First Down/Fourth Down: Joe Webb stumbles, DuJuan Harris thrives
For the Minnesota Vikings to be successful in Saturday night’s wild-card round game at Green Bay, minus starting QB Christian Ponder, they needed Joe Webb to be everything his best highlights showed him to be.
Which is: a terrific athlete, capable of making big plays with his feet and, occasionally, his arm.
Instead, what Minnesota got was the performance you might expect from a player who’s been relegated to a backup role all season. Webb looked the part of a No. 2 (or No. 3) quarterback in Minnesota’s 24-10 loss, showing next to no pocket awareness and misfiring — in some cases, comically — on most of his downfield passes.
In his first start of the season, Webb finished 11 of 30 for 180 yards with a QB rating of 54.9. And even those numbers are buoyed a great deal by the 103 rather meaningless yards he put up late.
Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers entered Saturday as the only starting NFC quarterback in this year’s playoffs with a postseason win. For any of the other contenders to take him down will require a top-notch effort.
Webb did not even come close Saturday, and the Vikings are headed home as a result.
Here’s what else stood out, for better or worse, during Green Bay’s emphatic win:
First Down: DuJuan Harris (and John Kuhn).
While the Vikings tried on multiple occasions early to get Webb involved through the air, the Packers came out pounding the ball. Harris finished with just 47 yards rushing, but he was instrumental in helping Green Bay take the lead early, scoring the game’s first touchdown on a terrific individual effort.
He also caught five passes, and Kuhn found his way into the end zone through the air and on the ground, though he also failed to score a third touchdown on two carries from the Minnesota 1. The run game was a help for Green Bay in this win, and it could pay huge dividends going forward.
Fourth Down: Every Vikings’ offensive player not named Adrian Peterson.
Webb, of course, will go down as the goat in the 24-10 loss, despite a late TD pass to Michael Jenkins. There is plenty of blame to go around, though, for everyone other than Peterson.
The Vikings’ remarkable running back scrapped his way to 99 yards on 22 carries — by far Green Bay’s best effort against him in three games this season. He may have gone well over that number, too, if Webb or any of the Vikings’ other weapons (a term used loosely here) had helped.
Aside from Jenkins’ touchdown, which came on a busted coverage, the Vikings could not find any open space against the Packers’ defense. Add in misplaced throw after misplaced throw from Webb, and the outcome was set.
First Down: Clay Matthews and Erik Walden.
At least on paper, Webb’s elusiveness made him a danger for Green Bay’s defense. After Minnesota’s opening drive, however, which Webb kept alive with a nifty 17-yard pickup on a zone-read option, the Packers kept him mostly in check.
Walden delivered the goods early — he nearly forced an interception with pressure to end Minnesota’s second drive, then took down Webb for a third-down sack late prior to halftime. Matthews also had a sack (though it came when Webb fell over him), and later forced a fumble by Webb on a fourth down.
Webb snuck out of the pocket for a couple nice runs, but the Packers’ front seven kept him mostly in check.
Fourth Down: Minnesota’s short pass coverage.
A defense can only do so much against Rodgers and the Packers. A hobbled Randall Cobb barely made an impact Saturday (one catch for seven yards), but Rodgers still had Jermichael Finley, Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings and James Jones as options.
And the Vikings’ focus on those players, plus their desire to put pressure on Rodgers, left huge gaps underneath. Hence, five catches and 53 yards for Harris, and two grabs plus a receiving touchdown for John Kuhn.
But, again, what can you really do when you’re facing …
First Down: The Packers’ diverse passing attack.
Ten Packers caught passes from Rodgers in the win, and the two most athletic plays of all were delivered by the No. 2 tight end (Tom Crabtree) and a 250-pound back (John Kuhn).
Crabtree made a catch along the sideline and hurdled a Minnesota defender, while Kuhn caught a short pass over the middle and helicoptered his way into the end zone for six.
Fourth Down: Green Bay’s Week 17 performance.
This is nitpicking a bit, on a night when Green Bay looked the part of a legitimate NFC threat, but … had the Packers delivered a similar effort against Minnesota last week, Lambeau Field would have been empty until the divisional round.
The Packers’ Week 17 setback is understandable — Minnesota had more to play for, plus the added motivation of Adrian Peterson’s single-season rushing record quest. That loss still may linger into the offseason if Green Bay’s season ends in San Francisco.
First Down: Christian Ponder’s future.
There may still be lots of people out there dubious about Ponder’s ability to eventually take Minnesota the distance. What became pretty clear Saturday night, though, is that Ponder has no in-house competition for his starting gig.
Webb had shown some flashes of promise during his first two seasons with the Vikings — so much so that more than a handful of Minnesota fans clamored for him at QB, even at points this season. But Webb displayed for a national audience why Ponder held onto the job.
Webb has a strong arm and electrifying potential as a runner, but he’s far from a capable NFL quarterback. Barring a major roster move this offseason, the Vikings will head into 2013 with Ponder’s starting spot solidified.
Fourth Down: The first day of the playoffs.
Granted, the Bengals had the ball down six late, so there was at least a little drama in the AFC playoff opener. Unfortunately, all in all, Saturday’s action was pretty underwhelming.
That Cincinnati-Houston game quickly devolved into one where neither offense (especially the Bengals’) looked all that comfortable. And the nightcap was more or less over from the moment Green Bay took a 7-3 lead.
Sunday brings a couple of promising matchups in Indianapolis-Baltimore and Seattle-Washington. Football fans everywhere will cross their fingers that the action is a little more entertaining.