Looking back at the 2011 season for the Minnesota Vikings, it might seem difficult to pick out a point where things went in a positive direction. It might be easy to pick out a bright spot because there seemed to be so few, but a time when the season started to go right?
A 3-13 team has very few bright spots.
There is one game that, though the outcome was bad, pointed the Vikings on the right path.
The loss to the Chicago Bears wasn't just a loss—it was a systematic breakdown of the team by a much superior unit. Watching it again it seemed at times that every single thing which could go wrong did, sometimes on a grand scale.
Yet, this is the game which forced the Vikings to stop trotting out old retread quarterbacks in the hopes that magically they would take them back to the Super Bowl and find out what they had in their young quarterback.
Christian Ponder may be the answer, he may not. One thing that was obvious by this time in the season was, Donovan McNabb wasn't the answer—long or short term.
This is the game where head coach Leslie Frazier and his staff got it. They decided they'd better find out if Ponder was the future.
As when we looked at the Bears' tipping point for their season, we will break down the events of each quarter and then summarize their impact not just on the day itself, but the rest of the season up until today.
We all suspected that McNabb was done after he flatlined in Washington with the Redskins, but how little he had left in the tank was, frankly, shocking. By this time it was like watching an extraordinarily slow train wreck.
In the first five games, he averaged 169 yards a game. In his first game he threw for 39 yards. I actually had to go back and double check the stats on that game to make sure I had that right.
McNabb was awful that first game and it never improved past "serviceable." In his defense, he rarely turned the ball over. On the other hand, that was because passes were rarely in the correct zip code.
The Vikings were hanging with McNabb, in part because they truly felt that the season could be salvaged. They were coming off a win and their Week 6 opponent—the Chicago Bears—was 2-3 and coming off a tough divisional loss.
In retrospect, they were intentionally ignoring that the Vikings had won on the back of a 122-yard, three-touchdown performance by Adrian Peterson and a good effort by the defense. It had almost nothing to do with McNabb.
In truth, if they didn't see this coming, they were blind.
So we enter the first quarter, McNabb fighting to regain some of his old mojo and the Bears looking to do the same. In fact a Bears defense which had not looked great the first five weeks and was likely really fired up for a game at home against a division rival.
And in the wings was rookie Christian Ponder.
Even early on, McNabb was inconsistent and off. The Bears came in with absolutely zero respect for him, choosing instead to focus on shutting down Adrian Peterson.
You can see in the attached screen caps that safety Major Wright isn't even pretending to back into coverage—very clearly he's coming for Peterson.
He sheds his blocker and nails AP at the line, keeping him to a two-yard gain.
When nobody respects the quarterback, you can take his best asset off the field and this was the beginning of a long day for Peterson because the Bears merely said, 'Go ahead and beat us McNabb' and laughed while they said it.
That leads to another point. It's clear early in the game that the Bears defensive unit is struggling to some extent. They took their first time out on the second play of the game and were completely out of position. The announcers mention that this had been happening often in their last few games.
Yet despite that, the defense had no problem keeping McNabb in check and containing Peterson. Only once did the Vikings offense get past their own 25-yard line, ending up on the Bears 45-yard line to end the quarter. They even registered a sack.
As you can see in the screen shots, the Bears were willing to stack the line and leave just one corner manned up and a safety deep for containment. Granted this was an obvious run play—the Vikings had all of one receiver out—but this was a good example of what the Bears did every down.
This particular play was made worse by the fact that the Vikings tight end gets manhandled by Major Wright. Worse, the Bears had cornerback Tim Jennings (see picture) outside the blocking. You can see Wright is already filling the gap in the second picture and Jennings is outside with a bead on Peterson.
Peterson opted to hit the hole, but outside or inside there was nowhere to go. I could have opted to cap any number of plays and it'd be the same thing.
For a defense which was somewhat out of sorts in prior games, the Bears definitely started to get it right early on in this one.
Cutler and Company vs. the Shaky Secondary
Cutler looked pretty sharp for the most part, throwing a bomb to Devin Hester with his second pass which went for a touchdown.
It was interesting to watch the Vikings corners try to adjust to the speed of Hester and Roy Williams. The Bears tested the secondary a lot this first quarter and while not every throw landed, you could see that the Vikings were in trouble.
In both screen caps you can see the large cushion the Vikings were giving Williams and then Hester. On Hester's touchdown, that was compounded by the fact that the coverage lost track of him—when he caught the ball they were a couple of yards off him and he reeled it in without trouble.
Matt Forte also got going. While Peterson was struggling because the Bears didn't need to defend the pass all that much, the opposite was true for the Vikings defense.
Cutler was effective with the long and intermediate passes early and you watched it get into the defense's head. They could sell out to stop Forte because Cutler was beating up their secondary and they couldn't press the shaky Bears offensive line or double up a receiver because Forte would carve them up on the ground.
Vikings Offense Still Struggling
While the Vikings were able to continue their drive to start the second half, resulting in a field goal, the offense mostly sputtered the rest of the half. McNabb struggled to hit receivers and the defense focused on abusing Adrian Peterson—effectively killing the Vikings offense completely.
Save for one drive starting at the 6:41 mark. This drive, the Vikings' third of the quarter, started at the Minnesota 17 and ended at the Chicago 16. That it resulted in a missed field goal is beside the point (though it did seem to knock the wind completely out of their sails). It was a drive during which McNabb looked close to the old McNabb rather than Old McNabb.
