Two roads converge in Chicago on Sunday, and the Vikings will take one. But which one?
The first, as you recall, defeated the big, bad 49ers 24-13. They swept the Lions by a score of 54-37 in two games. And they beat the Jaguars, Titans, and Cardinals as they should have.That is the team led by Adrian Peterson, at 5.8 yards a carry. It is the team that features Christian Ponder not turning the ball over. All this accented by a hard hitting, aggressive defense which creates turnovers and makes sacks. Names like Jared Allen, Chad Greenway, Antoine Winfield, and Harrison Smith clutter the media broadcast.
The second, not as fair, is the one that suffered double-digit losses to Washington, Tampa Bay (at home), and Seattle. And was unable to hold on to a victory in Indianapolis. That team often allows sacks, throws interceptions, gives up first downs on third, and cannot seem to bring down elusive backs. This team does not seem to find Kyle Rudolph. This team sees OL on their backs or staring at their fallen quarterback.That team is the one most fresh in fans minds, given the present 2-3 record in the last five games.
And the two paths converge upon Chicago, where the Bears are coming off of a pair of rancid offensive games. Jay Cutler has been out with a concussion, and Jason Campbell is reminding teams why counting on old, slow, and weak-armed reserve-quarterbacks can be dangerous.The celebrated Bears' defense torched on national television last Monday Night. The Chicago offensive line looking more battered than a Mike Tyson opponent, the early years.
Vikings' fans are hoping Cutler is not ready. Maybe praying. Cutler has his faults, but defenses must respect his strong arm. And their is a gritty toughness about him that seems to be of leadership quality. Even when throwing an occasional interception. With Matt Forte, Chicago usually gets something on the ground or through the short passing game. It is the opportunistic Bears' defense that often feels like more of an offense than their own offense. Or their opponents' offense. That is often enough to win in the NFL. The Bears used this formula for a 7-1 start.
Many predict Chicago will play extra angry.
There is no doubt this is a crucial game for Minnesota's hope for the playoffs. They have a tough schedule ahead. Splitting games with Chicago and Green Bay will not be enough. A win this Sunday and the path to the playoffs suddenly becomes alive. A loss and the path to a .500 season looms. Given the 3-13 season last year this is progress either way. But in the modern NFL, teams turn around much more quickly than in the past. Just ask the 49ers of 2011. They improved by a total of seven games in a single season. It can be done.
Two paths will leave the Windy City. It is my hope that we choose the one where we win.
Because that will make all the difference.
Coming off of the loss in Seattle, Minnesota finds itself at 5-4 and facing a difficult schedule. In fact, besides the road game at St. Louis ahead, this home game vs. the Lions might be the only game in which the Vikings will be near favored. (Oddsmakers are actually favoring Detroit by a little). And they will play without Percy Harvin, out with an ankle injury.
I have listened to my fellow Vikings' fans lament the play of Christian Ponder. And truthfully, he has been awful. Ponder helped the Vikings get off to a fast start by reducing mistakes, finding Harvin and Kyle Rudolph, and escaping the rush well enough to avoid sacks. But lately he has faltered. Ponder did not throw an interception in the first four games, where Minnesota went 3-1. In the last five games Ponder has thrown eight interceptions and Minnesota is 2-3 in those games. Ponder was sacked nine times in the 4-1 start, 14 times in the 1-3 stretch we have just endured.
But as any coach or knowledgeable fan knows, there is much that is hidden. From the television angle, I can see pass rushes are now getting through our line. Recently I have watched replays where John Sullivan,Charlie Johnson, Brandon Fusco, and Phil Loadholt have been beaten. Blitzes are not being picked up by running backs and/or tight ends. Even phenom Matt Kalil has allowed hits to Ponder. Opposing defenses are pressuring Ponder. Other than Harvin, no one else appears to getting open regularly. If quarterbacks face pressure without open receivers it gets ugly quickly. Just ask Michael Vick.
And the defense is suffering from the lack of passing offense. The Vikings have surrendered 30 or more points in their last three losses to Washington, Tampa Bay, and Seattle.Those teams are 23rd, 13th, and 32nd in passing offense. And that has not mattered because it has been through running games that Minnesota has collapsed. Against Washington Robert Griffin III slipped through countless tackles on his way to 138 yards in only 13 carries. Doug Martin did the same in his 135 yards on 29 carries (which turns out not so bad compared to other Martin games). And there is no shame in allowing Marshawn Lynch 124 yards on 26 carries, other than that means you do not have the ball. Inability to stop the run is the death of many teams.
