Vikings defense finally steps up in clutch
Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier and his staff deserve a lot of credit for a second-half resurgence that turned a 27-14 deficit into a 34-27 victory over the Washington Redskins on Thursday night at Mall of America Field.
Having overseen seven losses in eight games — three of them humiliating blowouts and three of them heart-breaking last-minute collapses — Frazier oversaw a victory despite missing six starters and having only 42 players in uniform because of injuries.
Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Alan Williams, who was openly criticized by his veteran leaders for not being aggressive enough the Sunday before in Dallas, deserves credit for a rare fiery halftime speech and some adjustments that helped the Vikings’ defense do a 180 in the second half. After giving up scores on five straight possessions to open the game, the Vikings held the Redskins scoreless over the final 24 minutes.
Asked by reporters what it felt like to see the other team punt after 13 consecutive scoring drives by the Packers and Redskins, Frazier smiled, raised his arms and said, “I was going, ‘Hurrah, hurrah! ... We’re going to do this the second half of the season. We’ll make people punt.”
Frazier also has to be thankful for the win because it deflected attention away from two unconventional coaching decisions to end the game.
With the Redskins out of timeouts and driving for the potential tying score, Frazier called two timeouts as fans booed and players objected on the sideline. Frazier called a timeout with one minute, 28 seconds remaining after Washington moved the ball to the Vikings 25-yard line. He called another timeout after Washington’s Roy Helu carried the ball to the 4-yard line with 38 seconds left.
“I wanted to make sure for one, our guys were getting a little fatigued,” Frazier said. “But also if they were to get a score, I wanted us to have a chance to go back and respond. I didn’t want then to be able to run the clock out and us not have a chance on offense. Fortunately for us, because our guys were gassed, they got their breath and made some big stops at the end.”
Television focused on an animated receiver Greg Jennings on the sideline after Frazier called the second timeout. Frazier was asked if he knew the players were upset or if he cared that they were upset.
“I’ve learned in my short time as head coach that you better do it the way you believe in doing it because you don’t have a chance to do this for very long,” Frazier said. “You don’t want to have any regrets. Our players, they’re thinking about what they need to think about. But I need to think about the total picture. So no big deal.”
Embattled quarterback Christian Ponder strung consecutive huge plays together against Washington on Thursday night. He used his mobility to roll right and hit Jarius Wright for a 28-yard gain on third-and-12. Then he sprinted left and took the ball down to the 1-foot line before being stuffed.
But, as usual, Ponder’s good times were fleeting. He dislocated his left (non-throwing) shoulder on the run to the goal line and was done for the day with 1:12 left in the third quarter. He wouldn’t be around on the next play, when Adrian Peterson would score from the 1-yard line to give the Vikings a 28-27 lead, erasing a 27-14 deficit.
Of course, it was just another up-and-down set of circumstances in a season that has seen Ponder injured, benched, brought back and injured again during his best game of the season.
“It’s been an interesting year, that’s for sure,” Ponder said. “My expectations are to (come back from the injury) and play (next) week again. But to go 0-3, lose the job, get injured, come back and lose two more. Then come into this game and get injured. But winning cures all. The season is far from over.”
Ponder separated his non-throwing shoulder, an MRI on Friday confirmed.
n Ponder completed 81 percent of his passes (17 of 21) for 174 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and a season-high 113.1 passer rating. But the game didn’t start out that well for the third-year quarterback who is a long-shot to keep the starting job beyond this season.
On the game’s fourth snap, Ponder did what he too often does. He threw weakly into double coverage. The deep ball traveled 43 yards from the line of scrimmage before it was fielded like a punt by safety Brandon Meriweather. The pick led to a field goal and a 3-0 Redskins lead.
“I’m sure he’ll tell you it wasn’t the right decision to throw that football where he threw it,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “But that didn’t cause him to go in the tank and have self-doubt. He came back and played some of his best football. So he’s growing and maturing as a quarterback.”
Ponder gained more respect in the locker room for how hard he ran on the run that ended up his left shoulder being popped out of socket by cornerback DeAngelo Hall.
