Vikings show serious setbacks in loss to Bucs
MINNEAPOLIS — Everything heading into Thursday night's game pointed to a favorable position for the home team Minnesota Vikings.
Minnesota had the benefit of being at home on a short week, had the better record, was coming off a win and had a defense and running game playing well. Such is life in the NFL; that's when things go haywire, as they did in Thursday's 36-17 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It was nearly a complete collapse in front of the home crowd for the Vikings (5-3), who suffered their first home loss of the season and missed a chance to help themselves before a tough remaining schedule.
Here's how Minnesota fared in each phase against Tampa Bay (3-4):
Pass offense: D
The final stats are deceiving. Quarterback Christian Ponder and the passing offense ended up with decent numbers thanks to two late drives once the game already had been decided.
Those late passing plays -- 117 yards on the final two drives -- were non-existent earlier when the Vikings needed some kind of passing threat to sustain drives. Ponder finished 19-of-35 for 251 yards and a touchdown. He had one interception, but it came with just over a minute remaining and didn't really affect the outcome.
Previous to the final two drives though, Ponder was 10-of-22 for just 134 yards. He was 1-of-6 for four yards in the first quarter as Tampa Bay built a 10-0 lead. His one completion to receiver Jerome Simpson ended with a Simpson fumble.
The passing offense hasn't been able to find any sort of rhythm for the past two games and three of the past four games. Ponder seems hesitant and is reacting to the pass rush. The Vikings allowed three sacks on Thursday and have given up 10 sacks in the past three games.
Ponder connected with Percy Harvin on a pretty throw and catch for a 32-yard touchdown, but it was one of the few highlights in the passing game. Harvin finished with seven catches for 90 yards. Michael Jenkins had four catches for 78 yards, but three of those came on the final drives. Tight end Kyle Rudolph was again fairly quiet with just two catches for 17 yards.
Simpson -- who has yet to make the type of impact the team hoped when signing him -- caught two passes for 37 yards, including a highlight leaping grab over a defender for a 33-yard gain. But he also had the fumble, had one nice throw slip through his fingers and couldn't connect on a few deep shots by Ponder, with the ball sailing out of bounds.
Run offense: A
Thursday's loss wasn't for the lack of a running game. Adrian Peterson continues to show he's getting stronger as the season goes along. Peterson had 15 carries for 123 yards and added the one final piece to his game that had been missing since knee surgery.
His 64-yard touchdown run gave Minnesota a sign of life in the third quarter, but the offense followed with more three-and-outs and couldn't sustain the momentum. Peterson averaged 8.2 yards per carry and finally had the big play he said he's been close to breaking.
Tampa Bay entered Thursday with the league's third-ranked run defense, but it didn't matter for Peterson, who now leads the league in rushing less than 11 months from knee surgery.
But without any threat of a passing attack, teams can load up to stop Peterson, and the third-down passing can't keep drives going. Backup Toby Gerhart had just one carry again, a six-yard run. Harvin had one run for minus-one yard and Ponder took off from the pocket four times for 12 yards.
Pass defense: D
Minnesota's pass defense was let down a bit Thursday because of the struggles in run defense, which put the defense as a whole in tough situations in the first half. But seemingly whenever Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman needed to come up with a third down, he was able to find one of his tall receivers.
Freeman finished 19-of-36 for 262 yards and three touchdowns. He was sacked just once and with Freeman's poise the Buccaneers were 8-of-17 on third down, including 5-of-5 with four Freeman completions on a backbreaking 16-play drive in the fourth quarter.
Defensive end Jared Allen, who had his seventh sack in the past six games, called the third-down defense "awful." Tampa Bay had just 257 net passing yards, but Freeman, unlike Ponder, seemed to avoid the pass rush and come up with the big play when needed.
Rookie running back Doug Martin made the biggest play in the passing game for Tampa Bay, taking a screen pass and shooting through the defense, breaking tackles for a 64-yard touchdown on the opening drive of the second half that gave the Buccaneers a 27-10 lead and essentially put the game out of reach.
Run defense: D
Allen called Thursday's game "embarrassing," and defensive end Brian Robison said Tampa Bay did a "good job of pretty much beating our brains in." The two defensive ends were especially candid after the once-proud run defense faltered for the second straight game.
Martin had 29 carries for 135 yards and a rushing touchdown and the Buccaneers ran for 159 yards as a team, four days after another diminutive running back -- Arizona's LaRod Stephens-Howling -- did the same on Sunday.
There were several missed tackles for the second straight game, and the smaller, shiftier backs have proven to give the Vikings trouble. For all the letdowns on Thursday, the run defense was the biggest point of concern for Minnesota as it heads into the second half of the schedule. Seattle's Marshawn Lynch is next up for the Vikings' run defense.
Special teams: C
There was little impact on this game from the special teams, aside from punter Chris Kluwe, who had another rough game. Kluwe averaged just 37.8 yards per punt and gave Tampa Bay good field position that led to scoring drives twice in the first half.
Kluwe had one 20-yard punt. The past two weeks have been tough and Kluwe has lacked consistency all season.
There was only one kickoff return in the entire game, a 43-yard return by Harvin. But Minnesota's Blair Walsh and Buccaneers Micheal Koenen combined for 11 touchbacks.
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier was blunt after the game and took the blame for the loss, saying he didn't have his players ready to play on the short week. Their only scheduled national TV appearance didn't show the same Minnesota team that was being labeled one of the NFL's biggest surprises this season.
There were breakdowns in nearly every area. Now the Vikings have a bit of a break before the Nov. 4 game at Seattle to try and figure things out with a brutal second half schedule awaiting. All the confidence and momentum built up during the strong early-season start could be all for naught if Minnesota can't turn things around.
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