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Dave Campbell / AP Pro Football Writer, Published September 17 2012

Hurt by the hurry-up: Vikings’ defense having trouble with up-tempo offenses

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. – Success and failure in the NFL is ultimately determined by those critical closing moments, and for all that has gone right for the Minnesota Vikings in the thick of their first two games, their defense has revealed a debilitating flaw.

When the pace has picked up for the offense on the other side, they’ve been glaringly vulnerable to giving up scores.

The Vikings were at their worst during the two-minute drills by Indianapolis and rookie quarterback Andrew Luck in Sunday’s 23-20 loss. The Colts drove for a touchdown with seven seconds left in the first half to stretch their lead and then won on a field goal with 8 seconds remaining in the game.

And though quarterback Christian Ponder and rookie kicker Blair Walsh saved them with a late surge to beat Jacksonville in overtime in the opener, the Vikings let the Jaguars move 76 yards in six plays and less than a minute to take the lead with 20 seconds remaining in regulation.

The Vikings were stingy at times, but when they really needed to stiffen, they wilted instead. After tying the game with 31 seconds left on a touchdown pass by Ponder, who leads the league in completion percentage at 75.8, they let Luck move the Colts 45 yards in three plays and 19 seconds to get just close enough for the go-ahead 53-yard kick.

“We’ve got to do better,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “The way our team is built, we’re going to play a lot of close games.”

Just as inexcusable and costly was the drive by the Colts at the end of the first half, when Luck found a wide-open Reggie Wayne in the middle of the zone coverage for a 30-yard touchdown on third-and-3 to cap an eight-play, 64-yard sprint in 64 seconds. That stretched the lead to 17-6.

Safeties Harrison Smith and Mistral Raymond were late to converge on Wayne, but middle linebacker Erin Henderson was assigned to follow Wayne up the seam. Frazier said the coaches were confident enough in Henderson’s ability to track the veteran wide receiver they weren’t worried about a mismatch in speed. Henderson said he was deep enough but simply misjudged the ball as it traveled through the air.

The Vikings are 27th in the league in third-down conversion prevention. They let the Colts move the chains seven out of 16 times in those situations, none more egregious than on their 14-play possession that ate up more than half of the third quarter. Thirty of the 53 yards gained were by penalties.

After Andrew Sendejo’s roughing-the-kicker call on a punt at the Indianapolis 45 extended the drive, Jared Allen chased Luck out of bounds on third-and-16 and tackled him well across the line. The yellow flag flew, and the Colts kept moving for another field goal.

Allen sharply criticized the call, but it appeared obvious, whether replacement or regular referees were working.