A month ago, most NFL observers wouldn’t have guessed that the Minnesota Vikings would be heading into week five with only one loss. Those that believed it to be possible certainly wouldn’t have predicted an impressive victory over the Niners would have been a part of that win total.
So, with the Vikings in sole possession of first place in their division (for at least one day), what can we make of this team as they prepare to take on a struggling Titans team at home? Let’s take a look at what clues can be taken away from Sunday’s win in Detroit.
1. The Special Teams Were Special Indeed
Sure, Blair Walsh missed his first field goal and Chris Kluwe continued to struggle with a couple of punts. Outside of that, however, the special teams of the Minnesota Vikings was fantastic. Percy Harvin made a statement on the opening kickoff in the form of a 105 yard touchdown return and Marcus Sherels followed up by taking the first punt return of the second half 77 yards for a score. Walsh hit two of his three attempts, including a 49 yarder, but was a beast kicking off as the Lions never even got to return the ball once. The coverage team struggled a little more keeping Stefan Logan bottled up on Kluwe’s punts, but nothing disastrous took place.
2. The Passing Game Still Needs Work
Everyone is waiting for Christian Ponder’s light bulb to go on, and despite the 3-1 start, there is no question that it hasn’t happened yet. He just hasn’t shown the ability to put this team on his back and will it to victory yet. Sunday he was 16 of 26 for a measly 111 yards and no touchdowns. In fact, his offense was really only responsible for six points, as the special teams scored the other 14. That type of special teams production can’t be counted on every week, so Ponder and the gang have to get their act together if they want to continue winning football games.
Jerome Simpson was relatively quiet against the Lions, but he did make an impact in his first game as a Viking. He played the role of field-stretcher which resulted in four catches, 50 yards, and two important pass interference penalties. He was the team’s leader in receiving, but that isn’t saying much this week.
3. Peterson’s Comeback Couldn’t Be Going Much Better
Many of us, including me, have openly questioned the team’s wisdom in bringing Adrian Peterson back into a featured role so quickly after his devastating knee injury. Four weeks into the 2012 season, however, Peterson appears more than capable of shouldering a hefty load and making this offense better. Against the Lions he carried the ball 21 times for 102 yards and added four catches for 20 yards, and has shown no signs of being hampered by pain or discomfort. If the Vikings are truly going to embrace the idea that they can remain on top of the NFC North, then Peterson will be a main ingredient moving forward.
4. Young Defenders Provide A Spark
Jared Allen got a sack on Sunday and did his signature dance. The real story here, however, is the impact made by the youngsters on defense that should make Vikings fans hopeful when it comes to dreaming about the future.
Rookie safety Harrison Smith was only credited with one tackle on Sunday, but his impact was greater than his stat line would suggest. Smith was in on a number of pass break ups with the most notable coming on an end zone play in which he dislodged the ball from the hands of Megatron to prevent a sure touchdown. Rookie cornerback Josh Robinson was penalized (wrongfully) for a suplex-like tackle that displayed his strength, but his other seven solo tackles (tied with Chad Greenway for the most) did not go unnoticed. The kid can fly around and make plays.
Perhaps even more notable were the performances of two of the team’s youngest defensive linemen. Letroy Guion and Everson Griffen each had two sacks, including Griffen’s sack on the final play of the game, denying Detroit a chance at another miracle hail mary.
Middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley also had a solid game, playing a big part in the team’s success against the Lions running game. 55 yards is all that Detroit was able to gain on the ground.
5. A Tale Of Two Third Downs
On one hand, the Vikings defense was able to force Detroit’s hand on 63% of their third downs (and 67% of their fourth downs). On the other hand, however, the Vikings offense failed to convert on third down 75% of the time (3 of 12).
Christian Ponder was inaccurate and inefficient on third downs, particularly when rolling to his right, and the Bill Musgrave called plays in a way that made me question the trust he has for Ponder to not make big mistakes. The Vikings coaching staff, at some point, will have to take the cuffs off and let Ponder win or lose football games as a 25% conversion rate on third down is not going to win very many more games.