After starting the season 4-0, the Arizona Cardinals have now dropped three in a row and, after finding ways to win earlier in the season, their struggles are quickly catching up to them. Key errors from John Skelton stalled drives and flat out gifted points to the Minnesota Vikings, who prevailed despite their own quarterback’s miscues.
It wasn’t a performance that will strike much fear into their NFC North rivals in what is shaping up to be a close battle for the division crown. However, the Vikings can take heart from the fact that the running game was able to pick up the slack for an anemic passing attack, and a defense that apparently just didn’t feel like tackling.
It was hardly a game for the ages, with more errors than impressive plays, but it still featured more than enough talking points. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the key performances, both good and bad, from this all NFC matchup.
Arizona – Three Performances of Note
Good News, Bad News
The good news for the Cardinals’ offensive line was how much success they had as a run-blocking unit on Sunday. With the team averaging 4.8 yards per carry on the ground, every offensive lineman finished the game with a positive grade as a run blocker. The bad news, however, is that the team’s starting offensive tackles continue to be nothing short of offensive in pass protection. Making Cardinals fans yearn for the days of Levi Brown, Bobby Massie and D’Anthony Batiste combined to allow 16 of the team’s 22 pressures allowed. Coming into Week 7 the pair was already our lowest ranked offensive tackles in terms of Pass Blocking Efficiency (PBE). That’s unlikely to change after this week, with PBE Ratings of 81.4 and 89.0 respectively. That’s not good enough for any team, but when your young quarterback struggles under pressure like Skelton does, it doesn’t bode well for the remainder of the season.
While he looked solid when he had time in the pocket, Skelton continues to make the sort of errors that just leave you scratching your head. He started the game well enough and, despite not doing anything to blow you away, did very little wrong in the first half. That was blown to pieces at the beginning of the second half, however, as he handed Harrison Smith and the Vikings what wound up being the winning score. Facing 3rd-and-6 with 14:17 left in the third quarter Skelton failed to see Smith, who was lined up directly behind middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley at the snap, and tried to force the ball to Early Doucet. Trailing by just seven points, and with an entire half of football left to play, there really was no need for Skelton to force that throw. He finished the game by making some solid throws but plays like that, and the sack he took on 4th-and-2 with 7:47 left in the same quarter, show how Skelton’s decision making continues to fall apart under pressure.
After I claimed he hadn’t shown anything as more than a kick returner in last week’s Secret Superstars feature, LaRod Stephens-Howling (+3.8) went out and produced the performance of his career. Finishing the game with an Elusive Rating of 167.3 after forcing 11 missed tackles on 24 touches as a runner and receiver, he gave the Vikings’ defenders fits all afternoon. While it’s true that the Vikings didn’t make things too difficult for him, with some of the worst tackling you’re likely to see this season (Brinkley alone had five missed tackles), credit has to be given to ‘Hyphen’ for his big day, with one play in particular sticking out. On 1st-and-10 with 14:03 left in the third quarter he somehow managed to keep his balance at the first-down marker after being hit by two Vikings defenders. Four cuts, and four missed tackles later Brinkley was able to drag him down after a 27-yard gain. A memorable play from a not so memorable game.
Minnesota – Three Performances of Note
Dominance in the Running Game
While they didn’t struggle like their opponents when it came to pass blocking, the Vikings’ offensive line had the same success in the running game. Both the line and running back Adrian Peterson (+2.6) were utterly dominant as they ran the ball at will for most of the contest. Peterson’s best run came on 2nd-and-11 with 6:41 left in the third quarter as a nice cut, and two impressive blocks by Charlie Johnson and John Sullivan, saw him through the hole at the line of scrimmage. That alone gave him an easy first down, but he carried on for a 27-yard gain after breaking through a Rashad Johnson attempted tackle. It didn’t seem to matter much which direction the team ran either, collecting a yards per carry average of 6.0 or better through five gaps on backfield runs.
Cornerbacks Stand Out
On a day when so many on the team forget everything they had ever learned about tackling, Antoine Winfield (+4.9) showed his importance once again. In coverage he allowed nine catches for 90 yards from the 11 throws into his coverage. That, however, didn’t take the shine away from a very impressive display with seven of his 10 tackles resulting in defensive stops, and three coming against the run to give him a Run Stop Percentage of 11.5%. Opposite him, Chris Cook (+1.2) had a solid day in coverage that saw him targeted just three times from his 43 snaps in coverage, yielding two receptions for 20 yards and averaging out at just 0.48 yards allowed per snap in coverage.
Ponder’s Poor Day
Like his fellow quarterback on the opposite sideline, Christian Ponder had several throws that made you hold your head in your hands. Unlike Skelton though, he didn’t have as many decent throws to almost balance it out. His first interception came from a pass that was overthrown and thrown behind tight end Kevin Rudolph on 2nd-and-13 on the opening play of the second quarter. Yes he was under pressure, but to throw a pass that was picked-off 4 yards beyond, and 3 yards behind its intended target is inexcusable. Ponder’s second interception came with 14 seconds left in the same quarter. Again he was under pressure and this time he was even hit as he threw the ball, however, he had ample time to get rid of the ball before the hit came and did not need to force a play in that game situation. Fortunately for Ponder, on this occasion his poor execution and decision-making didn’t come back to haunt the Vikings. On another day, against a better team, the Vikings will be hard pressed to overcome this sort of display.
— Brian Robison managed an astonishing 10 combined sacks, hit and hurries as he went to work on Bobby Massie.
— 68 of the Cardinals’ 126 rushing yards came on their six runs off left end.
— The six passes thrown to Larry Fitzgerald were his second-lowest total of the season.
He may have had the help of some impressive run blocking from his offensive line, but Adrian Peterson’s five missed tackles forced added up to a 90.4 Elusive Rating and a win for the Vikings.
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