Letroy Guion's first NFL start went fine, right up until the final possession.
Guion's mistake, he said, was letting himself forget the situation. San Diego had the lead late in the game and needed a few first downs to run out the clock, and long snap counts were sure to come from Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers as an attempt for easy yards.
It worked: Guion jumped offside twice in the closing minutes of the season opener, with the Vikings trailing 24-17 and trying to get the ball back for one last chance to tie the game.
"I've just got to do a better job of being focused late in the game," Minnesota's fourth-year defensive tackle said this week.
The pair of 5-yard penalties was costly. Guion's first infraction, on second-and-3, gave the Chargers a first down at their 46-yard line. The second pushed San Diego to the Minnesota 37. Fellow defensive tackle Fred Evans followed his teammate's gaffe and was called for encroachment on the first play after the two-minute warning, giving the Chargers the ball at the 30 with no timeouts left for the Vikings.
"Mistakes happen," Evans said. "You can only learn from it and make yourself better."
The way the Vikings were sputtering on offense, scoring a touchdown in the waning minutes didn't look likely. But those three crippling penalties made an otherwise-decent performance by the defensive line look a little less impressive. Guion was filling in for suspended stalwart Kevin Williams, who is set to return next week after sitting out for a three-year-old positive test for a banned weight-loss drug. Evans shared time at the other tackle spot with the recently acquired Remi Ayodele.
Jared Allen and new starter Brian Robison applied plenty of pressure on the edge, and the Vikings had two sacks and forced Rivers into a pair of interceptions. There were some glaring missed tackles in the secondary on running backs Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert, but otherwise the Vikings effectively stopped the run — limiting the Chargers to 77 yards on 27 tries.
But sound defense can quickly be eroded by a lack of discipline and concentration when those traits truly count. Coach Leslie Frazier said the Vikings even talked to their players before that final drive about bracing for the likelihood of long snap counts to try to lure them offside.
"You know what the offense is going to try and do. For us not to execute in that situation was discouraging and something we have to be better at if we want to be a good team," Frazier said.
Allen wasn't ready to criticize Guion. He was more concerned about the team's overall performance.
"It happens. We've all jumped offside in our career," he said. "You'd like not to put yourself in that situation. We had a 10-point lead. We'd like to be in a spot where there is no hard count because they're not trying to run the clock out."
Guion was naturally down after the game.
"That just shows the guy wants to win," Allen said. "If he wasn't down, that's when I'd have a problem with it. It's just something you learn. It comes with the territory."
The Vikings sure aren't giving up on Guion, a quiet, polite Florida State player who was drafted in the fifth round in 2008. Playing behind Williams, a six-time Pro Bowl pick, Guion has steadily improved. His progress over the past few years has given the Vikings hope he can be a reliable run-stopper.
The coaching staff has lauded his explosiveness off the ball, a strength that, ironically, was at least indirectly responsible for those two penalties.
"I know he wanted to perform well," Frazier said. He added: "It's hard to fill the shoes of a Kevin Williams, and we tried to stress that to him: ‘Just be yourself and not feel like you have to be Kevin.'"
Guion, an avid fisherman whose post-career aspiration is to become a game warden, has tried to play with the kind of awareness required to be a successful outdoorsman. Learning from a standout like Williams has helped as he's grown as an NFL player. This week, he'll get another chance to prove himself against bruising LeGarrette Blount and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"Stop the run, and everything else will pretty much take care of itself," Guion said. "We just have to stand up again and play the run, and everything else will fall into place."
Guion looking to recover after penalties
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