Vikings’ defense causes concerns vs. 49ers

After weeks of training camp, the Minnesota Vikings finally got to see how they match up with another team in Friday’s preseason opener.

The final result — a 17-6 loss on the road to the San Francisco 49ers —isn’t important in the big picture. How the individual players fared and how Minnesota’s units functioned will be scrutinized by the coaches and the looks the players put on top will ultimately decide how the Vikings did on Sunday.

Here are some grades from Friday on how the units did as a whole:
Pass offense: D

With Christian Ponder at quarterback, the starting offense showed some signs of life early. Ponder was 4 for 9 for 80 yards passing. Of his five incompletions, two were intentionally thrown away and the other three were dropped passes. Ponder did drive Minnesota to field goals in his first two drives, including the biggest play of the night, a 52-yard pass to receiver Stephen Burton. Ponder also connected with tight end Kyle Rudolph twice, both resulting in first downs.

However, Burton also dropped a pass. Jerome Simpson and Michael Jenkins dropped passes and the offense did little after Ponder left. Backup quarterback Joe Webb was 4 for 11 passing for 20 yards. Third-stringer McLeod Bethel-Thompson went 3 for 7 for 49 yards and threw an interception. After a good showing by the starting offensive line, Webb and Bethel-Thompson were sacked a total of four times behind the backup offensive linemen.

No backup receiver had a catch until the fourth quarter when Kerry Taylor hauled in two passes. For the game, the Vikings only had 126 yards passing. Seeing some success from the starters was a good sign, but there was little else for Minnesota in the final three quarters.
Run offense: C

Toby Gerhart received the start at running back and has proven capable of a starting role and quality backup when Adrian Peterson returns from his knee injury. Gerhart pounded out 31 yards on five carries, and had an impressive 16-yard carry in the first quarter, breaking a few tackles along the way. Gerhart is ready to start if Peterson isn’t ready to go in the regular season. Gerhart seems to be getting stronger as a runner as he gains more game experience as the lead back and should also be a part of the offense when Peterson returns.

The Vikings did little running after Gerhart left. Jordan Todman didn’t play with a sprained ankle. Lex Hilliard, third on the depth chart behind Peterson and Gerhart, replaced Gerhart on Friday and had four carries for 12 yards. Undrafted rookie Derrick Coleman was next off the bench, taking Todman’s spot and had six carries for 23 yards. Coleman runs hard and has shown some flashes, but he’s still learning in his first season and is more of a project. Again, the backup offensive lines struggled to protect the quarterback or open many holes in the running game.
Pass defense: C

Quarterback Alex Smith drove the 49ers right down on their first series of the game and connected with receiver Brett Swain for a 4-yard touchdown pass. Smith was 3 for 3.

Minnesota was missing several pieces of its first-team defense though as defensive end Jared Allen, defensive tackle Kevin Williams and cornerback Antoine Winfield all sat out the game, so it’s tough to judge the first-team defense without three of its most important players. Chris Carr, expected to be the third cornerback was beat by Swain on the touchdown as Smith threw a quick pass behind Carr, who had his back to the quarterback.

The rest of the pass defense didn’t give up many big plays and held backup quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick, Scott Tolzien and Josh Johnson to 136 yards on 17 for 26 passing. Minnesota also had three sacks on the backup quarterbacks, one each by Fred Evans, Audie Cole and Anthony Jacobs. In the fourth quarter, linebacker Solomon Elimimian intercepted a pass from Tolzien.
Run defense: D

The biggest play of the night, and the biggest hit to the run defense was by San Francisco backup quarterback Kaepernick. On a run option, defensive end Nick Reed charged after the fake handoff and lost contain and Kaepernick outraced the defense for a 78-yard touchdown run. After Reed bit too hard inside, there was no other help on the backside as the linebackers and safeties were out of position and cornerback Chris Cook was blocked. After shedding the block, Cook chased but couldn’t catch Kaepernick. Jamarca Sanford was one of the safeties who couldn’t get back over to cover the backside.

In all, the 49ers ran 42 times for 260 yards, a big total against a Minnesota defense that prides itself on stopping the run. Starting running back Frank Gore didn’t play either. Backup running back Brandon Jacobs reeled off a 23-yard run on the opening drive to help set up the first touchdown when Vikings starting safety Mistral Raymond took a poor angle and Jacobs ran around him. San Francisco ran for 73 yards on the first drive alone.
Special teams: B

Rookie kicker Blair Walsh was a perfect 2 for 2 on his field goal attempts, connecting from 39 and 26 yards. He also had one touchback and put two other kickoffs deep in the end zone in which San Francisco returner LaMichael James brought out and couldn’t get back to the 20-yard line. Punter Chris Kluwe six punts for a 40.3-yard average with a long of 49 yards and one downed within the 20-yard line.

Minnesota’s coverage units, which struggled at times last year, did well on kickoffs with the help of Walsh. Punt returner Kyle Williams did have a return of 22 yards on his first attempt, but the Vikings held him to six yards on his second return.

Marcus Sherels returned two kickoffs for an 18-yard average and Stephen Burton had two kick returns for a 12-yard average. Minnesota’s search for capable returners behind Harvin continues. The Vikings didn’t have a punt return.
Overall: D

An overall look at the team showed many deficiencies that still need to be fixed for Minnesota, but the first-team offense did produce points and looked efficient, an aspect that can’t be overlooked. Judging the starting defense was tough without Allen, Williams and Winfield, but getting run on for 73 yards in the opening drive isn’t a good sign.

Defensive tackle Letroy Guion also left the game in the first quarter and Frazier said he has a PCL injury and could miss at least a week at a position the Vikings don’t have a lot of depth.

The backups, across the board, struggled. Depth has been an issue Minnesota has been trying to improve since last season ended. The first game didn’t help the assumption that more depth is needed.

But in the end, it was just the first game. There were a few positive signs and a few spots that will need to be fixed. And finally having a game under their belt gives the coaches something more to evaluate and see how the players react in a game situation.
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