I know I’m not the only Vikings fan who experienced a sinking feeling as the second half of today’s game unfolded – that, “Oh God – they’re actually going to choke it away” feeling. The same stomach-churning sense of helplessness and inevitability that set in while Peyton Manning was leading the Colts back from 15-0 down in week 2. Except it wasn’t a big-time quarterback like Manning doing the job this time – it was Sage Rosenfels, a guy the Vikings sniffed in the off-season before settling on the Tarvaris Jackson/Gus Frerotte duo. Rosenfels entered the game because Matt Schaub got hit low by Jared Allen in the first half, hurting his knee, and couldn’t get enough on his throws. So what does Sage do? He leads the Texans on a 72-yard TD drive to open the second half, cutting the Vikings’ lead to 21-14. And he makes it look way too easy – the same way a lot of middle-of-the-road quarterbacks have made it look way too easy against our defense in recent years.
And that right there is the root of the sinking feeling – the sight of a nondescript quarterback suddenly being transformed into Joe Montana. There are few more frustrating experiences for a football fan than watching their team’s obviously soft zone defense get picked apart like a wildebeest carcass being consumed by hyenas. It makes you want to reach through the screen, grab your defensive coordinator by the neck and shake him. That sort of stuff hasn’t been happening with quite the same frequency this year though – for the most part the Vikings have been able to avoid the Jack the Ripper-like slicings and dicings that characterized the late Dennis Green and Mike Tice eras. Which makes it all the more irritating to see the defense’s soft mushy guts once again laid bare – and not by some brilliant surgeon either, but Sage Fricking Rosenfels.
The Choke That Never Happened
The Vikings, in the end, managed to stave off the choke that seemed to be coming inexorably down the line. They didn’t do it by tightening up their coverage and throwing a lot of exotic defensive looks at Houston either – I honestly don’t think we could do either of those things to save our lives. They did it because they have some playmakers on this team who simply refused to let them lose. Primary among them was Adrian Peterson, who shucked off a middling first half and went to work. Maybe the blocking got better, and maybe the Texans’ defense got worn down – but for sure Adrian started running with extra aggressiveness, eschewing his recent habit of bouncing too many plays outside and instead taking it right at Houston’s middle. His brilliant running set up the Vikings’ one second-half score, a seam route to Visanthe Shiancoe for a touchdown to make it 28-14. That TD pass, made possible by Peterson, helped stop the bleeding. Still, the Vikings had to return on defense eventually, and when they did, the Texans went right back to tearing them apart.
The Pass Rush Is What’s Different
So why did the Vikings manage to hold on despite their inability to cover any pass pattern the Texans threw at them? Simple – the pass rush. The Texans made it 28-21, and had a chance to tie the score after the Vikes failed to convert a third down with a little over two minutes left and were forced to punt. The Vikings pass-rush had been effective in the first half – good enough to knock out the starting QB and force a fumble in fact – but had all-but-disappeared in the second half, partly thanks to Rosenfels’s noticeably quicker trigger. We do have playmakers on the defensive line though, and with the game on the line, a couple of them showed up. Jared Allen pulled Rosenfels down one-handed on a critical 3rd and 2, then Kevin Williams scored his own sack on 4th down to end the Texans’ threat and seal the win for Minnesota. The big plays that hadn’t been there throughout the second half, save for one Madieu Williams interception on a terrible throw into the endzone from Rosenfels, finally materialized and just in the nick of time.
The Offensive Plan
Brad Childress will probably look at the final stats for this game and think his team at last played the way he envisioned them playing all along. Gus Frerotte threw only 18 passes, completing 11, including a pair of long ones to Bernard Berrian, one for a touchdown (and 2 more TD passes besides). Frerotte threw only 1 interception, on a tip, and that was the only turnover for the game. Meanwhile, Adrian Peterson carried the ball 25 times for 139 yards and a TD of his own. The Vikes were able to pound away, mixing in big pass plays to get some scores, until the Texans defense seemed to lose its will. I believe Childress’s idea of offense is just what I described – run it a lot, throw it enough to keep them honest, and zing them now and then with the deep ball. It worked well enough to get 28 points – no stepping-out-of-the-endzone safeties or ref-aided last-minute field goal drives required – and that proved sufficient despite the periods of utter defensive ineptitude.
We Have To Tighten It Up – Just Have To
We won. We played pretty well on offense. We’re 4-4 with 8 to play. But how many Viking fans are going to come away from this game feeling secure in our future as a football team? There always has to be a fly in the ointment, and that fly is the pass coverage. It was bad for much of the game against the Bears, and it was utterly atrocious for a lot of the second half against Houston. I’m going to assume a lot of this has to do with the loss of E.J. Henderson who is no longer patrolling the middle of the zone. Again, it wasn’t the deep balls – it was the underneath stuff, especially to the tight end. Owen Daniels had the game of his life – 11 catches for 133 yards. Sage Rosenfels put up 224 yards in the second half. Hell, Matt Schaub was on one leg much of the first half and still threw for 139. It was Rosenfels’s own terrible decision to throw into double coverage in the endzone that did the Texans in – but give the Vikings’ credit for having two guys there I guess, and pat Madieu Williams on the back for making the pick.
Any way you slice it, the Vikings have to get better in coverage. Does this mean more blitzing, more creative zone packages, mixing in more man-to-man? Fear of Andre Johnson probably had a lot to do with the Vikings’ issues today – they seemed to be rolling to him, leaving a lot of short stuff uncovered. Still, there’s no excuse for letting Sage Rosenfels put together a 224-yard half. That’s ridiculous.
Ray Edwards and Chad Greenway were the leading tacklers with 9 apiece. Both tallied a sack.
Jared Allen notched two sacks, raising his season total to 7.
Madieu Williams had 8 tackles and an interception. He looks very good in run support.
Steve Slaton carried 16 times for 62 yards. He was the only Texans player to notch a rushing attempt.
Bernard Berrian rolled up 102 receiving yards and a touchdown. It was his third 100-yard game in the last four and his fourth straight game with a TD.
Visanthe Shiancoe caught only one ball, but it was for a TD. He dropped one that would’ve given the Vikings a huge first down with the clock winding down to the 2-minute warning in the second half, but to be fair, the ball was poorly thrown by Frerotte.
Sidney Rice had only one catch – but again, it was for a touchdown.
Jared Allen suffered a shoulder injury and left the game on two occasions.
Chris Kluwe put on an exhibition of sideline punting that probably made a tear of joy come to Brad Childress’s eye. That’s how you keep the ball away from a good returner son. Game ball for Kluwe. Plus the coverage did seem better. Antoine Winfield got in on special teams some today.
Dick Enberg needs to retire. Now. Randy Cross is good – he can stay as long as he wants.