Mixed signals? Vikings' defense showing signs of turmoil
The Minnesota Vikings are 0-2 after a 31-30 last-minute loss at Chicago on Sunday, but of greater concern going forward is an obvious disconnect between the defensive players, coordinator Alan Williams and coach Leslie Frazier.
The team is heading into a three-game stretch that could right its season with a home opener against the 0-2 Cleveland Browns, a trip to London to play a battered Pittsburgh Steelers team and another home game against an 0-2 Carolina Panthers team after a bye week. But assuming victory in any of those games is risky if the communication on defense does not improve in key situations.
The Vikings played fairly well on defense for most of Sunday’s game. They forced four turnovers that led to 13 points, including a 61-yard fumble return for a touchdown by end Brian Robison.
However, the Vikings fell apart defensively while leading 30-24 with 3:08 left and the Bears 66 yards away from the end zone. Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler moved the Bears down the field on the strength of two major busts that were the result of bad calls and/or poor execution.
The first was a 23-yard pass to tight end Martellus Bennett on a crossing route in which middle linebacker Erin Henderson was playing zone and outside linebacker Chad Greenway was playing man. The miscommunication resulted in Bennett being wide open with nobody in front of him.
The second blown coverage came on the game-winning touchdown, a 16-yarder to Bennett with 10 seconds left. With the Bears lined up with two receivers to either side, the Vikings had four defensive backs to one side and only cornerback Chris Cook on the side with Martellus Bennett and receiver Earl Bennett. Cook motioned for safety Harrison Smith to move over before the snap, but he didn’t. The other safety, Jamarca Sanford, was showing blitz before dropping to the other side.
Cook was so angry after the game that he wouldn’t talk to reporters.
Several players questioned Williams’ play call off the record. Henderson went on the record.
“Just not what we expected, the call, in that situation,” Henderson said. “Not really something that we prepared for or practiced for ... in that situation. Even if (Williams) put us in a bad situation where he made a bad call, it’s still on us to go out there and make him right.”
Williams said he thought the Vikings had a good called dialed up and that he would “have to look at the film to see if bodies were lined up in the right place.”
Coach Leslie Frazier came out after the game and blamed himself, saying he should have done a better job managing critical situations like that. After watching the film Monday, Frazier said it was an execution problem. He also refuted Henderson’s claim that the Vikings hadn’t prepared for that situation.
Frazier also tried to accept the blame again and repeated his belief that he needs to manage those situations better. That, he said, does not mean he will take Williams’ play-called duties away in the closing minutes of close games.
“Our defense was well prepared,” Frazier said. “They did a great job to do the things they did to allow us to be where we were in that ballgame. So no, I don’t foresee a situation like that. Alan and our defensive staff, they’ve done a very good job. They did a good job a season ago and they’re doing a good job now.”
This issue may be forgotten if the Vikings win on Sunday and come out of the first five games at 2-3 or better. If not, the disconnect on defense that was apparent on Sunday could be remembered as one of the first signs of the problems that brought down a season.
n If you’re a defensive tackle in Minnesota, tying anything Alan Page did is quite the accomplishment. Kevin Williams knew the feeling Sunday when he made the 157th start of his career, tying Page’s franchise record for starts by a defensive tackle.
Williams would have tied it in Week 1, but he missed the game at Detroit because of a severely strained right knee. Williams said he tweaked the knee at the end of the Bears game, but expects to be fine heading into this week’s preparation for the Browns.
Williams, who is in his 11th season, has downplayed his “pursuit” of Page’s record for starts.
“It just means I’m getting old,” said Williams, who has missed only three games because of injuries in his career.
n Receiver Jerome Simpson might have more energy in his legs than any other receiver in the league. Nearly every time he runs out to his spot in formation, he finishes by leaping high into the air. He’s also made some impressive leaping catches, particularly on a 47-yard catch of a poorly-thrown deep ball by Christian Ponder in the season opener.
“I’m the highest jumper in the league, hands down,” Simpson said. “It’s just always something I’ve been doing my whole life. It’s a skill I’ve mastered. When I was younger, I used to always try to touch the wall above the doorway with my hand. My handprints would always be on the wall and my mom used to kind of get on me. But I guess it kind of paid off.”
