EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Receiver Jerome Simpson had his man beat to the inside on a simple slant route and quarterback Christian Ponder put the ball on target for what should have been a first down and a potential momentum-advancing play early in the Minnesota Vikings’ 28-10 loss on Sunday.
Less than three minutes had gone by on the game clock and Minnesota had gained the advantage over the hometown Bears because of a Matt Forte fumble and Chad Greenway recovery. The Vikings were in scoring position on third-and-four when Ponder let that pass go to Simpson, the offseason free-agent signee who was expected to have a big impact this season. Then Simpson dropped the pass, with the ball going straight through his hands and deflecting off his shoulder pads, costing Minnesota what would have been a first down in the red zone.
Instead, the Vikings had to settle for a Blair Walsh 40-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead. Little did Simpson, Ponder and the team know the drop would set the tone for the rest of the game.
Simpson had three of the team’s seven drops in the loss. As a result, Minnesota couldn’t sustain drives, trailing in time of possession to the Bears by a 15-minute margin. Quarterback Christian Ponder finished 22 of 43 for 159 yards.
“The number of dropped passes we had yesterday was really unacceptable in our league,” coach Leslie Frazier said on Monday. “It’s hard to continue drives when you don’t catch the football, and that’s a part of what you have to be able to do as a wide receiver in our league. The drops were not good. They hurt our continuity, our ability to move the football. So we have a lot of work to do, a lot to get done.”
Simpson’s first drop, on that fateful second possession, started the issues, but he wasn’t the only one suffering from them. Nearly every receiver got into the act. Rookie Jarius Wright, who led the team with seven catches Sunday for 49 yards, had one, so did veteran Michael Jenkins, who’s in the lineup for his steadiness, not his explosiveness. Tight end John Carlson, also an offseason free-agent addition, dropped another. Second-year receiver Stephen Burton had the other.
One drop is unfortunate. Seven is an epidemic.
“I can’t recall us having that many drops in a ballgame at so many different positions,” Frazier said. “We’re going to go back and look at some things fundamentally we’ll work on this week. It’s hard to put together some drives when you’re killing yourself with drops; just hard to overcome for us as a team. So we’ll go back and do some drills and do some different things to try to help our guys to hold on to the football.”
Much of the focus this season has been on the development, or at times lack thereof, of Ponder. But Sunday showed he also needs some help from his receivers, who aside from Percy Harvin — who missed his second straight game with a sprained ankle — haven’t been able to become a consistent option. Receivers have lacked separation from defensive backs all season long and have dropped the ball at times when open.
According to Profootballfocus.com, the Vikings have had 22 dropped passes this season: 11 by wide receivers, six by tight ends, including a team-high five by Kyle Rudolph, and five by running backs.
“It’s tough,” Jenkins said. “You want to see everybody making plays and contributing, nobody wants to drop a ball or have a bad play. Guys just have to bounce back and make the next one.”
Not only do the dropped passes halt drives, but there is an emotion aspect to the lost opportunity.
“When your teammates see those opportunities disappear, it affects the entire team,” Frazier said. “It affects the guys on the field, affects the guys on the sideline. I mean they see the opportunities. But then they disappear. So it has an effect.”
Simpson came to Minnesota with a reputation for drops, but he received a one-year, $2 million contract because he offered the type of deep speed and leaping ability the Vikings didn’t have among their corps of receivers. He’s dealt with a suspension and injury, but even when in the lineup he’s added very little. In his seven games, he has 12 catches for 138 yards and hasn’t scored a touchdown.
Sunday he finished with one catch for one yard. Two of his drops came within a four-play span in the third quarter, and all three were catchable passes.
“It wasn’t the offense, it was me,” Simpson told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune after the game. “I was terrible. I didn’t make the plays I was supposed to. I just let the team down.”
Frazier said drops are often an issue of concentration. But he wouldn’t say that Simpson’s issues revolved around thinking too much about previous drops.
“What to attribute the drops to? I don’t know,” Frazier said. “I could say it’s him thinking about what happened before, but I know he can catch the football and he has shown he can catch the football on a consistent basis. He’s got to do that. We wanted him to really make some plays for us yesterday and the drops really affected us.”
Simpson knows how much his drops affected the team, especially the first one.
“I’m pretty sure it could have been a different game if I caught that ball,” Simpson told the Star-Tribune. “You’re trying to get first downs, so it makes a difference.”
And without Harvin, Minnesota seems to be lacking the difference-maker at receiver.