Craig: Vikings have ingredients, but can't execute at crunch time

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 27, 2013 - 12:01 AM

The offense rarely chews the clock, and the defense seldom stops foes late.

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Green Bay Packers wide receiver James Jones (89) caught a 28-yard pass before Vikings cornerback Marcus Sherels (35) brought him down in the fourth quarter.

Photo: Mckenna Ewen, Mckenna Ewen

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Having a good four-minute offense and two-minute defense is Coachspeak for possessing the ability on both sides of the ball to protect leads late in the fourth quarter.

The Vikings have some of the key ingredients needed to be very good at both. They have the league’s best running back to shorten games and many good pass rushers to disrupt opposing quarterbacks in obvious passing situations.

Yet a once-promising season sits in ruin because the Vikings have failed in both areas. Some want to assign blame to either Christian Ponder’s four-minute shortcomings or the secondary’s two-minute deficiencies. But since ties are back in vogue, let’s call it a draw and distribute blame equally.

Four times this season, the Vikings have blown a fourth-quarter lead with less than a minute left in regulation. Three of those have come on the road. So when coach Leslie Frazier says his team is this close to being successful, he’s actually right, even though his team still deserves its 2-8-1 record.

In game clock time, the Vikings could say they’re 1 minute, 22 seconds from being 4-0 rather than 0-3-1 against the Bears, Browns, Cowboys and Packers. That, they could say, is 142 seconds from being 6-5 and tied with the Lions atop the NFC North.

Then again, there are numbers behind those numbers. And they in no way reflect even remotely what anyone would consider satisfactory situational execution of a four-minute offense or a two-minute defense.

On the late fourth-quarter drives that resulted in the Vikings losing their leads, the four opposing quarterbacks — Chicago’s Jay Cutler, Cleveland’s Brian Hoyer, Dallas’ Tony Romo and Green Bay’s Matt Flynn — were a combined 25-for-36 passing (69.4 percent) for 279 yards (a 70-yard average), 13 first downs, no sacks, three game-winning touchdowns and one tying field goal.

Those four teams converted five of seven third downs and the only fourth down. And, get this, the Cowboys went 90 yards in 2:09 without even facing a third down.

That’s about as bad as it gets for executing a two-minute defense. However, the four-minute offense was responsible in each case for putting an overworked defense back on the field.

On the four drives that preceded the above drives, Ponder was 3-for-6 passing for 41 yards, two first downs, one sack and one field goal. Throw out the field goal drive in Chicago and Ponder was 0-for-2 with no first downs and three three-and-outs in the other three games.

In terms of plays in those four games, the Vikings’ four-minute offense ran an average of 4.3 plays for 13 yards and held the ball for an average of 1:46. Then, forced back onto the field, the two-minute defense allowed an average of 10 plays and 67.8 yards.

Execution obviously has been lacking. But coaching can’t be excused either.

With one lead of six points against the Bears and three points against the other three teams, the Vikings’ four-minute offense called on Adrian Peterson only six times. There might have been one more, but we’ll never know since Ponder bobbled a snap and aborted what would have been either a handoff to Peterson or a play-action pass at Green Bay on Sunday.

Peterson had 2 yards rushing on three carries in the four-minute situation against the Bears. That drive included an incompletion that stopped the clock following second-and-goal from the 4.

Against Cleveland, Peterson ran once for 6 yards. But an incompletion to an open Greg Jennings on third-and-4 not only ended the drive, but stopped the clock.

Against Dallas, Peterson ran once for 1 yard. An incomplete deep ball on first down stopped the clock and contributed to defensive players venting their frustration publicly to reporters after the game.

And against the Packers on Sunday, Peterson had 32 carries, but only one for 2 yards in the four-minute situation. Ponder’s bobbled snap on the busted play might have cost Peterson another carry there.

Ponder’s sack one play later, on third-and-11, turned yet another botched four-minute opportunity over to the two-minute defense. And to no one’s surprise, the lead disappeared in less than two minutes.

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2014 preseason     
Aug 8 - vs. Oakland 7 pmX10-6
Aug 16 - vs. Arizona 7:30 pmX30-28
Aug 23 - at Kansas City 7 pmX30-12
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