Vikings report card: Matt Cassel proves decisive and confident

The 2013 season was basically going to be over for one of the two teams being featured in London Sunday for the NFL’s International Series. The Minnesota Vikings hope they resuscitated their season with Sunday’s 34-27 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Minnesota is 1-3 thanks to a late-game play on defense, ball security and efficiency from quarterback Matt Cassel. Pittsburgh is 0-4 and likely already out of playoff contention. The Vikings are 1-3 and in last place in the NFC North, but only four teams exit Week 4 with winning records in the NFC. A quarter of the season is in the books, and Minnesota at least has life for the remaining three quarters.

Here’s how each phase graded out in Sunday’s win in London:

Pass offense: B

There’s no denying, there was a difference with Cassel behind center. Cassel played for the first time since coming to Minnesota in the offseason with Christian Ponder out with a fractured rib. The Vikings offense was efficient and came up with several big plays. Minnesota had two pass plays over 50 yards and Cassel was 10 of 10 passing for 120 yards in the second half after a somewhat erratic start. Cassel wasn’t perfect and had some accuracy issues early, but he was decisive and confident and gave the Vikings a spark. He made good use of receivers Jerome Simpson and Greg Jennings too.

Simpson had seven catches for 124 yards. Jennings had three catches for 92 yards and two touchdowns. Cassel finished 16 of 25 for 248 yards and two touchdowns. He didn’t throw an interception and didn’t commit a turnover, thanks to Simpson picking up a Cassel fumble and Cordarrelle Patterson breaking up a possible interception early in the game on a deep pass to the end zone. There were still some issues on third down — Minnesota was 4 of 11 Sunday on third downs — but the big plays were there and Cassel made quick decisions and seemed in control of the offense.

Coach Leslie Frazier said Ponder is “our quarterback” and didn’t immediately anoint Cassel as the starter. The Vikings will return from London, watch tape and Frazier speaks on Tuesday with the team off for the week with the bye. Frazier wasn’t ready to make a switch Sunday, but it would be tough to not stick with Cassel after Sunday’s performance. Cassel had a 123.4 quarterback rating, a mark Ponder has never hit in any of his 30 career games.

Run offense: B

The passing offense wasn’t the only aspect that played its best this season. Running back Adrian Peterson had his best day of the season with 23 carries for 140 yards, averaging 6.1 yards per carry. He supplied the big play with a 60-yard touchdown run and also plugged away at the Steelers’ strong defense. Pittsburgh had entered Sunday allowing just 3.3 yards per carry, tied for fifth in the league.

Peterson was aided by the return of Pro Bowl fullback Jerome Felton and the offensive line opened more holes. There was still a lot of the “famine-famine-feast” that Peterson talks of often, but it was enough to get Peterson his yards and the Vikings to post 34 points with the passing game also coming up big.

Pass defense: D

Sunday’s matchup was a tough one for Minnesota’s pass defense. The Vikings were without cornerback Chris Cook and safety Jamarca Sanford because of injuries and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is known for his ability to extend plays with his strength and elusiveness. Several times on Sunday, Minnesota players had their hands on Roethlisberger, only for him to slip away.

But the Vikings ended up getting to Roethlisberger enough, sacking him five times and coming up with the key play they needed at the end. Sunday was shaping up like the past two games for Minnesota with an opponent driving in the final two minutes. The last two weeks it has meant losses in the final minute for the Vikings. Sunday though, on a third-and-goal from the 6-yard line, Everson Griffen got to Roethlisberger and didn’t let him go, sacking him and causing a fumble that Kevin Williams recovered to end the comeback.

Roethlisberger was still 36 of 51 for 383 yards. He threw one touchdown and one interception to linebacker Chad Greenway on one of those plays he had extended by escaping the pocket. Receiver Antonio Brown had 12 catches on 13 targets for 88 yards, facing mostly Josh Robinson and Xavier Rhodes. Jerrico Cotchery had five catches for 103 yards and a touchdown. Marcus Sherels started for Cook and fared decently. Andrew Sendejo started in place of Sanford and alternated with Mistral Raymond. The Vikings get the bye to possibly get Cook and Sanford healthy.

Run defense: A

Pittsburgh had rookie running back Le’Veon Bell in the lineup for the first time. Bell, a second-round pick, had missed the first three weeks with injuries. Bell showed a spark, particularly on an 8-yard touchdown run in the first quarter and he finished with two touchdowns. However, Minnesota’s defense has improved each week against the run and gave Bell nowhere to go most of the time.

Bell had 16 carries for only 57 yards, a 3.6 yards-per-carry average. Receiver Antonio Brown ended with one run for 10 yards, but the Steelers ended with 21 runs for 77 yards total.

Special teams: B

Kicker Blair Walsh has been so good in his short career it feels strange when he misses a field goal. Walsh remained perfect in his career from 50 yards or longer when he hit a 54-yard field goal in the first quarter. He added a 37-yard field goal Sunday, but missed wide left from 44 yards that would have extended Minnesota’s lead to 13 in the fourth quarter.

Punter Jeff Locke started with a 37-yard punt, but came back strong with a 57-yarder for no return and had four punts for a net average of 41.0 yards per punt. The coverage teams were improved for the second straight week after two tough weeks to open the season. Felix Jones averaged 23 yards on four kickoff returns and Brown only had one punt return for three yards.

Cordarrelle Patterson continued to take kickoff returns from deep in the end zone and averaged 28.8 yards on five returns with a long of 42 yards. Punt returner Marcus Sherels had one long, explosive return brought back when officials ruled he incorrectly called for a fair catch on the play.

Overall: B-minus

The final ended up being tighter and more dramatic than Minnesota wanted, but the Vikings came away with the ever-important win. Minnesota needed the victory and it came in the best way possible, with the late play it had sought the past two weeks, strong quarterback play and a renewal of the running game with Peterson.

It was a professional effort from the start and the Vikings looked more prepared being away as the “home team” in London than they had been a week earlier at the Metrodome. Minnesota had five penalties for 89 yards, but didn’t hurt itself much during the game. The Vikings won the turnover-margin with two takeaways without turning the ball over. Minnesota has something to build on going into the bye week with a home game up next in Week 6 against the 1-2 Carolina Panthers.

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