49ers vs. Vikings: Minnesota's Biggest Winners and Losers from NFL Week 3

Arif Hasan@ArifHasanNFLContributor IIISeptember 24, 2012

49ers vs. Vikings: Minnesota's Biggest Winners and Losers from NFL Week 3

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    In 2009, the NFL was unsure of the Minnesota Vikings going into Week 3. Uncertain of where they were at quarterback or wide receiver, many assumed the Vikings needed to rely on their strong run game to stay close to what many thought would be a very strong 49ers team, just coming off what analysts called strong wins.

    Of course, Minnesota were seven-point favorites in that game and were undefeated. In 2012, the Vikings consistently ranked in the bottom of the league, and the 49ers were all but unanimous as the best team in the NFC.

    In a win that may have done more for fan confidence than player confidence, the Vikings proved that they are here to compete, not just to develop.

    That said, there were clearly some losers to go along with the obvious winners in the game. The team is young, and if they want to sustain this type of success, they'll need to correct their mistakes.

Winner: Kyle Rudolph

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    Kyle Rudolph was pivotal in the win, despite only accruing 36 yards on five receptions. His size and reliability made him a perfect asset in the red zone.

    At first, his route running and separation stood out, unusual for a tight end or most people his size. It looks like his speed has finally returned.

    Not only did Rudolph help start the game with a good gain early in the first quarter, he proved crucial on the first drive as a red-zone target in a crowded field. On this first touchdown, Rudolph found himself relatively free of coverage and hauled in a well-thrown ball to start off the day.

    Rudolph could have improved as a blocker in this game but made no serious mistakes against the best run-stopping team in the NFL. In fact, he helped seal off Parys Haralson, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks on different runs—a fairly difficult task.

    While Ponder did see pressure for much of the day, Rudolph proved helpful as an outlet when that pressure arrived and wasn't asked to pass block all too often—something he will need to improve on in order to be as complete a tight end as Rob Gronkowski, which he aspires to.

    Of course, his second touchdown is really what cemented him as a big winner against the 49ers. Ponder gave Rudolph "all the trust in the world" by floating the ball up toward the back of the end zone against Donte Whitner, according to a tweet by Jeremy Fowler of the Pioneer Press.

    Displaying fantastic concentration, the Notre Dame alum pulled the ball in and helped ice the game for the Vikings.

Loser: Toby Gerhart

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    Even if Toby Gerhart's first fumble was incorrectly called (certainly it was botched, from a procedural standpoint, via Judd Zulgad of 1500ESPN)), the subsequent two fumbles (and one fumble lost) were embarrassing.

    Fans may debate about the wisdom of putting Gerhart in—Adrian Peterson was apparently on a pitch count (via Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN)—but he certainly did not repay the faith the coaching staff put in him by nearly giving the 49ers a chance to bring the game back.

    To go along with that, Gerhart also had the lowest average of any Minnesota rusher with 2.3 yards per carry. That's 18 yards on eight carries, with a long gain of nine yards.

    He was slightly more useful as a pass-catcher, but that's not saying much. He was targeted four times and hauled the ball in twice for a total of 20 yards. More accurately, he had one catch for six yards and another for 14.

    On at least one of his targets, he should have made the catch, even if the ball arrived a little quickly.

    Gerhart's a good running back, and he'll bounce back. Other than this, Gerhart has two rushing fumbles in his career, and ball security is usually not an issue. He's a powerful runner who can follow his blocks and use his hips to break tackles. He should be expected to make up for this.

Winner: Letroy Guion

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    At this rate, the Vikings should lead the league in blocked kicks, something they apparently did better than anyone in history in 1976.

    Still, this won't be something the Vikings will be known for unless they repeat their 1979 performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where they blocked two extra points, a field goal and a punt.

    Nevertheless, it's nice that the Vikings can deliver on special teams once more, and this time, it was Letroy Guion who made the play.

    Not only did he make a play on special teams, he was more effective than he was in the past on the defensive line.

    Against the Colts, he was poor enough as a nose tackle that they started double-teaming Kevin Williams instead, an embarrassing sign for someone playing 1-technique.

