Early success keeps things simple for Vikings

  • Article by: DAN WIEDERER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 27, 2012 - 11:50 AM

Scoring TDs on their first series in each of the past three weeks has allowed the Vikings offense to stay aggressive, and confident.

 

Michael Jenkins shrugged. The Vikings receiver wishes he could identify something more complex behind his first reception in Sunday's 23-6 win over Houston. But in truth, the 32-yard pickup was full of backyard simplicity.

Bunched with fellow receiver Jarius Wright on the right side, Jenkins ran a routine out route, using leverage and sharp timing to break toward the sideline against Brandon Harris.

The Houston cornerback stumbled and Jenkins darted free. Quarterback Christian Ponder hit Jenkins 16 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Then the receiver turned upfield for an additional 16 yards before being shoved out of bounds at the Texans 2.

Degree of difficulty: low. Effectiveness: high. Just how the Vikings like it.

"It's about winning," Jenkins said Wednesday. "We all have one-on-one battles. And with mine, I was able to win that and get open. Plus Christian had time to put it out there."

Jenkins' reception provided the biggest gain on the Vikings' 78-yard touchdown drive to open the game. The drive's exclamation point: a play-action 3-yard TD toss to Kyle Rudolph.

That marked the third consecutive week the Vikings reached the end zone on their opening drive. In each of those games, they've led the rest of the way, propelling a late-season surge that now has them one win away from the postseason.

"It's been impressive," coach Leslie Frazier said. "It's exactly what we've needed. We've talked all along about being able to start fast. And we've gotten that done of late."

Grand openings

Like Jenkins' big catch -- his longest this season -- the offensive priorities remain simple. Far more equipped to protect a lead then rally from behind, the Vikings continue underscoring the importance of scoring right out of the gate, while coordinator Bill Musgrave has delivered successful scripts in the past three wins.

"It's not anything complicated," fullback Jerome Felton said. "Coach Musgrave has given us a good plan. And more than anything, I think we've been aggressive."

Ponder's overall production during the three-game winning streak registers as ordinary. In those victories, he's 44-for-71 for 396 passing yards with one touchdown pass and one interception. But the second-year quarterback has at least been poised and assertive on opening drives.

Against Chicago in Week 14, Adrian Peterson did most of the damage on the first series, rushing for 69 yards during an 80-yard TD march. But Ponder's 11-yard dart to Jerome Simpson on third-and-9 from the Chicago 28 proved crucial in extending the drive.

In St. Louis, with Peterson held to minus-3 yards on the first possession, Ponder picked up the slack. His 13-yard third-down completion to Stephen Burton was key. And his 3-yard scramble on fourth-and-1 from the Rams 7 may have been the game's biggest play. Three snaps later, he avoided a Robert Quinn sack and scored on a frenetic 5-yard run.

Last week, the 32-yard pass to Jenkins was sandwiched between two completions to Rudolph -- a bootleg dump-off that netted 27 yards and later the short scoring pass.

Ponder's passing stats on the opening drive the past three weeks: 7-for-7, 111 yards, one TD.

Said Felton: "I do think it's been notable the way he's had more control of the huddle, getting us in and out and establishing the tempo where we want it."

Added Ponder: "We have to treat it the same way this week. It is important for us to start fast and set the tone for the rest of the game."

Stay in control

As the Vikings drill deeper into this week's game plan, the coaching staff will remind Ponder of how an upset bid four weeks ago in Green Bay disappeared.

With Ponder's skittishness at an all-time high, the Vikings went without completions on eight of their first nine possessions. Most notably, Ponder's two interceptions -- one in the end zone, the other at the Packers 14 -- turned a winnable game into an agitating loss.

With that, the Vikings squandered Peterson's 210-yard rushing effort and had convincing evidence that their young quarterback is more valuable when he avoids fatal mistakes than when he makes big plays.

"When we don't turn the ball over," Jenkins said, "that's when we win games."

Indeed, the Vikings are 6-1 this season when they've had one turnover or fewer. They're also 5-1 when they score a touchdown on their opening series.

Coach Leslie Frazier believes a winning strategy to beat the Packers is well within reach. He's also confident Ponder constructively absorbed his Lambeau Field letdown and has made strides to avoid a repeat.

"It was a tough day in a lot of ways in that first game against Green Bay," Frazier said. "He bounced back from that with a very efficient game against Chicago. And he's continued that progression right on through."

  • VIKINGS WEEK 17

    Up next: 3:25 p.m. Sunday vs. Green Bay • Mall of America Field • TV: Ch. 9 (100.3-FM, 1130-AM)

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