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Vikings' passing game remains ugly

9/14/2008

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota owner Zygi Wilf might want to check on the return policy for his expensive offseason foray into NFL free agency. Because even after shelling out $60 million in guarantees to upgrade the roster, Wilf's team remains fundamentally unchanged: It has a competitive defense, one of the NFL's top tailbacks and a passing offense that it doesn't trust to perform the most basic functions expected of a professional outfit.

That was our overwhelming feeling after watching the Vikings squander a 15-point lead in the second half Sunday in an 18-15 loss to Indianapolis. We saw Adrian Peterson rush for 160 yards against the Colts' eight-man box. We saw the Vikings' defense harass quarterback Peyton Manning as well as could reasonably be expected -- intercepting him twice, sacking him twice and hurrying him on a dozen other occasions.

And when we ventured into the Vikings' post-game locker room, we heard the soft-spoken Peterson speaking with as much disgust as he ever displays.

"I'm crushed," Peterson said. "I'm crushed right now. We gave those guys the game. We gave it to them. When I think about it like that, I don't even know how to explain it. It's terrible."

Peterson wasn't about to spell it out, but we will: With a chance to put the Colts away midway through the fourth quarter, the Vikings seemed afraid to so much as consider throwing the ball in a passing situation.

Leading 15-7 with 7:55 remaining, the Vikings faced a third-and-five at the Colts' 31-yard line. Not only would a first down continue a slow rundown of the clock, but it would put the Vikings in good position to extend their advantage beyond a touchdown.

Peterson, having carried the ball on the previous four plays, left the game. But rather than attempt a safe bootleg pass that quarterback Tarvaris Jackson usually executes well, the Vikings came out in a two-tight-end alignment and handed it to backup tailback Chester Taylor for a 1-yard gain.

Ryan Longwell then missed a 48-yard field goal, and the Colts had the score tied less than two minutes later.

We're not saying the Vikings made a bad decision on Taylor's failed third-down run. They handed it to the best offensive player they had on the field -- which, more than anything, explains the problem. Based on what we've seen in the first two games of the season, we probably wouldn't trust the Vikings' passing offense to convert a key third-down play either.

We caught up to Vikings offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell afterward and asked him whether the Vikings trust Jackson to make a play in that situation -- or if they simply saw a defensive look they wanted to exploit in the running game.

"We felt like we were pushing them around," Bevell said. "We were running the ball well. I don't want to say we didn't have confidence in Tarvaris at that point."

Unfortunately, actions speak louder than words in this instance. It's fair to say that most NFL offenses are better equipped to convert a third-and-five through the air than on the ground. Yet even after signing free-agent receiver Bernard Berrian and putting Jackson through another developmental offseason, the Vikings know they are better off running on passing downs.

They gave Peterson 29 carries Sunday against a defense that uncharacteristically put safety Bob Sanders on the line of scrimmage for almost the entire game. (Sanders left with a second-half ankle injury). We agree: It was their best option after watching two games' worth of aerial failures; Sunday, the litany included tight end Visanthe Shiancoe's dropped touchdown pass and another round of misfires from Jackson.

Bevell was among several who didn't mince their words. Even the best running offenses must turn to the pass at some point.

"When you run the ball that well, you can control the game," Bevell said. "But you've got to be able to throw the ball around. You can't just rely on the run. ... They had eight men in the box the whole day, and we still ran the ball. So that's not the problem. It's that you've got to be able to throw it around to win in this game."

The Vikings have been uttering different versions of that quote since coach Brad Childress installed his version of the West Coast offense in 2006. Jackson has absorbed much of the blame -- and on Sunday a few boos as well --- but the issues extend beyond him.

It's a systemic, three-year problem that neither familiarity nor better personnel nor the addition of an All-Pro running back has been able to solve.

Wilf authorized the additions of Berrian, defensive end Jared Allen, safety Madieu Williams and fullback Thomas Tapeh with the hope of building a better team around Jackson. Allen made a significant contribution to a defense that held Manning to 18 points, but Allen is quickly learning that similar performances won't often be enough for this team.

"We have to have the mindset that we won't give up an inch," Allen said. "If we do have them down the way we did today, we have to keep them there. Point blank."

If not, it's time to check the NFL's free-agent refund policy. The Vikings could have lost Sunday's game with last season's personnel and saved $60 million while they were at it.