    Here, he regularly drew double-teams and redirected San Francisco running backs Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter to other running lanes, save for a few plays where Guion was swallowed up. He recorded two individual tackles and one assisted tackle, all better stops than what Minnesota had normally been producing.

    Guion even caused some pressure on the quarterback, something fans have been hoping to see from him.

    Hopefully, he'll take this game with him and provide even more as a defensive player as the season continues.

Loser: Jamarca Sanford

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    Jamarca Sanford filled in for Mistral Raymond, who suffered from an ankle injury that took him out of the game.

    Sanford's inclusion changed defensive play-calling, as Alan Williams called for more Cover 2 looks with a less-able safety on the field.

    With fewer possibilities at strong safety—despite that being Sanford's usual role—the 49ers moved from 4.9 yards per attempt to 6.4. That is, Alex Smith moved from extremely inefficient to just below the 2011 league average.

    While still relatively good in terms of overall defense, this drop-off is significant enough to raise questions about Sanford's ability to play at an NFL level.

    Normally, strong special teams play would resolve concerns about poor play in substitution capacity, but Sanford's day as a special teamer was much poorer than it was in the previous two games.

    Sanford does get credit for saving a 94-yard return from becoming a touchdown, but he also missed a tackle on a kickoff return earlier and overpursued as a gunner on the punt return team.

    Of course, most fans will remember Sanford's extremely poor play on a 20-yard near-touchdown catch by Vernon Davis early in the third quarter. It was nearly inexcusable, and Sanford could neither stay over the top of Davis nor turn his head around in time to make a play on the ball.

    Davis clearly reacted to the thrown ball and gave the veteran safety more than enough cues for him to respond to the ball. He neither threw his hands up or turned his head around and all but laid down for that catch.

    It wasn't all bad for Sanford, though. Early in the fourth quarter, he forced the normally reliable Frank Gore to fumble the ball, allowing Marvin Mitchell to make the fumble recovery. Many fans may have wanted to trade that forced fumble for excellent coverage on the Davis throw, but it was overall not a complete loss by Sanford. Simply disappointing.

Winner: Christian Ponder

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    Christian Ponder's base statistics were abysmal.

    A 60-percent completion rate, along with under 200 yards passing, combined to produce 5.7 yards per attempt. He threw a ball right to Donte Whitner, who almost picked it off, giving Ponder his third or fourth lucky "almost interception" for the season.

    Naturally, digging a little deeper produces a more enlightening set of numbers. He was 5-of-9 on third downs and produced 15 first downs through the air overall. He rushed for 33 yards on seven carries—good for 4.7 yards per carry, more than running backs can produce against this defense.

    Further, Ponder accounted for three touchdowns, two in the passing game and one as a runner on a beautiful 23-yard run, a product of natural athleticism and intelligent decision-making.

    His quarterback rating was a 94.7, a good indication of his efficiency and something that doesn't even take into account his contributions on the ground.

    One of Ponder's biggest problems in the past two seasons has been his decision-making under pressure. Even last week, Ponder scrambled in response to phantom pass-rushers, took poor sacks and didn't extend plays when necessary.

    This was not the case against the 49ers.

    He stood up to pressure and made several important throws with a potential pass-rusher in his face. Not only did he freeze defenders with pump fakes, he threw with excellent ball placement on the run and suffered from more receiver drops than over or underthrows.

    This was, perhaps, his best game under center for the Vikings. Fourth-quarter comebacks are fantastic, but sitting on a lead is even better.

Loser: Chris Cook

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    Chris Cook didn't have a terrible game. It wasn't great either.

    Much like Sanford, Cook's poor play is best characterized by poor trailing coverage on Vernon Davis. In fact, they were consecutive plays.

    This time, of course, Davis actually grabbed the touchdown. Cook was more than a yard away from his primary coverage responsibility, who is an admittedly fast tight end, but a tight end nevertheless.

    Cook's been all but anointed as the primary cover corner against the tall receivers in the NFC North (Brandon Marshall, Jordy Nelson, Calvin Johnson and Alshon Jeffery) and will be expected to rotate over the tall tight ends (Brandon Pettigrew, Jermichael Finley, Matt Spaeth and Kellen Davis) as well.

