For the third time in eight games this season, the vulnerable defense of the Vikings let a winnable game slip through the cracks. And the players who now comprise a 1-7 football team were understandably irritated about it Sunday. This time around, there was no lid on voicing that displeasure.
According to Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, defensive end Brian Robison was among the most vocal critics of how Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams called the final drive, which saw Tony Romo march the Cowboys 90 yards for a game-winning touchdown.
"We had (three) sacks today," Robison said. "That's a pretty dang good day and then all of a sudden we get a drive, we're going to rush three guys and we don't get to him. You've got five guys to block three."
Defensive tackle Kevin Williams also had harsh criticisms of Minnesota's defense, calling the traditional Tampa-2 defense "terrible" when trying to stop a quarterback like Romo, especially late in the game.
With tough losses piling up and a season sinking rapidly, finger-pointing is usually the next logical step.
Blame in this kind of difficult situations usually falls at the doorstep of many parties. That is true in Minnesota's case, too: While Williams has tried everything and failed as a play-caller late in games, execution from his 11 players has also been suspect. Coaches coach and players play, but both have struggled with the game on the line this season.
A quick examination of the three late-game situations reveals a coordinator and his players who have been unable to make the right decisions with an opportunity to close out a win.
Week 2: at Chicago, 30-31
Drive Details: 10 plays, 66 yards, 3:05
The Bears took over with 3:15 remaining and 66 yards separating Jay Cutler and the offense from the touchdown needed to win the game. In his first situation of the season protecting a late lead, Williams went conservative, rushing four defensive linemen on all 10 plays and calling zero blitzes.
Cutler was rarely under pressure, and he completed seven of 10 passes for 76 yards and the final touchdown. Breakdowns in the secondary allowed Cutler to slice and dice his way down the field.
Top receiver Brandon Marshall, who should have attracted a majority of the defensive attention, caught two third-down passes after springing open in the middle of the field. Just one play after the Bears were called for offensive holding, tight end Martellus Bennett was left wide open in the far flats, and he rumbled for 23 yards on 1st-and-20.
Williams took heat for his final call.
On Cutler's touchdown to Bennett, Williams called for a soft Cover-2 shell that forced cornerback Chris Cook to worry about two targets in his zone. When the inside receiver broke towards the post, Cutler delivered a back-shoulder strike to Bennett, the outside target, and Cook had no chance to recover. The play call all but forced the cornerback out of position, and the matchup of Bennett on a smaller defensive back was a decisive advantage for the Bears.
Week 3: vs. Cleveland, 27-31
Drive Details: 11 plays, 55 yards, 2:30
A week later, the Vikings were faced with a nearly identical scenario. The Browns, down three points, were a drive away from taking the lead late in the game.
Credit Williams, who was burned when he didn't blitz Cutler a week earlier, for turning up the heat on Brian Hoyer, who was making his first start for Cleveland and just his second career start overall. The Vikings defensive coordinator brought five or more rushers on five of the 11 plays.
Once again, breakdowns from players hurt the Vikings.
After forcing an immediate third down, rookie cornerback Xavier Rhodes let Josh Gordon beat him clean off the line and catch an easy slant for 12 yards. A few plays later, running back Chris Ogbonnaya caught a short dumpoff in the flats but gained 11 yards when the Vikings missed a tackle near the sidelines.
After Minnesota forced another third down inside their own 10-yard line, Williams brought a five-man blitz. But even with Jared Allen running free at Hoyer, the Browns quarterback beat Vikings safety Harrison Smith when he threw a perfect lob pass to tight end Jordan Cameron in the corner of the end zone.
Hoyer wasn't great on the drive, completing six of 11 passes for 55 yards. He didn't complete a pass traveling over 10 yards in the air.
Simple things like losing leverage at the line of scrimmage and poor tackling allowed Cleveland to move down the field and eventually score the game-winner.
Week 9: at Dallas, 23-27
Drive Details: 9 plays, 90 yards, 2:09
Robison, in particular, wasn't thrilled about how Williams played the final series in Dallas.
The Vikings were getting pressure on Romo for most of the afternoon. In fact, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) had Minnesota down for 32 pressure plays Sunday, including 19 from Robison and Allen combined. That's a tremendous amount of disruption for a defense that only brought 10 different blitzes the entire afternoon.
However, Williams went ultra conservative on the final drive, likely in response to a secondary that was down to the bottom players on the depth chart. Rhodes went out late in the fourth quarter, and the Vikings were already without starters Harrison Smith, Chris Cook and Jamarca Sanford. So, instead of attacking Romo, Williams went soft. Too soft.
The Vikings rushed just three men on four of the nine plays. Romo completed three of his four attempts against the three-man rush. And even when Williams did blitz—he called two of them on the final drive—Romo countered.
On the first five-man blitz, Romo found Dez Bryant wide open in the middle of the zone for 34 yards. The second blitz forced a throwaway.
Overall, Romo completed seven of nine passes for all 90 yards on the final drive. He hit Dwayne Harris underneath for the game-winning touchdown.
|Review: Three Game-Winning Drives vs. MIN in 2013|
|at CHI||10||66||7/10, 76 yards|
|vs. CLE||11||55||6/11, 55 yards|
|at DAL||9||90||7/9, 90 yards|
|30||211||20/30, 221 yards, 3 TDs|
Blame in these difficult situations is typically focused on one individual, but it's rarely the case where all the fault falls in one person's lap. Williams, a defensive coordinator hand-picked by Leslie Frazier, has been the easy scapegoat, including now even for the players.
However, equally sharing the blame are those same players, who haven't always executed in the biggest moments of games.
"Those are the situations you want to prove who you are as a group," safety Mistral Raymond said, via Murphy. "For whatever reason, as a group, we had an opportunity to close that game out but didn't do it."
Frustration is a natural response to losing, especially when the losses have come in such familiar ways. At 1-7, turning around a lost season doesn't look possible.
But the Vikings still need to get considerably better across the board—from defensive play-calling to player execution—to prevent another winnable game from slipping away in 2013.