Sunday, September 26, 2004

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

A win is a win is a win. This is becoming a common refrain for the Vikings' coaching staff these days. And, after watching several games to which the Vikings' players and coaches have attached this refrain, one thing is clear--when someone says a win is a win they mean "we won today in spite of ourselves." And that is what the Vikings did on Sunday, winning despite several shortcomings.

In a game that never seemed in doubt, the Vikings defeated the Chicago Bears on Sunday by the score of 27-22. This despite several injuries to starters, numerous penalties, and several missed scoring opportunities.

The Good

When the Vikings gather at Winter Park on Monday morning, they will have several items from Sunday's victory over the shorthanded Bears to which they can point with unexpected optimism, including improved rushing, kickoffs, punt returns, offensive line play, and the possible discovery of a semblance of a middle linebacker.

SOD was at his best on Sunday, rushing and receiving for over 200 yards combined. The most impressive play of the day for SOD came in the first series of the second half when he broke two tackles and juked five Bear defenders en route to a 35-yard run that set up a Minnesota touchdown. SOD appears to be getting stronger every week, diminishing the extent to which the services of Moe Williams (who is apparently not ready to go full tilt) and Michael Bennett are necessary. Unfortunately, SOD likely will be sitting for a few weeks.

Aaron Elling also vastly improved his kickoffs on Sunday. After starting the game with a high, short kick to the 18 that was returned to the 37, Elling gradually improved, kicking his last two kickoff at the 6 and four yards deep in the endzone. Elling had another kickoff two yards deep in the endzone. If Elling continues to kick deep (and high), all that is left is for him to learn how to kick field goals and Tice's stubbornness may bear fruit (which, alas, may only encourage Tice to remain stubborn on other matters, such as whether the Vikings should play conservative on the road, in the division).

And, despite injuries to Jim Kleinsasser, Mike Rosenthal, and Matt Birk, and the continuing awful play of Adam Haayer, Mike Tice did what he does best, putting together an offensive line that protected Daunte and opened holes for SOD. With Withrow replacing the injured Birk and Dorsey replacing the faltering Haayer, the Vikings' offense was able to move the ball at will, whether in a one or two tight end set. That is particularly encouraging because it suggests that Kleinsasser's absence will not be as debilitating as it appeared it would be just last week.

Finally, the Vikings appeared to find a partial solution to their middle-linebacker conundrum, as Thomas played a respectable game filling in for the less-impressive, injured Henderson. Thomas Jones did run roughshod through the defensive line and up the gut, and the Vikings were facing a lesser quality QB in Rex Grossman, but Thomas at least kept the defense together in a way that neither Henderson nor Henderson's predecessors were able to do against similar opposition. And that is encouraging enough, at least for this week.

The Bad

The bad in this game mirrored the bad from last week and the week before--failure to convert in the red zone. These failures turned what should have been a blowout into a close game that could have gone the other way.

The Vikings continued their frustrating offensive play this season on their opening drive. After driving inside Chicago's 25, SOD was stopped for a loss on a running play and Culpepper followed with a fumble for a loss of 6 yards. The Vikings were forced to attempt a 46-yard field goal which Morten Andersen missed (no way does Morten hit from 50 on a regular basis, as suggested by Tice).

Score: Minnesota 0, Chicago 3

What Score Should Have Been (minimum): Minnesota 3, Chicago 3

After a touchdown drive and defensive stand, the Vikings again moved the ball at will inside the Bears' 20-yard line. After two incomplete passes, however, the Vikings were forced to settle for a 42-yard field goal (barely over the cross bar).

Minnesota 10, Chicago 6

Should Have Been: Minnesota 17, Chicago 6

Following several nice plays on their next drive, the Vikings faced a 3rd and 1 inside the Bears' 20. Rather than pick up the first down, the Vikings looked for the endzone. The Bears flushed Culpepper from the pocket and Daunte was forced to throw the ball away. Bad call just before half on a short play and it cost the Vikings. The resulting field goal attempt was botched and the Vikings again failed to capitalize inside the red zone.

Minnesota 10, Chicago 6

Should Have Been: Minnesota 24, Chicago 6

After halftime, the Vikings failed to capitalize on two more scoring opportunities as an early snap left Kelly Campbell open to a Bears' rush. The Bears demolished Campbell on the attempted end around and scooped up the subsequent fumble, returning it to Minnesota's 49-yard line. The Bears settled for a field goal. This botched opportunity also raised the question of the Vikings would run an end around so close to the goal line where defenders are more apt to recover from a misdirection play? Curious.

Minnesota 17, Chicago 9

Should Have Been: Minnesota 31, Chicago 9 (Edinger missed a 39-yard field goal attempt).

Minnesota also failed to convert points on a Kelly Campbell kickoff return. Despite returning the kick for a TD, the TD was nullified on a penalty (there were actually two penalties, both on rookies). Minnesota settled for a 24-yard field goal on the subsequent drive after failing to convert a 3rd and 1 from the 6 (Linehan called a rollout. Hmmmm....).

Minnesota 20, Chicago 9

Should Have Been: Minnesota 38, Chicago 9

None of this, of course, considers whether Minnesota would have scored points after picks had Minnesota's d-backs picked any one of the four passes delivered to their hands.

Final Score: Minnesota 27, Chicago 22

Should Have Been: Minnesota 45, Chicago 24

The Ugly

Ugly is the 49ers losing 34-0 to Seattle, Atlanta beating Arizona 6-3, or the Bucs' offense. Though the Vikings did not reach such depths on Sunday, they came perilously close in two areas in which they demonstrated consistent shortcomings last year--penalties and kick coverage.

The Vikings finished the game with 11 penalties, including 3 illegal motion penalties on Randy Moss. Tice implied that the officiating crew was a bit flag happy, but replays supported each of the calls. Moreover, the Vikings should have had two other penalties that might have changed the outcome of the game.

The first such missed penalty occurred in the first half with the Vikings leading 7 to 6. On third down, Terrance Shaw clearly pushed the Chicago receiver in the back before the ball arrived. Out came the flag. The infraction was clear, the call was made, and that appeared to be that.

But, in what is becoming a recurring theme, Tice threw the challenge flag, not to review the play but to draw the officials' attention to something that he had seen and the officials might have missed. Tice contended that the ball had been tipped, thus negating any possible pass interference. The officials huddled and quickly concurred with Tice. The only problem was that the ball was never tipped. And it wasn't even close. Chicago was forced to punt and Minnesota drove for a field goal.

Minnesota also benefitted from the zebras' failure to spot Kenny Mixon in the Bears' backfield prior to the snap on a failed two-point conversion attempt. That botched call kept the Bears from retrying the conversion from one yard out and, likely, from pulling within 2 at 20 to 18. That call changed the dynamics for the remainder of the game, giving the Vikings some much-needed cushion, knowing that Chicago needed a touchdown rather than a field goal.

As much as the Vikings did not receive the benefit of the call last week at Philly, it thus appears that they received the benefit of the call this week. And it may have been a necessary benefit to secure their second victory of the season.

Kickoff coverage was also putrid, but it is was it is. Tice claims players simply fail to understand where their lanes are and how to stay in their lanes. Is it really that difficult?

Player Evaluations:

Losing steam: EJ Henderson, Adam Haayer, Marcus Robinson, Morten Anderson.

Gaining MO: SOD, Corey Withrow, Nat Dorsey, Mike Nattiel, Dontarrious Thomas, Aaron Elling.

Up Next: Attendance figures and quality.


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