“(Hall) hit me pretty hard,” Ponder said. “But he went out of the game, too (concussion). So that’s good to hear.”
Center John Sullivan called the run “an awesome play.”
“He sacrificed himself for his team,” Sullivan said. “That’s the kind of leadership a team needs.”
Strategy and personnel
n QB Christian Ponder (left shoulder) dislocated his non-throwing shoulder while diving for the goal line late in the third quarter. He did not return. The Vikings are hopeful that he’ll be able to play a week from Sunday at Seattle. Coach Leslie Frazier said he hasn’t decided whether Matt Cassel, who replaced Ponder on Thursday night and did well, or Josh Freeman would start if Ponder can’t.
n CB Chris Cook (hip) missed Thursday’s game, his second straight, but was able to practice on a limited basis leading up to Thursday’s game. His status will be updated on Monday.
n SS Jamarca Sanford (groin) didn’t play Thursday or last week and could be out for a while. He wasn’t able to practice this week. His status will be updated on Monday. He was replaced by Mistral Raymond. Raymond continues to take bad angles and miss tackles, turning what should be short gains into long ones.
n TE Kyle Rudolph (foot) fractured his left foot and will be out about a month or longer. The No. 1 tight end job now falls to John Carlson, who had his best game as a Viking with seven catches for 98 yards and a touchdown on Thursday.
n TE Rhett Ellison (ankle) has missed the past three games and four on the season. He has a high ankle sprain. The Vikings are hoping to get him back because they’ll need help at the position with Rudolph out for about a month or longer.
n RT Phil Loadholt (concussion) missed Thursday’s game, only his second missed game in five seasons. His replacement, J’Marcus Webb, is a huge step down, but Webb did OK on Thursday after a terrible debut in Loadholt’s place at Dallas last Sunday.
n LG Charlie Johnson (elbow) missed his first game in three years as a Viking on Thursday. Joe Berger, who is primarily a center, started in Johnson’s place. He’s a solid backup.
n NT Letroy Guion (chest/knee) missed Thursday’s game and was replaced by veteran Kevin Williams, who slid over from the under tackle position. Williams responded with 2 1/2 sacks and might end up staying at nose tackle.
n NT Fred Evans (knee) missed the past two games and might not be ready on a short week. If he’s out, it will mean more snaps from rookie first-round pick Sharrif Floyd, who has promise, but has had a quiet rookie year.
n DT Kevin Williams played nose tackle for the first time in years. Normally the team’s three-technique tackle, Williams was a force in the second half of the Redskins game. He had 2 1/2 of the team’s four second-half sacks, helping slam the door on a Redskins passing attack that put up 24 of its 27 points in the first half.
n WR Cordarrelle Patterson, a rookie who had already tied an NFL record with two touchdowns of 105 yards or more (both kickoffs), finally reached the end zone as a receiver. Patterson went in motion left to right, released into the end zone and grabbed a 2-yard pass for the touchdown. He had both of his catches on the scoring drive.
n QB Christian Ponder had his highest passer rating (113.1) since helping the Vikings beat the Packers 37-34 in a Week 17 game the Vikings needed to win to make last year’s playoffs. Ponder completed 17 of 21 passes, an 81 percent completion mark. He threw two touchdowns and one interception before leaving the game with a dislocated left shoulder late in the third quarter.
n RT J’Marcus Webb, who struggled as a Chicago Bear and had a miserable debut with the Vikings on Sunday at Dallas, didn’t give up a sack against the Redskins’ Ryan Kerrigan. The Vikings’ left tackle, Matt Kalil, did give up a sack on the other side, but Webb, who gave up a strip, sack fumble in the end zone on his second snap at Dallas, was fairly clean in pass protection on Thursday.
n TE John Carlson took advantage of his first game as the team’s No. 1 tight end. With Kyle Rudolph out because of a fractured foot, Carlson caught seven passes for 98 yards and his first touchdown in two seasons as a Viking. Carlson came into the game with only 11 catches for 61 yards on the season.
