The Minnesota Vikings shot out of the gate and held onto their lead to beat the Detroit Lions, 20-13. This gives the Vikings sole possession of the NFC North title at 3-1 and drops the Lions to 1-3. Their divisional loss puts them in the cellar of the NFC North, and they will need a big turnaround to make a playoff push.
The Vikings started the game off with their longest kickoff return in team history, with a 105 yard runback for a touchdown by Percy Harvin. The Lions responded by moving the chains by way of a defensive pass interference penalty, and settled for a field goal.
Three drives later, the Vikings moved sporadically down the field to set up a Blair Walsh field goal from 49 yards.
In the second quarter, a stop by the Vikings defense allowed the offense to move up field, who stalled after a series of questionable calls from offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. They settled for a 29 yard field goal.
The Detroit Lions gained new life in the end zone after what looks to be a relatively controversial penalty, but a big hit by Harrison Smith and a dropped pass by Brandon Pettigrew in the end zone saved the touchdown. Jason Hanson converted the field goal.
After the half, the Vikings exhibited their special teams dominance once more, and an electric return by Marcus Sherels is helping to potentially put this game away.
After trading back and forth, the Vikings allowed a 76 yard drive by Stafford and company all the way to the one yard line, where Stafford extended his arms over the plane of the goal line in what will surely be a hotly debated touchdown call.
Like many of the Vikings' games this season, the game came down to the final play. In a twist from last season, the Vikings secured the win by sacking Matt Stafford on fourth down with the clock running down to seal the game with a 20-13 score.
Following are instantly generated game grades for every starter and Josh Robinson, who played significant snaps for the Vikings, both in base packages and the nickel package.
Christian Ponder: C-
The buzz around Christian Ponder has been tempered with observations that his numbers have been boosted by unsustainably conservative play and large yards after the catch.
While Ponder still hasn't turned it over, his pedantic numbers finally do match up with his performance in this game, and he has been quiet in leading the Vikings on the field to only 15 first downs.
Christian Ponder didn't give himself a lot of chances to prove doubters wrong, and couldn't reliably move the ball. The Vikings only had four passing first downs, and were three for 12 on third downs overall, the worst efficiency they've posted so far. With 111 passing yards (100 net), Ponder put together his least impressive performance yet. A 4.3 yards per attempt with no touchdowns does not give many people confidence, even if Ponder didn't throw an interception in another 26 attempts.
Ponder was constrained by his playcalling, but also did not consistently make good decisions. His offensive line did well in all but the third quarter, but he couldn't find a way to get on the scoreboard.
This may have been his worst performance in a win so far.
Minnesota's offense fell off a cliff after being rated in the top ten by some metrics and average by most others, but Adrian Peterson and the running back corps were not by any means disappointing.
Adrian Peterson: A
Accounting for 122 yards, Adrian Peterson was easily over 50 percent of the offense. Before the fourth quarter, he was averaging 5.75 yards per carry, an absolutely phenomenal total. Even with some disappointing runs late when the Vikings attempted to run out the clock, he finished with 4.9 yards and did a good job making sure no one could get him down upon first contact, generating over three quarters of his yardage after the first tackler got his hands on Peterson.
He was involved in the passing game as well, with four catches for 20 yards. His presence and play was critical to the Vikings win, and the nine rushing first downs are a credit to him. The only more impressive performance he could have had with only 21 carries would have been a touchdown.
Jerome Felton: A
Felton improved over his performance against the 49ers, and is doing a much better job holding his blocks against linebackers. While obviously benefiting from an easier job blocking Steven Tulloch instead of Patrick Willis, Felton still paved the way for many of Minnesota's successful runs, and shows a sophisticated understanding of the scheme despite being a new player to it.
Percy Harvin: B
While still without a touchdown from scrimmage, Harvin's start could not have gone better, with a 105 yard return for a touchdown. That said, Harvin only touched the ball six more times, and only three as a receiver. It's not his fault that poor play design had him rushing up the middle on a predictable wildcat play, but he was otherwise limited.
