Sunday slant: More than a simple win needed

Everything about the Browns seems ripe for the picking and Vikings players need a football feast. After two losses to start the season, the Vikings could use a big win to grow some confidence and avoid an internal slow burn or, worse yet, complete meltdown.

The problems of the present can quickly be swept away at the drop of the next Sunday in the NFL. At least that's what the Minnesota Vikings have to be hoping as their focus sharply turns to their home opener after two road rashes.

They have advanced from an erratically awful season opener to a gut-punching final drive in Chicago to what should be a role reversal as the ungracious hosts of the Cleveland Browns. Time and again over the last several days we've heard analysts say that it doesn't matter how much the Vikings win by, just that they win. In in word, after all that has happened this week: poppycock.

A win by one or a win by 21 will count the same in the standings, but not in the minds of players or fans. Sure, the Browns still have a formidable defense, but if the Vikings are going to allow a quarterback (Brian Hoyer) making his second NFL start and first as a Brown and a 31-year-old running back (Willis McGahee) that was just signed Thursday hang around in the Metrodome, it won't be convincing that Leslie Frazier's squad going forward is any better than the team that found a way to blow a six-point lead in three minutes after failing to get into the end zone from first-and-goal at the six.

In this game, only a convincing win will assure fans and, more importantly, players that there is still hope of a return to the postseason. Fans and players need a big win for many reasons.

For fans, this truly is a league based on the mentality of "what have you done for me lately." And, lately, the Vikings haven't done much. Their last win was a huge one – against Green Bay to get into the playoffs. You remember, right?

It was the win where Christian Ponder actually played well. He wasn't just avoiding being a negative difference-maker in a loss and wasn't just a game manager. He took charge, even after taking a helmet to his throwing arm that bruised so badly he could hardly lift it a week later. No, in that regular-season finale against the Packers in the Metrodome, Ponder was a leader that played with poise and precision. He threw three touchdowns. Perhaps just as important, he chucked no mind-numbing interceptions and finished with a career-best 120.2 rating.

Ponder had found his poise. Even if he had to sit out his first playoff experience, he ended his second season with plenty of promise. He hadn't thrown an interception in his final three games and had taken only four sacks.

Now, after the first six quarters of the 2013 season that ranged from brutal to blasé, Ponder has a chance to regain a modicum of respect. The Browns enter the Metrodome with the league's fourth-best run defense and know that Adrian Peterson is the Vikings' offensive focus and better at home, averaging 110 yards rushing per game there versus 90 on the road.

Ponder is also better at home, throwing 20 touchdowns to 15 interceptions while having more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (13) on the road. This could be Ponder's chance to earn the respect of a home-town crowd and initiate them on what a healthy Jerome Simpson, a converted Packer like Greg Jennings and an exciting rookie like Cordarrelle Patterson can do when the ball is delivered on time and on target.

It's also an opportunity for the defense to get it right. Ponder is easy to pick on when he makes a back-breaking blunder, but the defenders could just as easily have tomatoes tossed at them.

All week long, players and coaches offered varying levels of responsibility and blame for breakdowns. Head coach Leslie Frazier said he should have interceded more on defense. Defensive coordinator Alan Williams insists that defenders were playing the same defense. Both of those tactical approaches might be partly truth and partly protection plan for players.

The truth is, there was plenty of confusion on defense in the two plays that hurt the Vikings worst. Exactly who is to blame still isn't crystal clear as players clearly were closing ranks, leaving some guesswork for those looking to play the blame game. Was Erin Henderson supposed to follow Martellus Bennett on a crossing route that gained 23 yards on first-and-20 or was Chad Greenway or Chris Cook supposed to be in that zone? Three plays later, Cook was clearly signaling for help to his side of the field on Bennett's game-winning touchdown, but was Greenway supposed to offer assistance, was Harrison Smith too far to the other side of the defense as the single-high safety or was Jamarca Sanford supposed to be back in a Cover-2 look instead of crowding the line of scrimmage and leaving Smith to guess where help was needed most? Take your pick on any of those choices for those two coverage breakdowns and you have less than a 50 percent chance of being right.

At this point it doesn't matter as long as the problems are rectified and not repeated later.

Some reporters, analysts and talk-show hosts are prone to sound the warnings sirens at the slightest sluggishness. I'm not one for that kind of weekly hyperbole, but if the Vikings don't get it right with a resounding win Sunday, hit the bunkers. The Gjallarhorn will turn into an air-raid siren. Duck for cover! The season will be buried and jobs will be on the line.


  • The Browns have already allowed 51 quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, but there is reason to believe they could be better against the Vikings. First, one of the criticisms on now-traded RB Trent Richardson is that he was weak in pass protection. Second, Hoyer cut his NFL teeth under Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, so you have to believe getting rid of the ball quickly was an emphasis in New England.

  • How much did it help to have Kevin Williams back in the lineup last Sunday? "Just great to see him in uniform, being back," coordinator Alan Williams said. "He's a guy that I said before: offenses won't give him anything new. The schemes, he's seen them. The blocking schemes, he's seen them before. The situation that this league is, a situational football league, he's been in before. He brings a calming presence to the group when maybe the situation is not so calming. It's good to have him back. He played well and I'm looking forward to him maybe picking up some reps this week."

  • If fans were looking for a sign that Ponder is progressing, check his awareness in the pocket. Last week, he made major strides by stepping up in the pocket and not bailing to his left or right at the first sign of trouble. That had him throwing with better accuracy and pushing off his back foot. If it continues, that's a good sign.

    "I think his pocket awareness and getting comfortable has grown each and every year," offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said.

    "It's always emphasized. That's part of a good passing game is having guys be able to deliver from the pocket and carve up a defense."

  • The Browns took a refreshing but unorthodox approach to their personnel changes last week. They announced on Wednesday that Hoyer would be the starter when many teams would have kept the competition guessing until at least Friday. And then Wednesday night they announced that Willis McGahee was coming to Cleveland for a physical in advance of signing him. That gave the Vikings Wednesday night to watch film of him before he even signed with the Browns as Richardson's replacement.

  • If you thought the Vikings were a young team, we present the Browns. They have led the league each of the last two years for starts by rookies. In 2011, the Browns had 66 starts by rookies. Last year, they had 87, the most of any NFL team since 1999 … when the Browns had 88. Slowly, that is changing. Their season opener against Miami was the first time in 65 games that they didn't have a rookie in the starting lineup. Their average age of 25.25 years old and average experience of 2.94 years are both the lowest in the AFC. They also have the fewest players over 30 – three of them – in the league.

  • One week after getting burned twice in the final drive, including a touchdown reception, by TE Martellus Bennett, the Vikings have to be wary of another tight end. Browns tight end Jordan Cameron had nine catches for 108 yards in the season opener and five catches for 95 yard in Week 2. He leads the Browns with 14 catches and 203 receiving yards and trails only Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints for the most receiving yards by an NFL tight end this season.

    Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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