After the opening minutes in Detroit Sunday, the Viking defense was a mirage. For a while, they were competitive in their season opening game in Detroit. And then the nightmare began.
The Viking defense systematically folded. On the other side of the ball, Christian Ponder threw three interceptions.
Whatever could go wrong, did. And the Vikings butchered their 2013 season opening game, although the comparatively tame margin of victory for the Lions, 34-24, didn’t reflect the depth of the mess.
Remarkably, for a few improbable minutes, it looked like a sequel to the Adrian Peterson odyssey of a year ago. The Detroit Lions, looking momentarily like the bumbling and ornery old Lions of the last 15 years, botched a simple field goal attempt near the Minnesota Viking goal line in the early moments.
And now every soul in the Ford Field arena was aware that on the first Vikings’ play after the Lions blew their first scoring chance, the Viking strategy would be to hand the ball to Adrian Peterson. The Lions knew new this, the television impresarios knew it and you undoubtedly knew it. The Vikings made no attempt to conceal it.
So they handed the ball to Adrian Peterson. He slipped a tackle near the line of scrimmage and burst into space after 10 yards. A few seconds later, he was standing in the Lions end zone 78 yards from where he started, leaving wheezing pursuers spread across the field. The NFL’s most valuable player was to score twice more, once more by land and another on a short pass from Ponder.
But his first touchdown was no augury of what was to follow. Leading 14-13 at the half, the Vikings caved in the face of quarterback Matthew Stafford’s aerials and a revived ground game geared to the speed and drive of Reggie Bush, the once-disgraced Heisman Trophy winner from Southern California who later played with mixed success for New Orleans and Miami in the National Football before signing with the Lions earlier this year.
Matched against the king of the NFL’s running backs Sunday, he finished in a virtual standoff, 90 yards on 21 carries to Adrian Peterson’s 93 in 18 that included a second touchdown run, of 4 yards. It stretched the Vikings lead to 14-6 in the second quarter before the Lions’ Joique Bell s scored from 2 yards out to narrow theViking lead to 14-13 and then again from a yard out to boost the Lions into a lead they never relinquished.
So the expectations of the 2013 Vikings’ fan multitudes took an opening day sock in the gut. The “Christian Ponder is not the answer” crowd undoubtedly won new voices and fed the suspicions of a lot of the charter members.
That number, unsurprisingly, does not include Coach Leslie Frazier.
It’s not only Christian,” he said afterward. “They did a better job of attacking us at the line of scrimmage.” The proof was the Lions’ dominance of the clock, 36 minutes alongside the Vikings 23; the Lions ran up total yardage of 469 to the Vikings’ 330, and superiority in the passing game , 352 yards to the Vikings to 225.
So was it a total washout?
Well, no. The Lions are hardly the rags-and-rotten-apples of the NFL. With Bush added to their striking force as both a breakaway runner and pass receiver, the Lions can play with anyone. Their heavyweights on the defensive line — Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley — are big enough and mean enough to qualify for government surveillance.
But it inevitably comes back to Ponder, fairly or not. His three interceptions did nothing to dissuade the crowded ranks of critics with their refrain that for all of his attractive personal qualities and the support of his teammates, he is not the man to lift the Vikings into serious contention — although he did just that in the final month of the 2012 season.
What Frazier was saying between the lines in the postgame Sunday was “Hey, it’s a little early to bury the guy.”
It’s early, and some of what Frazier saw Sunday had to take part of the sting out of the defeat. A critical block that launched Peterson on his length-of-the-field touchdown run was thrown by Rhett Ellison, standing in for the temporarily suspended Jerome Felton. Some of the younger players reacted well. And one game, in fact, is far too early. But good and winning quarterbacks have to take control of the huddle and some of the less tangible attributes that go with being “the guy who knows how to win.”
We may learn more next Sunday. This is still a four-team race in the National
Football League North. Next Sunday, they face a Chicago Bears team that Sunday gave Minnesota’s Mark Trestman a winning debut as a National Football League head coach in their victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
It may also reveal more of the young talent the Vikings have assembled this year, including Cordarelle Patterson, viewed by the Viking staff as a potential and lanky successor to Percy Harvin as both a deep receiver and kick-runback specialist. He debuted Sunday and looked like a handful for any secondary. But just as significant, Sunday was the re-appearance of Jerome Simpson as a possible major contributor to the Viking receiving corps.
What else? Jared Allen is still able to create misery for NFL quarterbacks, although he wasn’t proud of what he saw from his defense Sunday. Greg Jennings will be a pass-catching force, and the deep safety, Harrison Smith, is going to rattle the insides of a lot NFL pass catchers.
And Chicago would be a good place for Christian Ponder to settle in. The Bears’ Jay Cutler, with his tantrums along with his strong arm, may not be the best role model for him among NFL quarterbacks. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers is, but the Packers lost their opener to San Francisco and Colin Kaeperinick. All of which reinforces the growing wisdom that crisis time starts early in the National Football League.
If you need any evidence, consider the state of Christian Ponder’s Twitter account today.