What happened last night in Lambeau Field was flat out ugly. After hanging in for the first half against an apparently somewhat sluggish Packer team, the Vikings in the second half totally surrendered and allowed the Packers to tie them down and beat them senseless. The two teams that came out after half time could not have been more different. The Packers, after meandering through the first two quarters, emerged from the tunnel refocused and ready. And the Vikings? They might as well have not emerged at all.
Deciding who to blame for this loss is like choosing which Kardashian sister is the most vapid and useless. Take your pick, folks. You’ve got the offense which executed like it only saw the playbook for the first time five minutes before the opening kick-off. You’ve got the defense which fought gamely for awhile in the first half only to roll over like a sick dog once the Packers shook off their malaise and got rolling. You’ve got the equipment manager who must’ve brought the wrong cleats judging by all the slipping the Vikings did (funny that the Packers didn’t have the same problem). You’ve got Leslie Frazier who looks increasingly like the captain of the Titanic standing there all stoic and helpless while the waters rise around him. Am I leaving anyone out?
Oh right…Christian Ponder. You might think it’s not fair to beat on the rookie but I disagree. If you’re going to praise the kid to high heaven every time he does something good, you have to give him a proportionately severe whupping when he fails. And last night he failed more often than not. Of course Ponder’s growing legion of fans will try to make excuses for him, saying it was the offensive line, the receivers, the coaches, everyone but him, but those who watch with a clear eye know Ponder simply did not play well. He was off on a lot of his short throws, sailing them high, and his one deep ball, on a flea-flicker of all things, should never have been made and was deservedly picked off. Oh, and he still hasn’t learned to stay away from Charles Woodson (it was only by good fortune that he avoided actually being picked off by Woodson who once again had Visanthe Shiancoe blanketed).
Those who hoped for a repeat of Ponder’s quasi-heroics against the Packers at the Metrodome were sorely disappointed. Ponder didn’t lead even a semi-comeback this time; like the rest of the team, he was helpless in the face of the relentless Packers. It was clear from early on what Dom Capers’ plan was against Ponder: blitz the kid into the ground. Ponder did make a couple nice plays in the face of the rush, most notably on his 33-yard completion to Shiancoe when he stepped up calmly in the pocket to deliver the strike, but for the most part he seemed totally overwhelmed. And yes Ponder apologists (Ponderpologists?), I realize the blocking was dismal, but bad blocking wasn’t the sole reason for Ponder’s struggles. Last night he was exposed for what he is: a young QB with a questionable arm who is still learning how to read defenses. He had a bad game, and I’m guessing he would be the first to admit that.
At least Ponder still seemed to be trying his hardest late in the game when things had gotten completely out of hand. I wish I could say the same for the rest of the Vikings but I can’t. A lot of Vikings seemed to totally lay down and die, and the majority of these were on the defense, particularly the secondary. To be honest though, I don’t know if I can really blame the secondary for their complete disappearing act. Even the strong-willed sometimes wilt when faced with the total futility of their situation, and the Vikings DBs aren’t even strong-willed. Hammering on a guy like Cedric Griffin seems almost like cruelty at this point, given how far he’s slipped physically, but at the same time: how can a man get stiff-armed to the ground by Jordy Nelson and still look at himself in the mirror the next day?
But it’s not even really Cedric’s fault. If the Vikings were fully-manned defensively, Cedric would not even be on the field to get stiff-armed to the ground by Jordy Nelson. Cedric is only on the team because the Vikings didn’t have the cap space to properly overhaul their secondary in the off-season and were forced to stick with him. Ditto Tyrell Johnson, Asher Allen and Jamarca Sanford. These are all guys I’m certain the Vikes would be happy to move on from if they had the choice, but right now they don’t have the choice. And it didn’t help matters last night that Antoine Winfield and Husain Abdullah both went out with injuries. Not that I’m making excuses for the guys who were on the field. They’re professionals too and need to keep their wits about them. Some of the stuff that happened out there was lack of mental focus, pure and simple. But this is an old story for the Vikings. For years now we’ve had to watch a lot of sloppy, undisciplined, not-smart football. As long as this team keeps trotting out people like Fred Evans (who took three points off the board by false starting on a field goal), Tyrell Johnson, Jamarca Sanford and Asher Allen, they’re going to continue being prone to self-inflicted wounds.
The secondary issues are so glaring and so well-documented that I’m almost inclined to shrug my shoulders with those guys and say “what can you do?” I can’t, however, so easily dismiss the struggles of the linebackers. Last night’s flop was as much about E.J. Henderson and Chad Greenway as it was Cedric Griffin and Jamarca Sanford, and that makes me frustrated and sad. With E.J. at least you have the excuse of the bad knees, but what of Greenway? How can this guy, who is among the highest-paid defensive players in the league, consistently get taken to the ground by blockers, eliminating any chance he might have of making the sort of impact play that could actually help stop a drive? Given the money he’s making, the Greenway situation is very close to being a disaster.
The only way the Vikings can possibly salvage the situation is by rebuilding their defensive line to the point where the inadequacies of Greenway and whoever else they end up with at linebacker – I think E.J. will probably be gone next year – can be covered up. I don’t know if Christian Ballard is part of the answer at defensive tackle, but I do know he made some nice early tackles last night and is clearly better than Remi Ayodele. I also know Jared Allen, for all his greatness, can’t do it alone. Brian Robison, how about chipping in now and again? Kevin Williams? Somebody?
But now I feel like I’m hanging too much blame on the defense. The truth is, the D held its own for a lot of the first half, and might have continued holding its own in the second half had it gotten any help whatsoever from the offense. The Vikings’ only chance last night was to hold onto the ball for extended periods and keep Aaron Rodgers off the field, and obviously that did not happen. The third down conversions didn’t come with the same consistency as in other Ponder performances, and with the Packers putting up tons of points, the running game was rendered totally irrelevant. The Vikings’ only breakthrough on the scoreboard happened because Randall Cobb committed a gaffe on a punt return, giving the Vikes a short field to work with. On those occasions when the Vikings could’ve helped themselves by making a play – as opposed to the Packers handing them a play – they simply didn’t get it done.
One play, or non-play from the Vikings’ point-of-view, that sticks in my brain was the first down run by James Starks late in the second after a good punt coverage play by Sanford pinned the Packers deep. The Vikings darn near forced Aaron Rodgers to intentionally ground the ball in the end zone for a safety on second down, only to watch Starks go for 10 on third down and convert. Had the Vikings stopped the Packers there they would’ve had a shot at good field position with time winding down in the second quarter and maybe – maybe – they could’ve gone into the half with some points and a better feeling about themselves. Of course, even had the score been 17-7 or 17-3 at halftime instead of 17-0, the Vikings might very well have come out in the second half flat anyway. But that’s not the point. The point is, at the time of the Starks run they were still in the game. The play was there to make and they didn’t make it. How many times has that happened over the course of this season? And when you add up all the potentially game-changing plays the Vikings have left on the field by failing physically or mentally or both, what does it equal? Exactly 2-7.