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.
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).
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.
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.
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