Matt Vensel is in his first year at the Star Tribune after covering the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun for six years. He is a Pittsburgh native and a Penn State grad. Follow him at @mattvensel.


Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.


Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.


Posts about On the road

A quick look at the Vikings' 2014 opponents

Posted by: Matt Vensel Updated: April 11, 2014 - 7:03 AM

The NFL released its preseason schedule on Wednesday, which -- unless you are the rare fan who gets geeked up for exhibition games -- is noteworthy because it means the regular season schedule will be unveiled soon, too. The NFL hasn’t yet said when, but it should be in the next two weeks.

We do know who the Vikings will be playing this season. And where. We just don’t know when.

The Vikings play the NFC South in 2014. They last drew that division in 2011 as they rotate through the different NFC divisions every three years. They host the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons at TCF Bank Stadium and will travel to play the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

They play the AFC East for the first time since 2010. The New England Patriots and New York Jets will come to the Twin Cities and the Vikings will travel to play the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins.

They also play the St. Louis Rams (on the road) and the Washington Redskins (at home) because those two teams, like the Vikings, finished last in their respective NFC divisions in 2013.

And, of course, the Vikings will play each of their NFC North rivals twice.

Only four opponents were playoff teams in 2013: the Packers (twice), Panthers, Saints and Patriots.

We will break down the opponents in greater detail once the schedule is announced, but here is the quick rundown of their home and road opponents this season (with 2013 records in parenthesis).

HOME: Bears (8-8), Lions (7-9), Packers (8-7-1), Falcons (4-12), Panthers (12-4), Patriots (12-4), Jets (8-8) and Redskins (3-13).

AWAY: Bears (8-8), Lions (7-9), Packers (8-7-1), Saints (11-5), Buccaneers (4-12), Bills (6-10), Dolphins (8-8) and Rams (7-9).

Vikings Rewind: Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers

Posted by: Master Tesfatsion Updated: December 26, 2013 - 9:30 AM

Hope everyone had a Merry Christmas. Now back to football.

In case you somehow forgot, Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel had four turnovers in Sunday’s loss to the Bengals. We’ll take a look at two this week that resulted in 14 easy points for the Bengals in the first half.

The situation: On the opening drive, the Vikings faced a 3rd and 6 at the Bengals’ 45. They attempted to convert on pass play.

The reason: The Vikings received good field position on wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson’s return but gained just four yards on the first two run plays to running back Adrian Peterson. A three-and-out would be a devastating start given the drive began in their opponents’ territory.

The result: Cassel fumbled while he was sacked. Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap recovered the loose ball and returned it 46 yards to the Vikings’ 4. Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis scored two plays later.

"There are some things we could have done a little bit different to help us there," head coach Leslie Frazier said about the offensive line. "We could have done better and we did better as the game went on, but on that very first one we didn’t handle it as well as we should have.”

How it happened:

As Cassel drops back, the Bengals bring six defenders (marked with red "x"), but it shouldn't be a problem with seven blockers (marked with yellow "x"). Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict drops in coverage just as the ball is snapped.

Of course, just because the Vikings have more blockers doesn't mean Cassel will be assured good pocket protection. More on that in the next still, but clearly Cassel is under pressure. The Bengals are playing man coverage on the outside receivers and use Burifct to play underneath the slot receiver with a safety over the top.

So why exactly did Cassel feel heat with more blockers? First, running back Toby Gerhart (circled in yellow) did a good job picking up the linebacker blitzing from the A gap, but the right side of the line doesn't shift over. Center John Sullivan doesn't have anyone to block. Not only do the Bengals have one-on-one matchups across the line but there's a defender that goes untouched.

Cassel goes down and doesn't protect the football. It's bad enough that the Vikings wasted great field position on a short opening drive but this fumble was costly. He has to do a better job of holding on to the ball.

"We probably could have protected a little bit better," Frazier said. "There were some things we could have done a little bit better as an offense as a whole that maybe could have helped Matt some, but he still has to do a good job protecting the ball."

The situation: Down 14-7 with 10:10 left in the second quarter, the Vikings face a 3rd and two at their 20 and go with an empty backfield.

