Minnesota Vikings: 5 Things We Learned from the 24-13 Win over the 49ers
The most ardent Minnesota Vikings fans looked at the 2012 schedule and insisted the team had to start 2-1 to head down any sort of positive path for the coming season.
The Vikings have started 2-1 alright, just not in the manner that anyone expected.
Last week, they lost to the worst team in the league in a heartbreaking fashion, and it looked like the sky was falling. Two mediocre performances against two of the worst teams in the league and coming into town Sunday was the 49ers, the team that almost every expert who ranks such things had at the very top of the NFL.
So, of course, the Vikings completely manhandle the 49ers and walk away with a convincing 24-13 win.
Who'd have thought it? Let's just say that after the Patriots loss to the Cardinals last week and the 49ers losing to the Vikings today, most survivor pools are down to fewer people than those who have walked on the moon.
What was remarkable about the Vikings' win on Sunday is that, on a day that all sorts of crazy things were happening around the league, this game was no fluke. The Vikings dominated the 49ers in almost every facet of the game.
So yes Vikings fans, that game did just happen, and no, Jim Harbaugh doesn't have any challenges left. As we catch our breath, we take a look at the five biggest things we learned from the Vikings' huge win.
Christian Ponder: One Giant Leap Forward
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There are turning points in every professional athlete's career.
Christian Ponder can hit his pillow Sunday night with a smile on his face as he finally has a signature win as an NFL starting quarterback.
There have been plenty of ups and downs for Ponder over the course of his first 13 starts, like there are for just about anyone who leads an NFL team early in their careers. It's been baby steps forward for Ponder before Sunday. For everything positive he'd done, he'd matched it with some growing pains.
Call Sunday a huge leap forward in terms of Ponder's maturation process.
He's had better games statistically. He even had better numbers in last week's loss to the Colts, but make no mistake, Sunday's game against the 49ers was, far and away, the best of Ponder's career. You could almost see the light bulb going off above his head as he played with an assurance we haven't seen before.
It's often said that you have to be in the league for awhile before the game slows down for you. There was certainly a different look to Ponder on Sunday. He looked poised, confident and more aware of what was happening around him.
He stayed in the pocket until it was time to bail out. He made throws on the run with touch and accuracy. Maybe most importantly, he did what all great quarterbacks do—he got away with some throws that he probably shouldn't of.
When Ponder took off on his 23-yard touchdown scamper, it looked different than it did before. We've seen Ponder make some nice runs, but before, he's looked like a deer caught in headlights running to save his life. On Sunday, he looked like a guy who knew he could make a big play.
This isn't to say that Ponder is a finished product, and the growing pains are over. But, dissecting the best defense in the league and leading your team to its biggest win in three years is a huge step in the right direction.
The Offensive Line Is Coming Together
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It was supposed to be a mismatch.
Their opponent Sunday should have been a pushover. The Vikings offensive line is young, inexperienced and just not as talented as the menacing 49ers defense. Well, that's why they play the games, right?
The 49ers defense was indeed quite good on Sunday. Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis were everywhere; Justin and Aldon Smith were every bit as good as advertised. They stuffed the Vikings' running game and flushed Ponder from the pocket often.
What nobody saw coming, however, was that the Vikings offense, 3-13 a year ago and splitting games with two bottom feeders to start 2012, punched back.
The Vikings offensive line stood toe-to-toe with the big, bad 49ers and traded blows. This wasn't a game of big plays and huge momentum swings, it was just a slugfest in the trenches, and the Vikings dominated.
The numbers rarely lie in the NFL, and Sunday's totals read like this: Plays from scrimmage, Vikings (76), 49ers (58); total yards, Vikings (344), 49ers (280); rushing yards, Vikings (146), 49ers (89); first downs, Vikings (25), 49ers (19).
Yes, Adrian Peterson was stuffed a lot, but he kept coming, and the offensive line kept giving him more and more room to roam. Yes, Christian Ponder was flushed from the pocket a lot, but he was given just enough time to make plays.
Sullivan, Kalil and company went up against the very best the NFL has to offer and held their own. They gave up no sacks. They sustained long drives.
They beat what was supposed to be the best team in the league.
