Vikings’ defense made plays when it counted

MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier praised the offense, defense and special teams following Sunday’s 21-14 win against the Chicago Bears.
Minnesota really did use an all-around effort, led by running back Adrian Peterson and a pair of rookie defensive backs to pull out an important win to keep the playoffs a possibility this season. But Frazier didn’t get specific after the game either.
“All three phases played at a high level,” Frazier said. “Special teams, our offense, our defense just epitomize what a team win is all about.”
Lost in the generalities was another down performance from the passing game. Here’s how each individual phase graded out for the Vikings on Sunday:
Pass offense: D

The lack of a passing game is getting harder to ignore by the week, especially with Peterson on one of the most remarkable stretches in NFL history for a running back. For the third time this season, quarterback Christian Ponder passed for under 100 yards. Of the 15 instances this season where a quarterback has thrown at least 15 times and finished under 100 yards, Ponder owns 20 percent of those games. For a while Sunday, Ponder was doing just what the Vikings had schemed, just enough to win. Frazier admitted, as expected, the game plan was built around Adrian Peterson and limiting turnovers. Basically, without saying it, Minnesota tried to limit Ponder’s impact on the game.
Ponder made a curious decision to try and throw the ball while being sacked in the first quarter, and luckily avoided what would have been a costly fumble after it was ruled his forward progress was stopped. He also threw another baffling interception, again due much to poor footwork that Ponder himself has been saying needs to improve. Receiver Jarius Wright had a few steps on defenders and was open for a possible touchdown, but Ponder severely underthrew him and was intercepted. Ponder did throw a good deep pass to Devin Aromashodu in the end zone for another possible touchdown, but Aromashodu was unable to control his body and was falling down instead of going high for the pass with a defender on him.
Ponder finished 11 of 17 for 91 yards and was sacked once. He came up with a few key third-down throws as Minnesota went 6 of 14 on third downs. Michael Jenkins had four catches for 36 yards, including a highlight third-down catch when he jumped high and snagged the pass. Yet, there’s still a major disconnect between Ponder, his receivers and the overall passing game.
Run offense: A

And despite the passing game struggles, Peterson and the running game continues to plug along. Facing defense focused solely on stopping Peterson, it doesn’t seem to matter. Peterson had a 51-yard run on the first play from scrimmage and finished the drive with a touchdown to give Minnesota the early momentum it needed in an important NFC North game. Peterson had a team-record 104 yards in the first quarter with two touchdowns. 
Overall, Peterson extended his own team-record with his seventh straight 100-yard rushing game, finishing with 31 carries for 154 yards. He now has 1,600 yards on the season to lead the league and is closing in on possibly his first 2,000 yard season. In the past seven games, Peterson has run for 1,101 yards. Backup Toby Gerhart also had a three carries for 17 yards, giving Peterson a minor break.
It’s hard to fault anything with Minnesota’s running game right now. After the 104 yards in the first quarter, the Vikings had just 64 yards the rest of the game. A minor blemish on another standout effort from Peterson and the offensive line.
Pass defense: B

Chicago passed for 320 yards and receiver Brandon Marshall continued to have his way with opponents this season, but it didn’t seem to really be to the detriment of Minnesota. Marshall was targeted 19 times, catching 10 passes for 160 yards and a touchdown. He has amazing body control and is able to haul in passes when covered tightly by defenders and quarterback Jay Cutler shows supreme trust that Marshall will come down with the ball. The Vikings’ defensive backs such as Antoine Winfield, A.J. Jefferson and Josh Robison tried to limit Marshall, often times unsuccessfully. But Cutler finished just 22 of 44 for 260 yards and a touchdown to rookie receiver Alshon Jeffery, but threw two big interceptions before leaving the game with a neck injury. Backup Jason Campbell was 6 of 9 for 64 yards and the touchdown to Marshall.
Minnesota was finally able to get some pressure on Cutler, sacking him twice and often forcing him into bad passes. One of those was an overthrow that landed in the hands of rookie safety Harrison Smith, who returned the interception 54 yards for a game-deciding touchdown. Fellow rookie Josh Robison also had an interception which set up Peterson’s second touchdown early and established the game in the Vikings’ favor. 
Run defense: C

Minnesota didn’t hold Chicago under 100 yards rushing, the benchmark that the Vikings defenders like to use. The Bears also averaged 6.6 yards per carry. But the early lead did just what Minnesota was hoping. It took, somewhat, Chicago’s running game out of the equation and allowed the Vikings to rush the passer.
Running back Matt Forte finished with 13 carries for 85 yards, 36 of which came on one run in the third quarter. For how well they did run at times, and Minnesota missed a few tackles, the Bears might have not run enough. The Vikings run defense hasn’t been as sharp this season as in past years, but did enough on Sunday.
Special teams: A

Aside from A.J. Jefferson’s fumble on a kickoff return, which was recovered by teammate Christian Ballard, it was another steady all-around effort from Minnesota’s special teams. Kicker Blair Walsh didn’t attempt a field goal and was perfect on his three extra-point tries. Walsh’s big leg didn’t lead to any touchbacks, but he had good hang time on his kickoffs, which allowed the coverage teams to swallow up returner Eric Weems for short returns. Weems averaged 14.8 yards on his four kickoff returns, with a long of 18 yards.
Punter Chris Kluwe averaged 45.7 yards per punt and twice had punts downed inside the 5-yard line. Bears’ returner Devin Hester had five returns for 58 yards. Without Harvin, Minnesota is still searching for an explosive kickoff returner, and Jefferson’s fumble Sunday possibly opened the door for more returns for Marcus Sherels, Robinson or Jarius Wright. Sherels fair caught each of his five punt return chances.
Overall: B

Minnesota, as it’s done all season, came up big in a home game and is now 6-1 at home. The Vikings kept their slim playoff hopes alive with three games left, and won the way they need to, with Peterson controlling the game, limiting turnovers and getting a couple of takeaways on defense. Minnesota needs more of a passing threat, but it is surviving thanks to an otherwise strong all-around effort. Now Frazier will have to rally his team to bring the same focus and intensity for a pair of road games the next two weeks at St. Louis and Houston, before the regular-season finale at home against the Green Bay Packers.

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