The Vikings countered the attention on Peterson by utilizing a short passing game comprised of quick plays which counted on the receivers to get a few extra yards.
They reverted back to type, though, closing out the quarter from their own end, content to run the clock out.
Compare and Contrast: Offenses
For a moment, it almost appeared as if the Vikings defensive unit had stopped the bleeding. The first set of downs for the Bears ended in a punt and the Bears had looked off on the drive.
However, and excellent punt by Adam Podlesh pinned the Vikings at the 9-yard line and of course the Bears defense held. The Vikings' punt was about as bad a result as you can get—a meek 18-yard punt, giving the Bears excellent field position.
Cutler threw the ball three times in a row—one incompletion and two completed including a 13-yard touchdown to rookie Dane Sanzenbacher.
Really, there is no better way to highlight the differences between the two offenses. When the Bears were close to a kill shot, they did what was effective—threw the ball. They could have run it easily as well—really they were just staying with their bread and butter.
When the Vikings were on the Chicago 16, on 3rd-and-4, they got cute. A direct snap to Joe Webb which resulted in one yard. They followed that up with a false start penalty (thanks, Michael Jenkins) which pushed them back even further and forced them to attempt a field goal.
Ryan Longwell never should have missed a 38-yard field goal, but a more confident team wouldn't have resorted to an attempt at trickery on 3rd-and-short in the first place.
If at this point you have the feeling this was out of control, well, it was.
And yet, the Vikings came out very strong in the second half. First, Jared Allen sacked Cutler, causing a fumble.
Then the offense showed signs of life, taking advantage of good field position. Peterson ripped off two good runs and Mcnabb was able to find Percy Harvin for a big gain. They finally put it in the end zone on an Adrian Peterson run.
The team was fired up. Maybe this wasn't a game they could win but darn it, they were going to finish strong.
Until Devin Hester ran the kickoff back for a 98-yard touchdown.
You want to see a team deflate? Watch the set of downs after that play.
Hester is Hester and you avoid kicking off to him at all costs. This is why, when they talk about pulling him off return duties, I scoff. It's where he is at his most dangerous. You want that off the field?
Back to the Vikings touchdown drive for a minute. A key injury occurred on the third play of the drive—center John Sullivan left with a concussion.
Next to left tackle, no position is more critical than center. In fact, I'd argue that in many offenses, the center is more critical as he often runs the blocking schemes for each play and makes adjustments.
The offense and offensive line were already having issues. This didn't help.
It was certainly a factor in the two sacks McNabb gave up in the Vikings' last possession of the half, though not the only one.
The touchdown by Peterson would prove to be the only scoring for the Vikings the rest of the game.
It was also the last time we'd see Donovan McNabb under center for the rest of the season.
So you're a rookie, being thrown into the fire against one of the better defenses in the league (and playing like it for once) with minimal snaps because you were a backup.
Christian Ponder, welcome to the NFL.
In one quarter, Ponder amassed more than half the yards McNabb threw for in three.
The assumption is that, with a huge lead, the Bears would just rush three or four guys—maybe five if they felt crazy—and lay back to keep the Vikings from long bombs.
Instead they started off hugging the line.
This allowed Ponder to do one thing McNabb was definitely not capable of anymore—scramble. Ponder broke off several good runs, one a bootleg and one a collapsed pocket.
Then he started completing passes and the defense started backing off the run and stacking the line. They fell into more of a basic base set, dropping players into coverage and rushing four or five guys most of the time.
Unlike McNabb, Ponder was able to find some open seams and complete some passes.
While people hack on Ponder for some of his accuracy issues, he actually did a fair job on short notice, of getting the ball where it needed to be for his receivers.
The offense took more chances, going for it on fourth down on both of Ponder's drives. They failed in both instances, true, but it was a far cry from the ill-conceived Joe Webb direct snap in the second quarter.
Ponder, for all his flaws (and he has them) did an excellent job stepping in during this game—and longer term as well.
The team did a good job of simplifying what he was doing—he threw short, sharp passes and rarely handed the ball off. I guess at that point, why bother? See what the kid can do to close the game down and to help decide what to do next.
Final Score: 39-10
And so began the great Ponder experiment. As much as folks complain about his play over the last 10 weeks, he really did all right for both this game and the ones after.
Clearly the team saw enough to not only start Ponder but to eventually cut ties to McNabb.
This game was critical in that it woke the franchise up to the fact that they can add former Pro Bowl quarterbacks, but they were not all that close to competing for the Super Bowl. It was time to rebuild.
The Vikings had drafted Ponder early. While he was raw, he had talent. There was no point, given what we had seen thus far in the season—much less during this debacle of a game—to not see if the kid could be the future of the franchise.
While the rest of the season didn't end well, the Vikings saw what they had in Ponder, liked it and decided that in the draft and free agency, they'd add talent and protection around him.
Meanwhile, McNabb is out of the league.
It was a rough ride—it may yet be one for a bit longer—but the Vikings improved in general this offseason and Ponder has approached OTAs and camp with renewed purpose.
None of this would have happened if the Bears hadn't handed this beat down to the Vikings.
Maybe Ponder is the future, maybe he isn't. They needed to find out, though, and that doesn't happen when the quarterback in question is on the bench.
The Vikings also embraced the idea they were rebuilding after this game. While they held out hope, the team got a wake-up call that yes, there was a long way to go.
They could have wasted time trying to add a big veteran to take them over the top.
Instead they are cautiously building via the draft, looking for long-term success rather than short-term gain.
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