Dan Wiederer began covering the Vikings in 2011, enthusiastically delivering insight on the team across the Star Tribune's print and digital products. Prior to joining the Access Vikings team, he spent seven seasons covering ACC basketball at The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer. He also covered the Chicago Bears in 2003 and 2004. Follow him on Twitter @StribDW.
Mark Craig has covered football and the NFL the past 20 years, including the Browns from 1991-95 and the Vikings and the NFL since 2003. Since 2008, Craig has served as one of the 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. He can be followed on Twitter at @markcraignfl.
At the end of an intense and frustrating Thursday night at Mall of America Field, the Vikings didn’t try to sugarcoat their 36-17 loss to Tampa Bay.
It was a home stumble with so many flaws that the first step to recovery will require an honest self-
“You can’t lay an egg like that at home the way we did,” linebacker Chad Greenway said in a glum Vikings locker room. “It’s unfathomable that it would happen like that.”
Added coach Leslie Frazier: “We didn’t play up to our standards.”
Maybe these Vikings weren’t quite ready for prime time. Perhaps they don’t deserve status as a serious contender in the NFC playoff picture.
It sure seemed that way Thursday, particularly through a first half in which the run defense was gashed, the second-year quarterback was booed and even the star running back had trouble taking care of the ball.
Just like that, the Vikings found themselves in a 30-10 third-quarter hole, unable to match Tampa Bay on either side of the ball.
For one night anyway, the Buccaneers were the much better team and their highlights were many.
First and foremost, there was the dazzling running of Doug Martin, an emerging rookie out of Boise State who shredded the Vikings defense with his power, quickness and assertiveness on his way to 214 total yards and two touchdowns.
Martin broke the game open early in the second half with a 64-yard touchdown catch on a screen pass, a huge play on which he burst past Greenway and left at least three defensive backs in his wake.
All night long, Martin gave the Vikings headaches, the third player in three weeks to top 100 yards on the ground against the Vikings.
“He just runs hard,” safety Harrison Smith said. “He’s a complete back. He runs it, he can catch it. He’s a power back. But he has some moves too. He has some speed. He’s an impressive player.”
Yet there was also the hustle of 16th-year veteran Ronde Barber, who stripped Adrian Peterson late in the first half, creating a turnover that Tampa Bay quickly turned into a touchdown.
And that score was a thing of beauty itself, a 3-yard catch by Mike Williams on a fade in which he leapt above rookie cornerback Josh Robinson to grab the ball, then tapped both feet down inbounds in the back of the end zone.
If Tampa Bay came to the Twin Cities to prove it was much better than its 2-4 record, it succeeded.
The Bucs arrived on a hot streak offensively. They totaled 976 yards of offense in their previous two games. Against the Vikings, they amassed 416 yards with Martin’s big night complemented nicely by quarterback Josh Freeman (19-for-36, 262 yards, three touchdowns) and Williams (six catches, 68 yards).
Tampa Bay’s final touchdown drive was a 16-play, 87-yard submission hold that ate up more than 9 minutes of clock.
“We had to get off the field if we were going to do anything,” Greenway said. “We knew that.”
So now the Vikings hit the season’s midpoint at 5-3 and get nine days to sort through their shortcomings.
Offensively, it’s hard to find fault in the efforts of playmakers Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin.
Peterson rushed for 123 yards Thursday to shoot into the NFL lead. He also delivered his longest run of the season, a 64-yard TD sprint that pulled the Vikings within 30-17 in the third quarter.
Meanwhile Harvin (seven catches, 90 yards) had provided earlier fireworks, most notably with his diving 18-yard touchdown catch on a perfectly run corner route in the second quarter.
So naturally the conversation shifts to Christian Ponder’s struggles and an unsatisfactory October that included eight turnovers and far too many discouraging drives.
Ponder misfired on his first five pass attempts against Tampa Bay as the Vikings went three-and-out on their first three possessions. Ponder wound up throwing for 251 yards against a sputtering Tampa Bay defense that came in ranked 31st against the pass.
