Breaking down the tape of the Vikings' win over the Jaguars
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Here's the tale of the tape from the Minnesota Vikings' 26-23 overtime win against Jacksonville, with grades on a scale of 0 to 5 in parentheses:
The boos sure stopped quickly once Christian Ponder (59 snaps) quit thinking and just let it fly. He started out 3-of-7, nearly throwing two interceptions as the Vikings' first four drives netted 58 yards, two first downs and four punts. But Ponder completed 17 of his last 20 passes, beginning with four in a row on the hurry-up touchdown drive that gave the offense a major lift before halftime. Granted, much of Ponder's production came in the short passing game against the Jaguars' soft Cover-2 scheme, which is useless when their corners don't tackle. He didn't have a completion longer than 29 yards all day. But he was smart with the football after the early errors and made several clutch throws -- none better than a 26-yard strike that got the Vikings to the edge of field-goal range late in regulation. They were running three verticals and Ponder's first read was covered, so he went to his second, saw two defenders inside and stuck the ball on the receiver's outside shoulder. That's veteran stuff. He finished 20-of-27 passing for 270 yards and a career-best 105.5 rating. He scrambled into a stop when it looked like he had a play downfield on the opening series. He contributed to a holding penalty in the red zone by holding the ball all day. He continues to drift sideways at times instead of stepping up in the pocket. The sack that led to the fumble wasn't really Ponder's fault, but he needs to protect the ball in traffic. The other sack was a zero-yard scramble in 5.6 seconds. Down two starters, the Jaguars barely blitzed him, sending five rushers only seven times in 26 dropbacks (26.9%). Ponder will face tougher challenges than this, for sure, but he weathered the early storm to pass this one.
Running backs (4)
What more can be said about HB Adrian Peterson (31 snaps)? Eight months and 10 days after left knee reconstruction, Peterson ran 17 times for 84 yards (4.9 average) and two touchdowns -- a fine showing even if he didn't seem to be cutting and accelerating at full tilt. Eight of his carries (47.1%) were designed to go to the right and five more were draws in the middle (29.4%), reducing the need to plant on his left leg. However, his biggest gain came on a lead play to the left behind FB Jerome Felton (32) that went for 20 in overtime, with Peterson breaking DT Tyson Alualu's arm tackle and finally get horse-collared to the ground without a flag. He also gained 19 on a draw behind Felton, making MLB Paul Posluszny miss on his way to the sideline. Peterson seemed to be pressing the hole too hard early, but that's no surprise, given the situation. He made OLB Russell Allen miss on the 3-yard touchdown off a draw and dived in for a 2-yarder on the next drive. He broke two tackles in overtime, gained 27 yards (32.1%) after contact and caught the only pass thrown his way for a 3-yard gain. No question, it was an encouraging start. HB Toby Gerhart (20) split the load early but was on the field for only three snaps in the fourth quarter and overtime to Peterson's 15. He finished with 18 yards on six carries (3.0 average) and one catch for 8 -- not exactly the expanded role he expected all offseason. He was asked to block six times and acquitted himself well, picking up S Dawan Landry's blitz on the 29-yard completion. RB Matt Asiata (one) was covered well enough he probably couldn't have turned his 2-yard catch into a score even if Ponder's pass hadn't made him spin back. Felton seemed to be everywhere, sticking lead after lead with authority and holding up well in pass protection, too. What an upgrade from Ryan D'Imperio.