The reason: By this point in the game, Gerhart doesn't play again with his hamstring injury and Peterson wasn't effective dealing with his foot sprain. He had no gain on first down but Patterson's eight-yard rush gave the offense to a managable situation. 

The result: Bengals linebacker Vincent Rey intercepted Cassel's pass and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown.

"Anytime you turn the ball over and you have drive start, in their case, from the four, that’s tough," Frazier said. "The pick-six, those are tough to overcome on the road. You don’t want to dig yourself a hole of any kind. You don’t want to give people things on the road.”

How it happened:

Just as the offense gets set, Burfict (circled in red) makes a late defensive adjustment on the coverage. The Vikings have three wideouts bunched on the right side with two on the left. The Bengals don't show blitz before or after Burfict's adjustment.

In fact, the Bengals just rush three and drop eight on the short yardage play because the Vikings have an empty back set. Cassel shifts his attention to the trips side on a three-step drop, so he'll likely get the ball out quickly.

Cassel stares down at Greg Jennings, Cassel's favorite target, on the play and hits his third step at this point. Rey (circled in red) notices Cassel's eyes and sits in that area with tight end Rhett Ellison cutting across.

Eyes don't lie in this case. Cassel throws to Jennings just as he breaks on the five-yard route and Rey reads it the entire way. He jumps the pass for the interception and scores easily.

"He’ll be better this next week, but I don’t if there was anything schematically that was a whole lot different," Frazier said. "We were doing some of the similar things we’ve done in the past. We didn’t have the type of success.”
 

Frazier insists Vikings players aren't pointing fingers at Ponder

Posted by: Mark Craig Updated: September 11, 2013 - 1:15 PM

Not only did Leslie Frazier reassert his faith in Christian Ponder, the Vikings coach made sure to point out that the rest of his players aren't pointing fingers at the starting quarterback after Sunday's four-turnover performance in a 34-24 season-opening loss at Detroit.

"On Sunday, it was not all about Christian," Frazier said Wednesday as the Vikings amped up their preparation for Sunday's game at Chicago. "He had his mistakes. But the fact is the quarterback position is much more magnified. He just happens to play the position with the most scrutiny. We had other guys, trust me, that when we watched the tape, the scrutiny that needed to be had in those moments, they are well aware that they have to play better. They're not looking only at our quarterback and saying, `If he had done this or that, we would have won that ballgame.' We need to play better across the board."

Those hoping for a quick hook on Ponder can fahgedaboutit, too.

"You don't want to say that you can't get this turned and going in the right direction after just one week," Frazier said. "I just don't think that would be wise."

Frazier also pointed to the team's 4-0 playoff push to end last season -- particularly the playoff-clinching 37-34 win over the Packers -- as proof that Ponder has gotten the job done before.

"That Green Bay game at the end of the year, that was a terrific performance by Christian," Frazier said. "So we've seen him do it on repeated occasions. Consistent play is what we're looking for. We need a good week this week.

"[Ponder's] body of work is somewhat limited. [Sunday] was his second start on opening day and his first on the road [on opening day] a week ago. I have seen him make throws on the run. I have seen him make plays in the pocket, out of the pocket. All you have to do is throw in a tape from last December. There were a number of moments like that. We need consistent good quarterback play for our offense to thrive and for our team to be successful. Christian knows that as well as anybody. There are certain things we can't do. Our margin of error is small. So if we're turning the ball over, it just shrinks our opportunity to win. But I have seen him him make those plays in and out of the pocket."

Frazier, however, did point out that Ponder has to improve his play when things break down around him.

"Not every pocket is going to be clean in the NFL," Frazier said.

Ponder opened his weekly press conference today by saying what 99.9999 percent of all players coming off a loss say to the media. Here's part of the opening statement:

"Well, the good thing about football, especially the NFL, is you got to move on quickly," Ponder said. "Watching the film Monday and Sunday night, a lot of things are easily correctable. We'll get them fixed. We're too good of a team to be making those mistakes. We have to establish the run better. ... And we can't turn the ball over.

"There are things I can do better. That everybody can do better. The running back, the receivers. It's something as an offense, we correct as a whole."

