The last time the Minnesota Vikings and Washington Redskins met, it was an electrifying affair between two soon-to-be playoff teams on a picturesque autumn day in Maryland, with Robert Griffin III halting the Vikings' comeback attempt on a back-breaking, jaw-dropping 76-yard touchdown run that gave the Redskins a 38-26 win last October.
The circumstances couldn't be more different for Thursday's matchup in the dingy Metrodome. The Vikings are 1-7, with their quarterback situation in chaos and their defense coming off its third last-minute collapse of the season. The Redskins, meanwhile, are in the process of recovering their identity, with Griffin still on the mend from a torn ACL and regaining his comfort with the team's read-option scheme. Washington's defense has been one of only three in the league worse than Minnesota's, undoing some of the work of an offense than can still score at will.
To get you ready for the first game of Week 10, ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and Redskins reporter John Keim got together to discuss the matchup and what's next for two teams in the middle of tumultuous seasons:
Ben Goessling: John, when we saw these two teams face off last October, the Vikings had no answer for Griffin, and if the Redskins' offense is at full speed on Thursday night, I'm not sure things will work out much better for Minnesota this time. Missed tackles have been one of their biggest problems this season, particularly with their back seven, and they know all too well how dangerous RG III can be when he gets into the open field.
It seems like the Redskins’ offense is getting back to what it was before Griffin got hurt. Does he look comfortable running the read-option again, or is it still a work in progress?
John Keim: Griffin started to look more comfortable running it a couple games ago. He’s still not as explosive as he was, but he’s also still faster than most quarterbacks. It’s more his willingness to keep the ball and be a threat, something he wasn’t in the first part of the season. They need him to be a threat running the ball because of how much it opens up the offense; they are just not capable of sitting back and hurting teams throwing the ball without some form of deception. That’s because of where Griffin is as a passer. Teams definitely have defended the option a little differently this season, whether more disciplined against it or in terms of focus. The emphasis for almost every team has been on stopping Alfred Morris, mainly because teams didn’t fear Griffin going wide or they thought he wouldn’t run. The read-option success also is determined by the style of the defense; Denver, for example, made it tough to run. The work-in-progress part, too, comes in the passing game. The Redskins loved throwing over the middle after a zone-read fake, but teams started taking that away. So they had to go to more out-breaking routes, which take longer to develop. Also, Griffin is more accurate between the hashes.
I know players have questioned the Vikings' defensive play calls. And I know the offense hasn’t helped them. But what are the other reasons this defense has struggled?
Goessling: In some ways, the Vikings probably shouldn't have been as decent on defense as they were last season. They were only 14th in the league and 30th against the pass, but they survived because their front four got enough pressure on the quarterback to mask growing pains in the secondary. And they had cornerback Antoine Winfield playing some of his best football at age 35, while helping their young defensive backs get into position. This season, they haven't gotten to the quarterback consistently -- though they did it until defensive coordinator Alan Williams called off the dogs in the final minutes of the Dallas game -- and they've been burned by teams that can throw screen passes and get rid of the ball quickly. The Vikings' linebackers and defensive backs have missed quite a few tackles. Not having Winfield has hurt them there. So has not having safety Harrison Smith, who's out with turf toe. But it's been surprising to see linebacker Chad Greenway come up empty as much as he has. He might be covering for other linebackers, and he might have lost a step at age 30, but he's been targeted regularly in pass coverage and has done better work as a blitzer than he has in open-field situations.
Speaking of pass defense, what do you make of the Redskins'? They’ve been shredded in four games, and in the other four, they’ve allowed less than 220 yards. Is that because of the quarterbacks they’ve faced, or are they just that inconsistent?
Keim: Both. They have faced five of the top seven rated passers and six of the top 11. The result is a pass defense that, if the quarterback has time, will get picked apart. They’ve done well for stretches -- holding Denver to 14 points through three quarters, for example. Tony Romo did not have a good game against them. They’re not getting good pressure consistently, but part of the problem is the quarterbacks they’ve faced excel at reading a defense and unloading the ball quickly. Their safety play has been erratic to say the least. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall has been terrific in the past four or five games. Rookie corner David Amerson will make plays, but also gives them up; he’s very aggressive and will get beat on double moves. He can be set up. The linebackers are inconsistent in coverage. So they have issues, but a lot does stem from the quarterbacks and passing attacks they’ve faced.
That might not be a problem this week, though. Christian Ponder was a first-round pick in 2011. Why does he still struggle so much?
Goessling: It's been the same set of issues with Ponder for most of his three seasons with the Vikings, which is probably the most frustrating thing about him. We hear plenty about how smart Ponder is, how good he is at digesting a game plan and diagnosing a defense, but when he gets on the field, it's like he's unable to translate that into action. He seems like he thinks too much and doesn't trust himself to throw into tight windows, so he either holds the ball too long or takes off if his first read is covered. He's got good feet, and can extend drives when he runs, but he hasn't learned how to move in the pocket or how to extend plays instead of giving up on his receivers. Nobody expected him to turn into Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, but there are plenty of situations where Ponder could be more effective if he just played with a little more gumption.
The Redskins have been blown out every time they’ve been on the road this season. What has been their biggest problem away from Dan Snyder’s quaint little stadium in Maryland, and do you expect those problems to carry over into Thursday’s game?
Keim: That’s a good question. They’ve played well for stretches on the road. At Dallas, their kick and punt coverage failed them. They hit a point where it looked like they had taken over the game, only to lose all the momentum and then fall by 15 points. At Denver they were up 21-7 in the third and playing outstanding, only to fall apart in the fourth quarter and lose by 24. They were never in the game at Green Bay. Ever. Part of it, perhaps, stems from not having the same level of confidence as last season. So when something goes wrong it snowballs a lot faster. It also reflects the inconsistencies of each unit. There is always a breakdown on offense, defense or special teams that leads to momentum-changing plays. Against Denver, the defense was great for three quarters but the offense responded with weak drives and then turnovers. Against Dallas it was a punt return for a score and then a 90-yard kickoff return. They get punched in the mouth and don’t respond, something they fought back against a year ago.
Why do you think the Vikings have gone from a playoff team in 2012 to a one-win team in 2013?
Goessling: It would be convenient to put it all on the Vikings' three-man weave at the quarterback position, but the issues go much deeper than that. The team gambled on a young secondary developing, and it hasn't worked. The offensive line hasn't been anywhere near as good as it was last season, and -- it's hard to believe we've gone this long without mentioning it -- they couldn't count on Adrian Peterson to run for 2,097 yards again. He's fourth in the league with 711, but he hasn't been able to take over games like he did last season. With Peterson having merely a good season by his standards, the Vikings don't have much margin for error. That's why they're 1-7, and that's why I think we're both in agreement they'll be 1-8 after Thursday night.