    If Vernon Davis is giving him trouble in the red zone, the Vikings may be in for a long season—Josh Robinson is fast, but his 5'10" frame may make him less than effective against the bigger frames in the division.

    Cook is doing well in his zone assignments, making sure to keep players in front of him, and even had some important tackles. Nevertheless, he gave up a few plays in coverage, despite what looked to be some solid instincts in the game.

    Chris Cook is better than this and should recover soon. Hopefully, it will be in time for the visit to the Detroit Lions next week.

Winner: Offensive and Defensive Coordinators

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    An unusual area for praise, to be sure. The Minnesota Vikings coordinators have usually been given grief for their calls rather than praise.

    Bill Musgrave, the offensive coordinator, was subject to much ire by the Vikings fanbase. His play and personnel packages were not just bad in 2011; they were awful.

    The "Blazer" package wasn't creative in the sense that it would create yardage, but it was certainly unique. The rollouts that Ponder found effective early in his career with the Vikings all but disappeared by the end of the year, and Musgrave didn't often find ways to increase the protection that Christian Ponder desperately needed.

    There wasn't much of a theme or offensive consistency, and some of the better weapons the Vikings had were wasted.

    This year, Musgrave has found effective personnel sets and has committed to evolving the play package as the season goes on.

    While the two-tight end sets that were so well-promoted in the offseason and preseason have been run on less than a third of the offensive snaps, the plays have been designed to take the most advantage of the assets the Vikings have while also hiding its weaknesses.

    Nearly every game plan takes into account the defensive tendencies of the opponent, going so far as to find ways to create separation based on the type of zone and man schemes that their opponents have run, placing receivers in space or running them through routes that make ball placement easy for Ponder.

    More than that, the Vikings have been establishing tendencies then breaking them at key times, like the play-action wheel routes to Harvin off fake reverses or counters off the lead blocker at the line. These have encouraged Ponder to be efficient and gives the ball to primary playmakers in space.

    Musgrave called an excellent game against the 49ers, making sure to take advantage of the outside shading of the man coverage, the well-placed play-action passes and the play-action reverses mentioned above—a play that Musgrave hadn't called before that day.

    Along with the return of some personnel packages absent from the Colts game, but evident in the Jaguars game, Musgrave is doing an effective job exploiting the weaknesses of early scouting.

    On the other end, Alan Williams has shown himself to be adaptive and diverse in his play-calling. Against the Jaguars, Williams didn't call for a single Cover 2 play on passing downs until late into the first quarter.

    The safeties are moving around the field much more and can disguise coverage more effectively than they did under Fred Pagac. The Vikings are willing to move from man coverage to zone coverage and split it evenly against the Colts while playing in more zone coverage against the Jaguars.

    The defensive calls include a variety of blitzes from all across the field, and the Vikings have even blitzed different cornerbacks on different plays—to great effect.

    They've held off on providing clear signals to what their defensive calls in certain situations will be and have still found a way to maintain the same defensive philosophies the Vikings have established, including an emphasis on keeping receivers underneath the defenders and making sure gang tackling is effective.

    While still giving up easy completions, the Vikings are not content to allow much yardage after the catch. Against Alex Smith, the Vikings encouraged the 49ers to play the offensive game that they're comfortable with but without as much success.

    Unlike the Lions and the Packers, the Vikings didn't focus too much on Randy Moss, and instead, maintained even coverage across the field. Michael Crabtree didn't get as much room as he has in the past, and the 49ers couldn't seem to find the time to make Vernon Davis consistently effective.

    For the first time in a long time, the Vikings didn't give up any points in the fourth quarter and did a better job on third downs (allowing four conversions on 10 tries) than they did in the past two games. 

    Williams has given Chad Greenway the latitude he needs to be an effective playmaker. He has given the Pro Bowl linebacker a more diverse set of responsibilities while still trusting him in a number of coverage assignments.

    Balancing this with Greenway's comfort at Sam linebacker is impressive and something that has helped the Vikings defense look entirely different from last year.