Ponder also subtly dropped in a reference to last year's season-opener in which he directed a long, game-tying drive as time expired against visiting Jacksonville. The Vikings went on to win in overtime.

Asked when he felt the Lions game got away from the Vikings, Ponder said, "The feeling that it got away from us never happened. it was just a couple of bad mistakes. ... We were into it until the very end. We still had time with a couple of minutes left to score two touchdowns. We won a game with 14 seconds left where we had to drive 80 yards or whatever to get a field goal and we did that. So I don't think a game is really ever out of our reach."

In other news, Frazier said everyone is expected to practice today. That includes defensive tackle Kevin Williams, who missed the opener because of a badly strained knee, and center John Sullivan, whose left knee was chopped by Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh during an interception return. Sullivan finished the game. Suh did, too, but his wallet ultimately got lighter by 100 grand when the league fined him on Tuesday.

Vikings schedule set, with three prime-time games

Posted by: Updated: April 18, 2013 - 9:06 PM
The Vikings are back in prime-time.
 
After playing only one regular season night game in 2012 – a mandatory Thursday nighter – the team is again registering as a strong draw for the under-the-lights TV slots. Last season’s surprising 10-6 surge into the playoffs and the presence of MVP Adrian Peterson helps. And with the full NFL schedule released Tuesday evening, the Vikings have been slotted to play three night games in a span of 18 days during the middle of the season. They’ll have an appearance on Monday Night Football (at the New York Giants in Week 7); a Sunday nighter (home vs. Green Bay in Week 8); and a Thursday night cameo against the Redskins at Mall of America Field in Week 10.
 
So just how does the 2013 campaign set up overall? Here’s your quick look at what’s ahead …
 
WEEK 1
Sunday, Sept. 8
at Detroit, Noon (FOX, KFAN)
Highlight reel potential. Set the DVR. The NFL’s reigning rushing champ (Adrian Peterson) against the league’s current receiving king (Calvin Johnson).
 
WEEK 2
Sunday, Sept. 15
at Chicago, Noon (FOX, KFAN)
The quest to halt the Soldier Field slump continues. The Vikings are 1-10 there since 2000 and have lost their past three in the Windy City by a combined 61 points.
 
WEEK 3
Sunday, Sept. 22
vs. Cleveland, Noon (CBS, KFAN)
A later-than-usual home opener appears favorable against the Browns, who have finished above .500 just twice in the 21st century.
 
WEEK 4
Sunday, Sept. 29
vs. Pittsburgh (in London), Noon (CBS, KFAN)
For fans and the media, this may be the most appealing road getaway of the year. For the Vikings, it’s a critical business trip with more attention devoted to Big Ben the quarterback than Big Ben the clock.
 
WEEK 5
BYE WEEK
In conjunction with the trip overseas, this will be an early week off just a quarter of the way into the season. Will it mark a good regrouping point or come too soon?
 
WEEK 6
Sunday, Oct. 13
vs. Carolina, Noon (FOX, KFAN)
The Vikings bested Cam Newton during his rookie year but will have to be sharp again defensively to repeat that result. The Panthers, like the Vikings, rallied to win their final four regular season games last year.
 
WEEK 7
Monday, Oct. 21
at New York Giants, 7:40 p.m. (ESPN, KFAN)
Two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning will play the role of host on the Vikings’ return to Monday Night Football.
 
WEEK 8
Sunday, Oct. 27
vs. Green Bay, 7:30 p.m. (NBC, KFAN)
We can only hope for a game as entertaining as the 2012 season finale when Peterson and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers put on quite the show during the Vikings’ 37-34 playoff-clinching win.
 
WEEK 9
Sunday, Nov. 3
at Dallas, Noon (FOX, KFAN)
A field trip to Jerry World should be a fun way to conclude the season’s first half. The Vikings have won the last two meetings against the Cowboys, including a 34-3 blowout in the 2009 playoffs.
 
WEEK 10
Thursday, Nov. 7
vs. Washington, 7:25 p.m. (NFLN, KFAN)
The Vikings may still be having nightmares over the game-sealing 76-yard touchdown run Robert Griffin III delivered last October. RG3’s recovery from major knee surgery will be worth monitoring in the lead up to this game.
 