Report card vs. Redskins
PASSING OFFENSE: B-plus — It wasn’t perfect. Christian Ponder’s deep pass on the fourth snap of the game was an ill-advised weak ball into double coverage and was picked off. But after that throw, this is about as good as the Vikings’ passing offense can play with the current talent level at quarterback and a philosophy that revolves around the running back. Ponder completed 81 percent of his passes (17 of 21) for 174 yards, two touchdowns and a season-high 113.1 passer rating before leaving because of a dislocated left (non-throwing) shoulder with 1:12 left in the third quarter. Matt Cassel came in and was just as effective, completing 4 of 6 passes for 47 yards while directing a pair of fourth-quarter field goal drives.
RUSHING OFFENSE: B-minus — It wasn’t a dominant performance by any stretch. But Peterson scored twice. One was a typical unbridled Peterson run of 18 yards. The other was a one-yard untouched trot into the end zone. Peterson had only 75 yards on 20 carries (3.8). Ponder had 13 yards on two carries, including a 14-yarder in which he injured his left shoulder diving for pylon. He came up just short, but Peterson scored on the next play. And Ponder also gained some serious credibility in the locker room for sacrificing his body. The Vikings had only 91 yards rushing, but overall the running game was solid considering the offensive line was missing two starters, RT Phil Loadholt and LG Charlie Johnson. Before Thursday, the offensive line had stayed intact for 25 consecutive games.
PASS DEFENSE: C — The first and second halves couldn’t have been any more different. The pass defense was inept in the first half. The coverage was poor and the tackling atrocious. Robert Griffin III had completed 16 of 21 passes for 179 yards, no interceptions and three touchdowns to three different receivers at the half. And he wasn’t sacked once. But in the second half, Griffin completed 8 of 16 passes for 102 yards and was sacked four times. Defensive tackle Kevin Williams, who moved from under tackle to the nose because of injuries to other players, had 2 1/2 sacks, his first multi-sack game since 2009.
RUSH DEFENSE: D — The Redskins’ running game was more physical than the Vikings’ run defense. Alfred Morris ran for 139 of Washington’s 191 yards on 26 carries (5.3). RG3 added 44 yards on seven carries (6.3). As a team, the Redskins averaged 5.3 yards per carry. That’s one reason the pass defense was so horrendous in the first half. The Vikings couldn’t stop the run and were off-balance when Washington put the ball in the air.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C — Nothing really stood out, good or bad. The Redskins went with pooch kicks that neutralized Cordarrelle Patterson. The league’s leading kick returner only touched two kickoffs, averaging 18.5 yards, which is about half his average. Punt returner Marcus Sherels had a nice 20-yard return that, coupled with a boneheaded personal foul on the Redskins, gave the Viking the ball at the Washington 41 and set up a touchdown drive. Punter Jeff Locke had one punt for 50 yards that wasn’t returned. Kicker Blair Walsh, who missed a PAT the week before at Dallas, made all four plus both field goal attempts on Thursday.
COACHING: C-plus — Once again, players refuse to give up on coach Leslie Frazier. Underdogs at home during a 1-7 season, Frazier and his staff did enough things right in the second half to keep the Vikings from being humiliated for the third time on national TV in a four-week span. Offensively, coordinator Bill Musgrave put together a plan that used more quick throws to alternating sides of the field. He still needs to get Patterson more involved in the offense, but there was one series in which Patterson caught both of his passes, including his first NFL receiving touchdown. Defensively, coordinator Alan Williams’ decision to play Kevin Williams on the nose resulted in 2 1/2 sacks and one of Williams’ best games in years. Credit Alan Williams for making some adjustments at halftime to completely change the game around. RG3 went from scoring on four consecutive first-half possessions to putting up only a field goal in the second half. Frazier’s decision to call two timeouts with the Redskins in Vikings territory on their final possession could have backfired miserably. The Redskins were out of timeout and fighting the clock at the time. But Frazier said he called the timeouts to rest a gassed defense and preserve time for his offense just in case the Redskins scored.