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Vikings’ offense burdened by three-and-out syndrome

By Dan Wiederer, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) –

MINNEAPOLIS — Late in the first quarter last Thursday, a miffed Vikings fan paced in front of the Mall of America Field press box, demanding answers from offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and repeatedly shouting his vitriol up toward the coaches’ box.

It mattered not that Musgrave calls his plays from the sideline, which meant the jeers literally were being cast in the wrong direction. Still, the fan, while certainly more outraged than most, seemed to be voicing what the rest of the home crowd was muttering.

“Hey Musgrave! This is some offense we’ve got there. Really something! Three-and-out, three-and-out, three-and-out!”

Indeed, the Vikings began their 36-17 loss to Tampa Bay with three possessions that netted 6 yards and zero first downs. Three-and-out, three-and-out, three-and-out.

Compounding the agitation, that slow start followed a clumsy finish to a Week 7 victory over Arizona.

In the second half against the Cardinals, the Vikings went three-and-out four times on their final five drives, raising a list of pointed questions.

Was Musgrave’s play-calling too restrictive? Was second-year quarterback Christian Ponder entering another debilitating confidence funk? Were the Vikings offensive lineman and wide receivers throwing off Ponder’s timing with their own frequent mistakes?

None of those questions has easy answers. Perhaps even worse, there may be no clear-cut diagnosis for what caused last week’s early struggles.

“It hasn’t been one thing,” Ponder said Wednesday morning. “Again, it goes back to execution. We’ve got to do a better job. We’ve been seeing a lot of pressure. I have to do a better job of getting the ball out of my hands. I think teams have realized that.”

The little things

So just how can the Vikings reduce their recent three-and-out affliction after a dozen episodes the past two weeks? Reviews of the Arizona and Tampa Bay games don’t seem to show any distinct trends.

If there’s a thought that the Vikings aren’t giving Adrian Peterson the ball enough on first down, that’s a bit misguided. Eight of their 12 three-and-out series the past two games have begun with plays to Peterson.

As for the belief that the Vikings are staggering into too many third-and-long situations, that might be partially true. But of the past 12 three-and-outs, the Vikings failed to convert on four plays of third-and-2 or less.

“Some of it’s a credit to the defense,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. “Then we have to do a better job of executing.”

Midway through a season that’s been promising on the whole, the Vikings aren’t about to make massive overhauls of their system. Instead, players have zeroed in on their fundamentals this week with a heightened understanding of just how drastic the ripple effect can be for every small mistake.

That was evident against the Bucs.

“At times, guys were playing really well,” center John Sullivan said. “But it seemed like everybody took their turns making the mistake. And on offense, it takes all 11 guys executing on a play for it to be successful. One guy’s miscue can blow something up.”

Pressing their luck

The need for precision will only heighten this week in the passing game, particularly with the aggressive brand of press coverage the Seattle secondary likes to employ. Corners Richard Sherman (6-3,

195 pounds) and Brandon Browner (6-4,

221) have the Vikings’ attention, their physicality able to disrupt the timing of an offense that has been out of sync the past two weeks.

“They’re going to try to reroute us and jam us at the line,” Ponder said. “So our receivers are all going to have to do a good job of getting off that and finding ways to get open.”

Ponder hopes the speed of Harvin and Jerome Simpson can provide the needed counter-punch.

“If they do get past the press, they’re gone,” Ponder said. “That’s where we’ll look for big plays to take advantage of those.”

Ponder also has direct marching orders from Frazier on how to stay patient against a strong and tenacious defense.

“We’ve got to do a good job of managing opportunities,” Frazier said. “And then when we have an opportunity, taking advantage of it. He’ll be the impetus of getting that done.”

A fast start would help. Otherwise that nagging refrain — Three-and-out! Three-and-out! Three-and-out! — will only heighten the anxiety.

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