WEEK 11
Sunday, Nov. 17
at Seattle, 3:25 p.m. (FOX, KFAN)
Should be a warm and fuzzy reunion with receiver Percy Harvin and cornerback Antoine Winfield, no? The former Vikings have joined a loaded Seahawks team with its eyes on the Super Bowl.
 
WEEK 12
Sunday, Nov. 24
at Green Bay, Noon (FOX, KFAN)
Christian Ponder’s Lambeau Field history: two starts, 28-for-59, 309 yards, one TD, three interceptions. In losses by a combined 68-21 count. Then came a DNP in a playoff game due to a severely bruised triceps.
 
WEEK 13
Sunday, Dec. 1
vs. Chicago, Noon (FOX, KFAN)
New Bears coach Marc Trestman (a St. Louis Park native) comes back to the Twin Cities. Trestman’s offensive intelligence is supposed to energize an attack led by Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte. By this point, we’ll know whether the anticipation was justified.
 
WEEK 14
Sunday, Dec. 8
at Baltimore, Noon (FOX, KFAN)
The Ravens lost a ton of key cogs from last year’s Super Bowl run, most notably Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Anquan Boldin, Matt Birk and Paul Kruger. They still, however, have the league’s highest paid man in QB Joe Flacco.
 
WEEK 15
Sunday, Dec. 15
vs. Philadelphia, Noon (FOX, KFAN)
No one knows quite what to expect from the union of Eagles coach Chip Kelly and quarterback Michael Vick. If things click, the Philly offense – which also features LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson – could be scary.
 
WEEK 16
Sunday, Dec. 22
at Cincinnati, Noon (FOX, KFAN)
Expect something lopsided. These teams’ past three meetings have been decided by an average of 23 points. The Vikings last trip to Cinci was a 37-8 loss in 2005 during which they were torched by Carson Palmer and Chad Johnson.
 
WEEK 17
Sunday, Dec. 29
vs. Detroit, Noon (FOX, KFAN)
In what could be the final game ever at Mall of America Field, the Vikings and Lions reunite 112 days after their first meeting.
 
FINAL THOUGHTS
  • The Vikings hit the skids last November, dropping three of four in a disconcerting slide that raised anxiety levels. This November seems equally imposing with road trips to Dallas, Seattle and Green Bay and the lone home game coming on Thursday night against the Redskins, the reigning champs of the NFC East.
  • The Vikings don’t face a team that made the 2012 playoffs until Oct. 27. That should provide an opening for another fast start.
  • The season’s tone may be set right out of the gates with back-to-back division games on the road. The Vikings took care of business in the NFC North last season, posting a 4-2 mark. They also regrouped late last season to salvage a 3-5 road record. Finding a way to stand strong against division rivals in Weeks 1 and 2 will be a must for a team looking to replicate last season’s superb September.
  • Starting with the return to Monday Night Football in Week 7, the Vikings will have three night games in a span of 18 days. They will also begin a critical stretch there of playing four out of six games on the road.
  • For the third straight year, the regular season finale comes at Mall of America Field. In 2011, that contest was meaningless. Last year, it meant everything. What will the ramifications be this time around, especially for a contest that could well be the Vikings’ last ever at the Metrodome?

Vikings 2013 look ahead: Quarterbacks

Posted by: Mark Craig Updated: January 20, 2013 - 10:50 AM
The Vikings coaching staff and front office are in the process of fully evaluating their roster as they plan for the opening of free agency in March as well as April’s NFL Draft. As General Manager Rick Spielman, head coach Leslie Frazier and their respective staffs put their heads together, the Access Vikings team is doing the same. We are in the middle of delivering snapshot evaluations of every position group. Today, we look at the quarterbacks.
 
