Pelissero: Vikings 'D' mixes it up, shows more ways it can get beat
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INDIANAPOLIS -- There were too many reasons to believe the Minnesota Vikings defense would cave one last time, even with only 31 seconds left on the clock and a rookie under center.
Andrew Luck had played with poise beyond his years all afternoon, and for the second consecutive week, the Vikings had done their part to make an NFL neophyte look like an instant All-Pro.
Feel pressure, roll left, hit Donnie Avery in the void for 20 yards. Spot the blitz, step up, hit wide-open Reggie Wayne for 20 more. Draw the defense offsides, hit Avery on the slant for good measure. Watch Adam Vinatieri bang the winner with 8 seconds to spare.
It looked easy. It was easy. The Vikings made sure of that, letting Luck snuff out a rally that nearly erased all the mistakes that dug a 14-point hole in what ended up a 23-20 loss on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"That was embarrassing," Vikings end Jared Allen said. "Yeah, I don't know. I've got nothing to say."
Some 850 miles away, Jacksonville quarterback Blaine Gabbert returned home from his encouraging opener in Minnesota and completed 7 of 19 passes for 53 yards against Houston before getting lifted with a hamstring injury.
Luck was coming off a three-interception day in his NFL debut at Chicago, but the No. 1 overall draft pick threw none while completing 20 of 31 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns against the Vikings, who have just two picks in their past 13 games.
"We were planning to execute and we didn't get it done," safety Mistral Raymond said. "When the call comes in, as a defense, you play it and you just try to read your keys and execute the same way you do all week in practice."
If takeaways were the only issue, the Vikings might have survived a game they were favored to win by three against a Colts team missing its best pass rusher (Dwight Freeney), a starting receiver (Austin Collie) and, by the end, three starting offensive linemen.
But they were sluggish for long stretches offensively. They took 11 penalties. They were practically left for dead, down 20-6 before Christian Ponder's throw on fourth-and-4 bounced off two players to Stephen Burton for a 7-yard touchdown with 5:15 to go.
"We can't let it lag like that," Allen said. "We can't play that kind of ball, and then, at the end, we've got to close people out."
The Colts ran seven times in 10 plays over three drives before Burton's score, content to punt it away and burn clock even though Luck had constantly escaped pressure and been almost flawless through the air.
He set up the Colts' first touchdown with a 41-yard pass to Avery against veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield, who was caught in a footrace he had little chance of winning in man coverage.
He tossed a bullet to Dwayne Allen from 3 yards out to cap that drive, then moved the Colts 64 yards in eight plays over 1 minute, 4 seconds just before the half, beating Erin Henderson's deep-middle drop in Tampa-2 for a 30-yard TD strike to Reggie Wayne.
In the end, Luck marched the offense right down the field just as Gabbert did late in regulation a week earlier, when Cecil Shorts III caught a 39-yard touchdown with 20 seconds to go by beating Cook over the top against Cover-3.
"We have to play whatever the defensive coordinator calls," Winfield said. "He has a job. We have a job. When the call's in, we have to execute it."
No question, Alan Williams is mixing up the Vikings' two-deep coverage scheme. They've employed a lot of single-high looks. Nose tackle Letroy Guion was in coverage on Allen's touchdown. Defensive lineman Everson Griffen dropped as Harrison Smith blitzed on Wayne's reception late.
There are a lot of new parts on the back end, too, and nothing puts more stress on a coverage unit than pass rushers who are struggling to get the quarterback on the ground.
But the way Gabbert and Luck have made plays in key situations has revived memories of the Vikings' second-half struggles on defense the first four weeks of last season, yielding complaints about since-demoted Fred Pagac's play calls, which coach Leslie Frazier later took away.
"You don't want to be stale and be predictable, so you've got to mix it up," Frazier said. "We have to make plays when we're in zone or man. We've got to find ways to make plays."
That's the part that gets maddening, especially with Ponder (27-of-35 passing, 245 yards, two touchdowns, 114.6 rating) leading another comeback to knot the score at 20 in the final minute on a 6-yard touchdown throw to Kyle Rudolph.
Avery settled into the zone on the first play of the Colts' ensuing drive and Luck drilled him on the run. Wayne had no one within 5 yards of him on what was apparently another man coverage call. Avery had plenty of room in front of No. 3 cornerback Josh Robinson on the slant, too.
The Colts shorted themselves 2 yards by taking the offsides penalty on Griffen instead of Avery's 7-yard catch and spiked the ball for no reason on the next snap. It didn't matter, though, because Vinatieri's 53-yard boot was long enough and 8 seconds wasn't enough time for the Vikings to respond.
"You take that game with a guy who's not quite as mobile, that's probably six sacks and a different story," Allen said. "But we've still got to be able to stand up. First half, we could not get off the field on third downs, and that's just not acceptable. Second half, we held them to six points, and that six points ended up biting us in the butt."
Instead of the 2-0 start they desperately wanted with the tough road ahead, the Vikings headed home 1-1, mighty San Francisco coming to the Metrodome next week.
Alex Smith isn't the best quarterback they'll face either, but that's irrelevant right now, given how many plays they're leaving on the field.
"Absolutely -- for everyone," Raymond said. "Not just for the secondary. For our pass rush, for tackling, getting the ball down. We had opportunities to tackle the ball behind the line of scrimmage and didn't get it done.
"Hands down, every week you go out, there's plays that you feel like you left out there. That's something we've got to change, fast."