything that's asked of him in the blocking phase.
Offensive linemen (1)
Maybe the knee just isn't right, but RG Anthony Herrera (55 snaps) is having a terrible time. DE Junior Gallette chopped Herrera's right arm for a sack in 2.2 seconds. Another reserve, DT Tom Johnson, ripped him for a sack in 2.7 seconds. Herrera didn't finish all that well in the run game either, although he certainly was better in that area. His willingness to mix it up with anyone just isn't translating to his performance anymore. LG Steve Hutchinson (43) let DE Jeff Charleston clean up for another sack in 3.6 seconds after Smith's inside rush against LT Charlie Johnson (55) forced Ponder to move. Hutchinson allowed two more QB pressures, including a hit on his first play after returning with a facial laceration and apparent concussion. He had been solid in the run game up until then. Joe Berger (12) finished things out and was OK. Johnson had a hand in the sack and let Smith muddle Webb's option, but he otherwise was fine. C John Sullivan (55) gave some ground against DT Shaun Ellis and NT Shaun Rogers but never had a major bust. Another sign of progress. A late snap might have been at fault on the false start that was called on RT Phil Loadholt (55), who was clean in protection until allowing a couple of hits on the final series. He really drives well when he gets low enough.
Defensive linemen (1)
The chips and double teams never ended for RE Jared Allen (70 snaps), who managed seven pressures but only hit slick QB Drew Brees once. The way Brees keeps his shoulders square and eyes downfield while shuffling in and out of the pocket is remarkable. LT Jermon Bushrod was content to steer Allen upfield and let Brees go to work, to the tune of 412 yards and five touchdowns on 32-of-40 passing (80%). Allen's hit on Brees forced on incompletion. He ran out of gas before coaches pulled the plug -- the right move after C Brian de la Puente's chop block sent Allen flying. LE Brian Robison (63) got extra attention, too. He breathed on Brees once on a screen pass, drew a holding call on FB Jed Collins that wiped out a 40-yard touchdown pass and otherwise was contained by RT Zach Strief. Robison kept working, though, getting in on six tackles (two solo) and missing another. UT Kevin Williams (65) just didn't seem to have a whole lot of energy. He got hit Brees once off a long stunt, drew a holding call on de la Puente, assisted on one tackle, missed two others and seemed startlingly unaware on two of the four screens New Orleans popped for 98 yards (24.5 average). The whole interior was a mess in the run game on a day the Saints averaged 4.2 yards on 38 carries. NT Remi Ayodele (22) got washed by a double team on HB Pierre Thomas' run for 10 on the first play and didn't get much chance to redeem himself. He did hustle to stop HB Darren Sproles inside the one on first-and-goal, but Thomas went in standing up on the next play. NT Fred Evans (36) got some penetration and made two stops on the meaningless final series. He also caved a couple of times against double teams, let Brees break his arm tackle on what could have been a sack and took a penalty for jacking LG Carl Nicks in the face on third-and-10. That's just a lack of discipline. DT Letroy Guion (40) got in on three tackles (two solo) and pressured Brees just once in extended nickel rushing opportunities. No wonder Brees had so much space to step up over and over. DL Christian Ballard (19) got a few turns inside as well and had nothing to show for it. DL Everson Griffen (35) showed good vision to recover the fumble caused by de la Puente's mistaken snap to nobody. Too bad Brees was alert enough to make an ankle tackle. Griffen played five snaps from a two-point stance in the 3-3 nickel and continues to hold his own when asked to cover.
The Vikings bracketed TE Jimmy Graham on almost every third down, daring the Saints to beat them with anyone else. Instead, Graham got his (seven catches for 70 yards and a touchdown) and so did everybody else. SLB Chad Greenway (86 snaps) just can't get anything going. Asking a hit-and-run linebacker to smash facemasks with linemen all day doesn't make sense, especially when he's playing with a brace protecting an injured elbow. The decline of the defensive line isn't helping in that regard. But Greenway's coverage has slipped this season, too, and not all of it can be blamed on the secondary confusing zones around him. Sproles circled him for a 13-yard touchdown. WR Lance Moore crossed his face for a 47-yard score. Three times, Greenway couldn't defeat blocks to prevent screens from getting out of the gate. He got in on 10 tackles (four solo), but half were at least 11 yards downfield. He's better than this, plain and simple. The limitations of MLB E.J. Henderson (81) in space don't help anyone either, particularly when the Vikings play this much Tampa-2. He took a 26-yard pass interference penalty when WR Marques Colston went to the post. As usual, Henderson was at his best going downhill, recording nine solo tackles and firing past Nicks to make one stop for loss. His motor seemed to stall once things got out of hand. WLB Erin Henderson (48) held his ground well against Collins' leads, got in on nine tackles (four solo), took some snaps off his brother in the nickel and departed temporarily in favor of LB Kenny Onatolu (three) after getting blown back by a double team late.
Defensive backs (1)
With CB Cedric Griffin on the sideline, this group at least played the coverage that were called. Problem is, the Vikings still didn't execute with anything close to the precision needed to slow a quarterback like Brees, who carved up their zones all day. CB Benny Sapp (82 snaps) sat out the first two snaps for missing a team meeting on Saturday night, gave up a 5-yard touchdown on a slant to Moore and held up well in limited man-to-man chances, breaking up three passes. He tackled well, too, flying in for a couple of his four stops (three solo). So did CB Marcus Sherels (77), who started in Sapp's place, shifted into the nickel and then returned to the base defense once CB Asher Allen (14) got concussed. Sherels tackles as soundly as anybody in the secondary. He's just so small he can't get much of a reroute when asked to check big receivers at the line and he doesn't cover a ton of ground when sinking in Cover-2. CB Brandon Burton (33) got the most extensive action of his rookie season, seemed to shy from contact in the open field and gave Graham a 6-yard cushion on third-and-1, yielding a gain of 5. SS Jamarca Sanford (85) stripped Graham on the opening series, took a weak personal foul for hitting Sproles out of bounds, missed Moore on the long touchdown and didn't have a prayer against Graham on the fade for a 1-yard score. FS Mistral Raymond (86) recovered that fumble to set up a field goal, broke up an out to Graham on third-and-6 to end the Saints' second series, missed a tackle on the screen to Sproles that went for 37 and was all turned around when backup TE John Gilmore came free for a 2-yard TD catch. Jarrad Page (one) made a cameo in Sanford's place late. All the while, Griffin stood motionless, arms crossed, towel over his head. What a weird season.
Even without the new contract, injured LS Cullen Loeffler wouldn't have to worry about losing his job. LS Matt Katula had four shaky snaps -- none more glaring than a low, inside toss P Chris Kluwe rescued to get off a line drive that hung 2.9 seconds and got a favorable roll in the fourth quarter. Performances like that make you appreciate Loeffler's consistency. Kluwe grossed 48.1, netted 41.7 and averaged 4.27 seconds of hang time on seven punts. Another low snap might have affected the punt that Sproles returned 24 yards, with Griffen and Rudolph missing tackles along the way. Overall, coverage was far improved from recent weeks. PK Ryan Longwell drilled field goals from 44 and 49 yards, made two extra points and put three of four kickoffs in the end zone, with an average hang time of 3.8 seconds and return of 22.5 yards. Harvin went 25 yards on the Vikings' only kick return. Sherels fair-caught the Saints' only punt. Burton got crushed on the onside kick two Saints should have recovered before Griffen curled up around it. The Vikings' onside attempt didn't have a chance even if they hadn't committed penalties for illegal formation and offsides by LB Kenny Onatolu.