Strategy and personnel
n FB Rhett Ellison (knee) suffered a hyperextension and is the only player on the roster in danger of not being able to practice on Wednesday.
n C John Sullivan (calf) suffered a bruise but should be fine. He has had a history of calf strains, so the Vikings were relieved that he only has a bruise.
n WR-KR Cordarrelle Patterson tied Percy Harvin’s franchise record for longest play when he returned the opening kickoff 105 yards for a touchdown. But then he played only six snaps at receiver. This came a week after he played only five in the opener.
n RB Adrian Peterson struggled with his footing and a desire to try and turn every run into a long touchdown. He finished with 100 yards, but needed 26 carries (3.8). He lost 13 yards on one play in which he tried to reverse field.
n RB Toby Gerhart had his first and only carry of the season. He gained five yards. Gerhart, a second-round pick in 2010, is in the final year of his rookie deal and likely will not re-sign with the Vikings. He has handled his backup role to Adrian Peterson with class, but he’s ready to start elsewhere. The team he goes to will be getting some extremely fresh legs for a back heading into his fifth season.
n K Blair Walsh made three more field goals from 28, 28 and 22 yards. The second-year pro who was first-team All-Pro a year ago has now made 39 of 42 regular-season field goals in his young career.
n QB Christian Ponder had completed just 4 of 12 passes for 52 yards when Tim Jennings returned one of his poorly-thrown passes 44 yards for a touchdown. Ponder then responded by completing 12 of his next 18 passes for 175 yards, a touchdown and no more turnovers.
Report card vs. Bears
PASSING OFFENSE: C-minus - Quarterback Christian Ponder regrouped to complete 12 of his final 18 passes for 175 yards, a touchdown and no turnovers. However, one play before that, he telegraphed a weak throw to Jerome Simpson that was easily picked off and returned for a touchdown by Tim Jennings. Ponder also had an outstanding touch pass for a 20-yard touchdown over the head of a defender to tight end Kyle Rudolph, and another crisp pass to a tightly-covered Greg Jennings for 22 yards on a field goal drive in the fourth quarter.
RUSHING OFFENSE: C-minus - Adrian Peterson got his 100 yards on the nose, but it took him 26 carries (3.8) on a sloppy, wet field to get it. Peterson struggled with his footing throughout the game, once losing 13 yards on a carry in which he slipped while trying to reverse field. As a team, the Vikings averaged only 3.7 yards on 33 carries. That’s not going to cut it for a team built around the power running game.
PASS DEFENSE: D - The Vikings intercepted Jay Cutler twice, once in the end zone and once to set up a field goal. But the massive breakdowns on the last-minute, game-winning drive overshadowed everything. Cutler completed 8 of 10 passes on the drive and the two incompletions were a spike to stop the clock and a ball that was going to be completed before it hit an official in the head. The Vikings had a major busted coverage on a 23-yard completion to Martellus Bennett to the Vikings’ 16-yard line. Then, on the game-winning 16-yard touchdown pass to Martellus Bennett, the defenders lined up incorrectly in a defensive call the players objected to after the game. The secondary was overloaded to the right side of the offense, putting cornerback Chris Cook in a spot in which he had to cover two targets running vertical routes on the other side.
RUSH DEFENSE: C-minus - The Bears didn’t pound the Vikings defense, but they banged away at them well enough to keep Minnesota guessing. The Bears averaged 5.0 yards on 26 carries. Matt Forte had a 24-yard run and 90 yards on 19 carries. The Vikings also gave up a 38-yard run on an end-around.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C - Again, the bad somehow outweighed the good and even the great. Kicker Blair Walsh made all three short field-goal attempts. Rookie punter Jeff Locke averaged 56.7 yards with a 50.0-yard net on three attempts. And rookie Cordarrelle Patterson opened the game with a franchise-record-tying 105-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. But the Vikings also couldn’t contain Bears kick returner Devin Hester, who broke his own franchise record with 249 yards on five kickoff returns. He had returns of 80 and 76 yards.
COACHING: D-plus - Give the coaches some credit. The Vikings stayed competitive in a place where they have not been so in many years. Sunday’s loss was the 12th in the past 13 trips to Illinois. But there were too many blunders in all three phases. Defensively, the busted coverages on the Bears’ game-winning drive were a combination of calls the players weren’t comfortable with and players being way out of position. On special teams, the kick coverage unit continually allowed Hester to run through gaping holes. Offensively, it’s ludicrous that rookie receiver Cordarrelle Patterson played only six snaps. Especially after he opened the game with a franchise-record-tying 105-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Coach Leslie Frazier said the Vikings “will rectify” that situation next week. It should have been corrected after Patterson played only five snaps in the opener.