But without question, there’s been an offensive confidence dip that will have to be addressed.
“Our passing game has to improve,” Frazier said. “I mean, it’s hard to just continue to try to pound it. There are going to be games where you’ve got to throw it.”
Somehow, Thursday’s loss had an ominous feel to it, as if the Vikings’ early-season surge was exposed as somewhat hollow.
They now enter the teeth of their schedule with a difficult challenge to prove otherwise.
Five thoughts while the Vikings were losing to the Bucs 36-17 on Thursday night at Mall of America Field:
1. Just run the ball
After starting the game with three consecutive three-and-outs in which Christian Ponder went a combined 0-for-5, the Vikings finally — finally! — turned to Adrian Peterson on back-to-back carries. He ran for 11 yards. And then he ran for 11 more to the Minnesota 42. Both times right up the middle. On the next play? Drop back with Ponder scrambling to get back to the line of scrimmage. On the play after that? A short pass to Jerome Simpson — Ponder’s first completion of the game — for a 4-yard gain and a fumble. The first half ended with Ponder dropping back to pass 20 times and Peterson running 10 times. This team isn’t built to win that way. At least not until they draft an elite receiver to team with Percy Harvin.
2. Boos for Kluwe
Fans definitely weren’t yelling “Klooowe” when punter Chris Kluwe left the field after two of the worst back-to-back punts he’s had in his stellar eight-year career. The first was a 20-yard shank out of bounds. The second was a sickly 39-yarder that was muffed and ended up as a 35-yard net. With two short fields, including one start at the Vikings’ 48-yard line, the Bucs were able to jump out to a 10-0 lead before the Vikings registered their first first down of the game. Ouch.
3. Talk about a buzzkill
Jared Allen’s seventh sack of the season had the Metrodome as loud and as rabid as it has been since the 2009 Monday nighter against Green Bay. It came with 3:15 left in the third quarter, one play after he had his helmet ripped off and the bridge of his nose bloodied in an altercation with left tackle Donald Penn, a former Vikings’ practice squad player. Allen was penalized for hands to the facemask, while Penn was flagged for unnecessary roughness. After some colorful language on both sides, some bickering amongst the Bucs’ linemen and a Tampa Bay time out to try and quiet the crowd, the 270-pound Allen bullrushed the 340-pound Penn backward and then had an open lane to the quarterback when Josh Freeman had to step up to avoid Everson Griffen’s inside rush. But the mood inside the dome died quickly three plays later when center John Sullivan bounced a shotgun snap off Christian Ponder’s left ankle. Ponder, who didn’t appear ready for the snap, fell on the ball and the Vikings punted. Talk about deflating a prime opportunity.
4. Vikes help Bucs cure third-down woes
The Bucs went into Thursday’s game ranked 30th in the league in third-down conversions. They had converted just 29.2 percent of them (21 of 72). But they sure didn’t look that pitiful on the fourth-quarter drive that KO’d the Vikings with a touchdown and a 36-17 deficit with 7 minutes, 3 seconds left in the game. The Bucs converted all five third-down situations while going 87 yards in 16 plays and 9:09 of clock time. Freeman completed a 14-yarder to Vincent Jackson on third-and-6, a 12-yarder to Tiquan Underwood on third-and-10, a 34-yarder to Mike Williams on third-and-10 and an 11-yarder to Williams on third-and-9. Running back Doug Martin took it from there, scoring on third-and-goal from the 1.
5. Where’s the tight end-friendly offense?
Whatever happened to Ponder’s so-called security blanket. You know, Kyle Rudolph? Giant catch radius? Big, soft bucket-sized hands? The guy who caught two touchdowns in the Week 3 upset of the 49ers? Suddenly, coordinator Bill Musgrave’s tight end-friendly offense isn’t so kind to Rudolph. After going without a catch last week against Arizona, Rudolph had only two catches for 17 yards, including a 5-yarder with less than 2 minutes left against the Bucs. There are a lot of things to fix with this offense, starting with getting Ponder’s head right again. And the player Ponder is most comfortable throwing to and moving the chains with is his big friend from Notre Dame.