And excuses are available. The defensive secondary misses the play of Chris Cook and Mistral Raymond until recent. Cook was having a great year and that freed up guys like Harrison Smith and Jamarca Sanford to make tackles. Josh Robinson, along with others, is raw and will be beaten at times.
Losing to ground games is often at the fault of the 'front seven'. In the case of RGIII, the front four needs to contain him within the rush and often a linebacker is assigned to quicker QBs. Neither did their job. It seemed in the loss to the Bucs and Seahawks that linebackers were simply missing assignments and/or tackles. Chad Greenway tackles so many people that we tend not to see fault in him, but the microscope is on Erin Henderson and Jasper Brinkley. And one cannot help but wonder if the "have to get that sack" mentality of Jared Allen and Brian Robison is negatively impacting the run defense, as most yardage allowed appears to be leaning to the outside gaps.
Fast forward to today. At 5-4, and this being the easiest of the three remaining home games,today's game vs. the Lions becomes a must win to entertain a winning season or slim remaining playoff hope. Having beaten them earlier in the season Minnesota should have a winning recipe. Contain the run and put pressure on Stafford with the front four. Offensively, do enough with the passing game to allow Adrian Peterson just a little wiggle room. And avoid mistakes in your own territory.
With Percy Harvin out that job just became harder. Harvin has been electric in all aspects of his game. Harvin is on pace to shatter personal receiving records in this his fourth year. While his receiving efforts are probably most missed today, the idea of not having Harvin return kickoffs is also disheartening, He was averaging almost 36 yards per return, with four returns over forty plus yards in sixteen attempts.
Can Minnesota right the ship with a season sweep of the Lions? Without Harvin, it appears that the job of kick off returning us to winning football just became available. Marcus Sherels, the punt returner, appears to be most likely to have that chance. And this also means someone like Jerome Simpson. Michael Jenkins, Devin Aromashodu, or Kyle Rudolph will have to pick up the slack receiving.
Because Lord knows Adrian Peterson cannot do it all.
When we dissected the schedule in the summer, we all knew that the first half was better than the second. Home games vs. the Jaguars, Titans, Cardinals, and Bucs were winnable. And then there was the powerful 49ers, who most assumed would defeat us along with road games vs. Redskins and Lions. Naturally, we would win the game vs. the Colts.Sic.
A 5-3 start. Possible, with five home games. (Sure, most people thought we would not be any better than last year's 3-13 team. Naysayers were baying 4-12 and 2-14. But we eternal purple optimists could see a better season. And the purple kool-aid drinkers envisioned the playoffs; like they do every year.) We knew then the schedule changed like the beginning of a Minnesota winter. Games at Seattle, Chicago, Green Bay, and later Houston. Home games against our division rivals. Only a single game in St. Louis appeared plausible for an easy win,
Maybe a 2-6 finish, given winning at least one home game vs. division. That was the thinking. A 7-9 season would be an improvement. Hope for the future. And realistic. Maybe 6-10 or 8-8 if things worked out well or not. A good year compared to the last few.
But something happened in 2012. Like magic. Maybe it was the community leaders rallying behind the team and helping pass the stadium bill. Maybe it was maturation of young players, or the addition of even younger. The front office? Leslie Frazier? Whatever happened, we got back our defense. The good one.
You noticed it Game One vs. Jacksonville. Maybe not so much Game Two vs. the Colts. But when Minnesota held both the 49ers and Lions to thirteen points, you knew. The Titans' win affirmed the obvious: we have a very good defense in 2012. Even in the 38-26 loss to Washington, two TDs came off of Christian Ponder turnovers deep in our territory. And only the immensely talented Robert Griffin III could run for 138 yards and two scores. Alfred Morris was bottled up. The Redskins threw for under 200 yards.
(Interesting to note that our two losses have come to the top two rookie quarterbacks.)
And now we enter the game vs. Arizona with expectations of winning. And certainly we will be favored against Tampa Bay the following Thursday. Two wins and we would end the first half 6-2. At 6-2 we would need a 4-4 finish to dream playoffs...
Suddenly the purple kool-aid has tainted the well. I see Christian Ponder returning to protecting the football, and trading 350 yard games for ball control. I see Jerome Simpson returning to the lineup, staying there, and producing down field. I see Adrian Peterson taking over the NFL rushing lead as he remains injury free all year (including recent ankle). Matt Kalil All-Pro in his rookie season. Jared Allen going nuts with sacks. Chad Greenway tackling everyone. Harrison Smith making a difference.Solid cornerback play. Winning all three division home games in the second half. Lots of Percy Harvin...
