Sunday, September 29, 2013

Cassel leads Vikings to a 34-27 London Victory

Daniel House highlights a 34-27 win versus the Pittsburgh Steelers in the confines of beautiful London, England. Where do the Vikings go from here and is there a quarterback controversy? Daniel House discusses this and more in his game analysis.

It was a tough road for the Vikings as they entered week four of the 2013 regular season. Dropping their first three games in dramatic fashion, the Vikings flew to London for a matchup against the winless Steelers. The drama surrounding this team can be put aside for the time being and the Vikings can fly back to the United States with a 34-27 win under their belts, but several areas will be monitored during the bye week.

I've been brutally honest over the first three weeks of the Vikings 2013 campaign and have voiced my honest opinions. The coaching staff has been questioned, quarterback play has been referenced, but today I answered one of my biggest debates. Christian Ponder was drafted 12th overall in the 2011 NFL draft as the project for the future. In three seasons at the helm, Ponder has shown he can be a game manager, but fails to be elite. This team is heading in the direction where a decision must be made, about how the team wants to move forward at the position. Ponder suffered a rib injury in week three versus the Browns and missed Sunday's game, paving the way for Vikings backup Matt Cassel to get the start. Cassel finished the day 16 of 25 for 248 yards and two touchdowns, along with zero turnovers, which is something the Vikings haven't done since a week 16 matchup versus Green Bay last year. The more impressive stat was his perfect 10 of 10 completion rate and a great 120 yards passing in the second half. He did overthrow two balls and fumbled forward, but the ball was recovered for a Vikings first down. Nonetheless, Matt Cassel had complete command of this team from the start, was vocal on the sidelines, and led this team in the best possible way. Don't get me wrong, Christian Ponder is a great guy, but he is too nice when it comes to leading this team. During one sequence in the 4th quarter, Cassel appeared to check into a pass play and then quickly connected with receiver Jerome Simpson for a nine-yard gain and a great third-down conversion. Two weeks prior, Ponder told reporters he was not allowed to check out of a run play called when he handed off to running back Adrian Peterson on a 3rd-and-goal in a late-game debacle at Chicago. Does this indicate the coaching staff has more confidence in Cassel's leadership abilities? The playbook seemed to be open this week and I liked some of the things that were done from an offense standpoint.

Today, the Vikings took two shots deep in the first quarter, one to Jerome Simpson and Cordarrelle Patterson, which took some relief off the defenders in the box. Ponder hasn't been able to alleviate pressure in the box and has had moments where teams piled eight man fronts at a 36% clip. In contrast, Matt Cassel faced an eight man front just 7.7% of the time today. In this sequence, he converted on 7 of 10 passes for 77 yards. With Cassel at quarterback, the Vikings busted on big plays of 60 and 70 yards from Peterson and Jennings, respectively. Cassel alleviated eight man fronts, which in turn provided Adrian Peterson with huge lanes to run. Peterson had 6.45 yards per carry on 104 runs vs. defenses with 8+ in the box in 2012. Furthermore, AP was just behind Frank Gore (42.5%) as he faced an eight man box 29.9% of the time last year. The chart below explains this in closer context:

Adrian Peterson's 2012 Season (via ESPN Stats & Info)
Run Type
Fewer than 8 in the box
8+ in the box

How does this relate to Ponder? It shows the amount of time defenses are in eight man fronts, which shifts all attention to stopping Adrian Peterson, forcing Ponder to beat the opposing secondary. Cassel proved in limited action that he can help lower this trend and take pressure of Peterson. This team has the bye week to evaluate the best course of action, but Leslie Frazier addressed the quarterback situation after the game.

"Our quarterback is Christian Ponder," stated Frazier.

He went on to say the team has 'a lot of things to talk about during bye week.'

Frazier is handling the approach that any head coach would take in this situation and won't throw Ponder under the bus immediately following a game. Frazier wants to take a second look at the game via film and analyze Cassel's strengths and weaknesses before personally calling Christian Ponder into his office and making a decision.

The players were very vocal after the game and expressed their pleasure with Cassel's performance today.

"Cassel, he's more vocal," running back Adrian Peterson said via WCCO's postgame show. "You could tell guys were buying into it."

"It's going to be tough for (coaches), it's a good thing we have a bye week coming up. I'm going to do my job, let coaches sort things out."

Jerome Felton was pleased with how things went with Matt Cassel and said the offense reaped the benefits from the passing game.

"Just confidence in the huddle, (Cassel) did a good job controlling the huddle and running our offense efficiently," Fullback Jerome Felton said via WCCO's postgame show. "Obviously our run game played well and he made some plays in the passing game for us."

There is absolutely no way Leslie Frazier will look leaders such as Adrian Peterson and Greg Jennings in the eye and say they are continuing the season with Ponder at quarterback. The energy he brought this team, the leadership he commanded, and the turnover free performance has awarded Matt Cassel the opportunity to be the starter of this team. More importantly, the team won't return home to the boos and negativity that would result in Ponder being awarded a start versus Carolina in week six.

On a side note, Jerome Simpson recorded 124 yards on seven catches, while becoming one of Matt Cassel's go-to receivers. He made several fantastic catches and ran crisp routes all day on Sunday. Simpson was targeted 11 times by Cassel and has proven he can be very sure handed as a receiver of this team.

The Vikings defense nearly caused the team to lose in the final moments of a game, but finally emerged and made the play in the final moments. Everson Griffen recorded a strip sack as the Steelers were in the red zone preparing to score and tie the game with seconds remaining. Today, the Vikings were without A.J. Jefferson, Chris Cook, and Jamarca Sanford in the secondary, but the defense didn't rip at the seams. Marcus Sherels played well once again and the main focus was shifted to Josh Robinson who was exploited frequently on Sunday. He is better utilized in the slot, which should be the situation when Chris Cook returns after the bye week. The Vikings weakness is in the secondary and I believe they are in need of a player who can play well in coverage and more importantly, in edge run support. Many sources were saying this week that Antoine Winfield is working out in Houston and is mulling a potential return to the league. This is an ideal scenario for the Vikings and I would like to see him back in Minnesota as he is an upgrade in pass coverage and run support. I will be monitoring and assessing that situation this week.

From a defensive line standpoint, the Vikings front seven manhandled a Steelers offensive line that is aging and full of injuries. Jared Allen recorded 2.5 sacks and played like a man on a mission in London today. He was in the backfield and despite several missed holding calls on the Steelers offensive line, the Vikings pass rush made the plays necessary to win the game. Fred Evans had a great day and was brilliant in the interior of the Vikings defensive line. He made several great pass deflections and was great at applying interior pressure. The linebacker play improved today and I liked the things Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson did. Marvin Mitchell still has failed to become involved, but ultimately the running backs didn't explode on the Vikings today. If the secondary can become revitalized after the bye week, I firmly believe this defense can turn things around. The time of possession was a contribution to the whole equation and the Vikings defense was on the field a total of 36:27 on Sunday. This was due to all the big plays the Vikings offense created, which kept the ball out of Matt Cassel and the offense's hands.

The bye week has come at a great time and the Vikings entered 1-3 and with a few strands of luck, they could be 3-1. The defense cracked under pressure the first three weeks, but finally stood pat today in a critical moment in London. The next 5 games are favorable for this team and given a few adjustments and tweaks, this team can go on a major run. The next two weeks will be very important for the remainder of the season. Leslie Frazier and the coaching staff will need to decide whether they will invest interest into Christian Ponder, or if Matt Cassel will be the insurance policy over the next few weeks.

As I said last week, the ride is bumpy, but this week, the path is starting to get a bit wider and more smooth. Stay tuned.

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