After last Friday’s practice, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier went up to running back Adrian Peterson and asked him if he was feeling good. The Vikings had seen some things they thought they could get done with the running game against Arizona and Peterson would be a key.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, I’d be ready to roll,’ ‘’ Peterson said Tuesday. “I thought I had more carries than 23. Kinda felt like it. But it was good we were able to come out and do that.”
Peterson gained a season-high 153 yards on those 23 carries, scoring a touchdown in the first quarter. Peterson provided the bulk of the Vikings' offense on a day when quarterback Christian Ponder was a bit off the mark.
“We were able to establish the offensive line – those guys played awesome,” Peterson said. “And we were able to pound ‘em, take advantage of them in the run game.”
Of course, after the game, Peterson said he still wasn’t 100 percent back from knee surgery, in that he felt he still had room to improve as an explosive runner.
Actually, to be honest, Peterson said he’s kind of tired of being asked if he was 100 percent.
“Like I said, I’ll tell you when I feel like I’m at that mark where I envision myself being,” he said. “I feel like I want to say I’m there [to stop the questions]. But that would be a lie.”
The good news is Peterson's knee is improving and so is his sore ankle; Peterson said it felt better Monday morning than it had a week before. Peterson sat out Tuesday's practice, the Vikings' only one this week.
But back to that 153-yard rushing effort. “I was pumped for that game,” he said. “I said after we lost in Washington that I felt I didn’t have my best game. And so it was something that I was looking forward to, getting back rolling. We were able to do that running the ball.”
No complaints here
Vikings receiver Jerome Simpson was on the field for 39 snaps Sunday against Arizona. He caught one pass and drew a key pass interference penalty. Other than that, Ponder didn’t throw his way.
And he’s OK with that.
“We just had a good game plan,” Simpson said. “Adrian had a very good game, we just wanted to block well for him, win the game. If it’s Adrian’s night, us receivers will block as best we can. … As long as we’re winning, everything is good.”
Winning will cure just about everything. Simpson was vocal in recent weeks concerning the tightness in his leg, which the team said was connected to a back issue. After being inactive for the Washington game he expressed his frustration. But, again, winning can change that.
Simpson defended the play of Ponder, expressed confidence in the coaches. Oh, and he reiterated that he’s feeling 100 percent healthy.
“As long as we’re winning, we want to make plays for each other,” he said. “This is a very unselfish team. We just want to win and have fun with each other.”
A good first impression
In the wake of rookie safety Harrison Smith’s first career interception, which turned into his first career TD, linebacker Erin Henderson said he wasn’t surprised by Smith’s play this season, and told a story to illustrate why.
Seems the two first met during OTAs in the off-season. One day the two of them were in the sauna when Henderson made a demand. “ We were sitting in the hotbox one day and I told him to hit a freestyle for me. Rookie had just come in, I wanted some entertainment.’’
“Part of you gets (upset),” Henderson continued. “He isn’t going to do what you asked him to do? But then there is another side of it, where you think, ‘I like that, you can stand up for yourself.’ He was going to be the guy he knows how to be. And I think you see that coming out on the football field as well. He goes out and lets his swag be his swag and goes about business the way he does.”
--Brian Robison on his career-best three sacks on Sunday: “I hope it’s a game you look back on and say it wasn’t my best game. I want to keep getting better each week."
--Peterson when asked if he was surprised the Vikings were 5-2: “I felt we would be undefeated, to be honest with you. No joke.’’
The Vikings fell to the Redskins 38-26 at FedEx Field on Sunday, and here are the links to the Star Tribune's coverage:
Robert Griffin III's long scoring run was the final blow, as detailed in Dan's game story.
Mark's Five Thoughts about the game are here.
Jim Souhan wrote about the Vikings defense's reaction to Griffin.
