Minnesota's domination of Buffalo earns high marks all around.
By BRIAN HALLFS North
Minnesota Vikings returned to the Metrodome on Friday and had their first home win since Week 5 last season with a 36-14 victory against the
Buffalo Bills in the second preseason game of 2012.
With the full starting units in the game, Minnesota led, 10-0, after the first quarter, dominated total yardage 130-6 and held the ball for 10 minutes, 24 seconds of the quarter. In just two preseason games, the Vikings' first-team offense has scored on four of its five possessions.
While the reserves haven't had the same success, Minnesota's earns positive grades for Friday's win against Buffalo.
Pass offense: B+
Finishing off more drives with touchdowns would have given the Vikings a top grade. In the end, Minnesota's quarterbacks completed 58.3 percent of their passes for 272 yards and a 91.4 quarterback rating. Christian Ponder had perhaps his most efficient performance with the Vikings, connecting on 10 of his 13 passes for 136 yards and a touchdown. He also completed passes to eight different receivers. Ponder has looked like a much more confident and competent quarterback in his second season.
Joe Webb was again inconsistent in a backup role. He was 7 for 15 passing for 73 yards, and added a two big plays with his feet, running for 64 yards on two carries. But he still needs to show more progress in the pocket to be an effective backup for Minnesota. Sage Rosenfels took the third-team reps at quarterback Friday after McLeod Bethel-Thompson played last week. Rosenfels was 4 for 8 with 63 yards. All-in-all, an efficient day for the quarterbacks, but Ponder's 1-yard touchdown pass is still the only offensive touchdown through two preseason games.
The receivers are still a concern. Jerome Simpson had a strong game playing with Ponder, including a 33-yard catch and run in which he leapt over a defender. But Devin Aromashodu was targeted six times and couldn't haul in a single reception. Kerry Taylor caught only one of his four targets and Stephen Burton fumbled after a catch.
Run offense: A
Playing without Adrian Peterson again, Toby Gerhart continues to prove he is a good NFL running back. He had six carries for 30 yards, converted a fourth-down attempt and even had a 19-yard reception. Minnesota ran the ball 27 times for 160 yards, much of that was on Webb's two carries when he had a 41-yard run and a 23-yarder.
Matt Asiata, trying to prove he can be a capable runner and win a roster spot as a third running back or backup fullback, had seven carries for 43 yards. When training camp began, it was believed the third running back behind Peterson and Gerhart would likely come down to Lex Hilliard or Jordan Todman. But with Todman out with a sprained ankle, Asiata has taken the opportunity to show what he can do and might be putting himself in position to win the spot. Hilliard had three carries for six yards. Undrafted rookie Derrick Coleman had five carries for 12 yards. With two weeks left, there is still much to be worked out behind Peterson and Gerhart.
Pass defense: B
Through two games, the pass defense has shown improvement after a tumultuous 2011 season. Minnesota didn't have any sacks Friday, but did come up with two interceptions. Third-string rookie linebacker Audie Cole intercepted passes on consecutive plays and returned each for touchdowns in the fourth quarter, turning a close game into a lopsided affair.
Cole wasn't known as a strong pass defender in the draft — he had one interception in his four years at North Carolina State — but is tall at 6-foot-5 and has shown good athleticism. He has flashed at times during training camp and could be earning his way onto the roster with a knack for coming up with big plays. He had a sack in the preseason opener against San Francisco.
Buffalo completed 25 of its 45 passes for 249 yards. The biggest blows came on a 31-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Donald Jones in the second quarter when Jones broke a tackle from Minnesota cornerback Chris Carr. The Bills opened the second half with a 64-yard pass from backup quarterback Vince Young to rookie T.J. Graham. Aside from those two plays, Minnesota's defense has looked much better than last season.
Run defense: A
The Vikings' run defense gets an "A" just for the improvement shown in one week. Minnesota was embarrassed after San Francisco ran for 260 yards in the preseason opener. After years of priding themselves on stopping the run, the Vikings put an emphasis on being better this week against a strong Buffalo running attack with Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller.
The Bills managed just 68 yards on 20 carries though, good for a 3.4 yard-per-carry average. Jackson had a long run of 20 yards, accounting for most of his 27 yards on five carries. Defensive end Jared Allen, who didn't play a week ago, stopped Spiller for an 8-yard loss at one point.
One key to the improvement in the run defense, was the play of the safeties. Starting for the first time, rookie Harrison Smith showed a nose for the ball and a willingness to help in run defense. Mistral Raymond, who took a bad angle on a big run by Brandon Jacobs a week ago, was better and stopped Jackson behind the line of scrimmage on one carry.
Special teams: B
Aside from his first miss, rookie kicker Blair Walsh continued to look good. He missed a 49-yard field goal early in the second quarter, but responded to connect on his next four tries and five overall. He made field goals from 22, 47, 45, 40, and 30 yards. On kickoffs, he again was booting the ball deep in the end zone, finishing with four touchbacks, one that went through the uprights. When Buffalo decided to bring the ball back, it averaged just 20.2 yards-per-return.
Punter Chris Kluwe still has not had to punt when the first-team offense has been on the field. On Friday, he had three punts for a 40.7 yard average. Minnesota didn't get the chance to return a kickoff, an aspect the coaches probably aren't too appreciative of as they try to find a quality returner to use when receiver Percy Harvin isn't returning kicks.
The audition at punt returner continued. Jarius Wright had one return for 15 yards and one fair catch that came within his own 20-yard line. Josh Robinson (five yards), Bryan Walters (four) and Marcus Sherels (zero) also returned punts.
A big win in front of the home crowd is just what coach Leslie Frazier had in mind. It had been five straight games and over 10 months since the hometown faithful could cheer on a win. And the Vikings did so in convincing fashion against a Bills' teams that has high hopes with a rebuilt defense. The success of the starting units is the biggest positive for Minnesota. When Ponder has been in the game, the first-team offense has been efficient. The defense, which didn't have Allen, defensive tackle Kevin Williams and Antoine Winfield last week, looked better against Buffalo.
It was still just the second preseason game, but for the Vikings it's all about progress, however measured, after last year's 3-13 record. And just as importantly, Minnesota finished off the game strong, even if it came from third-team players fighting for roster spots. Next week, at home again against the San Diego Chargers, is the biggest test of the preseason before opening the regular season on Sept. 9 at home against the Jacksonville Jaguars.