As an offensive player, he only generated 34 yards, something that a feature receiver should be disappointed with. Harvin didn't do a fantastic job generating yards after the catch—his bread-and-butter—and couldn't find enough ways to get open.
Still, a touchdown is a touchdown.
Jerome Simpson: B
An exciting return for Jerome Simpson, who was expected to need more time to get integrated into the offense. He performed a bigger role than expected, but not by much. Still, his athleticism has Vikings fans excited, and he'll hope to build on this four catch, 50 yard performance.
What goes unrecorded in the statistics are his two drawn pass interference penalties, each of which set up the Vikings' only offensive scores. Bill Bentley seems to be an unfocused player, but Simpson is clearly demanding the attention of defenders who respect his big play potential. That's enough to give him much more credit than his statistics might imply.
Kyle Rudolph: C
Rudolph had been touted as the Vikings' red zone target, with reliable hands and a large frame, but the Vikings didn't see much of that against the Lions, as they didn't enter the red zone once. So far, he's had limited utility outside of the final 20 yards and he's followed up some pedantic performances with another limited performance of two catches for eight yards.
He did, however, have a better accounting of himself as a blocker in the run game, not giving up nearly as many defenders on his blocks as he did the week before.
John Carlson: C-
While Carlson was almost absent from the stat sheet again, he did avail himself as a blocker in the run game, a big part of Peterson's 102 yards. Still, his only reception was for negative yardage. His excellent blocking is his only saving grace.
Matt Kalil: B+
The 4th pick in the draft, Kalil did a good job protecting Christian Ponder and a great job securing running lanes for Adrian Peterson. Vanden Bosch did get by him for a sack, but was otherwise relatively quiet, getting two additional tackles much to late to make a difference (On 8 and 12 yard gains). Bosch outperformed his stat sheet, but his good plays were very rarely due in part to play by Kalil.
Charlie Johnson: B
The interior defensive line for the Detroit Lions was none too productive, but Johnson wasn't a huge reason as to why. He also allowed a sack, but more consistently gave up pressure to the defensive tackles. He did a better job in the running game, but wasn't asked to move up to the second level all too often. More than once, Adrian Peterson had to break a tackle that Johnson gave up, but he was generally fine. He was responsible for Minnesota's first false start of the season.
John Sullivan: B+
Sullivan was responsible for pressure up the middle as well, but held onto blocks much longer and did a good job opening up running lanes for Peterson by getting to the second level when necessary. While the offensive line wasn't entirely cohesive—a responsibility usually left to the center—Sullivan was still a leader that helped an otherwise anemic offense gain yards. He was perhaps the best run blocker on the field.
Brandon Fusco: B+
Fusco reasserted himself as a demon in the running game and also did well to handle Suh as a pass protector. Suh did get around him once for the sack and at least one more time for a hurry, but Fusco by and large kept Suh silent as he paved the road for Adrian Peterson.
Phil Loadholt: B-
Cliff Avril did much better than his stat sheet indicates, and Loadholt gave Avril a lot more leeway than a first look woul suggest. Still, an all-around consistent performance from Loadholt is more than most experienced Vikings fans would expect. While he gave up pressure to Avril, he also did an OK job at best paving the way for the powerful Vikings rushing attack.
The defensive line was the best defensive unit all game for the Vikings, and their five sacks came alongside an additional three tackles for loss in the running game. Beyond that, the defensive line did a great job funneling runners into unfavorable running lanes and also consistently put pressure on the quarterback.
Jared Allen: B
The Vikings are seeing a bit more of the Jared Allen they got used to and should be happy to see him make himself known in the offensive backfield. Nevertheless, one sack and two tackles for loss is a good performance, but not great. He's on track to have a good season, but will need more to calm the Vikings faithful.
Brian Robison: C
Improving clearly every year, Brian Robison had a relatively quiet performance in this game against the Lions. He didn't make any mistakes, but he also didn't make very many plays, with just two tackles and none behind the line of scrimmage. He's still reading plays well, but didn't find himself all too impressive, with two solo tackles and an assist.