Mark had a story on Christian Ponder's rough day.
Adrian Peterson returned to the scene of last year's injury.
Brian Peterson and Jerry Holt shot all the action.
McKenna Ewen had the postgame video.
If you missed my live Vikings chat on Tuesday afternoon, you can check in here and read the back and forth in full. In addition, each week I will attempt to go overtime, bringing good questions I didn’t get around to answering on the chat here to the Access Vikings blog for discussion. Here are Tuesday’s leftovers.
Question 1: Christian Ponder called his interceptions against Tennessee bad throws but not bad decisions. He was happy about that. What do you see as the difference? And what about the interceptions that should have been that were clearly dropped?
Question 2: Does Ponder have enough arm strength to consistently complete downfield passes in tight windows. Or is he going to be a game manager, dink and dunk passer? Like an Alex Smith, Jeff Garcia type?
Let’s go throw by throw on the two Ponder interceptions and the two most notable near-picks.
2:00 to go in the first half. Vikings face third-and-6 from the Tennessee 18. From the shotgun, Ponder took the snap and zeroed in on tight end Kyle Rudolph, really never looking elsewhere. He tried to fire a bullet to Rudolph at the 9 along the right side of the field. Cornerback Ryan Mouton had the first opportunity to pick that pass off. Safety Jordan Babineaux had a shot at it as well. It was an ill-advised throw and almost cost the Vikings three points.
0:28 left in the first half. Vikings face second-and-11 from the Tennessee 24. Out of the shotgun again, Ponder gets a little bit of heat and looks at Michael Jenkins on an intermediate out route. But this throw is short and Mouton has it in his sights the whole way. If Mouton makes a clean break and catches the ball, this one could have very well been a pick six -- which would have produced a halftime score of 13-7. Once again, with the Vikings in field goal range, this was a bad pass that could have been costly.
0:24 left in the first half. Vikings face third-and-11 from the Tennessee 24. This time, the pocket collapses quickly on Ponder. He uses his agility to escape the initial pressure. But charging hard to his left, he throws across his body toward Rudolph down near the left sideline at the 5. The throw is high and behind Rudolph, who only gets the fingertips of his left hand on the ball, tipping it to Tennessee’s Alterraun Verner who knocked it into the awaiting arms of Robert Johnson. Ponder said after the game that he didn’t worry about that pick because, in his opinion, it wasn’t a bad decision, just a bad throw. But with a likely three points on the board, the risk-reward of making that throw – a tough throw to make on a sprint to the left – isn’t great. Furthermore, it looked as if Ponder might have room to run for five yards or so. At the very least, you throw that ball away and let Blair Walsh add the three points. In a close game, against a good opponent, that type of miscue could be deadly.
13:12 left in the third quarter. Vikings face third-and-12 from the Tennessee 48. Out of the shotgun, Ponder eyes Jerome Simpson, darting in toward the middle of the field 18 yards downfield. He tries to squeeze a throw in but Babineaux has it read the whole time and makes an easy pick. After the game, Ponder said again that he wasn’t worried about the decision as much as he was the throw. His initial thought was that if he had just waited another half-second, allowing Simpson to clear Babineaux a the throwing lane would have opened. But even if he had waited it looked like Johnson, the back-end safety, might have had a play on the ball then.
In a nutshell, in the span of eight passing attempts, Ponder threw two interceptions and two other near-picks. Yes, he finished 12-for-13 for 100 yards after that. But the Vikings became a little gun shy in asking Ponder to throw down the field after the two turnovers.
For now, for most of 2012, the Vikings offense will try to thrive on a bunch of high percentage short passes that don’t give Ponder too much rope with which to hang himself. Eventually, the young quarterback is going to have to find ways to make those down field throws more consistently, with better reads and better accuracy. So applaud his Year 2 growth because the turnovers haven’t come in bunches through five games. But understand that there are still leaps to be made for him to become a passer who opposing defenses fear.
