A familiar narrative began materializing for the Vikings early in Sunday’s game vs. Jacksonville. The offense was in dire need of a boost, but for some reason the team’s most dynamic playmaker Percy Harvin wasn’t getting the ball. The same thing happened a lot in 2011, and it led to a whole lot of complaining from the media and fans.
Thankfully the Vikings were able to change the story starting late in the second quarter. Bill Musgrave dialed up a screen pass to the previously MIA Percy Harvin that resulted in a classic Percy scamper for 16 yards. The Vikings kept the Percyfest going, dialing Harvin’s number on two more short pass plays. The three consecutive throws to Harvin, for gains of 16, 5, and 11 yards, put a jolt into the offense and a lot of doubt into the Jacksonville defense. Playing back on their heels now, Jacksonville allowed an 8-yard run to Adrian Peterson. A Ponder pass to Michael Jenkins for 14 set up the scoring play, a two-yard Peterson touchdown run over right tackle.
Everything changed for the Vikings offense after that possession. What had been a sputtering unit suddenly looked formidable, even dominating at times. Running lanes opened up. Receivers found themselves wide open. Above all, Ponder looked much more sure of himself. In the early going the plan was to make him stay in the pocket, but poor pass protection and Ponder’s own skittishness led to some atrocious results. Once Musgrave made up his mind to help Ponder out, calling quick hitters and bootlegs, the completions started coming, and with them the confidence.
The key to the whole thing was of course Harvin. The screen action to him was deadly even though the Vikings didn’t do a great job of execution. As Leslie Frazier himself said after the game, “They weren’t always blocked perfectly. And he found a way to find a seam as only he can with his burst that he has. What should be a 2- or 3-yard gain all of a sudden is a 10-plus-yard gain.”
Harvin’s disruptive effect on the defense opened up the big play for the Vikings. Peterson found more room to run, and once Ponder settled down the Vikes were also able to work Kyle Rudolph and Devin Aromashodu down the field for big gains. Musgrave gave Jacksonville even more to process by handing the ball off to Harvin five times. The Jags adjusted by backing off. As Ponder himself explained, ”[Jacksonville] played pretty soft in coverage. I think they were trying to make us run the ball and make me be patient and force balls downfield. They were definitely softer on that last drive in the fourth quarter.”
They were trying to take the ball out of Harvin’s hands, in other words. There goes your conventional wisdom that Adrian Peterson is the key to the Vikings’ offense. AD is still huge but teams have had years to work out a game-plan against him. Flood the box and tackle his ankles. Everyone does it every week. Harvin is much more of a wild card and much more of a nightmare for defenses. A Percy plan still hasn’t materialized around the league, and as long as teams are resorting to soft coverage in response to his presence, the Vikings will continue having offensive success.
It all starts with the most basic thing of all: Keeping Harvin on the field. If that means not using him on kick returns, then perhaps that’s something the Vikes should look into. Certainly, they can’t allow a repeat of the first half against Jacksonville. Harvin must be a featured part of the offense from the opening gun. It’s fine to want to keep Ponder in the pocket – he has to learn to play from there sooner or later – but as long as the offensive line is still coming together, the quick hitters are the way to go. As Harvin himself said after Sunday’s game, “[Ponder] just got comfortable. We tried to get him into some short passing situations to get his confidence up. And we were able to do that.”
You know what else helps that confidence? Having a guy who can turn a quick screen into a 16-yard gain. Percy Harvin is Christian Ponder’s best friend, and a defensive coordinator’s worst nightmare.