The Minnesota Vikings have been struggling to put the ball in the end zone when they get within striking distance for most of the season. It finally caught up with them last weekend against Washington.
The Vikings had to settle for field goals on their first three possessions despite driving inside the 10-yard line each time. Instead of putting some serious cushion between themselves and the Redskins, they led just 9-0 and allowed Robert Griffin III to hang around in a game Washington won 38-26.
It's been a recurring problem this year for the Vikings, who rank 17th in the league in scoring touchdowns inside the 20. Perhaps the only thing more troubling for the Vikings on Sunday was how often do-it-all star Percy Harvin was watching from the sideline during those critical plays.
Harvin wasn't on the field for five of the nine plays the Vikings ran in those three possessions.
"That's just the way the personnel groups went and that was part of our plan," offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said, "which we're not proud of."
Harvin leads the NFL in receptions and has emerged as an early MVP candidate while becoming an indispensable component of both the offense and special teams. Musgrave has shown impressive creativity in how he uses Harvin this season, lining him up in the backfield for handoffs, splitting him out wide to go down the field and lining him up in the slot for bubble screens.
So if the Vikings (4-2) are going to find a solution to their red zone difficulties this week against Arizona (4-2), Harvin will likely have to play a prominent role in the game plan.
"Hoping to use him down there both run game and play action when he's in the backfield," Musgrave said. "So we just want to make those plays work better next time or call them at the right time like we didn't on Sunday."
Blair Walsh kicked field goals on all three of those drives on Sunday, and the Vikings scored just two touchdowns in seven trips inside the 20 against the Redskins. So it's no surprise that has been the big focus in practice this week as they prepare to face a stingy Cardinals defense.
"A lot of things went wrong, both conceptually and also execution-wise," Musgrave said. "We've really doubled our efforts. We always like to work hard and leave no stone unturned, but this week, it's definitely a point of emphasis so we can take advantage of those opportunities because those take hard work to get down there in the first place."
The Vikings also saw the Redskins become galvanized after their defense made three straight stands. Instead of being able to put the game away early and make it easier on their defense to attack RGIII, Washington was buoyed by its defense.
"It was definitely frustrating," Harvin said. "You could potentially come away at 21-0 and completely shut the game off. I think that would have changed their whole game plan. But we didn't get that done. And it came back on us."
The Redskins were also able to take away tight end Kyle Rudolph, one of Christian Ponder's favorite targets. Ponder said there were a few plays he would have liked to have back on those first three series, including an early throw to Devin Aromashodu on the first drive and failing to check the ball down to an open Adrian Peterson on the second. He said there's no need to panic at 4-2, just refine what they're doing.
"We're not going to change our red zone scheme. We just have to do what we're doing better and get better at it," Ponder said. "We're not going to put extra focus on it, obviously we need to improve and we need to focus on that, but we're not going to try anything crazy different."
The Cardinals come in having lost two straight games after a 4-0 start, and Vikings coach Leslie Frazier doesn't want to see his offense sputter in scoring range again and give another opponent reason to believe it has a chance.
"When that happens, when you get thwarted like we did in the red zone, you look at everything," Frazier said. "What we're calling, the plays that we're running, how we're running those plays.
'We really stress not kicking field goals and trying to get touchdowns, even if we get one touchdown in one of those three situations, it's probably going to affect the way they're going to call the game on the other side at that point. But it didn't happen, so yes, we're going to go through it with a fine toothed comb on what we could have done better."
NOTES: RB Adrian Peterson (ankle), WR Jerome Simpson (lower back) and DE Jared Allen (groin) were all listed as probable on the injury report. Peterson did not practice the first two days as a precaution, but returned to practice on Friday. Simpson was able to practice all week after missing last week with numbness in his leg caused by a lower back issue. Coach Leslie Frazier said both are expected to start on Sunday.
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