Before the season began, I had the Minnesota Vikings ranked as the worst team in football.
I was calling a one-to-two win season, and the first overall pick for the Vikings in the 2013 NFL Draft. I was also heavily critical of the play of Christian Ponder, whom I do not consider to be a long term option in Minnesota. Minnesota fans' were not happy with my analysis or criticism, and after the Vikings opened the season 4-1, I was left eating my words a bit.
Just as I was getting full, however, the Vikings began to support my thinking.
Minnesota is, in my opinion, one of the most intriguing teams of the 2012 NFL season. On paper, they are remarkably unimpressive, and their schemes, both offensively and defensively, are overwhelming simple, yet wins are the ultimate gauge of production, and the Vikings have five. The honeymoon period for Christian Ponder and his offense and the base 4-3 defense is coming to an abrupt halt, however.
Let's begin on the side of the ball that has won the Vikings the most of their games: the defense.
The front four that Minnesota sports may be the best in the league, and they are undoubtedly the most effective pass-rushing team out of their base defense. This was made evident in Week 7's mauling of the Arizona Cardinals when the Vikings front four—Brian Robinson, Kevin Williams, Letroy Guion, and superstar Jared Allen—sacked a poor John Skelton seven times without any help from their defensive backs or linebackers.
To achieve this type of production without blitzing is unbelievably impressive and is a testament to the skill of the Minnesota defensive line, particularly Robinson and Allen. The simplistic 4-3 defense will not work against all teams, however, as every team in the league has a better offensive line than Arizona (Arizona quarterbacks have been sacked a league-high 35 times so far this season).
When the defensive line is ineffective in knocking down the opposing quarterback, we see seven remaining defenders that are more talented than they are cohesive.
Chad Greenway is a very good outside linebacker, I think safety Harrison Smith is going to have a brilliant career and cornerback Antoine Winfield is still effective despite his 14 years of playing experience.
Despite this talent, however, the Minnesota defense, as the Bucs proved on Thursday night, can be completely exploited. They hold their opponents to good averages in relation to yards/game and points/game, yet they have allowed the opposing offense to convert on 44 percent of third-down attempts and have been penalized 52 times, which is good for sixth-worst in the league.
But in all reality, the Vikings' defense, while too simplistic to work consistently, is not the problem in Minnesota.
The problem is Christian Ponder and his inability to make smart choices when under pressure. Before I bash Ponder too much, however, more criticism is probably owed to Minnesota offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, who has seemed to instill two options in Ponder's head: bomb it long to Percy Harvin or hand it off to Adrian Peterson. When both of these options fail to develop, which they often do, Ponder is left scrambling and then throwing the ball away or dumping it off for a small gain.
I don't think Ponder is talentless in the slightest, so let's not let that be the impression here. Ponder is a young quarterback with good scrambling ability and the potential to run a sharp hurry-up offense. Unfortunately with Minnesota at the moment, Ponder doesn't have the best tools to work with. He's been sacked 19 times and outside of Percy Harvin, does not have another reliable wide receiver. A better quarterback may be able to do more with less, but Ponder isn't quite at that level.
If Minnesota wants to improve, they need to better utilize the weapons they have and bring in other offensive options to spread the ball around.
Tight end Kyle Rudolph is only being looked at when Minnesota is in the red zone, and as of late, that hasn't been often. Rudolph is 6'6" and has great hands and decent mobility for a player of his size, and Minnesota should look his way to get the ball up the field. The Vikings also need to bring in another wide receiver to legitimately threaten defenses other than Percy Harvin. Defenses have the ability to focus way too much attention on Harvin at the moment, and it's because they know nothing ill can come of it. Minnesota needs to patch this gap.
Minnesota's second-half slate of games may be the most harrowing in the league. They play in Seattle, which is one of the toughest stadiums for visitors to succeed at, and then play four straight divisional games. They then go on the road to face the St. Louis Rams, who play their best football in St. Louis, and then play the Texans in Houston. Just when the headache seems to be over, the Vikings close the season against the Green Bay Packers, who appear to finally have found their winning stride.
While everyone in Minnesota should certainly look forward for some exciting seasons to come, this season will go down as a teaser for the future. There's potential and excitement in Minnesota, but the 2012 Vikings will not be a team that is remembered for anything besides starting strong and finishing average.