Perception, Reality, And The Past Two Games

Julian Finney

This past week, I didn't get an opportunity to do a post about the Pro Football Focus grades for the Week Three loss to the Cleveland Browns the way I had the past two weeks. I apologize for that, but in a way it appears that it was a good thing that I didn't.

Why is that? Because PFF's grades for yesterday's victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers are up on their site, and there is at least one parallel that I think folks are going to find interesting. . .or they'll completely ignore it and come to the conclusion that the PFF stats really don't mean anything.

We'll start with the Cleveland game, and specifically the offense. The Vikings had five players in the "red" on offense against Cleveland, including three that graded above -2.0. Those three players were left guard Charlie Johnson, quarterback Christian Ponder, and tight end Kyle Rudolph. Ponder graded out at a -2.4 for the entire game, but actually graded out as a +2.3 in the run game, as he picked up numerous key first downs with his legs late in the game. Phil Loadholt and Charlie Johnson each also found themselves in the red, and between the two of them they were credited with allowing three of Cleveland's six sacks and eight of their eleven quarterback hurries.

The Vikings also put four players in the "green" on offense against Cleveland, with guard Brandon Fusco being the team's highest-graded offensive player overall at +2.0. He was joined in the green by Adrian Peterson, Zach Line, and Cordarrelle Patterson.

On defense, the Vikings had six players wind up in the "red," with the most prominent among them being defensive end Jared Allen. Allen actually graded out at a -4.9 against Cleveland because. . .well, to put it politely, he spent all afternoon getting straight-up clowned by Browns' offensive tackle Joe Thomas. In 52 pass rushing attempts, Allen was credited with just one hurry. I know that Thomas is great. . .probably the best offensive tackle in football. . .but if you're the highest-paid defensive player in football (which Allen is, based on cap figures), you have to beat that guy every once in a while.

Josh Robinson (-3.0) and A.J. Jefferson (-2.4) also graded pretty terribly against Cleveland. Jefferson's grade is particularly hideous considering he was only on the field for seven defensive snaps. The other Vikings players that found themselves in the red were Everson Griffen, Jamarca Sanford, and Letroy Guion. The three Vikings defenders that went "green" against Cleveland were Marcus Sherels (whose performance we highlighted after the game), Desmond Bishop, and Chad Greenway.

So, moving on to the victory over the Steelers, let me address the parallel between the two games that I mentioned earlier. The Vikings put three players on offense into the "red" against the Steelers on Sunday. . .take a moment and see if you can figure out who those three are before I give you the names. Go ahead, I'll wait.

...

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Okay, got your names? Well, here are the answers.

The Vikings' offensive player with the third-worst grade was John Sullivan at -1.7. He graded out particularly poorly in run blocking to get that grade. He wasn't the Vikings' worst run blocker on Sunday, though. . .according to PFF, that distinction goes to Matt Kalil.

The second-worst grade goes to the returning Jerome Felton at -2.5. I'm sure that a lot of that has to do with rust, but his run blocking grade was worse than Sullivan's (though still not as bad as Kalil's).

And the worst grade on offense from Sunday's victory? None other than quarterback Matt Cassel at -3.7. To put that in context, Christian Ponder's three grades from PFF this season have been -3.3, +1.2, and the aforementioned -2.4. So, based on PFF's grading system, Cassel's performance on Sunday was the worst by a Vikings' quarterback this season.

"But, how can that be," you say? "The Vikings won the ball game!" Yes. . .yes, they did. But let's be honest. . .Cassel did get a couple of breaks. Steelers' defensive back Ike Taylor should have had two interceptions in the first half off of Cassel. One of them didn't happen thanks to a heads-up play by Cordarrelle Patterson, and the other one didn't happen because. . .well, for as good a cover corner as Ike Taylor is (and he is a very good one), the man has hands like feet.

Cassel also had a pretty brutal first half, completing just six-of-fifteen passes, but on one of those passes, Greg Jennings went 70 yards thanks to some pretty horrific tackling. On the pass, he caught it for what would have been a gain of five, came to a complete stop, reversed field, and went the remaining 65 yards. That play, folks, was all Jennings. Lord knows we've seen that guy do that to the Vikings enough times, and it was certainly nice to see him do it for them instead.

There was also a play that saw Cassel get hit and put the ball on the turf, with the pigskin taking a fortuitous bounce to Jerome Simpson for a Minnesota first down. That play is not just worthy because of the fumble, but that was the only time that Matt Cassel got hit all. . .day. . .long. Here are the figures from the first four games, per PFF.

