The Minnesota Vikings improved from Week 1 to Week 2—it’s fair to say that much—but they still suffered a 31-30 loss to the Chicago Bears on a last-second drive orchestrated by quarterback Jay Cutler.
While Minnesota still had its faults, it didn’t look like the team that easily could have been beaten 63-24 by a sloppy Detroit Lions team a week earlier. (I’m exaggerating a bit, but only a bit, on the hypothetical score there. The actual score was 34-24.)
Christian Ponder earned himself a little leeway with his second-half play, safety Harrison Smith is making up for lapses in the secondary and Cordarrelle Patterson introduced himself to the NFL in a big way by running back the opening kickoff return for a touchdown.
The Vikings probably shouldn’t kick to Devin Hester, who took Blair Walsh’s kickoff to the house and finished with 249 yards on special teams, when Chicago comes to the Metrodome in Week 13, however, and the team still has a long way to go in terms of play-calling and run defense.
Minnesota has improved from Week 1 to Week 2, and that’s a positive, but the team is still in an 0-2 hole and cannot lose to the Cleveland Browns next week if it wants to make the playoffs. The are a couple of key takeaways from the first two weeks of the season that will help determine whether this team can bounce back or will waste another season of Adrian Peterson’s potential.
Ponder Worked His Way Out Off the Hot Seat, but Musgrave Hasn’t
There are plenty of people who wanted backup quarterback Matt Cassel to start the second half after Ponder threw an ugly interception to Tim Jennings, which he promptly trotted back into the opposing end zone to give the Bears a 21-14 lead in the second quarter.
Ponder took too long to make a decision with his throw and floated the ball, allowing Jennings to snag it in stride. It was another example of him failing to manage the game, and the Vikings easily could have come undone after that, but Ponder got it together and found Kyle Rudolph to tie the game late in the first half. I didn’t see it, of course, because the Fox feed cut out, but I’m sure it was pretty sweet.
The Vikings quarterback finished the game 16-of-30 with 227 yards passing, a touchdown and an interception. Those are decent numbers, good enough to help the team win games. Ponder made better use of star wide receiver Greg Jennings, who finished the game with five receptions for 84 yards, and Jerome Simpson had two big catches for 49 yards.
Still, there are improvements to be made when it comes to play-calling, and that is on offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave.
He has become predictable when the team is going to run, rolls Ponder out to his left on play action too often—forcing him to make a more difficult throw—and needs to put his quarterback in a situation where he can spread the ball around.
Musgrave is well respected around the league for his work as a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at various different stops and should know how to handle young quarterbacks, especially after mentoring Matt Schaub at the University of Virginia.
His play-calling and handling of Ponder will be crucial to his development, however, and time will tell if Musgrave, like his quarterback, will eventually get off the hot seat.
The Defensive Line Has to Stop the Run
Cutler had a good day, going 28-of-39 with 290 yards passing, three touchdowns and two picks. He was expected to light up the Vikings secondary but for the most part was contained.
Matt Forte, on the other hand, was effective against the Vikings defense.
His numbers weren’t gaudy, per se, but he still managed to get 90 yards on 19 carries, and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery managed to tack on 30 of his own on two plays. Forte didn’t put up Peterson-esque numbers, but he was very effective against a team that prides itself on running the ball and stopping the run.
Kevin Williams’ presence was definitely felt, and the run defense was better in Week 2 than it was against Detroit, but throughout the game it seemed that Forte could break out frequently enough to where the contest would come down to who had the ball on the final possession.
Yes, Cutler had to execute in the fourth quarter, and did, but for most of the game it looked like the Bears were in command, and a big reason why was Forte’s prowess in the backfield.
Keep in mind that had the Vikings not run the opening kickoff back for a touchdown and run a fumble back for a touchdown, the game could have gotten out of hand awfully quickly. The defense, perhaps tired from the lack of effectiveness offensively in the first half, became a little porous and was susceptible to timely runs throughout the game.
Remember, Reggie Bush ran for 90 yards in Week 1 and Joique Bell tacked on an additional 25 yards during the Lions game, so this is looking like a bit of an epidemic.
As mentioned earlier, Minnesota’s winning formula has always been run the ball and stop the run. Peterson is doing his thing, but the defense needs to do its part if the Vikings are going to have a chance of turning this around going forward.
Offense Needs to Capitalize on Scoring from Defense and Special Teams
Like in Week 1, the Vikings' first score of the game came in dramatic fashion. Against Detroit, the man they call All Day took his first carry of the year 78 yards for the score. This has become expected of Mr. Peterson, an established player in the league, and his No. 28 is synonymous with big plays.
Patterson, on the other hand, is a rookie who has only played one season of Division I football, and his number, 84, reminds Vikings fans of the explosive, flamboyant Randy Moss. The new No. 84 has a lot to prove, and he helped his cause big times with a huge special teams play when he ran the opening kickoff back for the first score of the game.
Minnesota’s second scoring play was equally as spectacular. Jared Allen swarmed Cutler and stripped the ball, allowing Brian Robison to scoop it up and take it 61 yards into the end zone, which tied the score at 14.
Keep in mind, however, that both of those touchdowns should be seen as a bonus.
They are almost like a short-handed goal in hockey: You don’t expect your kick returner, even if it is Devin Hester, to take it to the house, and it’s even less likely for a defensive player to pick up a fumble and go more than half the distance of the field for a score.
It was definitely nice to have the scoring come from special teams and the defense when the offense was struggling to get off the ground, but those two touchdowns should be seen as a bit of a bonus, and it’s too bad that Ponder and Co. couldn’t capitalize and create separation on the scoreboard at that point.
The next scoring play did come from Ponder’s arm, but it was a completed pass to Jennings, the one in the Bears uniform, who took it all the way back for six.
The defense will score points this season, especially with guys like Smith and Allen playing in purple, and the special teams can be counted on for a return or two every so often, but those are momentum-changing plays and the offense needs to capitalize on them as soon as possible.
Minnesota took a step forward against the Bears on Sunday.
Although the Vikings are 12 for their last 13 at Soldier Field, this one came down to the wire, and there is reason to believe that they can knock off the Browns next week, take out a weaker-than-normal Pittsburgh Steelers squad the next week and enter the bye at 2-2.
If we’ve learned anything over the past two weeks, however, it’s that Musgrave needs to shake up the play-calling, the defense needs to jam opposing runners and the offense needs to capitalize on momentum-swinging plays.
If the team can make the correct adjustments between now and next Sunday, Minnesota could make a playoff run despite starting off 0-2 against two NFC North rivals.
Tom Schreier covers Minnesota sports for Bleacher Report and is a contributor to Yahoo! Sports.