The Vikings did try to get the ball to Percy Harvin (47 snaps) early, but an end-around went for only 4 and Ponder's ill-advised throw into double coverage up the seam drilled S Chris Prosinski in the chest. Then came the hurry-up drive and Harvin got the ball on three consecutive plays -- a screen for 16, a quick out for 5 and another screen for 11 on which CB Aaron Ross' slot blitz made him hot. The Jaguars didn't make the same mistake in the red zone, repeatedly doubling Harvin with a safety inside. But they had no answer for the screens, with Harvin taking another for 20 in the fourth quarter with a juke on Landry. He also came wide open on a slant through a rare single-high zone for 19. He played five snaps in the backfield, finishing with 20 yards on five carries (4.0 average) in addition to his 84 yards on six catches (14.0 average). He probably hurried the first-and-goal run that lost a yard. Harvin was the first read but got doubled again on the pivotal play late in regulation -- a 26-yard strike to Devin Aromashodu (25), who wasn't targeted until he settled in the zone for a 19-yard grab in the fourth quarter and later circled for another 19-yarder in overtime. He still can't beat man coverage, but it didn't matter with how committed the Jaguars were to Cover-2. It looked like Aromashodu was at fault when Harvin practically ran into him in pattern during one of the failed red-zone trips. Michael Jenkins (47) got the start for suspended Jerome Simpson, made one sensational catch for 16 yards at the sideline against Ross and finished with 45 yards on three receptions (15.0 average) in five targets. The illegal block call against him late in regulation was a head-scratcher and gave the Jaguars extra time for their go-ahead drive. Stephen Burton (12) was a nonfactor.
Tight ends (2)
Kyle Rudolph (59 snaps) never came off the field and played all over it -- 31 snaps inline, 19 detached as a receiver and nine in the backfield. The Vikings clearly want him to replace Visanthe Shiancoe as their strongside tight end, and Rudolph has the frame for it, but his strength remains in the receiving game. He shook CB Kevin Rutland and Ponder dropped it in the bucket for 29. He caught an out for 16 and another first down. He finished with 67 yards on five catches (13.4 yards) in seven targets, including the quick out for 6 against a rare man call by the Jaguars to set up the tying field goal late in regulation. Why was Landry giving him so much room to operate? Two other third-down throws fell incomplete -- one broken up by CB Rashean Mathis, who might have arrived early, and the other on a slant route Rudolph didn't really finish before the ball glanced off his hands. Time and again, defenders defeated his blocks, one of them stopping a sweep to Peterson for a loss. Better fronts may make Rudolph look even worse if his technique doesn't improve. The Vikings don't have a lot of options, though, since John Carlson (18) has proven he's a backside pass-catcher and doesn't appear ready to do much on that knee anyway. He was targeted only once, bumped into Alualu and then couldn't beat Allen across the goal line. He was detached four times, three of them in tandem with Rudolph. Rhett Ellison (three) played two of his snaps at fullback and didn't block anyone on a Gerhart run for no gain.
Offensive linemen (3½)
So far, so good for the Vikings' first-time starters. They used chips or extra-man protections 17 times (65.4%) but gave minimal help to LT Matt Kalil (59 snaps), who didn't allow a single quarterback pressure. The top draft pick did have some issues in the run game -- most notable, allowing DT D'Anthony Smith to beat him outside and wrap up Peterson for a 4-yard loss in overtime. The problem doesn't appear to be Kalil's power as much as getting sloppy which his technique, which might be a product of trying to settle into the scheme. RG Brandon Fusco (59) had a hand in two runs for loss, allowed a QB pressure and let Smith get off to dislodge the ball on Ponder's fumble. But Fusco's combo blocks with C John Sullivan (59) were solid overall, he did fine work at the second level and he walled off Alualu on Peterson's first touchdown. Watching him pull provides a reminder of how much Anthony Herrera had slowed down. Sullivan was superb, save for his piece of one QB pressure and letting DT Terrance Knighton counter to stop Peterson for a loss. If only LG Charlie Johnson (59) had let go of Knighton a split-second earlier, the holding penalty wouldn't have been called and another red-zone trip might have been saved. Johnson doesn't play with a guard's usual power at the point of attack but put together a clean game otherwise in his debut there. RT Phil Loadholt (59) gave up two pressures against LE Jeremy Mincey, one leading to the Ponder fumble, and couldn't get consistent movement in the run game. The unbalanced line OC Bill Musgrave unveiled for several snaps with Loadholt next to Kalil and Carlson lining up in the normal right tackle spot was productive, yielding runs of 7 and 6 yards for Gerhart. The whole line caved the Jaguars front on Peterson's second score. That's how it's done.
