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.