The worst has happened for the Minnesota Vikings — the team is 0-3 — and the third loss of the season came at the hands of the lowly Browns, a struggling team minus a premier running back (Trent Richardson) and an offense starting a third string quarterback. Once again, the Vikings played just poorly enough on offense, defense, and special teams to completely fall apart and lose another close game. The whole team is bad right now, even the coaching.
The Vikings were consistently bad on Sunday in so many areas that it’s hard to find a place to start. But since everyone’s favorite scapegoat is Ponder, let’s start there.
Ponder once again played so inconsistent — he showed flashes as a runner, mostly a result of his athletic ability evading a never ending pass rush. It was his play as a passer which sank his efforts. This is the poorest passing game I’ve seen out of Ponder in a long time. And I know tons of haters will scoff reading that, but he hasn’t played as poorly this season as most fans believe. After last week’s second half of great throws against the Bears, a half which he displayed moxy as the offensive leader, Ponder backpedaled significantly versus the Browns.
Sunday was some of the same inconsistent play from Ponder, but an even bigger demerit because of how bad he looked as a passer. At this point in his career, he should be making progress as a passer and be developing chemistry with his receivers (something he showed last week versus the Bears). Sunday was his biggest statement to an inability to play this position effectively. He clearly demonstrated an ability to rush as a quarterback, but not one to make competent decisions as a passer. And most high school quarterbacks could hit Joe Webb wide open in the end zone in the third quarter — those type of throws have been too characteristic of Ponder.
The offensive line has been so spotty this year, and when the pocket breaks down, Ponder has proven time after time he can make plays with his legs, but not his arm. Part of making plays with his legs stems from his panic, his lack of pocket presence, and his knack to not sit in the pocket to make throws under pressure.
The nail in Ponder’s “coffin” for me was one of the ugliest, most mis-managed two minute offenses I’ve ever seen. Ponder and the Vikings stood 71 yards away from the end zone and only had 51 seconds to accomplish their goal of scoring. With only one timeout left (more on that later), time was the most precious resource with the Vikings trailing. With this in mind, Ponder kept dumping the football off for short gains, wasting more time than the yardage was worth. The worst throw by far was on first down when Ponder elected to throw the ball for seven yards to Rudolph instead of running the football himself (possibly getting out of bounds) or throwing the ball away. Remember, time was the enemy, and Ponder pissed it away with that decision, forcing the Vikings to call their only timeout. Within the drive, and the game, Ponder threw the ball so poorly, with such inaccuracy, that he killed our potential as an offense. Sure he ran well, but Ponder is a quarterback, he needs to throw well. Running well should be a bonus for a passer, not a quarterbacks’s strength. That’s why Tebow can’t find a job.
What it boils down to for Ponder, is by this point in the season, and this point in his career, he should be showing marked improvement. And he still is stumbling all over, not throwing the ball accurately, and still not making sound decisions as the offensive leader.
Clearly all the blame on offense cannot be put on Ponder. The offensive line once again was absolutely bullied — it was baffling to watch, because at least one of the Vikings offensive lineman was getting beat on every play. Don’t get me wrong, the Browns defensive front is a very respectable group — but just like Week 1 versus the Lions, the offensive line rarely pushed back — our offensive line is supposed to be a staunch group, so as fans you expect to see the line enforce their will for periods of a contest. Ponder was sacked six times and hurried or hit so many more, and the Browns rushed four and five all day — a lot of that blame is placed on the offensive line, but sacks are a product of the line, the play calling and the quarterback. And while Ponder had no time, he, and offensive coordinator Mike Musgrave never made a change in the game plan.
Speaking of Musgrave, let’s discuss the coaching staff. Once again, Musgrave just does not seem to be on the same page as the offense. It doesn’t seem like Musgrave is playing to Ponder’s strengths as a quarterback — quick throws to receivers running short or intermediate routes. Even with the offensive line clearly getting pummeled on a lot of plays, Ponder was still dropping back on five to seven step drops, a huge disadvantage for an offense when the line cannot hold up. And why would on Earth is Ponder throwing the ball 42 times?! Even outside of that, the Vikings were embarrassed twice on Sunday by getting tricked on special teams. The first, a fake punt, was much less egregious than letting a 6’5″, 254 pound tight end line up by himself outside the hashes on a field goal. How did not one coach or player on the sideline, or player on the field notice the guy who had been burning the Vikings all day? How does that happen? The answer: that’s the product of an 0-3 team.
