If the Minnesota Vikings have proved one thing through two games this season, their games must be watched until the very end. The game is not over until that final second ticks off the clock.
Sunday at Indianapolis looked very similar to last week when Minnesota rallied in the final seconds and won in overtime. The Vikings were on the flip side in Sunday’s 23-20 loss to the Colts. After quarterback Christian Ponder connected with Kyle Rudolph for a 6-yard touchdown pass with 36 seconds left, Minnesota appeared headed to overtime again.
But just as Ponder had done a week previous, Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck drove his team down to get Adam Vinatieri in position for a game-winning 53-yard field with eight seconds left.
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It was another slow start followed by a better second half, but the Vikings head home 1-1 for next week’s game against the San Francisco 49ers, one of the favorites to reach the Super Bowl.
Minnesota has some positives to build on, but mainly work to be done after missing a chance to be 2-0 against two teams that won a combined seven games last season.
Here are five things we learned watching Sunday’s close loss:
1. The Vikings need be aggressive from the opening kickoff.
Much of the talk last week was on Ponder and the offense starting slowly last week, with Ponder stating he needs to be more relentless and “play almost mad” but the defense also struggled in the beginning last week. Despite the focus, Minnesota still was sluggish early against the Colts. After driving down the field on the first possession, the Vikings had to settle for a field goal and then Indianapolis went right down for a touchdown.
Minnesota added another field goal, but a sack and fumble on Ponder allowed Indianapolis to lead 17-6 at halftime. The Colts had 196 offensive yards at halftime and controlled the clock, without the Vikings defense offering much opposition. Then the defense stiffened up in the second half, allowing Indianapolis a total of just 42 yards before the final game-winning drive. In a 20-6 hole, Minnesota’s offense finally got going, scoring touchdowns on two straight possessions late to tie the game. The early hole was too much to pull out of.
2. The offense needs to finish drives with touchdowns.
Much of the big deficit was due to the defense, but the Vikings’ ineffectiveness in finishing off drives with touchdowns instead of field goals added to the problems. Minnesota went 12 plays and 43 yards on the first drive, but stalled due to two penalties and kicker Blair Walsh became the first Vikings’ player to hit 50-yard field goals in consecutive games when he drilled a 51-yarder. On the second possession, Percy Harvin had a 50-yard return and Minnesota drove to the 11-yard line before settling for another field goal.
At that point, the Vikings had scored on six of their last seven possessions combined against Jacksonville and Indianapolis, but had to settle for field goals on each drive. Minnesota has shown it doesn’t have much margin for error and needs touchdowns instead of field goals. Perhaps the final two touchdown drives will get the Vikings going.
3. Penalties will hurt because of small margin for error.
Also a problem when it comes to small margin of errors is deflating penalties. Minnesota committed 11 penalties for 105 yards against Indianapolis. And many of the penalties came at critical times. Penalties by offensive linemen Charlie Johnson and Phil Loadholt on back-to-back plays stalled the team’s first offensive drive. Loadholt also had a holding penalty negate a first down later.
On the first drive of the second half, the Vikings’ defense twice got the Colts into third down situations and appeared to stop them, but two penalties gave Indianapolis first downs. First Andrew Sendejo was called for roughing the punter after the Vikings forced the Colts to punt. Later, Jared Allen was penalized for a late hit when Luck went out of bounds on third down short of a first down. Indianapolis ended the drive with a field goal to take that 20-6 lead that became so important.
4. Minnesota needs to find its pass rush.
The Vikings led the league in sacks last season and a big part was the effectiveness of ends Jared Allen and Brian Robison. Going against a Colts’ offensive line that began the game without two starters and ended the game without four of its preferred starting five linemen, Minnesota again couldn’t finish off with its pass rush. Luck was pressured during the game, but showed good awareness to slide away without being sacked. Allen, coming off a 22-sack season, and Robison are still without a sack. Linebacker Erin Henderson had his second sack in as many games, and Everson Griffen got the first sack by a Vikings’ defensive lineman late in the fourth quarter.
After a similar effort against Jacksonville, Minnesota’s coaches said they were pleased with the pass rush providing pressure. But two games in, the Vikings need to finish off the pass rush with sacks. The missing pass rush is partly attributable to Minnesota’s defense not being able to get off the field on third downs through two games. The Vikings also need the pass rush to take the pressure off its young secondary.
5. Ponder is showing an ability to rally
One of the biggest items from Sunday’s game was Harvin’s incredible effort (12 catches, two carries and 117 of Minnesota’s 327 offensive yards). But we already knew Harvin was a tough, versatile, explosive playmaker. So, we’ll give the final nod to Ponder. After another slow start, he had his team in a spot to go to overtime for the second game in a row.
Sunday was another efficient effort by Ponder with him going 27 of 35 passing for 245 yards and two touchdowns. Minnesota’s offense has been methodical and void of many big plays, leaving Ponder to drive the team down the field with small chunks of yardage. Any explosive plays have mainly come from short passes able to be turned upfield.
Yet, Ponder does look like a different quarterback in his second year — zero interceptions in two games — and he’s put the Vikings in position to win two games. In the final three drives, included the ill-fated final possession with just eight seconds left, Ponder was 14 of 17 with two touchdowns.