Vikings' defense foiled by Cleveland's third-string quarterback
MINNEAPOLIS -- A depleted backfield, a third-string quarterback, and a team labeled one of the NFL's most hopeless two weeks into the season.
This was supposed to be the coming-out party. The early turning point. The doorway to rehabilitation.
Not a last-second surge that sends an ailing team into further turmoil.
"What's a good word for it? Frustranger?" Vikings defensive end Brian Robison said after his team's second late meltdown in as many weeks. "I mean frustration, anger, a strange feeling. It's not a place where we thought we were going to be in."
Yet that's exactly where Minnesota's defense sits after a 31-27 defeat against the unlikeliest of adversaries. Cleveland Browns quarterback Brad Hoyer engineered a decisive scoring drive that culminated with 55 seconds remaining and handed the Vikings their third straight loss to open the season, sending them to London next week with boos ringing in their ears and giant question marks hanging above their purple matte helmets.
The Browns' 11-play, 55-yard winning sequence was aggravatingly similar to the Bears' last-minute push in Chicago a week prior. Only this came against a quarterback with little run support making his second NFL start, not a seven-year veteran.
And Hoyer, the third-stringer whom rookie head coach Rob Chudzinski named the starter this week in place of injured Brandon Weeden, hadn't exactly lit things up since the first half.
"I'm not gonna sugarcoat it for you guys," a visibly frustrated Jared Allen lamented afterward. "Our two-minute drill is absolutely terrible right now."
That last-second defense -- mostly nickel looks with an extra defensive back -- let Hoyer stand in the pocket and complete 6 of 11 tosses, the last of which found Jordan Cameron in the left back corner of the end zone from 7 yards out. Lined up on the left side of Cleveland's formation, the sure-handed tight end shook safety Harrison Smith with a subtle stutter-step and reeled in a perfectly-placed lob from Hoyer.
"You can pretty much watch the film and figure out what happened," said Smith, who intercepted Hoyer late in the second quarter. "I just didn't make a play."
Burned. By a quarterback who'd looked every bit as inexperienced as his record may indicate since the second half began.
With defensive coordinator Alan Williams sending Erin Henderson and Chad Greenway on more pass-rushing sorties, Minnesota made Hoyer's life chaotic after the break. Both linebackers picked off passes, and every Browns second-half drive, safe for their last, ended in a punt or a turnover.
"We were pretty busy, man," said Henderson, who added a pair of sacks and six total tackles. "We wanted to make him a little uncomfortable."
The fifth-year pro was anything but during the first two quarters, finding wide-open receivers on intermediate drags and out routes while benefiting from ample time to go through his progressions. In perhaps Cleveland's only piece of good news during the previous week, top receiver Josh Gordon returned from a two-game suspension and found all kinds of openings against Minnesota's beleaguered secondary.
Aside from the three picks, Hoyer's final line wasn't at all shabby: 30-for-54 passing, 321 yards and three touchdowns. Cameron caught a pair of them and added another on a fake field goal, and Gordon hauled in 10 receptions for 146 yards and a score.
"I just hope I did not put my wife into labor by having it end the way it did," said Hoyer, a Cleveland-area native whose second child is due in about a month. "It will definitely go down as something special."
While none are expected to miss any serious time, cornerbacks A.J. Jefferson (ankle) and Chris Cook (groin) and safety Jamarca Sanford (hamstring) all left with injuries and didn't finish the game. In a surprise personnel maneuver, Marcus Sherels filled in for Cook on the outside of the Vikings' defense, while first-round draft pick Xavier Rhodes -- listed ahead of Sherels on the depth chart -- only came in as a fifth defensive back on passing downs.
Sherels lead the team in stops with eight -- all assisted -- and hit punt returner Travis Benjamin to knock the ball loose and set up Blair Walsh's field goal with 1 minute, 12 seconds left in the first half. With Mistral Raymond already out with a shoulder injury, Andrew Sendejo saw increased time at free safety after Sanford went down.
"I thought Sherels did a good job," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "Thought Sendejo did some good things as well when he got in there. Those guys, they stepped up and tried to make some plays."
Yet neither of those opportunistic fill-ins, nor any of their defensive teammates, could do so at the most critical juncture Sunday afternoon inside the Metrodome.
Facing a third-and-long from his own 45-yard line following two incompletions, Hoyer found Gordon over the middle for 11 yards. He then connected on four of his next five attempts, the last of which put the Browns at the Vikings 7 with 1:05 remaining.
Two more errant throws brought up third and goal, and Cameron took a step toward Smith, shifted his weight to the right then bolted at a 45-degree angle to his left. Meanwhile, Hoyer stood tall against another heavy blitz and lofted a ball just out of Smith's reach.
It was all the separation required for Cleveland's first win of the year.
"They brought the house, and I just ran to the corner," Cameron said. "Brian put the ball where no one else could get it, and it was a great throw."
It was a triumphant moment after a tumultuous few days in northeastern Ohio. Apparently ready to sacrifice the short-term for a better future outlook, Cleveland traded away running back Trent Richardson and was without Weeden, who is dealing with a strained thumb.
The Browns signed Willis McGahee as a replacement, but he joined the team late in the week and carried eight times for nine yards. Cleveland's longest rushing play came on a 34-yard, fake-punt scamper by Bobby Rainey.
The Browns rushed for 103 yards. Adrian Peterson carried for 88.
The Richardson trade drew cynical mockery from both Ohio and national pundits. But after Sunday, it will be Minnesota that captures some of the limelight for undesired reasons.
At least the Vikings can get away from some of it geographically when they head to England for an overseas tilt with the Steelers.
"It's gut-wrenching," Henderson said. "It's a tough one, one of those losses that kind of sit with you throughout the night and into the morning. It's tough to put behind you, but we have to, you know what I mean?"
Said defensive tackle Kevin Williams, who made his franchise-record 158th start: "We're just not finishing. We've got to finish."
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