MINNEAPOLIS — Leslie Frazier summarized the Minnesota Vikings’ 31-27 loss to the Cleveland Browns on Sunday when asked what it would take for Minnesota to get a win after its 0-3 start to the season.
“We’re getting a lot of turnovers,” Frazier said. “To come away with four turnovers again and just not win two weeks in a row with four turnovers, it just makes you scratch your head. That usually doesn’t happen. We can’t give it away. We’re taking it away. We can’t allow some of the things that happened on special teams. They got 10 points on special teams errors, a field and the touchdown. We’ve had some special teams breakdowns the last three ball games. We’ve got some things we’ve got to fix in order to be a winning football, to win a game in the NFL. We’ve got to get it fixed in a hurry.”
Here’s how Minnesota graded out in each phase during Sunday’s loss:
Pass offense: D
Quarterback Christian Ponder and the offense seemed primed to follow through on what many expected to be a win against the previously winless Browns after the first drive. Ponder was 3 of 4 for 52 yards in an 11-play, 80-yard drive. He had four pass plays over 20 yards or longer and receiver Cordarrelle Patterson had a 37-yard catch in his most extensive playing time of the season.
But Ponder missed some open receivers, tight end Kyle Rudolph had a bad drop and the offensive line again failed to give Ponder much time to go through his reads. The passing game would only offer 103 more yards through the air the rest of the way, finishing with 195 net yards passing. Ponder was 25 of 42 for 228 yards passing and was sacked six times for a loss of 33 yards. Ponder also threw an interception and fumbled when he was reaching back for a pass and had his arm hit by a defender. All the miscues could have been moot if Ponder hit receiver Greg Jennings on third-and-4, but he overthrew an open Jennings and Minnesota had to punt. Cleveland scored the game-winning touchdown on the ensuing drive with 55 seconds left.
From the line to Ponder, the inconsistencies continue and can’t bail the Vikings out in big moments.
Run offense: C
Running back Adrian Peterson was held under 100 yards rushing for the second time in three games. Cleveland’s run defense has been its strength and it allowed a league-low 2.0 yards per carry coming into the game and proved its sturdiness by limiting Peterson on Sunday. Simply, Peterson can’t get going and his offensive line isn’t giving him many holes. The team has been playing without fullback Jerome Felton as well and maybe his absence is causing a bigger ripple than the Vikings expected.
Peterson had more success than any other opposing running back has had against the Browns, but it isn’t enough for Peterson. He admitted to frustration after game. He said he’s facing loaded defensive fronts designed to stop him, but he also said he’s not doing a good enough job picking up the yards that are there. Peterson is trying to make the big play. Peterson is averaging 4.1 yards per carry this season. He averaged 6.0 yards per carry last season and his career low is 4.4 yards per carry in 2009. Take out the 78-yard run on his first carry of the season and Peterson is averaging 3.0 yards per carry this season. He’s also lost fumbles in back-to-back games this season. Ponder did salvage moments Sunday with his legs, running five times for 46 yards and two touchdowns.
Pass defense: D
To Frazier’s point above, the Vikings got four turnovers and three from the pass defense on Sunday. Minnesota intercepted Cleveland quarterback Brian Hoyer three times and sacked him three times. The defense, which was a mess in the first half, recovered in the second half and made the going tough for Hoyer and were blitzing more than typical Vikings’ defenses.
Then, just like last week, the two-minute defense couldn’t stop the opposing team from driving down the field with the passing game. Hoyer was 6 of 11 on the final offensive drive for 55 yards and converted two third downs, including the game-winning touchdown to tight end Jordan Cameron. Cameron had three touchdown catches, including one off of a fake field goal. Hoyer finished 30 of 54 for 321 yards and had three touchdowns. Receiver Josh Gordon, fresh off a suspension, was targeted 19 times by Hoyer and came up with 10 catches for 146 yards.
Minnesota had a tough time handling Gordon — especially with the lack of a pass rush in the first half — and were down to fifth cornerback Marcus Sherels (5-foot-10) covering the 6-foot-3 Gordon after injuries to Chris Cook and A.J. Jefferson and with rookie Xavier Rhodes able to play only one side.
Run defense: B
Perhaps the one aspect of the game that fell in line with pregame expectations was how the Vikings handled the Cleveland running game. The Browns had traded running back Trent Richardson during the week and signed Willis McGahee on Thursday, severely hampering the team’s ability to run. And Minnesota’s strength defensively is still stopping the run.
The biggest run of the game for Cleveland came on the fake punt, when Josh Aubrey ran for 34 yards. Aubrey led the team with 34 yards rushing. Fullback Chris Ogbannaya had two carries for 23 yards. The next best rusher was Gordon on a 22-yard end-around. Bobby Rainey, who started at running back had four carries for 17 yards and McGahee added eight carries for just nine yards. The Vikings made the Browns one dimensional offensively. In the end, it didn’t matter.
Special teams: F
A failure is the only way to go for Minnesota on special teams after two embarrassing scenarios. Cleveland, playing as if it had nothing to lose, had the fake punt, which led to a field goal. On the next possession, holder Spencer Lanning threw the touchdown to Cameron on the fake field goal attempt.
The Vikings were ill prepared for either play. Aubrey had 30 yards of open space to run in carrying out his fake and Minnesota lost track of Cameron, who was hiding near the Browns’ sideline during the fake field goal attempt. Lanning quickly got the snap and threw over a leaping Josh Robinson to a wide open Cameron.
Blair Walsh continued his ways in the Metrodome. He connected on field goals of 43 yards and 30 yards and had five touchbacks. Walsh did squib kick one kickoff, which led to a 26-yard return. Punter Jeff Locker averaged 43.6 net yards per punt and 46.4 gross yards per punt.
Patterson took the opening kickoff nearly the full 10 yards out of the end zone for a 30-yard return but only had two chances on Sunday.
After a strong start that included a Vikings’ touchdown drive and a three-and-out by Cleveland’s defense, Minnesota made too many mistakes to win. All phases suffered letdowns and led to the loss. The Vikings are now 0-3 and led the last two games in the final minute before losing. Minnesota has eight turnovers the past two weeks and two losses to show for them.
Now, the Vikings turnaround and hop on a plane to London early this week to play the 0-3 Pittsburgh Steelers next week in the NFL’s international series. Maybe the trip to London can give the players the opportunity to get away and clear their minds and recover, or it could add distraction and loss of time to work on improvement.
Frazier and his team are in a precarious situation. One they didn’t think they’d be in and one that they could have avoided with a few less mistakes, offensive execution at the end of games or a defensive stand at the end.