Titans vs. Vikings: Minnesota's Biggest Winners & Losers from NFL Week 5
Moving to 4-1, the Minnesota Vikings have proven they can play winning football. The victory over the Titans is by no means proof of consistent week-to-week play, but it does begin to provide answers to questions about the team's ability to generate points and put games away.
New wrinkles in play-calling continue to provide Minnesota with small advantages, and the unpredictability of new offensive plays and formations put onto film will provide long-term dividends as programs will need to adapt to an ever-changing offense.
On occasion, Minnesota did find itself sputtering, but it certainly provided more reason to celebrate than anything else.
Some players came out even further ahead than before, while others have proven that they need to catch up.
Winner: Percy Harvin
Percy Harvin's versatility came to the fore once more. His efforts amounted to a touchdown on the ground and one through the air. He finished with 116 yards from scrimmage and 10 offensive touches.
Harvin didn't just get open long enough to find the ball in space; he made sure to extract every single yard he could from his opportunities.
Running every route from a simple "go" to more complex curl-outs, Harvin forced defenses to plan around him, rather than the other way around, punishing the Titans every time they didn't pay him enough attention.
There shouldn't be a question that Harvin was the offensive MVP, having mad critical gains on nearly every scoring drive.
Loser: Harrison Smith
A favorite for Pro Football Focus' rookie of the year award, Smith's contribution to the Minnesota defense is nearly invaluable.
He plays without abandon, and with the type of edge that Vikings fans haven't seen in quite some time from their safeties.
Unfortunately, he played with a little too much fire, and earned an automatic ejection. According to Chip Scoggins of the Minnesota Star Tribune, head referee Jeff Triplette said:
"He grabbed the official when the official was trying to separate them and pushed the official to the side. That’s an automatic ejection."— chipscoggins (@chipscoggins) October 8, 2012
Smith didn't do it maliciously, but it was nevertheless a bit too hotheaded for comfort.
After the Antoine Winfield interception, Smith and Titans wide receiver Nate Washington got into a shoving match, and back judge Steve Freeman began to separate the two. Smith, without thinking, pushed Freeman aside and continued to engage with Washington.
There seems to be a good chance that Harrison Smith will be suspended, a worrisome move for a team that already had put two safeties—Andrew Sendejo and starter Mistral Raymond—on the inactive list before the game started.
If Smith is suspended, the Vikings may start their game against Washington with two safeties both fulfilling backup duty.
Winner: Robert Blanton
Robert Blanton wasn't expected to see the field on Sunday this year, but played for most of the game against the Tennessee Titans this past weekend.
Despite the fact that the fifth-round converted safety (from cornerback) was clearly a weak link in the secondary, Tennessee couldn't do much to exploit any matchups.
The Titans attempted to flood deep zones, run parallel streaks and stress the seams in coverage shells all in an effort to torch a secondary that had not been slated to start at the beginning of the year.
Not only did Blanton vastly outperform any expectations many had of him, he ended with a hugely positive impact on the team and ended with five combined tackles, the third most of any defensive player.
Blanton clearly has the instincts to play safety at an NFL level, but his discipline and understanding of the scheme were critical in the Vikings' win over the Titans.
Loser: Jerome Simpson
Jerome Simpson is an athletic standout who possesses a number of the key skills necessary to become a deep threat at wide receiver.
Besides being a hard worker on and off the field, his enthusiasm and charisma has endeared him to fans in the offseason, and many hoped to see this translate into solid production from a player who could open up the offense.
UPDATE: Jerome Simpson woke up the day of the game feeling numbness in his leg, an issue later revealed in an MRI to be an issue with his back. He will undergo further tests, but the team does not yet know the longevity or severity of the problem.
He acknowledged that this created problems pushing off and generating burst, which would explain his lack of separation against a poorly ranked pass defense.
With three targets but no catches, fans will surely be disappointed in what was perhaps the most anticipated free-agent signing of the 2012 offseason.
Winner: Kevin Williams
Kevin Williams still has some gas left in him, and his heads-up play over the course of the game was effective, and an important part of their win. Despite not having any sacks or QB hits, Williams consistently generated pressure against the pass, and forced Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck to throw a number of hurried passes.
More than that, Williams showed up on the stat sheet by deflecting two passes at the line, including once during the Titans' no huddle drive near the end of the game.
In addition to his disruption in the passing game, Kevin redirected Chris Johnson to the linebackers and added four tackles of his own.
Kevin Williams was just one performance among the several good performances along the line.
Loser: Fred Evans
Fred Evans had a very good performance in relief of Letroy Guion against the Lions, earning almost as many snaps at nose tackle as the starter, and doing almost as well against the same offensive line.
Unfortunately, Evans' problems with consistency appeared again, and he couldn't replicate the strong performance he had against the Lions with the Titans.
Evans still is one of the first linemen off the line, but won't often command double teams, and doesn't possess the ability to laterally shed blocks as Guion does.
Without the ability to punish teams for only putting a single man on him, Evans' presence will occasionally have a ripple effect on the rest of the line, giving them more men to block oncoming blitzers or pass-rushing specialists Jared Allen and Kevin Williams.
Winner: Christian Ponder
For the third consecutive week, the statistics didn't do Christian Ponder justice. While this has generally has meant that he either performed better than or worse than his statistics would imply, it means both in this case. His positives weren't represented in the traditional statistics, but his negatives aren't captured by the gamebooks.
Once again, Christian Ponder got lucky with a few "almost interceptions" where the ball hit the defender's hands and should have been returned, but was not. Vikings fans have seen this of Ponder from the first week.
Along with two near-misses, Ponder also threw two interceptions, both of which seemed uglier than they actually were. Christian Ponder claims that his interceptions were not a result of bad decisions, just bad throws.
He's right—both passes could have gone in for touchdowns. One needed to be thrown higher over the defender to hit the receiver on the crossing route, and the other was too high and behind Kyle Rudolph before being tipped.
A near miss to Jerome Simpson could be interpreted as a forced ball, but the window was there; he just didn't put enough zip on the ball.
The reason this is important is because poor decision making is a difficult thing to correct, but better throws are not. Ponder has shown the ability to make these throws before, and just needs to make sure that he improves ball placement and corrects for proper arm strength.
He led several drives into the red zone, something he didn't do against the Lions. Two of them ended with touchdowns, including one gutsy throw to Kyle Rudolph to finish off the game in the fourth quarter.
Ponder did what he had to do in order to win the game, even if it looked ugly sometimes. While he got away with more than he should have, he still keeps making better decisions from game to game, and is a critical part of the team winning.
Loser: Charlie Johnson
Charlie Johnson has had an on-and-off time with the Vikings as a guard, which is admittedly better than his time as the left tackle. The Vikings keep on adding new wrinkles to their offense, and Johnson is sometimes slow to pick up on these new additions.
The Vikings employed the zone stretch for the first time this season, after running the ball between the tackles for the vast majority of run plays against the strong Lions interior. The first stretch play resulted in a tackle for loss, and Johnson was a step behind in the run game for most of the day.
While Johnson wasn't particularly exploited by pass-rushers, his footwork in closed spaces was disappointing, especially given that this was advertised as a strength of his.
The Vikings found ways to recover to allow Adrian Peterson 5.2 yards per carry, but this may be because of the new look the run game showed.