QUARTERBACKS
 
Get excited: The word “excited” is a little too strong a word to use while discussing starter Christian Ponder. But even the most stubborn anti-Ponders among us would – or should – admit privately that Ponder’s final month of the regular season was “encouraging.”
After literally throwing away the first Green Bay game with two ridiculous interceptions at Lambeau Field on Dec. 2, Ponder pulled it together in a way that had to surprise even his most blindly optimistic supporters. Needing to win their final four games – including two on the road and one at home against a Packers team that had won 12 straight division games – the Vikings went 4-0 because Ponder complemented Adrian Peterson’s greatness with exactly the kind of efficient, alert, ball-secure play the Vikings currently ask of him.
Ponder threw only one interception in the final four games and closed the regular season with his best game as a professional. Knowing it was a win-and-you’re-in-the-playoffs situation against the Packers, Ponder had a career-high 120.2 passer rating, tied a career high with three touchdown passes and didn’t turn the ball over. How is that not impressive?
Unfortunately for the Vikings, they’ll never know how much more shocking their 10-win season could have been had Ponder not injured the triceps/elbow on his throwing arm and missed the playoffs. But one thing became abundantly clear early on in that wild-card loss at Green Bay: Without Ponder, the 2012 Vikings had absolutely zero chance of beating a quality team.
Overall, this season was another pogo-stick ride with Ponder at the handlebars. But the good moments outnumbered the bad.
Remember the unthinkable comeback in Week 1 against the Jaguars? The 94.7 passer rating in the upset of the 49ers in Week 3? Starting the year with four interception-free games? The 114.2 passer rating in that Week 10 win over the Lions? The first drives down the stretch against Chicago, at St. Louis, at Houston and the Packers?
There were bad moments, too. Bad enough that maybe Ponder won’t prove to be this team’s quarterback for the next decade. But he made enough progress to prove that he’s the answer in 2013.
Some critics will never buy that. And that’s fine. But Ponder did help this team win 10 games. And he did it with a thin receiving corps that lost its only playmaker (Percy Harvin) in Week 9.
 
Keep an eye on: If nothing else, the playoff loss proved Joe Webb as Ponder’s primary backup is a flawed plan for a contending team.
So now what?
McLeod Bethel-Thompson isn’t ready to step up from No. 3 QB. And fans need to let go of Sage Rosenfels. Folks, he’s not coming back. Let … it … go.
The Vikings will at least explore alternative options for a No. 2 QB in 2013. But THEY WON’T BE LOOKING FOR ANYONE TO COMPETE WITH CHRISTIAN PONDER. So that rules out acquiring Alex Smith, so let go of that one, too.
And, no, Joe Flacco isn’t a possibility. His contract is up after this season, but … he … isn’t … leaving … Baltimore.
Remember, the Vikings are looking at experienced veteran backups who will be available in free agency. They aren’t elite QBs. They’re guys like Derek Anderson, Matt Moore, David Carr, Matt Leinart, Byron Leftwich, Bruce Gradkowski, Jason Campbell and Rex Grossman.
We’ll assume the Vikings will pass on a T-Jack reunion.
 
Reason for worry: Granted, it’s asking a lot to have a guy start a playoff game at Lambeau Field after not attempting a pass all season. But the very nature of playing backup quarterback requires one to possess the ability to hold down the proverbial fort while knowing your opportunities are going to be few and far between.
Webb never has been an accurate passer. He’s a big, fast athlete who was drafted in the sixth round to play receiver. But his inability to throw with any shred of accuracy in the playoff game was alarming and added another bullet point to GM Rick Spielman’s offseason To-Do List.
If anything, Webb has regressed as a passer during his three years of NFL tutoring. And that has thrust the Vikings into an offseason predicament that they never expected to be facing when the left the Metrodome after clinching that unlikely playoff berth back on Dec. 30.
This decision has many layers and reasons to worry. Webb still has value as an athlete and someone with potential to run the read-option attack that’s spreading throughout the league. Finding a way to use him could really help an offense that needs more playmakers and unpredictability.
Therefore, the Vikings could go back to an earlier plan that positioned Webb as the No. 3 QB behind a more experienced veteran backup. In that spot, the risk of injury would be diminished, so Webb’s speed and athleticism could be used in some capacity other than holding a clipboard on game day.
Of course, going that route would mean the Vikings just wasted a year developing Bethel-Thompson. MBT is a player the coaches really like. He might have the best arm on the team and could work his way up to No. 2 with more seasoning.
So the Vikings head into 2013 with their starter set, but still have a lot of questions to answer behind him.

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