Detroit game - 2 quarterback sacks, 1 quarterback hit, 15 quarterback hurries
Chicago game - 1 quarterback sack, 2 quarterback hits, 7 quarterback hurries
Cleveland game - 6 quarterback sacks, 3 quarterback hits, 11 quarterback hurries
Pittsburgh game - 0 quarterback sacks, 0 quarterback hits, 2 quarterback hurries

In this game, four of the five starting offensive linemen (all but Sullivan) graded in the "green" for their pass blocking, but really. . .as our friends from Behind the Steel Curtain point out. . .the Steelers' defense really just isn't very good. They're the only defense in the NFL that hasn't generated a turnover this season (and, as mentioned, the Vikings certainly gave them a couple of chances to rectify that), and they've generated a league-low four sacks in their first four games this season.

Overall, the Vikings had five offensive players in the "green" against Cleveland. They were (from highest to lowest) Phil Loadholt, Brandon Fusco, Charlie Johnson, Jerome Simpson, and Greg Jennings.

Defensively, the grade sheet looks pretty ugly for the Vikings, as they put six players in the "red" compared to just two in the green. Cornerback Josh Robinson, with a -5.7, has the lowest grade given to any Vikings player on either side of the ball for a game this season, and just repeatedly got abused. He also took a dumb 47-yard pass interference penalty on a pass to Antonio Brown that was uncatchable, but Robinson felt the need to tackle Brown anyway. Erin Henderson found himself at a -4.0, and even Harrison Smith got dinged a bit as he came in with a -3.4 grade for the day. Brian Robison, Mistral Raymond (making his season debut) and Sharrif Floyd found themselves below -1.0 as well.

The two Vikings' defenders that found themselves in the green were Fred Evans (the Vikings' highest-graded defender on the afternoon) and, of all people, Marvin Mitchell. Granted, Mitchell did only play ten snaps, but that's been enough to get him into the red previously this season, so at least it's a step in the right direction. The Vikings did sack Ben Roethlisberger five times on the afternoon and hurried him on 14 of his dropbacks, coming to life after basically being dormant the week before.

But despite the perceived step up in performance by the offense on Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings found themselves in the same situation they found themselves in the previous two Sundays. They failed to pick up what would have been a key first down late, and punted the ball back to the opponent with a one-score lead. Which meant that, once again, they left Viking fans everywhere to hold their breath, cross their fingers, and hope like hell that the Vikings' defense could do the one thing they had completely failed at doing the previous two weeks.

And the defense nearly let it happen again, letting the Steelers get 72 of the 78 yards that they needed to reach the end zone. Eventually, however, Everson Griffen got his first sack of the year, Roethlisberger coughed it up, and the Vikings avoided what would have been a third-straight last-minute drive that would have, at best, tied the game.

I get that people are excited about the Vikings getting their first win of the season. . .believe me, I am, too. Winning is always better than losing, regardless of the circumstances. But the reality is that, from top to bottom, the performance that the Minnesota Vikings put on at Wembley Stadium on Sunday was really no different from the performance that they put on in the previous three games. On Sunday, they were playing an opponent that refused to take advantage of what the Vikings were trying to give them.

I hope that they can carry things on into their next game against the Carolina Panthers and through the rest of the season as well. At this point, I honestly don't know what Leslie Frazier will do at the quarterback position against the Panthers, though I have a feeling that if he goes back to Christian Ponder, the faithful are going to have the torches, pitchforks, tar and feathers at the ready. Frazier said after the game that Ponder "is still our quarterback," but I've got a feeling that he's going to end up riding the proverbial "hot hand." How "hot" Cassel's hand actually is at this time is debatable, in my opinion, but I'm not the coach of the Minnesota Vikings, either. But if I were a gambling man, I'd wager that we haven't seen the last of Christian Ponder this season.

But, the rather long-winded point that I'm going for here is that, again, things really weren't terribly different this week from what they were last week or the week before. Professional football is, as it's always been, a team game. This week, the team managed to cobble together a solid enough game in all phases to emerge victorious. The previous three weeks, they did not. And if they're going to win going forward, they still need more consistent play behind center (regardless of who's back there), and the defense most certainly has to play a whole lot better than they have the first month of the season.

If nothing else, it's going to be an interesting couple of weeks between now and Carolina.

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