GREEN BAY, Wis. — The intrigue for the Minnesota playoff game Saturday night against the Green Bay Packer was amplified once starting quarterback Christian Ponder was declared out and backup Joe Webb would be leading Minnesota.
Unfortunately, the Vikings’ offense didn’t receive the same boost. Playing more than just a few snaps for the first time all season, Webb was unable to establish anything through the air, allowing Green Bay to focus solely on shutting down running back Adrian Peterson until it was too late in Saturday’s 24-10 loss. Webb’s ineffectiveness gave Minnesota little shot to win a playoff game on the road at Lambeau Field against the Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Minnesota’s total game wasn’t as poor as the final score would reflect, but the lack of a passing game, combined with a minus-3 turnover-differential sealed the Vikings’ fate. Here’s how Minnesota graded out in each phase.
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Pass offense: F
As hard as a loss is to put on one player’s shoulders, Webb deserves most of the blame in the Vikings’ loss. After not throwing a pass all season, Webb was put in a tough position of having to fill in for Ponder at the last minute. Coach Leslie Frazier and players said Ponder’s status wasn’t determined until a couple of hours before game time, putting Webb in the unenviable position of being thrust into the spotlight for the first time, in the playoffs. But Webb had taken the majority of the reps all week during practice and didn’t look ready for the assignment Saturday. He was indecisive and inaccurate in the passing game and was sacked three times. He committed two of Minnesota’s three turnovers, fumbling once and being intercepted and didn’t offer any threat for Green Bay to consider via the pass.
Webb did run for 68 yards on seven carries. He finished 11 of 30 for 180 yards passing and a touchdown. Yet most of his success through the air came on the Vikings’ final two drives with the Packers already leading 24-3 last in the fourth quarter. Before completing four of his final five passes for 119 yards and a touchdown, Webb was 7 of 25 for 61 yards. Webb had open receivers at times, but couldn’t connect because of inaccuracy. Michael Jenkins’ late 50-yard touchdown came on a busted coverage. Jenkins led the way with three catches for 96 yards.
Run offense: B
Without any passing game to speak of, Green Bay was able to fulfill what was its focus from the very beginning — slowing down Adrian Peterson. The Packers were able to limit Peterson, somewhat. After he averaged 204.5 yards per game in the first two meetings, Peterson finished with 22 carries for 99 yards. With Webb rushing for 68 yards, Minnesota still finished with 167 yards rushing and averaged 5.8 yards per carry. Without a passing game though, Peterson didn’t have much help.
And the running game was the key early with Peterson and Webb leading the way on the Vikings’ first drive. Minnesota ran eight straight times to open the game with Peterson running for 31 yards and Webb adding 22 to put the Vikings in range for a field goal. Part of the success on the opening drive was using the read-option play and utilizing Webb’s unique athleticism. But Minnesota went away from the read-option after the first drive and couldn’t sustain much afterward. After going 53 yards on the first drive, Minnesota had 34 total yards the remainder of the first half as Green Bay took control.
Pass defense: D
Rodgers was surgical in leading the Packers to a 24-3 lead after the opening drive of the second half. He was 19 of 25 for 260 yards and a touchdown at that point and had the Vikings in the unwanted position of forcing Webb to drop back and pass. Whether Green Bay consciously stopped attacking or Minnesota adjusted, Rodgers had just 14 passing yards the rest of the game and the Packers punted on their final six possessions. Overall, holding Green Bay’s explosive offense — at full strength at receiver — to 24 points can be considered a win from the Vikings defense’s perspective. But the troubles were early when the Packers took control and Minnesota wasn’t built to come back from big deficits this season with its struggles in the passing game.
As has been the case all season, the Vikings were also dependent on winning the turnover-differential and Minnesota failed to have a takeaway on defense, while the offense gave the ball away three times. The big plays Saturday were spread around, with 10 players catching passes from Rodgers. Early on, much of Rodgers’ success came on checkdowns and running back DuJuan Harris led the team with five catches for 53 yards and fullback John Kuhn caught a touchdown pass. Receivers Greg Jennings, James Jones and Jordy Nelson all had at least three catches, but Randall Cobb had just one catch.
Run defense: B
Much like the previous week, Green Bay didn’t need to run the ball much Saturday to have success offensively. But unlike last week, where the Packers had a few big runs, Minnesota was much more prepared for Harris, a speedy back. Harris came up with a few big plays in the matchup last weekend, but he ended up with 17 carries for 47 yards, averaging 2.8 yards per carry and his long was just nine yards. Using the lead to its advantage, the Packers ran 31 times on Saturday, gaining just 76 yards. The Vikings defense rose to the challenge late, but it wasn’t enough with the offense short-circuiting.
Special teams: C
Minnesota’s special teams’ performance will be defined by two plays in Saturday’s game. In the second quarter, returner Marcus Sherels had a 34-yard kickoff return that set up the Vikings with good field position after Green Bay had taken a 10-3 advantage. But a holding penalty on Marvin Mitchell wiped out the return and made Minnesota start at the 12-yard line. Three plays later, the Vikings were punting again.
The shame was that the coverage units held down the Packers’ explosive returners, Cobb and Jeremy Ross. Cobb averaged 4.3 yards per return on four punts. Ross had two kickoff returns for 28 yards. On a late squib kick Ross was held to no gain on the return.
Minnesota only gave rookie kicker Blair Walsh one chance, but he connected on a 33-yard field goal. Punter Chris Kluwe averaged a very good 46.2 net yards on five punts. Sherels also averaged 30 yards per kickoff return.
The Vikings could just not overcome the shortcomings at quarterback. Ponder’s deactivation was a major swing in mood and momentum.
Webb could have been seen as an “X” factor with Green Bay unable to prepare for his athleticism, but in the end Webb’s own ineffectiveness hurt him and the Vikings. Minnesota wasn’t prepared to overcome a large deficit, or a big minus-3 swing in turnover-differential. The Vikings had just four penalties, but three were extremely costly. First came veteran defensive tackle Kevin Williams lining up in the neutral zone on a third-down play in which the Packers were stopped short of a first down. Mitchell’s penalty came in the second quarter. Then, with Green Bay lining up for a field goal on the first drive of the third quarter, Minnesota was called having 12 players on the field. With a new set of downs, Rodgers passed for a touchdown on the next play.
If Minnesota was prepared for Saturday’s playoff game, it didn’t show early, a possible result of the late switch from Ponder to Webb. Instead of surprising with a surprising quarterback, the Vikings’ season is finished with the rival Packers continuing their playoffs.