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Cleveland Rocks (09/25/2013)
By Patrick Marek
Vikings Fall to 0-3

And then…depression set in. There are morgues and funeral homes with a lot more energy and hope than the Vikings locker room had after the team’s 31-27 last-minute loss to the lowly Cleveland Browns. During the post-game press conference, Leslie Frazier looked like someone had just shot his dog, and even perpetually optimistic Vikings network play-by-play announcer Paul Allen wiped tears from his eyes as he gave a consoling hug to WCCO sports anchor Mark Rosen.

After two heartbreaking losses away from home to start the season, the Vikings return to the Metrodome was supposed to be a coming out party. It turned out to be more like a visitation. On Sunday, Minnesota lost to a color that wasn’t even primary. The Browns entered the game with a 0-2 record, and had only managed to score two offensive touchdowns over their first two games. They had just traded their franchise running back Trent Richardson to the Colts and were starting Brian Hoyer, their third string quarterback.

All week long, all the sports talk show hosts were singing the same tune. The Browns were trying to purposely tank this season and stock up draft choices to get a franchise quarterback in the 2014 draft. Sunday’s game was supposed to be a cupcake, a layup, a forgone conclusion. Minnesota was going to whip the Browns and then head to London with a 1-2 record and tons of positive momentum.

Unfortunately, somebody forgot to tell the Browns. Brian Hoyer was easily the best quarterback on the field. Although he was making only his second NFL start, he calmly sliced up the Minnesota secondary and completed 30 of 54 passes for 321 yards, three touchdowns, and three interceptions. The Browns’ front seven constantly harassed Christian Ponder, sacking him six times and making the pocket a danger zone. On special teams, the Browns fooled the Vikings twice. First they faked a punt late in the first half for a 28-yard gain and an eventual field goal. Then, after Christian Ponder was intercepted on the next series, Cleveland drove from the Vikings 38 and stalled with a fourth-and-four on the 11 yard line. Somehow, Browns tight end Jordan Cameron was able to sneak over to the right sideline. Nobody in purple noticed, and Cameron was wide open when Cleveland holder Spencer Lanning hit him with a touchdown pass that put the Browns up 24-14 at halftime.

There are a lot of things to pick apart after a loss like this, but the Vikings’ biggest problem was third down. Minnesota couldn’t convert them on offense or get off the field in third down situations on defense. This was especially damaging when the game was on the line late in the fourth quarter. The Vikings’ offense had two drives where all they had to do was get a first down to ice the game. They responded with two three and outs, and Ponder missed a wide-open Greg Jennings on third-and-four with under four minutes left and the Vikings ahead by three points. All the dapperly dressed Ponder could say in the post-game interview was: “I missed him.” No wonder the fans booed every incompletion and started chanting Matt Cassel’s name in the second half.

To be fair to Ponder, the Minnesota offensive line had another sieve-like performance. Right tackle Phil Loadholdt was an open tollbooth at right end, and guards Brandon Fusco and Charlie Johnson’s pictures will probably end up on milk cartons. There was so much pressure up the middle that Ponder couldn’t step up in the pocket and usually had only about two seconds to throw. He didn’t use the time well.

Injuries in the secondary were costly to the Viking’s defensive performance. Chris Cook is a delicate flower who can’t stay on the field. He left early in the game with a groin injury and was soon joined by AJ Jefferson (ankle) and Jamarca Sanford (hamstring). Diminutive Rochester John Marshall graduate Marcus “The Little Engine that Could” Sherels came in and delivered a brave performance. He tackles like a poor man’s Antoine Winfield, but is too small to cover most NFL receivers.

Leslie Frazier is a disciple of the Tampa II “bend but don’t break” defense that is dependent on getting pressure from the front four while the defensive backs make tackles after short passes caught in front of them. Unfortunately, the 2013 version of the Vikings has shown no inclination to rush the passer consistently or tackle reliably. When the team was able to put pressure on Hoyer, the inexperienced quarterback responded with three interceptions. For most of the game, however, he had six to seven seconds to throw, and looked like the second coming of Joe Montana.

Only three teams since 1990 have made the playoffs after starting with a 0-3 record, and none have made the Super Bowl. Conventional wisdom says that Rick Spielman and the Vikings brain trust won’t make any major personnel moves until the bye week in week five. After three years, Christian Ponder has proven that even at his best, he is only an adequate NFL quarterback. Leslie Frazier is a stubborn head coach who is painfully conservative and has a history of not being able to make in-game adjustments or get his teams ready to play. Based on Sunday’s red flag incident, he also doesn’t have a knowledge of the NFL rule book. If the Vikings are 0-4 after the London trip, I say it’s time for desperate measures…and may the fish and chips fall as they may.  


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