Donovan McNabb's 39 yards passing make him an easy target of blame for the Vikings' season-opening 24-17 loss to the San Diego Chargers, but there is so much more blame to go around.
Vikings coaches and player alluded to the shared-blame theory on Monday, but after finishing a play-by-play examination of the tape, they are right on the money. Here are some of the other things that went wrong:
McNabb's protection – From the first offensive snap on, there were issues in blocking for McNabb. On his first pass, an audibled quick hitter to Percy Harvin in the flat, outside linebacker Shaun Phillips should have been cut down by left tackle Charlie Johnson, but instead Phillips was able to jump up, tip the ball and intercept it, setting up a game-tying touchdown. But it didn't end there. On the second series, center John Sullivan didn't pick up a stunt on third down and the pressure up the middle forced a quick pass to Adrian Peterson that came up short of a first down. The Vikings' third series was their most extensive drive of the game, but there were missed blocks. Steve Hutchinson couldn't hold out defensive tackle Antonio Garay on one of McNabb's two sacks, and one play later Johnson was beat around the end, forcing McNabb to scramble for 23 yards (things unfolded similarly on the first drive of the second half when McNabb had to scramble for 10 yards because of pressure from Johnson's defender). And when the Vikings still had a chance to win on their final series, facing second-and-8, Garay slid between Sullivan and Anthony Herrera to trip up Peterson for a 2-yard loss. Antwan Barnes finished the job on the next play when he got enough of an edge to trip up McNabb for the Vikings' final offensive play.
An offense that didn't adjust – Vikings defenders had a simple explanation for why they weren't able to sack Philip Rivers more than two times despite blitzing more than 20 times on pass plays and bringing pressure from all areas – linebackers inside and out, cornerbacks from the slot and outside, and safeties up the middle. The reason? San Diego was patient with a short passing game. The Vikings, meanwhile, couldn't get their passing game going. Much of that had to do with McNabb not having enough time, but there weren't many draw plays or even play-action passes to try to keep the defense honest. Those lamenting the lack of screens, however, might note that there were a few screens attempted, and even then McNabb had to rush the throw or throw the ball away because he was pressured before the play could be set up.
Blitz-happy philosophy that didn't get home – Chad Greenway said in training camp that defensive coordinator Fred Pagac would likely be selective in his blitzing aggression, and Greenway even mentioned that it is hard to blitz a guy like Rivers. The Vikings tried, but they didn't get Rivers to the ground often enough. It was interesting to watch the tape and see the many ways Pagac tried to pressure Rivers. The only defensive starter we didn't see come on a blitz was CB Cedric Griffin. Chris Cook came from the outside on one occasion, Antoine Winfield from the slot, Jamarca Sanford and Husain Abdullah on delays up the middle, and the linebacker were used often. The Vikings even sent as many as eight rushers on one snap and seven on the next in a frenzy before halftime. They sacked Rivers twice, once on a four-man rush with the sack shared by Brian Robison and Jared Allen, and once when Erin Henderson got to Rivers on a blitz. While the pressure didn't usually create a sack, it may have helped rush Rivers enough – it's impossible to know if the results would have been better or worse than 335 yards passing the Chargers had if the Vikings defense wasn't as aggressive.
Missed tackles – Leslie Frazier said his defense has to accept some of the blame for being on the field for 77 plays. He's right. There were several missed tackles, including a couple of uncharacteristic ones from Winfield. The Chargers' longest play of the game, a 37-yard pass play to Ryan Mathews was the result of missed tackles by Winfield and Sanford on the opening drive of the second half. The Chargers' other productive back, Mike Tolbert, made the Vikings pay on back-to-back plays later in that same drive. On third-and-9, Tolbert caught a short pass and was able to gain just enough yardage by slipping a tackle attempt by Greenway and having enough power to push Cook the remaining necessary distance for a first down. On the next play, Winfield and Erin Henderson missed Tolbert and the bruising back ran over Sanford on his way to the end zone to pull the Chargers within three points, 17-14, early in the third quarter. On back-to-back drives in the fourth quarter, nose tackle Remi Ayodele missed tackles at the line of scrimmage on runs of 13 and 11 yards by Tolbert and Matthews, respectively.
Penalties – The Chargers were statistically better than the Vikings in a number of areas, and penalties were a decided advantage for them, especially when the game counted. The Vikings actually entered halftime with one fewer penalty (three) than the Chargers, but San Diego wasn't assessed for a second-half penalty while the Vikings had six. Three of them helped close out the game for the Chargers when Letroy Guion jumped twice on the final drive. One play after he replaced Guoin, Fred Evans was the final victim of Rivers' hard count, giving the Chargers their second first down by penalty on the drive and allowing them to kneel for a victory. But the costly penalties started before that. The game-tying drive was started 15 yards closer to field goal range when Eric Frampton was flagged for a horse-collar tackle on the punt return, and the game-winning drive was helped by a late hit out of bounds from Griffin – both 15-yard penalties.
The lack of a passing game was certainly a culprit in the Vikings' loss, but with so many areas to correct and holding a lead for most of the game on the road against last year's No. 1 offense and defense, there is actually plenty of optimism for the glass-half-full crowd and plenty of ammunition for the glass-half-empty group.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Mistakes ran much deeper than McNabb
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