This was going to be a column about what went right in the Minnesota Vikings' victory over the Carolina Panthers last Sunday. But that's a subject that has been too thoroughly reviewed, digested, and regurgetated at this point to merit much more attention. Instead, it should suffice to note--if for no other reason than for the sake of posterity--that the Vikings both made and received breaks in their game agains the Panthers. And those breaks led to a Vikings' victory.
Of the many breaks that the Vikings received on Sunday most notable were the Panthers' pre-game losses of Dan Morgan and Steve Smith. Morgan, a terror on defense might have been what Carolina needed to ensure that the Vikings did not drive down the field on the final series of overtime. And Smith might have been enough offensively to make overtime unnecessary. That the Panthers had neither for their game Sunday meant Minnesota had that much more room for error--and they used every bit of that space.
The Vikings also received the benefit of two rookie subs when Panther defensive players had to leave the game at critical junctures of the game. Those substitutions helped the Vikings make at least two critical first downs and aided the Vikings on their game-winning drive.
But as much as the Vikings stepped into a good situation against a good team and received some help during the game, that good team was no pushover. And the Vikings had to make as many breaks as they received just to ensure overtime. Those breaks included turning around a negative field-position battle, making a solid goal line stand the likes of which had become foreign in Vikingland long ago, and forcing a fumble in overtime that led to a fourth down punt.
The result was a solid victory over a team that was considered an early-season favorite to win the Super Bowl.
But not all was joyful on Sunday in the Metrodome. There were problems.
The problems begin with an offense having a difficult time finishing drives and, at times, even getting drives going. While most observers considered the Panthers to have a better defense this year than last, the Vikings were able to move the ball at times. Finishing, however, was another matter.
After two field goals and a fake field-goal attempt converted into a touchdown, the Vikings had the three overtime points, the Vikings had scored three points less against a Morgan-less Carolina team than Carolina had yielded, on average, over the past year and two games with Morgan. That has a ring of sub-mediocrity to it.
More telling, however, is that, despite racking up 365 yards in offense, the Vikings had only thirteen points. The standard in the NFL is seven points per 100 yards. That translates to approximately 24 points for the Vikings--eight less than they scored.
Scoring alone, however, is only the symptom of the underlying problems. Much of the scoring problem is attributable to long-standing problems along the offensive line--problmes that have created other issues for the offense.
On Sunday, the line had a less difficult time opening holes for the running game than in game one, but had an even more difficult time blocking in the passing game. Artis' Hicks' holding penalty inside the Panthers' five-yard line symbolized the difficulties of the right side of the line. And Marcus Johnson provided several missed blocks of his own, including one haul-down of a Panther defender that would have negated Troy Williamson's overtime catch that set up the winning field goal, but for the official's inexplicable oversight of the mauling.
The lack of sufficient pass blocking and penalties have created additional problems for the Vikings' offense, most notably a difficulty passing the ball. Despite a quick-release West Coast system, Johnson continues to face strong pressure from opposing ends and tackles. The result has been even quicker releases than presumably planned, generally to the short-yardage release man. That, in turn, has led to several passes behind the line of scrimmage for zero or negative yards and has been as crippling to the offensive flow as the running game was in week one.
The Vikings' solution to the issues on the line has been, like last year, to line Jim Kleinsasser up on right end and keep him in as a blocker with Tony Richardson serving as the release player. That's not a good recipe for a dynamic offense, but the alternatives, short of finding a more capable right guard and right tackle, are no more palatable.
For better or worse, the first signs of change along the line might be evident as early as this week. On Monday, the Vikings reported an injury to Hicks, who finished the game on Sunday. No details of the injury were released, raising the suspicion that Vikings' head coach Brad Childress might be using injury as pretext for replacing the disappointing right guard. Who might replace Hicks that is any better than Hicks is anyone's guess, however.
In addition to offensive line problems, the Vikings continue to have issues getting constant pressure on the quarterback. The Vikings' coaching staff believed that facing a drop-back passer like Jake Delhomme would give the Vikings' ends an opportunity to tally some sacks after having to remain patient against the purportedly quick-releasing Mark Brunnell. The Vikings did register two sacks against Delhomme, but none were by defensive ends. Worse yet, the ends accounted for only two tackles against a make-shift Carolina offensive line.
In addition to the line issues, the Vikings' coaching staff contributed at least one significant gaffe in Sunday's game when Childress challenged the ruling on an incomplete pass. According to reports, Childress decided to challenge the call only after his receiver insisted that he jhad caught the ball and had been pushed out of bounds. The problem, of course, is that the receiver caught the ball out of bounds and was pushed only after already being out of bounds. The challenge was Ticelike and inconsistent with an otherwise well-coached game. One suspects that Childress has already learned his lesson on this count and will not repeat the offense.
What It Means
The Vikings' flaws against the Panthers were overshadowed by the team's merits against solid competition. This Sunday, however, the Vikings clearly will need to improve on their disappointing penchant for accumulating penalties and will need to move the ball more consistently and with greater attention to finishing drives to defeat what appears to be the best team in the NFC at present in the Chicago Bears. That means better pass protection, better run blocking, and more pressure from the defense. That might be more than the Vikings can deliver at this point.
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