Letroy Guion: B
At perhaps the most important position on the defensive line, Letroy Guion has been under scrutiny by fans and pundits alike. The nose tackle isn't expected to make many big plays, but needs to be seen stuffing runs up his gap and drawing double teams. Many doubted Guion's ability to effectively do that, but he showed up in the Lions game. With two sacks, a few pressures and a good effort to draw double teams, Guion did well. He didn't show up elsewhere on the stat sheet, however, and couldn't consistently prevent runs from going far.
Kevin Williams: C
The Pro Bowl undertackle that the Vikings have relied on for ages is beginning to slow down. Despite playing at a position conducive to better statistics than nose tackle, Williams played more snaps than Guion but ended up with a smaller impact. Not as penetrating as we have seen in other games, Williams still was able to put pressure on the quarterback. More importantly, it was Williams who often held blockers up so that others could make tackles in the backfield.
The Lions rushed 16 times (with four scrambles by Matt Stafford). This is not only because the Lions are a pass heavy offense, but because linebackers and defensive linemen flew to the ball to limit designed runs to 41 yards, or 2.6 yards a carry. That is stifling, especially with the much-anticipated return of Mikel Leshoure from injury. That's the lowest yards per carry they've rushed by over half a yard.
A big game defending the run as well as solid work in pass coverage from linebackers was a great part of that.
Chad Greenway: B+
Greenway once again finds himself in the somewhat curious position of leading the team in tackles despite playing as a strongside linebacker, traditionally third among linebackers in tackle totals. Greenway has been in this position for the Vikings for quite some time now, and much of it has to do with his excellent ability to shed blocks and read plays. Greenway wasn't exposed in coverage like he was a year earlier, but neither was he astounding.
Jasper Brinkley: B+
The middle linebacker of the defense is often the most important player, although Brinkley has been made less relevant by scheme changes. Many were worried about how long it would take Brinkley to shake the rust off after sitting out all of 2011 on injured reserve, while others worried about his ability to play in coverage. An injury to Erin Henderson pressed him into service on nickel packages as well. Without being exposed in coverage against tight ends, Brinkley ended up providing decent pressure while also finding time to tackle the ballcarrier ten times, five of those times unassisted.
His best play in coverage went relatively unnoticed, but was some great blanket coverage at the end of the first quarter on Mikel Leshoure running a wheel route.
Marvin Mitchell: D+
To Mitchell's credit, he wasn't overwhelmed, but he is also clearly not a starter. While not missing a lot of tackles, he also didn't position himself correctly on plays. This may need to be an observation adjusted after further film review, but Mitchell seemed a bit slow on play recognition and still somewhat unfamiliar with his assignments. He didn't see too much time on the field, and the Vikings relied quite a bit on their nickel package in order to put their best players on the field.
The Minnesota Vikings allowed 341 yards overall, with 319 yards in the air (286, if you include sacks). It was still the lowest yardage the Lions have advanced from scrimmage all year, and the lowest yards per attempt (6.3) that Stafford was able to marshal all year. Naturally, part of the ineffective passing game had to do with the extremely effective run defense, but a lot of it had to do with a secondary that held the league's best receiver to five receptions for 54 yards.
Still, much of the performance of the Vikings had as much to do with dropped passes as it did with effective coverage.
Josh Robinson: B+
For a third cornerback, Robinson had some great moments against the powerful Lions receiving corps. Sometimes called on to cover a receiver six feet taller and 30 pounds heavier, who also happened to possess some of the best technical skills in the league, Robinson helped effectively corral an offense that seemed out of rhythm and ineffectual. More effective than his ability to get in front of the ball, however, was his sound tackling prevented a number of otherwise large Lions gains. He tied for the most solo tackles on the team, with seven. He tied with Chad Greenway. He had one credited pass deflection and did well enough to force at least one more completion.
The issues with Robinson are problems that show up on game film, but did not end up becoming costly or important; he was out of place on several zone plays, and shaded too far inside. Against an explosive passing team, like the Lions on another day, this would have been fatal. Over time, he corrected this issue, but will need to be more consistent in the future.
