Offensive formations and film observations: Week 9 vs. Cowboys
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
Welcome to another installment of 'Offensive formations and film observations,' this one brought to you for the Minnesota Vikings-Dallas Cowboys.
Every Tuesday after a game, we'll take a look at what the Vikings offense looked like, bring you five key takeaways from film study and hand out a proverbial game ball and name the goat(s). Every Wednesday, we'll provide you with a similar breakdown and analysis from the defensive side of the ball.
The Vikings offense produced 393 yards and 23 points in the loss, improving to 316.8 yards/game (27th, +3) and dropping their points/game on the season to 23.2 (17th, -1).
Tying their season high in yardage, the Vikings returned to their run-first mentality as running back Adrian Peterson's 25 carries are the most he's seen since Sept. 22. Quarterback Christian Ponder progressed, but was still inconsistent against a Cowboys' secondary starting two rookies in cornerback B.W. Webb and safety Jeff Heath.
The receiving corps' 14 receptions are a season high with Ponder under center and losing tight end Kyle Rudolph for a month to a foot fracture could force him in that direction even further on Thursday night. His inaccuracy and decision making, along with a bevy of missed opportunities by the coaching staff and defense, arguably cost the Vikings a game they should've won.
Ponder put together two scoring drives of 11 plays, including one capped off by his touchdown run on third down for the 10-7 lead. After combining to score just 34 points as an offense across the previous three games, the Vikings were able to string together competent drives early, but not late.
Peterson didn't gain more than seven yards on any of his first 10 carries, but would finish the game with runs of 10-, 11-, 13-, 16-, 19- and 52-yards, including a touchdown. Behind Peterson's 140 rushing yards, the Vikings' 31:27 time of possession is a season high and they're no longer last in the league. The Philadelphia Eagles (25:06) fall just below the Vikings' season average of 25:41 T.O.P.
Shotgun 1 tight end / 3 receivers: 21 plays
1 tight end / 2 receiver / 1 fullback: 18 plays
2 tight end / 2 receiver: 10 plays
Shotgun 2 tight end / 2 receiver: 7 plays
2 tight end / 1 receiver / 1 fullback: 4 plays
1 tight end / 3 receivers: 3 plays
Shotgun 5 receivers: 3 plays
Total: 66 plays
1) Yes, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave put five of his receivers on the field, three times! Taking Peterson off the field is seldom a good idea, but in those sets the offense churned out needed short-yardage gains. The intermediate-to-deep passing game is still experimental as 22 of Ponder's 35 aimed passes were nine yards or shorter. He connected on just five of his 13 attempts of 10-plus yards, including a 31-yard touchdown to Rudolph in the third quarter. Receiver Greg Jennings' 27-yard reception was Ponder's longest completion to a receiver, but the ball traveled just seven yards. Musgrave ran out of the shotgun on 31 of 66 plays [47%], which is average with Ponder under center and the play-action prevalent.
2) It was a tale of the first six drives and the final five for Ponder. He accounted for 191 yards and two touchdowns on those first six (and the sack-fumble), but just 54 yards and an interception on the next five drives to end the game. He appears most comfortable in a two-minute offense and Musgrave ran the hurry-up to start the game, but the attempted comeback with less than 30 seconds left had no chance. Ponder one-hopped the Hail Mary as the ball traveled 52 yards and fell five yards short of receiver Jarius Wright.
But the Vikings had plenty of chances before Fail Mary 2.0. (1) After Peterson's 11-yard touchdown run for the fourth-quarter lead, kicker Blair Walsh missed an extra point that would have given the Vikings a chance to tie the game with a field goal after they ultimately allowed the late touchdown. (2) Coach Leslie Frazier opted to punt following their next three-and-out with three minutes left in the game from the DAL 36. Walsh had missed the PAT already and Frazier opted to avoid the 53-yard attempt and pin the Cowboys at their own 10-yard line with punter Jeff Locke. (3) The questionable call to drop Ponder back into his own endzone from the five-yard line instead of handing the ball off to Peterson, which led to the sack-fumble and Cowboys' second touchdown in 10 seconds to start the second half.
3) As he filled in for right tackle Phil Loadholt, swing tackle J'Marcus Webb allowed that sack-fumble from Cowboys defensive end George Selvie. Loadholt left the game just before halftime with a concussion and did not return. Webb had to knock off some rust as he was shaky to start, but held his own in the passing game eventually. Peterson did most of his damage between right guard Brandon Fusco and the right tackle, actually doing better behind Webb in the second half. Fullback Jerome Felton laid the block on Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee that sprung Peterson's 52-yard gain, his longest run since Sept. 29. However, Peterson had nowhere to go on a 4th-and-1 attempt on the right side in the second quarter.
The Vikings' pass protection is still inconsistent, as Ponder felt pressure on 15 of his 43 dropbacks [35%], according to ProFootballFocus.com. Left tackle Matt Kalil allowed four hurries, Peterson and left guard Charlie Johnson also allowed two each. Cowboys defensive end Everette Brown and defensive tackle Jason Hatcher worked the left side of the line, stopping Peterson to just 20 yards on 11 carries to the left. Kalil allowed one sack, to Brown, which forced the Vikings to use a timeout during their last-ditch effort to win.
4) On 30 first-down plays, the Vikings ran 16 passes and 14 runs. After moving the chains on just two third-downs in a loss to the Green Bay Packers last week, the Vikings converted on 5-of-13 [38%], not including 2-of-3 on fourth down.
5) With Rudolph out midway through the third quarter, tight end John Carlson saw a season-high 46 snaps. The Vikings continue to use him as an outlet option, rarely running him downfield past 10 yards. He finished with the typical four catches for 23 yards, but with Rudolph out: it's likely time to expand Carlson's role. His production in Seattle, which included 19 plays of 20-plus yards and a 10-yard per reception average could've helped sway the Vikings into their five-year, $25 contract offer two seasons ago.
But he's averaged just five yards a catch in 22 games with the Vikings and has not made a play longer than 20 yards. They've renegotiated Carlson's contract and stuck by him through a concussion and knee sprain, but with tight end Rhett Ellison recovering from an ankle injury, it's likely he'll see increased duties. It's fair to wonder if Carlson can still be the 2008-2010 form that led to 13 touchdowns in Seattle, but it's also fair to wonder if he'll be given the opportunity in this system. Rudolph's injury is his first real opening to potentially get the first touchdown of his Vikings' career in his 23rd game in Minnesota on Thursday night.
Game Ball: Peterson. Adrian Peterson tied his season high with 140 rushing yards, but more importantly, he scored an 11-yard touchdown on fourth-and-inches that gave the Vikings their 23-20 lead in the fourth quarter. With the help of tight end Chase Ford, Peterson barreled through multiple defenders as he trucked into the endzone. Peterson faltered in pass protection, an area I thought he had been improving on this season. But his return-to-form on Sunday helped the Vikings resurrect their struggling offense and at least sustain drives.
Goat(s): Matt Kalil. Kalil and the left side of the offensive line struggled most of any personnel on the field, but some coaching decisions are also open for scrutiny. Frazier said Monday that he wanted to maintain an aggressive style throughout the game, which was evident on three fourth-down attempts. But after cornerback A.J. Jefferson's interception with 4:29 left, Ponder dropped back from the DAL 41 and overthrew Jennings on a tough 'flag' route. Peterson was stuffed for one yard on the left side the next play. Ponder then overlooked an open Jennings on a drag route and took off to run on 3rd-and-9, gaining just four yards.