In a game in which the Vikings were injured, outmanned and understaffed, it was clear Percy Harvin needed to have a big game.
With Adrian Peterson sidelined with a high ankle sprain, it seemed obvious that Harvin, the Vikings' third-year receiver, was going to be critical to the offense. Things started slowly for Harvin, but he picked it up as the game went along and was the biggest difference-maker on the field for much of the game.
"Without Adrian, one of the things that we wanted to be able to do was make sure we got Percy involved in a number of different ways," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "Coming back out of the half, we wanted to continue to do that and we had some opportunities down the field and we ended up hitting a big one on fourth-and-long. He's such a playmaker for us, but that was part of the strategy coming out of the half, try to stretch the field if we can."
In the first quarter, Harvin caught two screen passes, but they netted minus-4 yards. That would change as the game wore on. His 39-yard touchdown on a fourth-down play kept the Vikings' hopes alive, trailing 17-14 early in the fourth quarter. He finished the game with eight catches for 95 yards and a touchdown, putting him over the 50-reception mark for the third straight year, and rushed five times for 11 yards.
"They like to do kind of a different thing in their coverage, where they drop their (middle) linebacker as a safety deep and bring their other two safeties as kind of hook players," QB Christian Ponder said of his touchdown pass to Harvin. "I knew we had the matchup with Percy on their (middle) linebacker and I'd take that matchup every day. I'd take the matchup of Percy on anybody every day. I kind of underthrew him and he went back and made a great play."
Perhaps Harvin's biggest contribution came in the fourth quarter when he was put back in kick return formation for the first time in the game and took a kick seven yards deep in the end zone and returned it 104 yards to the Atlanta 3-yard line with the Vikings trailing 24-14 with 6:25 to play. While the Vikings weren't able to convert the huge return into points, it provided the team a spark it sorely needed late in the game. The play became the longest non-touchdown kickoff return in NFL history.
"Percy, you've heard me say it before, is just a special athlete, special person. He's been exemplary all throughout this year with the effort he's given us," Frazier said. "To play as hard as he plays – we rely on him so much – and then losing Adrian this week, going in he knew he would have to be a major factor for us.
"Here we are down 24-14 and we had talked before the game how we were going to use him on kickoff return. He said, ‘OK, coach, is this the one you want me to take?' I told (special teams coordinator Mike Priefer), ‘Let's let him do it. This is the time to do it.' And, boy, he delivers. That's just the way he is. He's a competitor, great player, but I don't know if you can measure how big his heart is and how much he wants to win. Glad he's on our football team."
The shorthanded Vikings needed to have a big game in order to have any chance of knocking off the Falcons. While it didn't happen, Harvin took over a leadership role with both the offense and special teams that couldn't be ignored. Harvin has always maintained that he is a complementary player who has followed the team leaders, but, even in defeat, it seems clear that Harvin is ready, willing and able to be a leader the Vikings sorely need moving forward.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
Harvin steps up in troubled times
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