A Complete Loss

We’ve reached the point in the season where there’s almost nothing new left to say. The Vikings are so bad this year that they’ve more or less done everything wrong possible and they’re now just repeating old mistakes. Let’s go position-by-position, just so my repeat-rant will have some structure.

Defensive Line

The sacks tallied by Brian Robison and Jared Allen this year gave some people (the national media sure brought it up a lot) the idea that the Vikings are good at pressuring quarterbacks. I think most fans would say that the numbers do lie in this case. For the most part, pressure has been inconsistent at best, and today Matt Ryan frequently had too much time to throw. Even today’s one sack, by Everson Griffen, came after Ryan scanned the field for about seven seconds. Minnesota’s reputation as a good run defense is slowly fading, but it should have gone away a long time ago. Without Pat Williams, the Vikings have been weak up the middle and, most importantly, Minnesota has had a hard time stopping the run on short yardage situations and at the end of games. That’s a good segue to…

Linebackers

I’ll say this: Minnesota’s linebackers play with great energy. E.J. Henderson is an intense guy and his brother Erin flies around out there. Chad Greenway is speedy and hits hard. Unfortunately they are killing the defense against the run and the pass. E.J. Henderson is too slow to cover the middle of the field. Erin, who is plenty fast, sometimes gets lost but has some potential. Against the run, Greenway and Henderson are the Adam Dunns of linebackers. When they guess right, it’s a home run—when they guess wrong, which is most of the time, it’s a strike out. (Credit for that analogy goes to my brother, for the record.) Greenway has been more guilty of this: How often have we seen Greenway try to jump into a hole, find no running back there, then end up chasing the running back 10 yards downfield? Greenway has also been iffy on open-field tackles, and his whiff today on a huge third down play in the fourth quarter may have been the single most frustrating Greenway play ever.

Defensive Backs

The defensive backfield situation has gotten so bad that I’m not even upset about it anymore. Somehow Minnesota has assembled a group of small and slow cornerbacks and safeties who don’t know what they are doing. There are some bad players in the NFL, but when you can’t cover, can’t tackle, and frequently are out of position, how exactly does your coach keep sending you onto the field? I’m talking about at least four guys (Cedric Griffin, Husain Abdullah, Jamarca Sanford, Tyrell Johnson), but there are others who are right on the edge of that list (Asher Allen, Marcus Sherels, Benny Sapp). Allen and Sapp get a pass because they are probably good enough to be nickel or dime backs, Sherels gets a pass because he is really just a special teamer that was forced onto the field because of injuries. I can’t even hate Tyrell Johnson anymore—that’s how bad he is. It’s not his fault that he is still on the field and he is incapable of playing any better. The most depressing thing about this group is that there may not be a single long-term player on the roster.

Quarterback

Every time they show Donovan McNabb on the sideline I laugh out loud. Not because of his stupid beard; because I suddenly remember that he is on the team, then realize that I’ve already wiped the McNabb Experience out of my brain.

You’d have to be a pretty extreme Glass-Half-Empty type to not be at least a little excited about Christian Ponder. He has a lot of learning to do—so far it doesn’t look like he is making a lot of pre-snap adjustments and he doesn’t seem to anticipate the blitz very well. That said, learning to play quarterback in the NFL is not an over-night process, and when Ponder is pressured, he rarely looks flustered. Ponder also has shown a tendency to try to force the ball into places he shouldn’t—there was at least one of those today, which luckily was dropped by the Atlanta defender. We can only hope that he will learn from those mistakes. If you’re into comparisons, you’re happy that Ponder’s interceptions are usually forced throws when he has nothing available (fixable); you probably remember Tarvaris Jackson’s interceptions which usually were forced by nothing but terrible reads and terrible throws (not fixable). If Brett Favre taught us anything, it’s that taking risks and throwing into coverage is sometimes a must. Ponder made some great throws into traffic today, and you have to like a quarterback who isn’t afraid to make mistakes. Now he just has to learn to avoid the big ones (maybe he can watch some tape on Favre, who never really learned that part).

Running Backs

I’m probably higher on Toby Gerhart than most. But he is what he is: a backup running back who mostly gets what the offensive line/defense gets/gives him. If there is no running lane, he gets zero. If he has 10 yards of space, he gets 10. Most teams who use a “feature” back opt for a change of pace type of back up, so it’s a bit odd that Gerhart is essentially in the same bruiser-style as Peterson. If he rarely or never starts for the Vikings, I’m happy with what he provides.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Visanthe Shiancoe completely missed his block on Gerhart’s 4th and goal run. Allen Reisner did a nice job of giving Ponder a target and going up for the ball on a 3rd and 1. This is one of the Vikings happier positions, with Kyle Rudolph and Reisner possibly already in place to take over the position next year.

Percy Harvin is a dynamic player who has proven that he can make plays even when surrounded by below average wide receivers. The lack of a true split end is killing Ponder and Harvin. If the Vikings can find an outside receiver with some speed, the field might open up a little for Harvin to work the slot, which would probably make Ponder’s job a lot easier. Let’s hope a good receiver is found in the offseason so that Michael Jenkins can be a third-down guy rather than an every-play guy.

Offensive Line

I only have one thing to ask: How does an NFL team so consistently let defenders rush the quarterback completely untouched?

Special Teams

Marcus Sherels may have made the most progress of any Viking from last week to this week: He twice let punts drop inside the 10 yard line, and on both occasions he went and hit a Falcon! Punt returners across the NFL have decided that catching punts inside the five yard line is a good idea. It’s nice to see Sherels do the right thing finally.

I love the decision to put Percy Harvin on the field for the last kickoff return. Against teams whose kicker occasionally gives returners a chance, I think it’ll always be worth it to have Harvin catch a couple per game.

Coaching

The decision to go for it on 4th down and goal was questionable. I’d rather see the Vikings take the field goal and get within seven with plenty of time to score again, but, considering our record and the fact that we hadn’t approached the end zone a whole lot, I can’t say it was that terrible of a decision. A challenge probably would have been worth it on the previous play, but it wasn’t clear to me whether the play had been blown dead because Harvin’s forward progress was stopped or if the refs just thought he came up short. If it was the former, I don’t think the play would have been reviewable.

Play-calling was questionable against Atlanta, especially early on. I’m not sure how you justify two consecutive wide receiver screens to open the game, especially when a penalty was sandwiched in-between. I’m still happy that the Vikings do not seem to be holding Ponder’s hand. Many teams are afraid of their rookie quarterbacks to the point that they just run and call simple play action throws. Ponder isn’t running Peyton Manning’s playbook, but at least we’re letting him do more than “play it safe.”

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Tags: Christian Ponder Minnesota Vikings Percy Harvin Toby Gerhart

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