Kyle Rudolph Is a Matchup Nightmare
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Kyle Rudolph's second touchdown Sunday didn't even look fair.
Yes, Rudolph pushed at safety Donte Whitner but only after Whitner had grabbed him on his way by. Rudolph then looked like a grown man playing against a boy as he pawed the ball with one hand in the end zone to move the Vikings comfortably ahead by 11.
The Vikings took Rudolph in the second round of the 2011 draft, and it was certainly not a "need" pick. It was a "this guy is way too good" not to take selection. Rudolph showed flashes as a rookie, but ultimately his season went the way that most of the team's did, drowning in the futility of a 3-13 campaign.
Rudolph has come out dominating in his second season. At 6'6", 260 pounds, Rudolph is just too big and too athletic for most linebackers and defensive backs to handle. He combines that size with exceptional hands and is proving in year two that he's learning how to get open in order to get opportunities.
On their first touchdown hookup Sunday, Rudolph dragged across the back of the end zone as Ponder back-peddled away from a rushing defender. With not a moment left to spare, Ponder lofted a perfect pass off his back foot to a waiting Rudolph who was alone for the score.
On the second touchdown, Whitner did about all he could, but the bigger Rudolph simply reached around him and one-handed the ball for another score.
Rudolph and Ponder are developing a chemistry that's vital for an offense that lacks any deep threat. Rudolph is learning how to get open, and Ponder is learning that, even if Rudolph isn't open, he's still a good target.
The good news for both of them is that the deep threat arrives next week. The middle of the field will be more spread out for Rudolph to do his thing.
The Vikings Defense Is Vastly Improved
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So, Jared Allen probably isn't going to get 20 sacks. Who cares?
Chad Greenway is off to a phenomenal start in 2012 and is quieting all those who said he didn't make enough "splash" plays. Jasper Brinkley was a presence Sunday, clogging up running lanes and keeping the 49ers stellar ground game to a paltry 89 yards.
Now you might want to sit down for this one: The Vikings secondary was...gulp, fantastic. Coming off a season where they were historically bad, the Vikings' defensive backs were all over the field on Sunday. Crabtree, Manningham, Davis and some guy named Moss got a little bit against the Vikings but nothing more.
Not only that, the boys in the secondary were fantastic as the second tier against the run. Antoine Winfield and rookie Harrison Smith had several huge tackles. The group didn't miss a beat when Mistral Raymond left with an ankle injury and Jamarca Sanford came in and contributed.
Rookie Josh Robinson came up with his first of, what we hope is, many interceptions. All told, the Vikings' secondary was credited with 30 tackles, and the good news is that most of them weren't very far down the field.
Greenway led the way for a defense that had its best day in years, but he had plenty of help in what was certainly a complete-unit performance.
And yeah, we finally did get to see Allen rope that calf.
Momentum Is Everything in the NFL
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The Vikings opened up their win against the 49ers with a 16-play drive that chewed up half the first quarter and ended with an improbable touchdown on 4th-and-1. It was the team's longest drive in six years, and it sent a message loud and clear to the San Francisco sideline: This was going to be a ballgame.
For his third straight game, Christian Ponder went without throwing an interception, and although the backs put the ball on the ground, they never did it in crucial situations, never deep in either side's territory.
The most important stat of all from Sunday's game was one penalty. One penalty for 10 yards. The special teams were spotty at best, giving up huge chunks of yards, but that's going to happen. Sometimes, the other side makes good plays.
You have to control what you can control, and that means turnovers and penalties. The Vikings played with discipline and played under control throughout the game. They got into a slugfest with one of the toughest teams in the league, and they dominated them.
The Vikings finally got off to a good start in a game, and they never let up.
There was some craziness at the end of the game where Jim Harbaugh had either talked the refs into thinking he hadn't called a timeout, or the refs simply blew it by not knowing how many timeouts Harbaugh had used.
Then, Toby Gerhart fumbled three times in about four plays, one being a comically long play where he was held in the air for about a five count before he lost the ball.
None of it mattered. The 49ers had been whipped, and they knew it.
So now we know what the Vikings are capable of. We won't forget that the Vikings are young, and there are more growing pains to come.
But, it's certainly nice to know that there are more days like this to come.