After the game was over, it was revealed that the referees made the wrong call by penalizing the Vikings 15 yards for ‘Unsportsmanlike Conduct’ after Leslie Frazier threw a challenge flag on the muffed punt catch, a non-challengeable play (the Vikings should have lost a timeout). Gigantic loss for the Vikings, who were moved from great field position to just inside Browns territory, from 1st and 10 to 1st and 25. So once again, the referees hurt the Vikings. But seriously, the head coach of a football team in the NFL should know the rules — even more, the referees should know the damn rules.
However, my biggest beef with the coaching staff came at 3:32 in the fourth quarter. The Vikings had the ball on offense, and the Browns just called a timeout. The Vikings offense called a timeout on top of the Browns timeout, a true mark of ineptitude on the sidelines. The timeout wasn’t because the Browns were showing a difficult to crack defensive front, it was because the Vikings were not lined up and ready to go with the play (the play after the timeout Ponder overthrew Jennings by ten yards). That second timeout sure would have come in handy late in the game when the Vikings were driving with the game on the line.
How can you talk about the Vikings losing without bringing up the defense? A defense that allowed a third string quarterback, Brian Hoyer, to rack up 31 points — a defense that looked toothless for long stretches of the game, especially on the final drive where the Browns took the lead and eventually the victory. With three minutes left in the game I had almost no doubt in my mind the Browns were going to drive and score — were you thinking the same? The Vikings defense rarely came up with crucial third down stops, and only really made a difference turning the Browns over. The defense once again forced four turnovers from their opponent for the second straight week. They allowed the Browns second rate offense (minus Josh Gordon, he’s a top flight WR) to rack up 409 yards — the Browns, really.
Hoyer was comfortable in the pocket most of the day picking apart the depleted Vikings secondary. Hard to blame Jared Allen for not making a noise in the game considering he was matched up against Joe Thomas, one the the NFL’s elite tackles. But still, Allen hasn’t made much of an impact this season anyway, nor has the rest of the defensive front outside of a handful of plays. In fairness, Robison has played very well this season. Pressure is key to disrupting the opponent’s offensive scheme — the Vikings cannot get the consistent pressure that made their defense great in the past.
Outside of the undersized Sherels who stepped in nicely, the Vikings are in trouble in terms of stopping the premiere wide receivers in the NFL, especially once you start to play the better passing attacks in the league. With the injuries plaguing the secondary, the depth of the group is clearly called into question. The only guy on defense playing lights out is Harrison Smith, and even he was beat by Jordan Cameron on the Browns final offensive play.
Adrian Peterson once again barely made an impact. He had a handful of good gains, but still did not have that “best player in the NFL” type performance. Peterson’s lack of impact is part of the reason why I find it so hard to place the blame squarely on Ponder. AP is the forte of our offense, Ponder the compliment to the heralded back. But Ponder has had to pass so much in 2013, in large part due to Adrian’s ineffectiveness. He finished with only 88 yards — yes he started slow last year, but still, that’s no excuse when a team has the best back in the league. Last season he rushed for over 2,000 yards with eight and nine men in the box, hard to make excuses for him in 2013. And for the second straight week, Adrian fumbled.
So is this the end of the Vikings season? No. But this will mark the beginning of fair weather fans jumping off the bandwagon. The whole team has played poorly in stretches the first three weeks topped off by their worst performance yet in Week 3 versus the Browns. Ponder being sacked on the last play of the game sums up the contest, and the Vikings 2013 campaign perfectly. Cassel is set to get the start this week in London versus the 0-3 Steelers. Will he be the difference for the Vikings? I guess we’ll see.
Images via: ESPN