Hit on a miss: Vikings have learned lessons as season has progressed

  • Article by: DAN WIEDERER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 5, 2013 - 2:57 PM

The Vikings' biggest pass play of the season came from, of all things, an incompletion from a game that didn't even involve them.


Believe it or not, the deep pass that ultimately propelled the Vikings into Saturday night's playoff game at Green Bay was actually an incompletion.

In Week 5.

By Andrew Luck.

 

Go figure.

In the NFL, you never know where inspiration might be found. But in order for the Vikings to supply their longest passing play all season -- Christian Ponder's 65-yard bomb to Jarius Wright in the fourth quarter last weekend -- a seed had to be planted 12 Sundays earlier in Indianapolis. As Luck would have it ...

In examining the Colts' 30-27 upset of Green Bay from Oct. 7, Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave found a dash of creative stimulation. In the fourth quarter of that game, on second-and-4 from the Green Bay 49-yard line, Indianapolis isolated receiver Donnie Avery to the left against Packers cornerback Sam Shields. Facing a coverage with only one deep safety, rookie quarterback Luck baited Green Bay with play action. Avery froze Shields with an in cut 9 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, then broke open deep down the left hash.

Everything was in sync. Until Luck's potential touchdown throw sailed a foot-and-a-half too long.

It went into the boxscore as an incompletion. But it entered Musgrave's mind as a play that would work.

"It was there," Musgrave noted.

He shrewdly implemented a near-identical concept into his playbook and expressed intent on dialing it up early in the season finale against the Packers. But the first quarter went by Sunday and Musgrave couldn't get to the play.

The second and third quarters passed, too.

"I really wanted us at the right field position and on the correct hash mark to use it," Musgrave said. "Finally, we got all the stars aligned where we could call it."

On the Vikings' first snap of the fourth quarter, in a 27-27 tie in a must-win game and with the pressure inside Mall of America Field rising, Musgrave sent in the one-word playcall: "Colt." Naturally.

Sure, given the circumstance and the stakes plus the three tight-end formation the Vikings deployed, everyone inside the building expected Adrian Peterson to handle the playoff push. Instead, Musgrave gave Ponder the green light.

This time it was Wright isolated against Shields to the left with the Packers marching their one deep safety forward to key on the run.

Like Luck, Ponder used play action and Wright delivered his jab step in and double move 13 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Shields bit.

With a clean pocket, Ponder set and stepped into his throw.

Suddenly Wright's brain spun faster than his feet.

"When I saw it in the air, all I could think was, 'Oh, man I gotta go get it,' " he said.

And after the bomb was in his hands -- 65 yards in a season-defining moment -- Wright sprung up, covered his facemask with both hands, then delivered a peek-a-boo celebration.

"Spur of the moment," the rookie said. "It was like, 'Surprise!' "

When it mattered most ...

Surprise indeed.

In the biggest game of the year, a win-and-in test, the Vikings found the right combination of creativity and confidence to energize their usually one-dimensional offense. They delivered a season-best 444 yards and won a shootout 37-34. Against Aaron Rodgers at his hottest.

No wonder that explosion has provided so much confidence for Saturday's wild-card rematch at Lambeau Field.

Sunday, the Vikings had 10 possessions and delivered seven scores: four touchdowns and three field goals, and only two three-and-outs.

That output was even more remarkable considering the offensive malfunction four weeks earlier at Green Bay -- two scores, two turnovers and five three-and-outs on 11 possessions.

Major corrections were needed and devised.

And last weekend, with Musgrave finding admirable diversity and rhythm in his play-calling, with Ponder never seeming rattled and with Peterson doing what Peterson does, the Vikings dizzied the Packers defense from all directions. Six players delivered gains of 20 yards or longer.

The Vikings also converted six of 12 third-down attempts, all six extending scoring drives.

There was the fortuitous 21-yard screen pass to Toby Gerhart on third-and-11 in the first quarter; the 10-yard out to Jerome Simpson late in the first half; and of course the two biggest catches of Michael Jenkins' season.

One supplied a 3-yard touchdown on third-and-goal with 7 minutes, 54 seconds left. The other was a season-rescuing 25-yard connection on third-and-11 on the final possession, a completion made possible when Ponder pump-faked and Jenkins settled into a wide-open pocket along the left sideline between three disjointed defensive backs.

It was the only throw Ponder completed on a 61-yard game-winning drive that ended with Blair Walsh's 29-yard field goal as time expired.

"We knew if we got that coverage," Ponder said, "that play would be there."

One way or another

Ponder's Week 13 meltdown at Lambeau had been all sorts of mystifying. In particular, the two interceptions he threw inside the red zone were throws he never should have made. Yet throughout the afternoon, there were many more potential throws he just didn't pull the trigger on.

That's why the Vikings returned from that loss with brutally honest criticism for their second-year signal caller. About footwork, about poise, about risk management.

Said quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson: "It's truly a thin line. As I've told Christian many times, a quarterback can always find a way to not throw interceptions. But if that's your only goal, you're not going to move your team. So you have to find a consistent feel for the risk-reward."

In the rematch with the Packers last weekend, Ponder walked the tightrope with the right blend of caution and bravery.

The touchdown pass to Jenkins? It was a play that seemed doomed from the get-go, Ponder's initial reads taken away and forcing him into a schoolyard scramble. He rolled left and Jenkins spun back that way.

Ponder could have remembered the disastrous end zone interception he threw four Sundays earlier, also toward Jenkins.

Instead, he had one prevailing thought. At that stage of the game, at that stage of the season, settling for a field goal just wouldn't have been enough. So even with a tight window, his momentum going the wrong way and both feet off the ground, Ponder fired.

If he had been even a little off, if Packers safety M.D. Jennings broke back on the ball quicker than Jenkins, if that gamble ended in a drive-killing interception, the Metrodome would have flooded with gloom, and Ponder's entire 2012 season would be viewed through a lens framing him as an easily frazzled klutz with questionable decision-making.

Instead, Ponder has spent the last six days showering in praise for delivering in so many key moments with so much self-belief.

"An inch to the right," Ponder said, "and that ball's picked. Sometimes you get away with it. Sometimes you don't."

Added Musgrave: "That's why quarterbacking is an art. It really is. The guys that are elite quarterbacks know where that fine line is. And it's always moving; it's hard to identify."

Now that line has moved to Green Bay. For a playoff showdown the Vikings believe they can win.

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