Vikings vs. Colts: 9 Things We Learned from Minnesota's 23-20 Loss
Despite a fantastic fourth quarter from the Vikings offense, they found themselves in a familiar situation: With 30 seconds left on the clock, a young quarterback improbably led their team to a touchdown to seemingly change the fortune of the game.
In response, the unproven prodigy from the other squad inexplicably found enough time to drive his team to within field-goal range and change the narrative, allowing his kicker to complete from over 50 yards.
Unfortunately, the Vikings lost in the familiar retelling off this tale.
In what has now become somewhat nostalgic for Minnesota fans, a defensive collapse in the fourth quarter took the game out of contention despite another strong showing by Christian Ponder.
Fans still have a number of takeaways from the game—not all is lost, but there's still a lot of work to do.
1. Christian Ponder Is Efficient
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Christian Ponder has a 75.8 percent completion rate so far this year and is throwing for 8.3 yards per attempt. With only 17 yards lost on sacks, his adjusted net yards per attempt is 7.47. Last year, that would have made him the fifth-most efficient quarterback in the NFL, above Eli Manning and Matthew Stafford.
His quarterback rating right now is 110.6.
Importantly, the Vikings improved their third-round conversion rate from the previous week, moving the chains on 46.7 percent of attempts.
That's not to say that the sample size is appropriate yet for this type of statistic, but it is indicative of solid overall play. Christian has been lucky on a number of bad decisions, to be fair, but he has also displayed much better decision-making.
It's easy to get annoyed that Ponder hasn't been throwing it very deep, but he also hasn't been taking very many unnecessary risks. Last week, his longest gain was 29 yards, and this week, it was 20.
The issue has not been arm strength; Ponder has been able to fit the ball into very tight windows. Rather, he hasn't been able to find much separation for his receivers and has either checked down or scrambled.
He has consistently made good decisions on his reads in the past two games.
Hopefully, the addition of Jerome Simpson will provide variety to a Vikings offense that's relying on yards after the catch and creative run calls to make gains.
Right now, Ponder is doing a very good job taking what the defense gets him. In order to develop, he's going to have to move up to the next level and start making defenses adapt to him rather than the other way around.
Fans shouldn't be upset that Ponder plays it safe; rather, they should be bothered by the fact that the receiving corps can't find ways to make for easy throws.
When Ponder has needed to make deep passes or drive down the field, he has been able to do so—but drops and small passing windows have obviated that from his game as of right now.
2. Christian Ponder Is Still a Work in Progress
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Despite a remarkably efficient and consistent game, there are a lot of ways Ponder can improve as a passer to go from "reliable" to "important" as a member of the Minnesota Vikings offense.
He still looked somewhat unaware of pressure, either responding too quickly or not quickly enough to phantom pass-rushers.
Ponder still scrambles too early, coverage problems or not, and he can't seem to find a good feel for the pocket.
The offensive line did a very good job overall in protecting him, and some of his choices initially seem baffling.
All-22 film review may reveal that he couldn't find ways to make a play in the air given what he had, but it seems unlikely that waiting an additional half-second before scrambling wouldn't improve his options. The more time he has in the pocket, the more his receivers can do to get open.
He also needs to find ways to produce yards instead of relying on his receivers to make substantial gains after the catch. While he has improved in arm strength and ball placement from last year, he hasn't found ways to manufacture yards regardless of the look defenses have given him.
Finally, he needs to be more consistent from quarter to quarter. The Vikings cannot rely on Ponder to provide 142 yards in the fourth quarter time and again. As the 1-1 record indicates, teams will generally go 50-50 in close games. What the Vikings and Ponder need to do is make sure the games aren't close as they finish it out.
Nevertheless, it's the second week in a row where Ponder led the team when they were behind and put the team into a position to win games it would have otherwise lost.
The next step is to find ways not to be in that position.
3. Percy Harvin Is the Most Important Player on the Vikings Offense
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Percy Harvin has 18 catches for 188 yards. He has seven runs for 33 yards. He added 166 return yards on five kickoffs.
Out of the 959 all-purpose yards the Vikings have gained, Harvin is responsible for 387 of them, absurd for a wide receiver. No single skill player comes close to that total, and the Vikings will need to keep him happy as the season continues.
Harvin has been targeted 21 times this season, many of them on extremely productive screen plays. He has been able to use his strength, concentration, agility and vision to make sure Minnesota moves the chains.
Adrian Peterson has been the story of the young season, but the former Gator has produced more, especially in pressure situations like third down.
Musgrave improved upon last week's game plan by making sure the important players were fed the ball early and often, and no more than Harvin.
Defenses will do more to focus on him, as it is increasingly clear that he will be called upon to produce more and more yards. While it is important to make sure that Percy can produce, the Vikings will need the rest of their corps to step up and relieve the pressure.
4. The Rest of the Receiving Corps Is Weak
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On 22 targets, the rest of the receiving corps produced 141 yards, an abysmal 6.4 yards per target. The average for receivers so far this season has been two yards higher.
There have been drops at critical times, and a critical inability to find ways to get open outside of independent playcalling.
While the offensive gameplan from last week gave the receivers different landmarks to attack zone coverage, they could escape from man-to-man coverage by what should be an average secondary at best.
None of them provide enough of a package of receiver skills to be reliably called on, and the Vikings have lucked out with the ability to make tough throws late in games to their third and fourth receivers. While Ponder's ball placement has improved markedly over last season, his receivers haven't pulled through.
From a dropped pass in the end zone from Michael Jenkins this week to alligator arms from Kyle Rudolph a week before, Ponder has had to deal with an anemic corps that won't allow him to attack the field.