Question 3: It has been assumed that rookie safety Harrison Smith wasn't suspended by the NFL because of the aggressive nature of the ref’s actions - going up high on Smith and grabbing his shoulder. Any truth to that assessment?
Straight from the league office, Ray Anderson, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, determined that the ejection was sufficient discipline for Smith, who was obviously too physical in separating himself from back judge Steve Freeman. Also worth noting on that front: Smith was ejected with 11:24 left in the second quarter, missing more than two-thirds of Sunday’s game. So the league treated that as a bit of a mini-suspension as well.
In a league where punishments are often very harsh, I was surprised that Smith didn’t get at least a one-game suspension. I was shocked there wasn’t even a fine.
Question 4: It sounded like Leslie Frazier was a bit taken aback with the short notice on the Jerome Simpson leg numbness on Sunday ... Was Frazier upset he didn't find out earlier, with the game plan being impacted in what he seemed to categorize as a big change from what they planned to do with Jerome?
Upset is not the right word. Because it’s not as if Simpson was hiding anything with his leg injury. He simply hadn’t experienced any of the leg weakness and numbness that bothered him until Sunday morning. So it simply left the Vikings in an unfortunate scramble.
Yes, the Vikings offense had plans to turn Simpson loose against a weak Tennessee defense. And yes, having to deviate from that plan with such little notice was frustrating. But it was just an oddly-timed thing that no one could have foreseen.
The good news right now is that Simpson's injury, which is related to a back issue, does not appear to be serious. He may not practice Wednesday but isn't expected to miss much, if any, game action at this point.
Question 5: At AP's current pace, do you think he will make the Pro Bowl?
Let the record reflect that October 10 is the first day the Peterson to Honolulu campaign rhetoric begins. For perspective Peterson has gone to the Pro Bowl four times.
-- 2007 season: 1,341 rushing yards, 268 receiving yards, 13 TDs
-- 2008: 1,760 rushing yards, 125 receiving, 10 TDs
-- 2009: 1,383 rushing yards, 436 receiving, 18 TDs
-- 2010: 1,298 rushing yards, 341 receiving, 13 TDs
-- This year’s pace: 1,344 rushing yards, 253 receiving yards, 6 TDs
Currently, the NFC backs with more rushing yards than Peterson’s 420: Washington’s Alfred Morris (491), Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy (437) and San Francisco’s Frank Gore (432).
Sort that equation out and draw your own conclusions.
Question 6: Some people have mentioned that our win against SF was a fluke and that the 49ers didn't show up for that game. I think we fought tough and held up strong throughout that game. We weren't given anything. That was a credible win in my opinion... what do you think?
Let’s say San Fran did fall into the trap of overlooking the Vikings after tough games to open the season against Green Bay and Detroit and with a high-profile game against the Jets on the radar for Week 4. The Vikings still had to play a physical brand of football. And even if that win did get a “fluke” label, the Vikings backed it up with very impressive efforts in convincing wins over Detroit and Tennessee. At some point, the labels on wins don’t matter. Victories are victories in the NFL and that Week 3 performance was a huge confidence springboard for this team. Enough said.
Question 7: Audie Cole was so good in preseason and now we only see him on special teams. Why can't he get into the rotation on the defense?
Remember that Cole saw a lot of his preseason action against guys who are no longer on NFL rosters. That’s the nature of a preseason in which teams start with 90 players and then trim down to 53. Cole’s impressive preseason effort earned him a spot on the roster. But the climb to become a starter is much, much steeper. Also, there’s only room for three starting linebackers. And the Vikings' pecking order there is pretty obvious: Greenway, Brinkley, Erin Henderson. And against Tennessee on Sunday, the Vikings only played three linebackers for 20 of their 70 defensive snaps, in the nickel for much of the game.
Cole is nowhere near developed enough to challenge Brinkley for playing time at middle linebacker. Marvin Mitchell is Erin Henderson’s primary back-up at weakside linebacker. For now, Cole is a special teams cog and nothing more.
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