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).
It didn’t take Cam Cameron long to decide that he had a special talent in Zach Mettenberger.
It was the second scrimmage of spring football down in Baton Rouge last March. Cameron had just joined Les Miles’ coaching staff at LSU after a five-year stint with the Baltimore Ravens and was getting one of his first intimate looks at the weapons he would have at his disposal in his first season as offensive coordinator. Mettenberger made a strong impression, rifling touchdown after touchdown in the scrimmage.
“You could really see the arm talent. He’s a big, imposing guy,” Cameron said in a phone interview Tuesday. “He might have thrown double-digit touchdowns. That was the first of those moments. … I remember telling Les, ‘This guy’s a winner. We’re going to win with this guy.’ And it turned out that way.”
A year later, Cameron is marveling at Mettenberger again, though the circumstances are much different. The 22-year-old will participate in quarterback drills at LSU’s pro day today, a little over three months after he had surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament he shredded in his left knee.
The Vikings are one of a handful of a quarterback-needy NFL teams that are eager to see where Mettenberger stands in his recovery and to get a closer look at Mettenberger’s powerful right arm.
“He’s come as far in a short period as any guy I’ve ever seen. He just had an ACL injury and he is going to have a full workout tomorrow. He is 85 or 90 percent and he’s throwing the ball extremely well,” said Cameron, who will lead Mettenberger’s workout today. “But [the injury] was tough on him.”
When Mettenberger suffered the injury in a win over Arkansas on Nov. 29, he was wrapping up a breakout senior season in which he completed 64.9 percent of his passes for 3,082 yards and 22 touchdowns. He averaged 10.4 yards per attempt and his 171.4 passer rating ranked fourth in the country, trailing Florida State's Jameis Winston, Baylor's Bryce Petty and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel.
Mettenberger didn’t sulk after suffering the devastating knee injury. Cameron said he was heavily involved in the preparation for the Outback Bowl and helped tutor freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings before LSU’s win over Iowa. He then had surgery on Jan. 2 and started to attack his rehab.
Despite the injury and concerns about his elongated delivery, lack of mobility and decision-making, Mettenberger is viewed as a second-day prospect by many draft analysts because of his prototypical size -- he is 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds -- and his arm strength. And if he has a good workout today on that rebuilt left knee, he could come of the board between Minnesota’s eighth and 40th overall picks.
The Vikings have legitimate interest in Mettenberger, according to two league sources, and general manager Rick Spielman, coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner -- who had Cameron on his Washington Redskins staff two decades ago and helped shape some of Cameron's offensive philosophies -- will meet with Mettenberger privately after his pro day, something they have done with other top quarterback prospects.
At some point, they will surely ask Mettenberger about the circumstances that led him to LSU.
Before his freshman season started at Georgia, Mettenberger was dismissed from the program after an incident at a bar in which he was charged with underage possession of alcohol, disorderly conduct and misdemeanor sexual battery, amongst other charges. The alcohol-related charges would be dismissed, but Mettenberger pleaded guilty to misdemeanor sexual battery. He spent the 2010 season at Butler Community College in Kansas before transferring to LSU for the 2011 season.
“He’s had some adversity in his life, which is a good thing,” Cameron said. “No one wants to go through an ACL, but he’s kind of wired to attack things that are difficult. He hasn’t had it easy growing up. He had some adversity at Georgia. I think all of those things have helped him mature.”
Last year, Cameron compared Mettenberger to Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who led the Ravens to the Super Bowl in 2012 (after Cameron was replaced by Jim Caldwell late in the regular season). On Tuesday, Cameron said that Mettenberger’s arm strength still reminds him of Flacco. He added that Mettenberger has toughness like Jim Harbaugh. He said his work ethic and competitiveness reminds him of Drew Brees. And he noted that Mettenberger has big hands like Antwaan Randle El.
“He’s weather-proof,” he said. “Teams in the AFC and NFC North are really going to like his guy.”
Obviously, Cameron is a bit biased -- if you couldn't tell by the big names that he just dropped -- but he believes Mettenberger is worthy of a high draft pick.