Defensive linemen (2½)
LE Brian Robison (72 snaps) is off to another torrid start. He hit Jaguars QB Blaine Gabbert three times, pressured him three more, drew a holding call on RT Guy Whimper, batted down a third-down pass and got in on five tackles. Robison just doesn't quit. Playing him on 91.1% of the snaps seems like too much, though. He's not built for that. RE Jared Allen (73) didn't come off the field much either, but Jaguars LT Eugene Monroe largely neutralized him with help from persistent chips after Allen's early sack in 1.4 seconds was wiped away by an offsides penalty. Allen hit Gabbert again two plays later and that was it. He had some positive turns in the run game but kept getting caught inside by Jacksonville's misdirection. He was credited with only two tackles (one solo). He'll have better days. UT Kevin Williams (63) caused some disruption in the run game, got in on three tackles (two solo), pressured Gabbert once against RG Uche Nwaneri, took an offsides penalty and generated the Vikings' lone takeaway by falling on the ball after a botched exchange. NT Letroy Guion (41) improved after getting doubled to the ground on the opening snap, had five tackles (four solo) and beat Nwaneri to set up a sack. He also took a boneheaded personal foul for dropping his weight onto Gabbert, who was prone on the ground. Getting shoved back on Gabbert's third-and-1 sneak late wasn't a proud moment for Guion either. Monroe stood up Allen on the same play. DL Everson Griffen (33) got the most work of the backups and responded with three pressures against backup G Mike Brewster. DL Christian Ballard (16) was typically invisible. DL D'Aundre Reed (four) made his NFL debut and ended up on the field for the Jaguars' last three plays of regulation because the other inside nickel rushers were gassed. NT Fred Evans (18) had two QB pressures and got a good jump on a failed third-and-goal run. Even with the Jaguars using chips or extra blockers on 23 of Gabbert's 42 dropbacks (54.8%), it has to be considered a disappointment this group couldn't sack the young quarterback once.
SLB Chad Greenway (79 snaps) didn't make every play that came to him, but at least he looks like he has regained some of the juice he was missing last season. He was in man coverage when TE Marcedes Lewis beat him on a drag for 18 yards -- one of four third-down conversions on the Jaguars' opening drive. He atoned later with two instinctive pass-breakups, although WR Justin Blackmon followed the latter by running almost the exact same route for a 10-yard gain on fourth-and-3. Greenway also had a quarterback hit and 13 tackles (nine solo), matching WLB Erin Henderson (79) for a team high. Each blitzed six times on a day the Vikings sent five or more rushers 13 times in Gabbert's 42 dropbacks (30.1%), and Henderson cleaned up a pressure by Robison for a sack in 2.7 seconds. Henderson also used Robison as a shield to drop HB Rashad Jennings for a 4-yard loss early. That's his game, even if he still gets caught out of position too often. Getting enough depth in Tampa-2 remains a work in progress, although if this was any indication, they won't run that coverage as often as in years past. MLB Jasper Brinkley (41) got the stop on third-and-goal early, but Greenway deserves credit for taking on LG Eben Britton's pulling block, too. Brinkley quietly had seven tackles (four solo) in his first meaningful, extended game action on defense in more than 2½ years. He came off the field in nickel situations and ceded play-calling duties to Henderson, who was actually the culprit on the defensive holding call officials announced was against Brinkley.