Antoine Winfield: A
Still one of the most feared tacklers in the league, and certainly the heaviest hitter under six feet tall, the 35-year-old Antoine Winfield can handle the slot better than most players in the prime of their careers. It's still obvious that Winfield has lost a step, but he certainly hasn't lost any technique. The only corner who only played one down out of position (once again shaded too far inside), Winfield didn't have to pay for this mistake and provided good coverage against the slower receivers throughout the game.
He played his assignment to a tee, and had 10 tackles, astounding for a cornerback, especially one who didn't play every snap.
Chris Cook: B+
Cook started the game with an impressive deflection that would have turned into an interception with better luck. Cook was also out of place near the beginning of the game, but didn't end up paying for it, as he was not often targeted. This is in part due to good coverage, but also due to play design. Cook's closing speed is impressive, but was not quite put on display. He ended with one tackle but did not discredit his billing as the future of the Vikings secondary.
Harrison Smith: A-
Communication between the safeties and the cornerbacks was certainly lacking, but Smith and Jamarca Sanford were effective in isolation. The transfer of Calvin Johnson from Josh Robinson to the safeties in the red zone on Smith's critical hit earlier in the game was handled a bit sloppily, but Smith handled it well by forcing the ball out of Johnson's hands.
Smith could have had two picks, and will hopefully find ways to improve in this area of the game. His reaction to the ball in the air is quick, but perhaps more practice or focus will turn a defense focused on limiting YAC to a defense that punishes deep passes with turnovers.
Jamarca Sanford: A
It's odd that the backup safety may have been the best performing member of the secondary, especially after a subpar performance the year before. Good intuition for the direction that plays would take, Sanford added another forced fumble to his total, and came up with a number of defensive stops. It's easy to castigate Sanford for the pass interference call on Calvin Johnson, especially given his performance the year before, but Sanford also had a team-high three pass deflections.
With six tackles, some of which stopped the offense cold, Sanford may have been the most surprising player of the game. If not for the pass interference call, he would be a clear defensive MVP. Hard to believe, but rewatch the game and imagine it without him in it. Great work. Add that to his punt gunner work, and the Vikings have a backup safety they can believe in.
Minnesota's special teams are performing among the best in the league.
Blair Walsh has since surpassed last season's mark for touchbacks with 20 to Longwell's 19. Despite his first miss of the year, Walsh has proven to be reliable and effective for the Vikings.
Chris Kluwe had done well, but isn't playing as consistently as he has before, with a few short punts. More than that, his coverage hasn't been great either, allowing Stefan Logan more return yards than he has a right to.
Regardless, two explosive returns by the return team have given the Vikings the advantage they need as they attempt to close out the game.
Blair Walsh: B+
A relatively high grade for someone who missed one of their three field goals, Walsh's impact was felt off the scoreboard more than on top of it. His touchbacks prevented any Lions returns on kickoffs, an extraordinary contribution to field position that might not show up until fans take a look at more obscure statistical measures, like Cold Hard Football Facts' bendability index, which measures how many yards it takes for a team to score on a defense.
It is great, however, that the Vikings know they are in scoring range 15 yards from further away than last year.
Chris Kluwe: C+
Kluwe neither specializes as a "power" punter or one who is known for deadly accuracy—he's fairly well known for both on occasion. In this game, he showcased both sides of these punting skills, once with a fairly accurate but short punt, and once with a powerful punt straight down the middle. His last punt of the game was his best, and Robert Blanton's effort to down the ball at the Lions' two yard line helped seal the game for the Vikings, who had several chances to stop the Lions' offensive drive. It ended up becoming critical.
That said, Kluwe's power will never sit atop the league, and he had the opportunity to bury punts further back. Net return statistics don't tell the whole story, given one instance of poor punt coverage, but he certainly doesn't outkick his coverage, a criticism levied against him early in his career.
Vikings fans have a right to be upset with a coaching staff that couldn't seem to take advantage of the risks the Detroit defense was making, or with the holes the Vikings were opening up in the running game. Even knowning that the Vikings have been keeping Adrian Peterson on an obvious pitch count, he was still criminally underutilized, with only 21 carries. Going into the fourth quarter, Peterson was averaging over six yards a carry, exceeding Christian Ponder's yards per attempt—an exceedingly rare event.
