Analyzing Minnesota Vikings' Most Glaring Weaknesses Entering the 2013-14 Season
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport
The Minnesota Vikings have now completed two preseason games, with training camp officially coming to a close back on August 14.
After a surprising year in 2012, the team hopes to maintain momentum heading into the upcoming season. A revamped roster and improvement from current players has helped close the gap in areas of need on the Vikings' squad.
However, when reviewing the current makeup of the team, there are still glaring weaknesses that could hold back an otherwise promising group of players.
While the old saying, "Win as a team, lose as a team," still applies here, the Vikings will likely succeed or fail based on the following key areas.
The Christian Ponder experiment enters a critical junction this season, one that many feel could determine the fate of the third-year quarterback. Although fans and analysts still need to have a certain level of patience in this area, the spotlight is squarely focused behind center.
What's interesting about Ponder is that he's shown flashes of success throughout his career. Last season, he failed to throw an interception in the Vikings' first four games and led the league in completion percentage (68.6 percent) through the first six games (among quarterbacks with 200 pass attempts).
He finished the final two games of the season in a flurried fashion, posting four touchdowns and no interceptions while helping lead the Vikings to the playoffs.
With that level of success, how could Ponder still be considered a glaring weakness for Minnesota?
While Ponder played well in the beginning and at the end of the year in 2012, he was beyond awful in the middle of the season. He had two games where he threw for 58 and 63 yards. Not in a half—the entire game.
During the six-game stretch from the Vikings' seventh game to 12th game, Ponder finished with 871 yards, which was 26th in the NFL. His quarterback rating (63.6) was dead last among the top 32 quarterbacks in passing yards during that period.
If Ponder cannot fix the weaknesses in his passing game and the season starts out with him reverting back to his play in the middle of last year, the Vikings will be in for a very long season.
As much as Christian Ponder's skill set will be tested in 2013, so will the decision-making of offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave.
With an offense centered around reigning MVP Adrian Peterson, Musgrave still must find play calls that stretch the offense and prevent teams from loading the box with nine men on defense.
In 2012, the Vikings ranked 28th in passing attempts with 483. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Ponder was tied for 27th in deep passing with 36 attempts, defined as passing attempts targeting 20 yards or more downfield.
While much of the blame of downfield passing absolutely falls on Ponder—he was last in completion percentage (25.0 percent) among the top 32 quarterbacks attempting passes 20 yards or more—Musgrave still needs to call plays that keep the defense honest against Peterson.
Repeats of games in Weeks 7 and 14 of 2012, where the Vikings managed 17 passing attempts, will not cut it. A strong defense and top running back will certainly help mask the poor play selection of Musgrave, but that approach can only last for so long.
With no pun intended, the Vikings' weak-side linebacker is shaping up to be a major question mark and weakness heading into the upcoming 2013 season.
The Vikings selected Gerald Hodges out of Penn State in this year's draft, but he has not separated from his peers and may find himself third on the depth chart at the "Will" position.
Desmond Bishop appeared to be the answer at either middle or weak-side linebacker when the Vikings signed the former Green Bay Packer, but injuries have kept him quiet during training camp.
Bishop did manage to record a sack during the latest preseason game against the Buffalo Bills, the first action he's seen since he tore his hamstring last season with the Packers in the preseason. But Bishop also admitted to being "a little rusty" and missed a couple early tackles, via Ben Goessling of the Pioneer Press.
If Bishop is unable to recover from injury, that likely leaves Marvin Mitchell as the starting weak-side linebacker. The former 2007 seventh-round draft pick for the New Orleans Saints only saw limited action in 11 games for the Vikings in 2012, recording 10 combined tackles.
What is the Vikings' most glaring weakness heading into the season?
With all of the positive offseason moves for the Vikings, there should still be optimism for a team that surprised critics and made the playoffs last season. Few can argue that general manager Rick Spielman hasn't helped put together the player personnel for a successful season.
But the combined performance of Christian Ponder and Bill Musgrave may be the most significant defining factor in the Vikings' 2013 season. Even with Peterson in the backfield, the Vikings simply need a better passing attack.
Couple that with the uncertainty at weak-side linebacker and the Vikings have a hole that may require a rotation of bodies to fill throughout the year.
Even though middle linebacker Erin Henderson has looked good in camp switching to the position, he needs a consistent presence on the other side of strong-side linebacker Chad Greenway.
*Stats courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com, unless noted otherwise.
Matthew Stensrud is a Featured Columnist for the Minnesota Vikings. You can follow him on Twitter and Google+.
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