Sunday shaped up just like the last two weeks for the Minnesota Vikings.
There was enough of a difference for Minnesota in London on Sunday though. The Vikings made a play at the end of a game and beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 34-27. The Vikings finish the first quarter of their season and head into next week’s bye with positive feelings and a 1-3 record.
Here are five things to take away from Minnesota’s win in the United Kingdom:
1. The ‘D’ made the play
Yes, it was looking eerily similar to the last two weeks for the Vikings. But the end, at least the very end, was different. Pittsburgh drove down the field in the final two minutes, just as the Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns had done in the past two weeks. The offense had done enough to take control. The defense let up in a two-minute drive situation.
However, Sunday, with the Steelers facing a third-and-goal from the 6-yard line, Minnesota’s defense made the play it wished it had the past two weeks. Everson Griffen pressured Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, got a hand on him and didn’t lose his grip. He sacked Roethlisberger, who fumbled and Kevin Williams recovered to secure the win.
The Vikings offense punted on two of its final three possession and had a missed field goal, setting up the dramatic finish, where the D had struggled in the past two weeks and had allowed the Steelers to score 10 unanswered points setting up the final drive. But Minnesota’s defense bent and didn’t break Sunday.
2. Pondering the quarterback situation
Quarterback Christian Ponder wasn’t benched. He didn’t start Sunday because of a fractured rib. The question becomes who will start when the Vikings come back off of the bye. Matt Cassel was finally unveiled to the Minnesota faithful and he was decisive and in control of the offense. The nine-year pro looked more in command than Ponder has in many of his games.
Cassel wasn’t always accurate, but he finished 16 of 25 passing for 248 yards, two touchdowns and didn’t have a turnover. He was lucky to escape on turnover when he fumbled trying to step up in the pocket, but receiver Jerome Simpson recovered for a first down. Cassel stepped forward with many strong throws. He hit Greg Jennings for a short pass that Jennings turned into a 70-yard touchdown and also hit Simpson for a 51-yard catch. He finished with a 123.4 quarterback rating. Ponder has never finished a game with a rating as high. With Cassel behind center, Simpson had another big day with seven catches for 124 yards and Jennings had his best day with the Vikings with three catches, 92 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
Teammates said Cassel was confident and in control of the huddle leading into the game, a comment running back Adrian Peterson mentioned again after the game. Coach Leslie Frazier said Ponder is “our quarterback” after the game and said he wouldn’t make a decision on a permanent switch after the game. Frazier stuck with Ponder, but did say he would go back and look at the tape. Frazier might see, again, the confidence and decisiveness of Cassel and might be forced to make the switch. Frazier likely wouldn’t make a switch in the postgame press conference anyway. His style, especially with the bye coming up, would be to re-evaluate after the game and he surely would tell Ponder before making a public declaration. But now that everyone has seen Cassel in action, Frazier might have a tough time going back to Ponder.
3. Turnovers and takeaways
Turnovers — as well (or poor) as how Ponder, the offense and defense have played this season — have been maybe the biggest issue. Minnesota has taken the ball away but given back too many times. Sunday, against a Pittsburgh team that hasn’t had a takeaway on defense, the Vikings won the turnover-margin again and most importantly, took care of the ball on their side.
Minnesota was fortunate not to lose the ball on Cassel’s fumble, but Cassel and the offense protected the ball with no turnovers. Meanwhile, the Vikings’ defense continued with its takeaway ways, coming up with the big play at the end and an earlier interception by Chad Greenway, which turned into a Cassel to Jennings touchdown.
Positive turnover-margins usually mean good things for a team and it played in Minnesota’s favor on Sunday as the Vikings didn’t give the ball away.
4. Secondary still a work in progress
Minnesota was playing without two starters in the secondary in cornerback Chris Cook and safety Jamarca Sanford. The Vikings have to hope both are able to return following the bye week. Marcus Sherels started in Chris Cook’s spot. Andrew Sendejo started at safety and rotated with Mistral Raymond.
Simply put, second-year cornerback Josh Robinson has struggled this season. He was beat again too many times on Sunday, particularly on a 36-yard catch by Emmanuel Sanders that led to Pittsburgh’s first touchdown.
Xavier Rhodes stands out in his role as the third cornerback and Sherels has acquitted himself well in the past two games, playing Cook’s spot on the right side. The Vikings don’t want to put too much on Rhodes’ plate right now and feel he’s playing enough as the nickel cornerback.
Roethlisberger was 36 of 51 passing for 383 yards and a touchdown, showing off his unusual strength and escapability with defenders getting their hands on him. Three receivers had at least five catches, while four accounted for at least 50 yards receiving. Antonio Brown, who saw plenty of Robinson and Rhodes had 12 catches on 13 targets and several big plays on third down.
5. Reunited and it feels so good
Along with Cassel supplying big plays in the passing game, Peterson got it going again with fullback Jerome Felton returning to the lineup following his suspension. Peterson broke off a 60-yard touchdown run and had his best day of the season with 23 carries for 140 yards and two touchdowns. Joe Webb supplied the big block on Peterson’s 60-yard touchdown, but Felton was also opening holes for Peterson in his first game back.
There was a little bit of “famine-famine-feast” as Peterson likes to talk about, but Peterson did feast Sunday with a 6.1 yards-per-carry average. Entering Sunday, he averaged 2.99 yards per carry on 68 carries since his 78-yard touchdown on his first carry of the year. Last year, Peterson averaged 6.0 yards per carry. He had a wide-open lane to the end zone on his second touchdown, a 7-yarder.