Vikings report card: Special teams loom large in Vikings’ loss

The Minnesota Vikings thought they had their second win of the season with one of their best performances of the year on Sunday in Dallas, against the NFC East-leading Cowboys. Instead, the defense faltered in the end and Minnesota suffered another loss in the final minute, the third of the season.

The Vikings had more yards, possessed the ball longer, but a minus-1 in turnover-differential, a late defensive collapse and a missed extra-point attempt added up to a 27-23 loss. Minnesota is now 1-7 on the season and looking at a short turnaround with Thursday night’s home game against the Washington Redskins, who went to 3-5 with an overtime win against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday.

Here’s how the Vikings graded out in each phase on Sunday in Dallas:

Pass offense: C

Like the rest of the team, and like the early part of the season, Sunday was a mix of good and bad for Minnesota. In some ways, it’s two steps forward, three steps back, particularly with the passing offense and the late-game defense. Christian Ponder got the start at quarterback for the second straight game and looked more like the Ponder from 2012, at least early, when he was efficient enough to help the team to the playoffs.

Then the Vikings lost right tackle Phil Loadholt to a concussion and went into halftime. On the first offensive play of the second half, Loadholt’s replacement, J’Marcus Webb, was beaten badly and Ponder was stripped of the ball in the end zone, fumbling for a Dallas touchdown. Ponder later threw an interception that had no chance of being completed when he had pressure in his face. After going 4 of 7 on third downs in the first half, Minnesota was 1 of 6 in the second half.

The Vikings had a chance to salt away a victory after a fourth-quarter interception by A.J. Jefferson, but Ponder missed Greg Jennings on a good look for a deep pass. Adrian Peterson rushed for a yard and then Ponder was flushed out of the pocket early. Minnesota went three-and-out, punted with 2 minutes, 51 seconds left and took just 1:45 off the clock.

Ponder was 14 of 21 for 117 yards passing in the first half and had two rushes for 22 yards and a touchdown. In the second half, he was 11 of 16 for 119 yards, one touchdown throw to Kyle Rudolph and the interception. Rudolph made a big play to score the touchdown, bouncing off defenders for a 31-yard touchdown catch, but left the game after a foot injury on the play. Ponder spread the ball around, hitting nine different receivers. Jennings led the way with six catches for 56 yards.

Run offense: B

One reason why Sunday’s game was looking more like 2012 was because of Peterson. The holes were limited early, but Minnesota was in a close game and stuck with Peterson. It paid off. He had 14 carries — more than each of the past three games — and 60 yards in the first half. He found more holes in the second half, including going off right tackle for 52 yards with a big block by Jerome Felton in the hole on Dallas’ star linebacker Sean Lee.

Peterson finished with 25 carries for 140 yards, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. He bulled his way into the end zone for a big touchdown in the fourth quarter, giving the Vikings the lead. Peterson went through the right side of the line on a fourth-and-1 carry and was stood up by a defender, but pushed his way another five yards into the end zone with the help, and push, of tight end Chase Ford. With Peterson being successful on the ground and the defense holding Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, Minnesota led in time of possession 31:27-28:33 after facing big possession discrepancies in recent games.

Pass defense: C

Again, signs of progress followed by moments of concern. Minnesota’s defense was handling Romo and the Cowboys’ eighth-ranked passing attack. Dallas had 260 total yards and was 5 of 14 on third downs before the final game-winning drive. Romo had been sacked three times, intercepted by Jefferson and held to 27-of-42 passing for 247 yards.

The Vikings decided not to pressure Romo and he went 7 of 9 for 90 yards on the game-winning drive, hitting Dwayne Harris for a 7-yard touchdown with 35 seconds left. The Cowboys covered 90 yards in 2:09 for the winning score, the third time Minnesota has allowed a come-from-behind passing touchdown in the game’s final minute this season.

Jefferson had the first interception by a Vikings’ cornerback this season and became just the second defensive back with an interception, joining safety Harrison Smith, who is on short-term injured reserve. Minnesota was playing without Smith, safety Jamarca Sanford, cornerback Chris Cook and was missing cornerback Xavier Rhodes at the end and still fared well against Dallas’ varied passing targets. Tight end Jason Witten proved the trickiest to cover, catching eight passes for 102 yards and a touchdown.

In the end, the Cowboys had 350 net yards, 314 through the air. Romo was 34 of 51 for 337 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Brian Robison had two sacks and Everson Griffen added another.

Run defense: B

Sunday will certainly help Minnesota’s run-defense ranking, which entered the game 21st in the league while allowing 113.7 yards per game. Dallas got its top running back, DeMarco Murray, back for Sunday’s game after he missed two weeks with a knee injury. But the Cowboys didn’t really try to establish any kind of running game.

Murray had four carries for 31 yards, a 7.8-yard average, but 27 yards came on one carry. As a team, Dallas ran nine times for 36 yards. The Vikings bottled up any running game, but the Cowboys willingly ignored Murray and the ground game.

Special teams: D

Special teams had a direct effect on Sunday’s loss. Kickoff returner Cordarrelle Patterson had another big game, showing his vision and speed in the return game with four returns for 105 yards, including a 45-yarder. But it was his miscues, taking his eye off the ball early and muffing a kickoff return that put the offense in a bad spot and ultimately led to the Cowboys’ defensive touchdown. Patterson dropped the kickoff, which went out of bounds at the 5-yard line. On the next play is when Ponder was stripped in the end zone and the fumble recovered by Dallas for the score.

Kicker Blair Walsh missed the first extra-point attempt of his career, leaving Minnesota to have to score a touchdown on its final possession following the Cowboys touchdown instead of being able to tie the game with a long field goal. Walsh also never got the chance to kick a 54-yard field goal before Dallas’ game-winning drive, with coach Leslie Frazier saying Walsh’s injured left hamstring played into his decision to punt.

Jeff Locke’s punt ultimately went 31 yards and was fair caught at the 10-yard line and Dallas went 90 yards for the go-ahead score. Locke had three punts for a 36-yard net average. The biggest bright spot was a 26-yard punt return for Marcus Sherels, in which he was one player away from possibly returning for a touchdown.

Overall: C

The Vikings showed improvement after three very poor performances out of the bye. Minnesota looked to be doing everything it needed to do to steal a road win against a possible playoff team. Then it all collapsed, again, with a two-minute drive by the opposition. Maybe there are things to build off of from Sunday’s game, but the Vikings might have to keep from imploding.

Reports after the game said the defensive line complained about the lack of aggressiveness on Dallas’ game-winning drive. There were also reports of problems with the play-calling, particularly from defensive players after Minnesota passed the ball twice in three plays following the Jefferson interception with the late lead. There was also a lot of head-shaking from players during the game after missed plays. The Vikings don’t have much time to dwell on Sunday’s loss; maybe that’s a good thing on a short week with Washington coming to town on Thursday.

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