EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings played 11 games last season where the winning margin was within a touchdown. They knew all about playing close games that came down to final drives.
Minnesota only won two of those games last year, too often finding a way to lose.
Sunday looked like it might be the same result against the Jacksonville Jaguars, as Jacksonville connected on a 39-yard touchdown pass with 20 seconds left. The 2012 season would start differently for the Vikings though, getting in position for a last-second game-tying 55-yard field goal by rookie kicker Blair Walsh and then winning 26-23 in overtime.
“As you know, we went through a lot of that a season ago, and I said, ‘Man, this shouldn’t be happening. It just shouldn’t happen,'” Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier said. “For our guys to find a way to fight it, it just says so much about them…We have talked about finishing all throughout the spring and we talked about it last night, and even on the day of this ballgame. We know that in the National Football League, there are no lay-ups. You have to find a way in the fourth quarter to win games and our guys did.”
Finding a way to finish is an important first step for the Vikings. From a triumphant return by running back Adrian Peterson, an efficient game by second-year quarterback Christian Ponder and clutch kicks by Walsh, here’s how Minnesota stacked up against the Jaguars on Sunday:
Pass offense: B
The Vikings’ slow start and not finishing some second-half drives with touchdowns skews the perception of how the offense finished. And looking at Sunday’s success with an eye on Jacksonville’s defense from last season adds a different dimension. Last year, the Jaguars allowed the sixth fewest yards in the NFL (313 yards-per-game), gave up the 11th fewest point in the league (20.6), was eighth against the pass (208.8 yards-per-game) and ninth against the rush (104.2 yards-per-game). All in all, Jacksonville had one of the league’s better defenses and Minnesota eclipsed each of those averages on Sunday.
Ponder started the game 3 of 7 passing and the Vikings couldn’t get the offense on track, failing to even get a first down from the first play of the game (a 15-yard completion to tight end Kyle Rudolph) until 3 minutes, 58 seconds were left in the second quarter. Thanks to quick-strike passing, Ponder finally got going and Percy Harvin played a big role in providing the spark with several big catches. Harvin finished with six catches for 84 yards, continuing the big-play role he thrived in last year when Peterson was injured. Harvin finished with 104 total yards from scrimmage.
And Ponder was effective after his slow start, showing some of the growth he’s made from his rookie year. He finished 20 of 27 passing for 270 yards and a 105.5 quarterback rating. He made his biggest throws when it really counted — connecting with Devin Aromashodu for a 26-yarder and adding a 6-yarder to Rudolph in just 10 seconds of game clock to put Walsh in position for his game-tying field goal. Rudolph finished with five catches for 67 yards. And Aromashodu was the big-play threat when needed, with three catches for 61 yards, catching each of his three targets, including a 17-yarder in overtime to help set up the game-winning field goal.
Run offense: B
Peterson’s return was nothing short of amazing. Less than nine months from major knee surgery, Peterson maybe didn’t quite display the same explosiveness he’s famous for, but he was as strong as anyone could have imagined. He averaged 4.9 yards-per-carry, just over his career mark of 4.8. And in overtime he burst through the line for a 20-yard gain. He finished with 84 yards on 17 carries and two touchdowns. Frazier said he was going to get between 10 and 15 carries in his return, but looked good enough that Frazier didn’t want to limit Peterson either. Peterson could have received positive marks just for his return, but he exceeded expectations in his first game.
Harvin took five carries for 20 yards, continuing his versatility that has made him a unique presence and a difficult matchup for opposing defenses. Gerhart was expected to get the majority of the carries, but as the game unfolded — and with Peterson having success — he was limited to six carries for 18 yards. In all, Minnesota finished with 123 yards on the ground.
Pass defense: C
Like Ponder, Blaine Gabbert was a second-year quarterback trying to show he’s developed since his poor rookie year. And at times, Gabbert looked much improved against the Vikings’ struggling secondary. He finished 23 of 39 for 260 yards passing and two touchdowns. He didn’t throw an interception. He was sacked twice, but often had plenty of time to sit in the pocket and find his receivers.
Gabbert and the Jaguars were 5 of 8 on third-downs, including three third-down completions by Gabbert on Jacksonville’s first drive. The Jaguars’ big play almost ended another game in Vikings’ disappointment after receiver Cecil Shorts caught a 39-yard touchdown pass from Gabbert with 20 seconds left where Cook got turned around.
But Minnesota started to make big plays when needed. After giving up a big cushion that allowed tight end Marcedes Lewis to finish with five catches for 52 yards, linebacker Chad Greenway came up with a couple of big pass deflections and safety Harrison Smith had a diving knockaway of another third-down pass. Erin Henderson and Chris Cook had sacks. In the end, the defense made enough plays.
Run defense: C
Minnesota has talked often about wanting to get back to the top of the run-defense rankings and can’t be pleased with giving up over 100 yards rushing. Jacksonville finished with 113 yards rushing, but the Vikings held the Jaguars to a 3.3-yard average. Minnesota was prepared to see plenty of Maurice Jones-Drew and that’s just what happened. Jones-Drew led the league in rushing last year and took the majority of the carries on Sunday as Rashad Jennings left the game with an injury. Jones-Drew finished with 19 carries for 77 yards.
Tackling was suspect for the Vikings though. There were several yards after contact for Jones-Drew, who continually bounced off Minnesota defenders for extra yardage. Tackling was an issue last year, and it will surely be a point of emphasis for the Vikings this week. Coaches have talked in the past how tackling is one of the areas that can struggle early because contact is limited in training camp practices and snaps are limited in preseason games. Minnesota will need to prove tackling won’t be an issue again this year.
Special teams: A
Walsh responded to as much pressure as he’s going to see all season. He made all four of his field-goal attempts and his 55-yarder at the end of regulation demonstrated one of the main reasons he was drafted to replace veteran Ryan Longwell. Walsh has a very strong leg and had plenty of distance in tying the game on the 55-yarder. He then connected from 38 yards in overtime. He also had three touchbacks in three kickoffs and the Jaguars chose to bring the ball out even when Walsh had pinned them deep, averaging just 21 yards-per-return.
Chris Kluwe had his usual steady game with five punts for a 48.4-yard average, including a 59-yard punt. Jacksonville did little on returns. Harvin got the chance for three returns, averaging 29.3 yards and his threat made the Jaguars kick away from him three times.
A slow starting offense finally started to find its way. A defense bent but didn’t break much and made enough plays to hold down the Jacksonville offense. Peterson’s return couldn’t have gone much better. Ponder continued some of his efficient play from the preseason into the regular season. Harvin was versatile and explosive. And the pressure didn’t get to Walsh. Many things went right for Minnesota on Sunday. There’s still room for improvement too. In the end, the Vikings have to be pleased to be walking off the field at the Metrodome with a victory, which happened just once all of last season. Coming off last year’s 3-13 record, confidence and some momentum could be an important development for Minnesota. Now the Vikings have to continue the positive steps, and keep working on the secondary and tackling. Minnesota will take a much-needed victory though.