Minnesota Vikings: Studs, Duds and Biggest Surprises at the 1-Quarter Mark

Bill Hubbell@@billyhubbellContributor ISeptember 30, 2013

Minnesota Vikings: Studs, Duds and Biggest Surprises at the 1-Quarter Mark

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    Bob Martin-USA TODAY Sports

    The Minnesota Vikings held on to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers 34-27 at Wembley Stadium in London on Sunday, getting their first win of the season, moving to 1-3 on the year.

    Backup quarterback Matt Cassel sparked the Vikings offense, building a 17-point lead heading into the fourth quarter. Running back Adrian Peterson and wide receiver Greg Jennings each scored two touchdowns, and the defense, while bending to the brink, came up with a big play at the end of the fourth quarter to keep the Steelers from tying the game.

    It was an entertaining battle to say the least, and it brought an end to a very entertaining first month of the season for the Vikings. It's not a stretch to say Minnesota could be 4-0 at this point, but it managed to shoot itself in the foot in losing its first three games.

    Sunday's win over the Steelers—and Cassel's performance in particular—will ramp up the Vikings talk during the coming bye week.

    While a 1-3 start has been extremely disappointing for the Vikings, finally getting a win under their belt could save the 2013 season from going straight downhill.

    At the one-quarter mark of the season, we take a look at the studs, duds and biggest surprises for the Vikings so far.

Studs: Quarterback Matt Cassel

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Backup quarterback Matt Cassel made the most of his first opportunity to play for the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, leading them to a 34-27 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    He was 16-of-25 for 248 yards and a pair of touchdowns while throwing no interceptions and posting a passer rating of 123.4. Vikings starter Christian Ponder has never posted a passer rating that high in any of his 29 career starts.

    Cassel provided a spark to a Vikings offense that clearly needed one, showing a pocket presence and an ability to make throws that Ponder simply can't make.

    Cassel got better as the game wore on and was perfect in the second half, completing all nine of his passes for 120 yards and a touchdown.

    The Vikings offense seemed to have several gears with Cassel leading the way; the Vikings took shots downfield and spread the ball around all day, which also loosened up the Pittsburgh defense for Adrian Peterson to run against.

    Cassel had his share of errant throws in the first half, but for the most part, he not only hit his receivers, but also hit them in stride, giving them an opportunity to run with the ball after making the catch.

    Cassel has certainly had an up-and-down career in the NFL; he's now 30-33 as a starter. The simple fact is that right now, he's a better quarterback than Ponder and deserves to take over the starting role after Sunday's strong outing. 

Duds: Quarterback Christian Ponder

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    Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

    Christian Ponder is a nice young man who's clearly a good athlete. He’s a high-character guy who always gives you his best effort.

    He's just not talented enough to be a solid starting quarterback in the NFL.

    There's no shame in that; he certainly won't be the first quarterback picked in the first round not to make it. In fact, it looks he won't even be the highest pick from his own draft class to wash out; that looks to be Blaine Gabbert with the Jaguars.

    We've often been told that year three is the point at which it's justified to judge an NFL quarterback—that if he isn't showing improvement by then, it might not happen.

    The numbers say Ponder isn't getting any better: His passer rating for his career is 75.8. Through three games in 2013, it's 65.9. His total QBR for his career is 43.0; in 2013, it's 43.1. To paraphrase Denny Green's infamous postgame rant, Ponder just might be who we thought he was.

    The numbers aside, Ponder continues to fail the eyeball test. He's just not a very good passer. He's inaccurate as a thrower and shows zero pocket presence. He doesn't have a great feel for the game, and he doesn't make nearly enough plays with his arm.

    The Vikings reached when they took Ponder with the 12th pick in the 2011 draft, and it just hasn't worked out. It's now on the front office to admit that it made a mistake and that Ponder isn't the answer moving forward at quarterback.

Surprise: 1-3 Start to the Season

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    It's funny what one win can do for a team and its fanbase. The Vikings knocked off the Steelers on Sunday to avoid an 0-4 start and keep hope alive for the 2013 season.

    The surprise is that the Vikings found themselves at 0-3 in the first place.

    Coming off a 10-6 season that saw them make the playoffs, expectations were high heading into the 2013 season. Although most national prognosticators thought the Vikings would regress this season, the hope in Minnesota was that adding Greg Jennings, three first-round picks and a year of seasoning for everyone else would lead to bigger things this season.

    It hasn't happened. And it hasn't happened in a way that has been completely frustrating for the Vikings and their fans.

    They trailed the Lions by just three heading into the fourth quarter, but their offense gave them absolutely nothing in the final frame, Ponder committing two turnovers and a three-and-out sealing their fate.

    The Bears shredded the Vikings defense on an 11-play drive that culminated in a go-ahead touchdown with 10 seconds left.

    Things then bottomed out when the lowly Cleveland Browns also shredded the Vikings defense with another 11-play drive that ended with a go-ahead score with just 51 seconds left.

    Three very winnable games to start the season that all ended in crushing losses.

    It's been a disheartening start to a season that held such promise.

    Matt Cassel provided a spark on Sunday and led the Vikings to their first win, offering some hope that it won't be a lost season. 

Studs: Adrian Peterson

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    The returning MVP of the National Football League started the 2013 season in ridiculous fashion, taking his first handoff 78 yards for a touchdown.

