Red zone struggles continue for Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings won’t be leaving Washington with the good feelings they’ve felt that past two years after wins over the Redskins.

A highly erratic performance Sunday snapped Minnesota’s three-game winning streak in a 38-26 loss to the Redskins. The Vikings had the chance to take decisive control early following a dominating first quarter, but failed to capitalize and paid for it later after a late comeback fell short.

Minnesota falls to 4-2 and will slip behind idle Chicago (4-1) in the NFC North standings after letdowns offensive and defensively in critical moments of Sunday’s game.

Here are five things we learned from Minnesota’s streak-snapping loss on Sunday:

1. The Vikings’ offense continues to struggle in the red zone.

Minnesota had the chance to put Washington (3-3) in a large early hole after a dominating opening to the game. The Vikings’ offense drove into the red zone on its first three possessions while the defense was limiting quarterback Robert Griffin III. But each time Minnesota settled for Blair Walsh field goals and a 9-0 lead. It would prove costly and change the entire complexion of the game. Walsh connected for a 20-yard field goal and two 27-yarders. Minnesota had scored points on every single possession inside the opponent’s 20-yard line before Ponder’s interception with 31 seconds left Sunday. But after those first three field goals, nine of their 18 red-zone possessions had been field goals, and later became 10 of 19 after another Walsh 37-yard field goal in the third quarter.

Minnesota has talked all season about the need to finish drives and quarterback Christian Ponder said after the game he isn’t sure why the offense is having trouble executing in the red zone. With weapons like running back Adrian Peterson, receiver Percy Harvin and tight end Kyle Rudolph, the Vikings have plenty of go-to options in short spaces. Drives have stalled too often this season though and the missed points cost Minnesota Sunday after a big rally late had the team in position to somehow pull the game out. On the road, with the ability to put away a team early, the Vikings can’t miss opportunities such as the ones presented Sunday.

2. The defense had trouble with the dual abilities of RGIII.

Minnesota hasn’t faced a quarterback with the unique abilities of Griffin, and likely won’t the rest of the season. Griffin’s ability to run, and success as a passer, has allowed him to have an immediate impact in the NFL and is really one-of-a kind when it comes to NFL quarterbacks these days. Carolina’s Cam Newton is a dual threat as a runner too, but doesn’t have Griffin’s speed. The Vikings, who have been an attacking, aggressive defense in the past three wins, was on its toes trying to decipher what Griffin was doing. Instead of running to the ball and being physical, as it had been, the defense was thinking and having to react. The linebackers and safeties, who have played well in the past three games, struggled in particular to handle Griffin.

Griffin finished 17 of 22 for 182 yards passing with a touchdown and an early interception by Antoine Winfield. He was only sacked once and added 13 rushes for 138 yards, including the back-breaking 76-yard touchdown run after Minnesota had closed to within five points in the fourth quarter. Perhaps no other quarterback in the NFL could have made the run Griffin did in that situation. He recognized a Vikings’ blitz and took off immediately, using his sprinter speed to run away from the defense at the end.

Minnesota’s defense suffered lapses, but we’ll see in upcoming weeks if that was a one-week letdown against the unusual pressure applied by Griffin’s talents.

3. Ponder’s accuracy, and ball security, still needs some work.

Ponder entered the game second in the NFL with a 69.0 completion percentage, second only to Griffin’s 69.1. He also had just two interceptions, tied for fifth in the league after two interceptions last week. Ponder misfired often Sunday though, including one bad overthrow directly leading to an interception by former Vikings’ safety Madieu Williams, who returned it for a touchdown. Ponder couldn’t hit receivers that were open several times and looked more like the inconsistent rookie from last year than the second-year starter who had improved this year. Ponder overthrew a wide-open Harvin during the comeback attempt and underthrew Rudolph on a couple of occasions when he was clearly open.

Ponder, at times, also seemed reluctant to get rid of the ball and suffered four sacks behind an offensive line that had appeared to be coming along this season. Ponder was under pressure Sunday though and didn’t handle an unexpected pass rush from the Redskins, who came into the game 28th in the league in sacks-per-pass play.

Ponder got better as Minnesota tried to come back from a big deficit. He finished with 35 completions on a career-high 52 attempts for 352 yards. But he also threw two interceptions and lost a fumble. After being so efficient early this season, Ponder has four interceptions and a lost fumble in the past two weeks. His lost fumble and interception in the second quarter directly led to two touchdowns. His final interception came with 31 seconds left in the end zone and ended the rally.

4. A deep threat at receiver is still needed.

Even as Ponder threw for 352 yards, much of the damage was again done with the short passing game. Receiver Jerome Simpson, the one perceived deep threat for Minnesota, was inactive for the game with continued back and leg problems. Simpson, signed to help the team down the field, was suspended for three games, had four catches for 50 yards in his first game back, and then was limited last week with the injury and inactive this week. Without him, Ponder and the Vikings have just been unable to get any semblance of a downfield passing game.

Ponder, who entered the game 22nd in the league in a 6.85-yard average per attempt, averaged 6.77 on Sunday. Harvin is an incredible threat (11 catches, 133 yards on Sunday) but Minnesota must show teams they can get downfield or defenses, like Washington Sunday, will continue to flood the box against Peterson, Harvin and Rudolph. Simpson has dealt with the injury for a week now, and his status this week will be a big area of concern. Michael Jenkins is a steady veteran, but doesn’t have the deep speed, and Devin Aromashodu has been inconsistent.

5. There’s no quit in these Vikings.

To Minnesota’s credit, down 24-9 late in the third quarter, the team rallied. Even after Williams’ interception return for a touchdown made it 31-12 with 12 minutes, 40 seconds to go in the fourth, Ponder drove the Vikings down for two touchdowns and drew within 31-26 before Griffin’s big run that seemed to finish off Minnesota. Last year, maybe the Vikings would have folded up and moved on to the next week, but they kept pushing this time.

Ponder again drove Minnesota into the red zone in the final minute.  But with time running out and desperation in full force, the Vikings could finish off the rally and Ponder threw up a frantic pass on third-and-3 that was intercepted by cornerback DeAngelo Hall. Ponder didn’t need to throw the pass and there wasn’t a receiver in a spot to make a play, another poor decision. At least throwing the ball away — Ponder was out of the pocket — would have given the offense one last shot on fourth down.


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