NFC North: LaRod Stephens-Howling

Free Head Exam: Minnesota Vikings

October, 22, 2012
After the Minnesota Vikings' 21-14 victory over the Arizona Cardinals, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Free Head Exam
    Rookie safety Harrison Smith got plenty of post-game attention for his game-changing 31-yard interception return for a touchdown early in the third quarter. The Vikings put Smith in a position to track quarterback John Skelton from the middle of the field, and he smartly anticipated the throw to receiver Early Doucet. As we've said several times already this season, Smith makes the plays you would hope an NFL-caliber safety would make. I guess it just reinforces how long it has been since the Vikings got good safety play. "It's a breath of fresh air," coach Leslie Frazier said, "some of the things he's doing and has been doing throughout the season."
  2. This fact bears repeating: The Vikings sacked Skelton seven times without blitzing once. Not a single time. Never in 69 snaps, according to ESPN Stats & Information. (Some of you thought the Vikings blitzed on a fourth-quarter play that ended with Kevin Williams' sack, but replays show the Vikings jumped out of a blitz just before the snap and sent only four rushers.) Five of the seven sacks came in the second half after the Vikings established a 21-7 lead, just as defensive end Jared Allen predicted they would if and when they grabbed a lead. But it's quite an accomplishment nonetheless for defensive coordinator Alan Williams, and one that future opponents will no doubt take note of. If the defense had a weak spot Sunday, it was its inability to tackle tailback LaRod Stephens Howling, who rushed for 104 yards on 20 carries. "The little guy ran well," Williams said.
  3. The Vikings felt good about their matchup with the Cardinals' run defense, but tailback Adrian Peterson nevertheless looked spry and rejuvenated after taking two days off from practice to rest his sprained ankle. He ripped off 153 yards on 23 carries, his highest yardage total since Week 7 of last season (175 yards against the Green Bay Packers). It's amazing to realize Peterson's season total of 652 yards is just seven yards behind Arian Foster's league lead given his ankle injury and ongoing recovery from knee surgery in December. Now the question is how Peterson will handle the quick physical turnaround that he and the rest of his teammates must make this week. Thursday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is fast approaching. The Vikings will essentially have one practice, on Tuesday, to prepare for the game.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
Where has this Antoine Winfield come from? I realize Winfield has struggled with injuries in recent years, missing six games in 2009 and 11 in 2011. But even after he reported to training camp healthy, it was hard to have high expectations for him. He had just turned 35, after all, and the Vikings seemed to be developing a part-time role for him as a nickel cornerback. But in terms of tackling and run support, at least, Winfield is playing as well as he ever has in a Vikings uniform. He entered Sunday's game leading the Vikings with seven tackles behind the line of scrimmage, a huge number for a cornerback, and Sunday he made a key tackle of Skelton on a fourth-down bootleg -- technically it counted as a sack -- in the third quarter. "Just came up and made a play," Winfield said. He's been doing that a lot this year. I can't say I expected it, and I wonder if the Vikings did, either.

MINNEAPOLIS -- A few thoughts after the Vikings' 21-14 win at the Metrodome on Sunday:

What it means: The Vikings are 5-2 after overcoming a shaky and worrisome 58-yard performance from quarterback Christian Ponder. The Vikings managed only 60 yards of offense in the second half, but their defense (seven sacks) did more than enough to secure this victory.

PetersonWatch: Tailback Adrian Peterson displayed as much explosiveness as we've seen since his return from knee surgery. He totaled 153 yards on 23 carries, including runs of 27, 22 and 17 yards. On the 27-yarder, Peterson dragged two Cardinals defenders the final 10 yards. His 13-yard scoring run in the first quarter snapped a career-long streak of five consecutive games without a touchdown, and frankly, it's not clear why the Vikings didn't feature him in the second half more often as Ponder's struggles continued.

PonderWatch: Ponder threw two bad interceptions and completed only 8 of 17 passes even as the Vikings maintained the most conservative approach imaginable. He threw high and behind tight end Kyle Rudolph in the first quarter, setting up the Cardinals' only touchdown, and floated an ill-advised pass just before halftime that was also intercepted. That's six interceptions, and a total of seven turnovers, for Ponder in his past three games after going without an interception in the Vikings' first four games. The Vikings are 2-1 in those games, but it's worrisome that he's missing on some basic throws. A season-high crowd of 61,068 was testy, giving Ponder a Bronx cheer when he threw a ball out of bounds in the third quarter and then booing a bit later when the Vikings shifted into an open backfield.

Defensive gains: The Vikings had a hard time tackling Cardinals running back LaRod Stephens-Howling, who finished with 149 combined rushing and receiving yards. But safety Harrison Smith's 31-yard interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter staked them to a 21-7 lead, allowing the pass rush to let loose. Defensive end Brian Robison finished with three sacks (and a forced fumble) and defensive end Jared Allen had two against immobile quarterback John Skelton. Meanwhile, cornerback Antoine Winfield upended Skelton on a failed bootleg play on fourth down to end a third-quarter scoring threat.

Injury report: Vikings tight end John Carlson was taken into the locker room for evaluation of a possible concussion and did not return.

What's next: The Vikings need to rest quickly. They'll host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday for their second game in five days.