    Seeing an increasing number of players in the defensive box and very few holes to run through, Peterson averaged under three yards a carry from that first run through the Browns game.

    Things returned to normal against the Steelers, as Peterson looked like his old self in rushing for 140 yards on 23 carries and picking up a pair of touchdowns.

    After Sunday's game, Peterson now has 421 yards rushing on the season and five touchdowns, compared to 332 yards and two touchdowns through four games last season.

    If the Vikings can continue to improve in the passing game, Peterson should have more room to run, and it's anybody's guess what he might do the rest of the season.

Duds: The Vikings Defense

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    Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

    We'll throw these numbers out quickly to get it over with, sort of like tearing off a Band-Aid: The Vikings defense is giving up 30.75 points a game and 430.75 yards per game. Vikings opponents have converted on third down 47.2 percent of the time.

    And the Vikings haven't exactly played the Denver Broncos the last couple of weeks.

    The secondary has been absolutely awful. The offensive plan against the Vikings has been pretty apparent: Get rid of the ball quickly in order to offset the Vikings' excellent edge-rushers.

    It's worked.

    Chris Cook, A.J. Jefferson, Jamarca Sanford, Harrison Smith and Josh Robinson have all been burned more than once. Smith is by far the best player in Minnesota's secondary, but he lacks elite speed that can close fast when he makes an error in judgment.

    Robinson has been overwhelmed trying to play the slot. He has excellent speed but is nowhere near the tackler he needs to be to be effective in that spot. He led the Vikings in tackles against the Steelers, but he seems to get caught out of position too many times against receivers and backs alike.

    A lack of speed has also been apparent in the linebacker corps. Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson lead the team in tackles, but too many of them are too far down the field.

    The defensive line, particularly Jared Allen, played a great game against the Steelers, but the unit had not come up with nearly enough plays in the season's first three games.

Surprise: The Subpar Play of the Offensive Line

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Of all the off-kilter units the Vikings have had so far in the 2013 season, the most perplexing has been the offensive line.

    With all five starters having played every game in 2012, the thought was that the continuity and familiarity would solidify the O-line as one of Minnesota's strengths heading into 2013.

    Matt Kalil looked surprisingly subpar in the preseason and then was awful against the Lions in the season opener. He's played better since then, and the line as a whole had by far its best game against the Steelers.

    John Sullivan, the uber-consistent center, had a slow start to the year as well. Guards Charlie Johnson and Brandon Fusco, who are clearly the weak links on the line, have been pushed around far too easily.

    Christian Ponder didn't play well in any of his three starts, but his line certainly didn't do him any favors in those games. Ponder never had a ton of time to throw, and for a quarterback, he needs a confidence boost—that's never a good recipe.

    If the Vikings are to turn their fortunes around in 2013—and Sunday's game against the Steelers was a very good start—the offensive line has to play better across the board.

Stud: Safety Harrison Smith

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Second-year safety Harrison Smith is turning himself into perhaps the best player on the Minnesota Vikings defense.

    Yes, that might sound silly on the heels of the Steelers game, where Jared Allen was once again a dominant force on the pass rush. And yes, Smith has sometimes looked completely lost in pass coverage. And yes, Smith picked up another stupid personal foul on Sunday that will put a big dent in his next paycheck.

    The bottom line is that the kid is a hard-assed, hard-nosed football player who will be among the best safeties in the league for the next several seasons.

    Smith's 30 tackles ranks third on the team, and his two interceptions are the only ones recorded by the secondary so far. Smith brings an undeniable swagger to the Vikings back end by being one of the toughest players on the field. The Vikings secondary is close to being a disaster right now, but with Smith leading the way, the hope is that things will steady themselves if the group can get healthy and stay on the field.

Duds: The Vikings Coaching Staff

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    It's been a pretty rough go of it so far in 2013 for the Vikings coaching staff. From a preseason that saw the Vikings starters get less playing time than perhaps any team in the league, Minnesota didn't look ready come opening day in Detroit.

    Head coach Leslie Frazier flat out took the blame for the second loss of the season against the Bears. The defense was shredded by the Bears' two-minute offense, and Frazier admitted that he should have called a timeout and helped settle the unit.

    It was a baffling sequence that had defensive coordinator Alan Williams apparently calling for a scheme that the Vikings had practiced very little, and players looked like they didn't know their assignments.

    Special teams coach Mike Priefer, one of the most respected specialty units coaches in the league, is also off to a bad start. The Vikings surrendered a Bears record 249 kickoff return yards to Devin Hester and then followed that up by being fooled not once, but twice by the Cleveland Browns, who pulled off both a fake punt and a fake field goal in the second quarter in their win against Minnesota.

    It's funny how a team's record can change people's perspective on a coach. During last year's 10-6 march, Frazier's calm demeanor was looked at as a steadying influence. A 1-3 start has reverted some fans to saying he's dispassionate and even clueless, like they said during his initial 3-13 season.

    That comes with the territory of being an NFL head coach, and Frazier is smart enough to know that.

    What lies ahead for Frazier and his staff might all ride on how they play their quarterback situation following Matt Cassel's victory over the Steelers. Frazier has constantly rebuffed criticism of Christian Ponder's play with answers along the lines of, "We'll have to go back and look at the tape...these are all correctable mistakes."

    Sticking with Ponder as his starter might prove to be a mistake that isn't correctable.