I am finding it difficult to remember just how bad we were last year. I know there were close games early, but after that it is hazy..
I may have a fever.
Percy Harvin made a statement instantly. Jerome Felton made a key block on the outside and he was gone. Minnesota would take a 7-0 lead in seconds. Later in the game, Marcus Sherels, refusing to fair catch in traffic, shook off a few arm tackles and raced into the endzone as well. Two return touchdowns and a 20-13 win over Detroit.
I cannot recall a game where Minnesota returned both a kickoff and a punt in the same game. And while I can recall games where the Vikings have won without scoring an offensive TD, it has been a long while. The 2009 and 1998 NFC Championship teams both featured outstanding offenses with parts of a good defense. But how long since 10-3 wins? Take away the returns and Minnesota's offense produced two field goals. Six points and a victory.
Adrian Peterson kept the possession clock near even as he carved through the Lions defense. Christian Ponder avoided mistakes. Add a gutsy call by Bill Musgrave late in the game passing to new 2012 addition Jerome Simpson, and you have enough to win this year.
Kudos to everyone associated with the defense. The defensive line had five sacks, Letroy Guion and Everson Griffen each with two. Chad Greenway had eleven tackles, Antoine WInfield deflected passes and had ten tackles. Rookie Harrison Smith saved a touchdown with a hard hit on Calvin Johnson.Josh Robinson looked good in coverage. A total team defensive effort.
And that is what has been missing since the domination of the 1970s. Sure we have had many playoff teams, great offenses, but when it came to playoff games we could not stop the best teams in the NFL. Not sure who to thank, or if it will last, but for right now Minnesota is winning with a hard-hitting defense.
Like old times.
Fingers will stop pointing at Leslie Frazier, as he raises his Northern record to 1-8. The team is playing hard. Adrian is running like a purple beast. Percy Harvin continues to electrify the fan base. And we have a good pass rush with a run stopping front seven. If these young defensive backs like Smith, Robinson, and Chris Cook keep improving, we might just get cocky.
It is good to be a (Vi)King again...
It was hard to believe, what we saw that is. I am a Vikings' optimist, but I did not see us dominating in such a way as to feel confident. And yet as Toby Gerhart handed his old coach chance after chance, I knew we would still hold.
Minnesota's defense held San Francisco to 280 total yards. They rushed for a mere 89. They sacked Alex Smith three times, with Jared Allen's first seasonal sack and forced fumble sealing the game. Or was it Josh Robinson's late pick? Whichever, the Vikings won despite punting or fumbling their last five offensive series.
It was mostly defense that gave fans a sudden swagger. Chad Greenway was everywhere, totaling 13 tackles. Alex Smith was pressured repeatedly by the defensive line, forcing incompletions where touchdowns used to exist. And the secondary played well. Really. Well, except for a few near plays.
This case in point was highlighted by the Purple's response to the 94-yard kick return by the 49ers' Williams in the early 2nd half. Minnesota held San Francisco to a field goal, gaining only three yards. Then, the 49ers marched 86 yards and scored a touchdown in the subsequent possession. It was beginning to look like our formula for losing in early 2011. But not this year.. The last five 49ers' drives netted 65 yards combined, with three turnovers, two punts, and a rare 'three-and-out'. Minnesota proudly diplayed a tough defense. All game.
Last week's loss to the Colts had most of us feeling sour. A golden opportunity to go 2-0 wasted. The pessimists took over. They chastised Frazier and Musgrave. They wondered about Christian Ponder. And they lamented about the defense.
Where are they now?
Yes, I know, do not get too excited, it is only three weeks into a season coming off of two losing ones. But did you see some of the statistics of this game? How about the fact that Minnesota held the ball for 33:28 compared to 26:32 for the 49ers. We had 25 first downs. We were 7-14 in 3rd down conversions. Adrian Peterson had 107 total yards. Percy Harvin had 98. And Ponder did not get sacked nor intercepted.
Things are finer in Minnesota than they have been in a long time.
** On a sad note, I say farewell to Roger Lipelt. He coached my boys at Providence Academy, and my brother-in-law at Wayzata many years ago. A great man whom I will remember for charitable work, positive outlook, faith, and clever sayings. When I coach the 7th graders I hear myself saying 'this kid could play Fridays or Saturdays'. And I will always remember my boys taking a knee on the sidelines of every Lions' play. Always. Roger made a difference in so many lives.
Roger died of cancer after a glorious battle in which he taught us how to do that, too. Always coaching.
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