Again, the arrival of Jerome Simpson could provide a spark, but this is an area in need of improvement come next offseason.
5. The Defensive Line Is Not Itself
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Jared Allen has zero sacks over two games, something that reminds Vikings fans of a pedantic 2010 season.
Joining him are the rest of the starting defensive line, a shock for a team that has been well-known for its powerful line in the past.
That powerful tradition will need to reassert itself if the Vikings want to correct their defensive collapses in the clutch.
Too many missed tackles, penalties and missed assignments against average offensive lines have complemented a distinct lack of pressure and poor run reads to make the defensive line poor overall.
Without the strong play of linebackers Erin Henderson and Chad Greenway, along with cornerback Antoine Winfield, the Vikings would have had to worry about Indianapolis' surprisingly good running backs.
The run of poor line play was only broken up by a quick sack from stunting rusher Everson Griffen on a critical third down.
The most immediate way for the Minnesota secondary to improve is for the defensive line to find its old character.
6. Minnesota's Outside Linebackers Have Showed Up
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While linebacker depth has been an admittedly huge concern entering the preseason, the starting outside linebackers for the Minnesota Vikings have been exemplary.
They have combined for 42 tackles, four tackles for loss and two sacks in the last two games, a fantastic number. Not only that, they've made sure to make their tackles count, something they had problems with last year.
Henderson and Greenway have made up for poor line play in the running game. This last Sunday, they recorded 11 stops, which are all running plays that constitute a defensive failure, according to the popular metric run success rate.
Both of them have gone some way in resolving concerns about the linebacker corps' contributions to pass defense with more effective coverage, particularly of tight ends. The Colts' tight ends combined for only three receptions for 19 yards.
It seems as if the Minnesota defense is going to rely on strong play from their outside linebackers for quite a while. They will make the transition to a younger defense much smoother.
7. The Vikings Are Young, and Play Like It
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The Minnesota Vikings are the country's fourth-youngest NFL team. They are going to make mistakes, and fans saw that.
Blown coverages, missed tackles, rough schemes and missed routes are all part of a growing team, and the Vikings saw that in a big way on Sunday, as well as against Jacksonville.
Many players are still raw, particularly the bottom of the receiving corps and Christian Ponder.
Harrison Smith and Mistral Raymond look quite good, but still have quite a bit to learn. They need to learn the limits of what they can do and how to work around it. For example, Jamarca Sanford saw the field in place of a dehydrated Mistral Raymond, who wasn't aware it was still an issue.
There have been a few issues with maintaining correct position on defense, applying proper technique and, of course, making sure that all of the routes are being run accurately, precisely and a step ahead of defenders.
Fans should brace for more mistakes this season, but hope to see fewer mental errors as the season progresses. San Francisco will be a stern test for the young team and may reveal much more than either of the first two games.
8. Minnesota Special Teams Have Improved in a Big Way
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The Minnesota Vikings special teams unit had not impressed many fans coming out of the 2011 season. Despite playing an extremely important role in determining field position and marginal scoring, they've been largely ignored.
That's understandable; they've been largely unremarkable and have generally played somewhat below average for special team units across the league. They allowed a few more yards per kick return and punt return and have gradually surrounded a small field position advantage to many of their opponents.
That is no longer the case.
Not only does Blair Walsh provide what may become a consistent long range threat to score, he's been extremely consistent in forcing touchbacks on kickoffs.
When opponents intend to return the booming kicks from the rookie, the coverage unit has been very good in restricting opportunities for a good gain. Not only have they maintained lane discipline, but they have been sure in tackling and forcing kick returners to run laterally instead of forward.
Jamarca Sanford, Tyrone McKenzie, Everson Griffen, Josh Robinson and many others have all been critical parts in making sure opposing specialists couldn't take the ball to the house.
On punts, they've been much the same. Punter Chris Kluwe has had generally good performance over the past two games, and gunners Sanford and Robinson have done a fantastic job making sure punt returners either call a fair catch or limit themselves to a gain under ten yards. Not many blockers have been able to contain either of them.
Sherels remains a consistent, if average, punt returner. The Vikings have not lost the field position battle as a result of special teams very often.
9. The Offensive Line Has Undergone Major Improvements
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The addition of Matt Kalil to the offensive line has done wonders for pass protection overall.
Fans wouldn't normally think that one new lineman could provide the injection of talent that the line needed to do well against strong pass-rushers, but it is evident.
The Vikings have, contrary to (relatively) popular belief, had strong interior pass protection with center John Sullivan, Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera.
Unfortunately, Sullivan was an aging piece of the puzzle, and Herrera was inconsistent. Moving Charlie Johnson inside, along with the improvement of Brandon Fusco, has continued the success of the line in protecting its quarterback. In Fusco's case, the line has even upgraded.
More than that, Johnson's poor play in space was ill-suited for the left tackle position, and none of the three quarterbacks who ended up starting over the course of the year could be confident in their blind side. While Kalil hasn't eliminated pressure from the left side, his high level of play is clear.
Phil Loadholt still remains a penalty liability, but he may have finally found the balance that made him such a successful rookie. While an effective run blocker in 2011, Loadholt could maintain the footwork and agility needed to prevent edge rushers from getting to the quarterback.
What was baffling, however, was that Loadholt was a supremely good pass protector the year before and could not push out while getting low enough to gain leverage. This year, he seems to have placed himself in the happy medium, with good pass protection and more than adequate run blocking.
The line has communicated well, and they have done a good job picking up stunts, blitzes and coordinating runs. They do an equally good job run blocking with or without a fullback and could become the most important reason for the success the Vikings will want to see this season and several seasons into the future.