Defensive backs (2)
A furious rally bailed out CB Chris Cook (74 snaps), whose second failure to locate the football in deep coverage nearly proved fatal. In the second quarter, Cook never turned his head before WR Laurent Robinson caught Gabbert's perfectly placed throw over his outside shoulder for a 26-yard gain. That surely gave Gabbert confidence to make a similar throw to WR Cecil Shorts III in the final minute of regulation, and Cook looked the wrong direction as Shorts hauled in the go-ahead, 39-yard touchdown. Getting a reroute would help cover for Cook's lacking speed in those situations, but it's impossible when playing a bailout technique in Cover-3. DC Alan Williams took plenty of those chances against a run-first Jaguars offense, rolling into a single-safety look on roughly half of Jacksonville's snaps. Playing mostly right cornerback in the base defense and left corner in nickel, Cook had his coverage targeted 13 times and allowed only four receptions for 79 yards. Gabbert tried the outside shoulder one more time on the game's final play, but his pass for Robinson was overthrown. Cook was credited for three pass breakups, although a couple looked like plain drops. He cleaned up Guion's pressure for a sack in 3.0 seconds on his only blitz. He got stiff-armed and dragged by 5 yards by Shorts to convert an early third down. He departed briefly with a bruised left arm, giving extra action to CB Josh Robinson (39), who handled most of the nickel over CB Brandon Burton (five) and also played a few snaps of base in place of CB Antoine Winfield (74). Gabbert targeted Robinson four times and completed them all for 28 yards. Robinson mostly held his own, though, making four solo tackles and muscling his fellow rookie Blackmon out of bounds off a one-step route in the fourth quarter. Winfield was his usual self -- playing the slot in nickel, knifing through trash for seven tackles (six solo) and getting targeted only three times, one complete on a checkdown in the flat for 8. Blackmon had him beaten on the first-and-goal play that Gabbert overthrew early. Rookie FS Harrison Smith (77) got run over once but otherwise was solid and assignment-sound. He was in on seven tackles (three solo), saved a touchdown after HB Maurice Jones-Drew blasted through SS Mistral Raymond (79), gave up a 19-yard completion to Laurent Robinson and dived to break up a pass for Robinson in overtime. This is what they needed at the position. Smith spent more time near the line of scrimmage than Raymond, who let Lewis get behind him for a 1-yard touchdown off play action one play after the MJD steamroll. He bounced back, leveling WR Mike Thomas on a bad-idea pass up the seam and knocking another ball from Shorts' hands at the sideline. He probably needed to pick up Blackmon on the two-point conversion. Jamarca Sanford (two), who started 15 games last season, has been reduced to goal-line duty.
In his NFL debut, rookie PK Blair Walsh converted two high-leverage field goals -- including one the Vikings couldn't even have attempted with predecessor Ryan Longwell. The 55-yarder from the right hash was down the heart to tie it as regulation expired, and the 38-yard winner from the left hash in overtime was true, too. Walsh also hit from 20 and 42 yards, made two extra points and had three touchbacks in six kickoffs. Not including a squib in overtime, Walsh averaged 4.04 seconds of hang time and they all went at least 4 yards deep in the end zone. That's a weapon in itself. P Chris Kluwe got away with one ugly punt late in regulation that rolled 21 yards before being blown dead. His five punts grossed 48.4, netted 44.4 and averaged 4.36 seconds of hang time. Kluwe also did a good job getting down some less-than-ideal snaps by LS Cullen Loeffler, who has seemed a little off since returning from back surgery. Nothing egregious yet, though. Kalil rose to block an extra point that might have been the difference. Sherels' two punt returns went for 15 and 7 yards, respectively. Harvin handled all the kick returns and racked up 88 yards on three chances (29.3 average) -- giving him 192 combined net yards, the most ever for a Vikings player in a season opener. Asiata averaged 20.0 yards on two kick returns, including the 22-yarder late in regulation off an ugly Josh Scobee boot that set up the tying drive. Impactful as usual on coverage units, Griffen and Sanford forced fumbles the Jaguars recovered and each were credited with a piece of two tackles, as were Ballard and Larry Dean. Tyrone McKenzie might have saved the game by stopping Jalen Parmelee in a big hole in OT.