Leslie Frazier: B-
Despite what most may think, the Vikings did in fact adjust over the course of the game to what they saw. With Detroit willing to spread Minnesota's defense horizontally, the Vikings responded with tighter outside coverage, helping eliminate what could have been a series of devastating catches. Mistakes were caught and fixed on the sidelines, and Detroit could not find consistent holes in coverage.
There weren't challenge or clock management issues, and the game plan on offense and defense was clearly designed based on what they saw on tape. That said, Frazier still did not provoke Musgrave to either provide Ponder with greater latitude after the snap or change the playcalling scheme. He's the captain of the ship, and ultimately responsible for what happens on the field.
He's not in charge of the offense, but he should have seen earlier that they were inexplicably gaining much more on the ground than in the air. Ten more carries by Peterson would have potentially given the Vikings red zone looks, where they play a different, more effective offense.
Bill Musgrave: D
The Vikings offensive coordinator may have been riding a wave of optimism and confidence after three well called games against tough opponents, but was either too creative without results, or too predictable. Somehow, the wildcat/direct snap to Percy Harvin was both—the Lions defense knew it was a designed run and it started from an ineffective point—several yards back from the shotgun position.
One of the biggest issues with Musgrave's playcalling over the course of the season was not his conservatism; one could easily argue his safe play design was structured to take advantage of the Vikings' strengths and hide their weaknesses. Rather, his problem has been with situational playcalling, often calling for short passes or even runs on third and long, or being ignorant of field position when playing outside the red zone.
Several times, the Vikings could have made serious adjustments account for the fact that the Lions defense was providing a much different look than they had in the previous games, including wider positioning for the linebackers and cornerbacks closer to the line. Playing without preselected passes or hot reads and allowing routes to attack the middle before the ball is thrown is one way to make Detroit back off, and there are several other ways Musgrave could have, but didn't try.
He doesn't deserve an F, simply because Musgrave stopped committing to gadget plays or finding ways to make the Vikings regress further. It was nothing to celebrate, however. Having 6 points put on the board by the offense is partially the fault of the offense, but in this case has more to do with Bill Musgrave.
Alan Williams: A-
Williams had a career day, and already is proving to be a much more effective coordinator than Fred Pagac ever was. He's calling for a variety of zone and man coverages that suit different situations, yet maintain the same core philosophies. Only the Jaguars had more yards per play against the Vikings than other opponents. Even the 49ers couldn't hold the Lions to under 14 points or 4.9 yards per play.
Williams is clearly changing the defensive strategies from game to game, but is still committed to keeping defenders up top and preventing yards after the catch. The bracketing strategy with safeties will eventually yield more interceptions, and the Vikings found several opportunities to create turnovers that went missed.
Occasionally, William's schemes were sussed out and took some time to change, but they still prevented the bevy of points the Lions are used to scoring. The defensive coordinator's ability to rely on the defensive line to create pressure gave him more options in coverage, and Williams was more than ready to use them. Many times, when the defense seemed to have failed, execution was a larger issue than the defensive scheme, and Williams is certainly acting like he can create defenses that adapt to both the offense and its own players.
Mike Priefer: A+
The special teams shined in the Vikings' win over Detroit, and Priefer is a big reason why. The Vikings have found a blocking strategy that effectively moves the returners forward, and there were specific tactics the Vikings employed after Priefer got his hands on the film from the Lions' disappointing performance against Tennessee.
The most electric play was designed to take advantage of Jonte Green's inability to react to inside cuts off of basic blocking, and the Vikings exploited this tendency to create large lanes for Percy Harvin on his touchdown return from five yards deep.
The emphasis the Vikings have placed on special teams performance in the offseason is paying off, and the careful attention to detail Priefer has given each position has allowed the Vikings to dominate the field position game.
Lane assignment issues from the San Francisco game were fixed, and the timing of the coverage units has been exemplary. The Vikings have one of the top special teams units in the league, and Priefer is a big reason why.