It’s just one week, but everyone still wants to jump to conclusions about, well, just about everything we saw during the Vikings’ scintillating Week 1 win over the Jaguars. Let’s run down a handful of conclusions one might reach after Sunday, and discuss whether they’re more trend or mirage.
Blair Walsh has ice water in his veins.
Or “intestinal fortitude,” as head coach Leslie Frazier told the media after the game. For a 22-year-old rookie kicking in his first career game, Walsh could not have been more clutch. He calmly knocked down the 55-yarder to force overtime like it was just another routine extra point, then booted the 38-yarder in overtime for the (eventual) win.
Verdict: Trend. Walsh destroyed all doubts about whether the Vikings “wasted” a sixth-round pick on him, and vindicated General Manager Rick Spielman, who put his faith in Walsh by cutting expensive veteran Ryan Longwell in the offseason. We knew Walsh had a big leg, but after his clutch performance on Sunday it appears he’s got the guts to go along with it.
Without playing a single preseason snap and a mere eight months removed from a knee injury that usually takes at least a year or more to completely heal from, Peterson didn’t miss a beat. After looking a bit tentative early in the game, Peterson settled down after scoring his first touchdown before looking like vintage AP on a couple of long runs (of ten and 20 yards) in overtime.
Verdict: Trend. He’s superman. Nobody will ever underestimate him again.
The secondary still stinks.
Gabbert completed only 51 percent of his passes as a rookie and threw for almost as many interceptions (11) as he did touchdowns (12). On Sunday, what was supposed to be an improved Vikings secondary let him complete 23-of-39 (59 percent) for 260 yards and two touchdowns.
Verdict: Trend. Here we go again. Despite the return of cornerbacks Chris Cook and Antoine Winfield and the infusion of some young talent (safety Harrison Smith and nickel corner Josh Robinson), the Vikings had few answers for what was one of the worst passing offenses in the NFL a year ago. They managed to hold highly touted rookie wideout Justin Blackmon in check, but there were frequent breakdowns that led on numerous times to wide open receivers converting big plays for the Jaguars. Winfield has lost at least a step, Cook looked rusty, and the safety tandem of Smith and Mistral Raymond was far too inconsistent. In particular, on the fateful last-minute touchdown catch by the Jaguars’ Cecil Shorts, Raymond barely moved from where he had lined up. He was inexplicably frozen right after the snap, appearing, for some reason, to be shadowing Gabbert in the pocket while one receiver ran right past him and leaving Cook on an island against Shorts. How do you not ensure that there’s adequate coverage deep on that play?
Christian Ponder has arrived.
Ponder got off to a rocky start, but he engineered five scoring drives after halftime, including the game-tying one with 20 seconds on the clock and a methodical overtime drive. Most importantly, he didn’t commit a turnover.
Verdict: Mirage. Outside of Peterson looking healthy, Ponder was easily the most promising takeaway from this game. He completed nearly 75 percent of his passes and got in a groove once he got Percy Harvin involved. Harvin and tight end Kyle Rudolph are starting to emerge as legitimate go-to guys for Ponder, and if Peterson is this effective in the running game Ponder should continue to have opportunities to grow. But let’s not confuse a home opener against a bad Jaguars defense that was missing its’ top cornerback for the Bears or Packers on the road in late November. Sunday was a positive step in nearly every way for Ponder, but there will be more bumps in the road.
The play calling remains dubious.
The Vikings gained a total of two first downs on their first four drives of the game, all of which resulted in punts. Other than a reverse to Percy Harvin on the third play of the game, Harvin was completely invisible in the offense until the fifth drive. Later, they stalled out several times inside the red zone and had to settle for field goals when a touchdown would have put the game out of reach.
Verdict: Trend. The entire offense looked out of sync early on. Perhaps it was because nobody knew what to expect while breaking Peterson in, or perhaps the team was just sluggish coming off an equally sluggish preseason. Whatever the case, there shouldn’t be any excuse for excluding Harvin from the game plan for almost an entire half. Things finally got moving on the fifth drive, when Ponder threw it to Harvin three straight times to open a drive that began with just over two minutes left in the half. That ultimately resulted in the first of Peterson’s two touchdowns, and things were generally much improved for the remainder of the game. But why did it take nearly an entire half to get the ball into Harvin’s hands? Later, a nice Ponder-to-Rudolph connection gave the Vikings a first-and-goal from the three-yard line. Instead of just jamming Peterson down the Jaguars’ throats for a third time, the Vikings got cute; first running Harvin straight up the gut out of the backfield, then throwing a pass to third-string running back Matt Asiata before a broken play resulted in an incomplete pass to little-used tight end John Carlson on third down. Matt Asiata? Really? By not punching the ball into the end zone after three straight bizarre play calls, the Vikes left the door open for the late Jaguars’ comeback. The Vikings game plan should be pretty obvious and simple: Get the ball to Peterson and Harvin. End of story. Bill Musgrave seems to be doing a decent job with Christian Ponder’s development, but there continue to be a handful of head-scratching moments in just about every game.
Jared Allen was invisible.
Other than a sack on the second Jaguars offensive play that was reversed because of a questionable offside call on Allen himself, we saw little from last year’s NFL sacks leader. He was essentially stifled by Jaguars left tackle Eugene Monroe, and the Vikings inability to generate a pass rush was part of the reason Gabbert was able to dissect the secondary.
Verdict: Mirage. It was uncharacteristic and disappointing that he didn’t show up at home in the season opener – he failed to register a sack in just three games all of last year – but Allen will get his. Call it an off day and expect to see him terrorize Colts rookie QB Andrew Luck next week. If Allen and Brian Robison can generate a better pass rush next week and beyond, it will make the inexperienced secondary look a lot better.
Winning cures all ills.
It was ugly at times and you’d expect the Vikings to win a home game against one of last year’s worst AFC teams, but a win is a win is a win.
Verdict: TBD. The Vikings will take wins any way they can. Coming off the worst season in franchise history, they’re not in a position to be worried about who they beat or how pretty or ugly it is. Take last year, for example, when they easily could have been 3-0 after the first three games but turned that into 0-3 with a series of incredible second-half collapses. If the team wins a couple of those games early last season, there’s a school of thought that says the remainder of the year could have been totally different. One thing is very clear: if they’d lost on Sunday in the waning moments on a Blaine Gabbert-to-Cecil Shorts miracle, it could have sent them spiraling the wrong way before the season was even two weeks old. The impressive comeback should do wonders for this team’s confidence, and with an early-season schedule that’s littered with winnable games (Colts, Titans, Redskins, Cardinals, Bucs all within the next seven weeks), that confidence could lead to some more W’s.
Christian Peterson is the Director of Operations at LeagueSafe.com and Managing Editor of LeagueSafe Post. He has been a contributor to Vikings.com and is a co-host of the Fantasy Football Weekly radio show on FM 100.3 KFAN on Saturday mornings during the football season. Follow him on Twitter: @CP_ChristianP