The Minnesota Vikings lost a thoroughly uninspiring, time-wasting 14-9 game to the equally unimpressive New Orleans Saints on Thursday night. The loss put the Lions ahead of the Vikings in the standings for the first time in several years and cast a bright light on some areas of concern for the team, as well as shining another light on some areas for optimism.
Dreadfully awful game aside, this game was as much about measuring where the Vikings stand and where they need to improve to contend for the Super Bowl this year as it was about starting the season off on the right foot. The areas of promise included the offensive line, which did reasonably well even after Bryant McKinnie's departure, the cornerbacks, and Ryan Longwell, who kicked deep enough and high enough to remind us all what a waste it would have been to reserve a roster spot for a second kicker who could do neither.
There were also areas of promise going forward this year, including the play of Ryan Cook, however limited his action was, the play of Brett Favre (in spots), who hit consecutive passes in the first half the likes of which only very good quarterbacks see, attempt, and complete, and the aforementioned play of a patchwork cornerbacking corps.
More disconcerting was the play of the safeties, E.J. Henderson's lack of explosiveness, Favre's evident rust, the lack of any number one or number two receiver on the squad, and the pedestrian effort of Adrian Peterson.
The safeties were invisible tonight, except when they were being had along the sidelines or in the corner of the endzone on a play that should have gone for a touchdown. It could be argued that the Vikings' safeties did what they are expected to do in Leslie Frazier's cover-two system, but it looks too much like a continuation of last year's feeble effort and it simply won't suffice to move the Vikings forward. Madieu Williams' abysmal effort to interfere with Jeremy Shockey, who still caught the ball for an important first down, pretty much sums up the effort of the safeties tonight.
While the safeties remained invisible, Henderson was in on several plays. Unfortunately, he was often the last man to the ball and he clearly was restricted by his continuing recovery from his leg injury last season. On the Saints' game-sealing drive, Henderson simply could not push off on his leg as he would have done before his injury and was relegated to moving forward on the ground. The play did not suggest that Henderson is incapable of playing middle linebacker for the Vikings right now, but merely that he is not as effective as he was before the injury. That sense was bolstered by other plays during which Henderson was simply too slow to get to do what Vikings' fans remember him doing several times in the past--springing through the air to tackle a player for a loss.
Favre, too, looked off, though for a different reason. There were too many missed passes and too few key reads for a quarterback of Favre's caliber. It did not help that the Vikings went vanilla on the offense, but, when you have Bernard Berrian masquerading as a receiver and the slow-footed Greg Camerillo disguised as a down-field threat, those things can happen.
What continues to happen but should not be happening is the bottling up of Adrian Peterson. At best, tonight, Peterson was the second best back on the field. Pierre Thomas was better and Reggie Bush might have shown more given his limited opportunities. While Peterson put up some numbers in the first half, Thomas put his up when the Saints needed them. That's what Thomas can do that Peterson did not and, frankly, that the Vikings did not even ask Peterson to do. Perhaps this is the new normal for Peterson--many opportunities to carry the ball with average results. If so, that and a suspect receiving corps could make for a grim start to the season in Minnesota.
Clearly, the Vikings have two issues that they must address in the short term--the lack of a meaningful sideline deep threat and the lack of any running game after Peterson. If this were Miami, we would probably be treated to a healthy dose of Joe Webb in wildcat formation. Alas, it is not. So we probably will see more of what we saw tonight. If Peterson picks it up, fine. If not, not fine.
The options at running back are probably limited. Jahvid Best would have been a nice addition, but the Vikings opted to take Toby Gerhart, instead. Gerhart is out with a knee injury, but his presence so far has been far from inspiring and there's nobody else on the roster that looks fit to change the current scenario.
Taking pressure off the running game would help, but the Vikings need someone who can stretch the field to accomplish that. When the Saints took away the Vikings' only semblance of a deep threat in Visanthe Shiancoe, Minnesota had no answers. That means it's either time to unleash Percy Harvin, get Peterson the ball in the flat, an apparent pipe dream, or to bring someone new to the team. As much as Javon Walker did not impress in preseason, he looked better than Berrian has looked in some time, Vincent Jackson still remains an option and the Vikings likely could get him reinstated for week four if they can swing a deal, and Antonio Bryant is out there, if the Vikings can stand the inconsistency that the Bengals could not.
Up Next: Moneyball (really).