“He’s a guy you can win a championship with. And that’s all that matters,” Cameron said. “Is he better than a lot of guys who have gone in the first round? Absolutely. Does that mean he’s a first-round draft pick? Depends on how a team views him.”
We won’t know just how favorably the Vikings view him until next month’s NFL draft.
Yeah, so much for thinking the Cleveland Browns were tanking the season. The front office might have tried, but the coaches and players are in the process of upsetting the Vikings at the Metrodome.
If you're the Vikings, suddenly you know how Apollo Creed felt in Rocky I. The Browns our outplaying and outcoaching the Vikings. By a wide margin.
Score: Browns 24-17
The Good: The Vikings took the opening kickoff and went 80 yards en route to Adrian Peterson's pile-driving 2-yard touchdown run. The Vikings converted 3 of 3 third downs on the drive and it looked like the laugher we all expected was on. Especially after the Browns went three-and-out on their next possession. Heck, Christian Ponder even threw a 20-yard pass to Jarius Wright on third-and-five on the opening drive.
The Bad: The Vikings pass coverage suffered a blow when Chris Cook left in the first quarter with a groin injury. That put A.J. Jefferson on the field at right corner. Not good. Jefferson bit on a stop-and-go fake from Josh Gordon, who blew past Jefferson for a 47-yard touchdown to make it a 7-7 game. Gordon has four catches for 103 yards and a touchdown. Tight end Jordan Cameron has three catches, two of them touchdowns.
The Ugly: You can tell the Browns coaching staff didn't like this week's national storyline that the Browns were tanking the season. The Browns are going for broke on every call they make. They've executed a 37-yard fake field goal and an 11-yard touchdown pass on a fake field goal. Holder Spencer Lanning simply stood up and threw right to Cameron for the touchdown before Jamarca Sanford could get over to cover. ... Ponder threw an interception into triple coverage and lost a fumble on a sack on the last play of the game. The Vikings were at the Browns' 10 at the time. ... And, finally, the coaching staff got flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for throwing a challenge flag it wasn't permitted to throw when the Browns muffed a punt. There's some question as to whether the Vikings should have just lost a timeout rather than being penalized. The change in field position made the Vikings have to settle for a field goal.
What we learned: The Browns are a dangerous team when the world accuses them of tanking a season. Brian Hoyer also is a playmaker, at least in through two quarters of his second NFL start. He's made some outstanding throws and is outplaying Ponder.
What needs to happen in the second half: The Vikings pass rush needs to show up. Hoyer is getting too much time to throw.
Rhett Ellison, the tight end/fullback who would be Adrian Peterson's primary lead blocker at fullback with Jerome Felton serving the third and final game of his league suspension, didn't practice again today because of a knee hyperextension.
Coach Leslie Frazier hasn't ruled Ellison out, but said he will assume that until he sees whether Ellison will be able to practice on Friday.
If Ellison can't play on Sunday against the Browns, undrafted rookie Zach Line will see his reps increase significantly.
"Zack would be the guy," Frazier said. "He's done a good job the first two games. And his snaps will probably go up a little bit because of rhett's absence. But we got some other ways we can get things done."
Also limited in today's padded practice were: NT Fred Evans (shoulder), MLB Erin Henderson (heel), FS Harrison Smith (shoulder), C John Sullivan (knee) and DT Kevin Williams (knee).
Out for the Browns is, of course, QB Brandon Weeden (thumb) and LB Quentin Groves (ankle). Limited for the Browns in today's practice were: OL Shawn Lauvao (ankle) and DL Ahtyba Rubin (calf).
Unusual week for preparations:
Frazier spoke to reporters for the first time since the Browns traded running back Trent Richardson to the Colts on Wednesday.
"That was a little different," Frazier said. "We were watching tape and [Richardson] definitely was one of the guys we were preparing for from a defensive standpoint and then all of a sudden he's not there. You got to be ready to adjust."
Of course, the Browns also announced on Wednesday that No. 3 QB Brian Hoyer would start for the injured Weeden. The Vikings had been preparing for No. 2 QB Jason Campbell.
"Without question, [the changes] definitely throws you a curveball," Frazier said. "You don't know how much watching the tape of what they've been doing the first two weeks will really matter. It creates some, you're not sure. You just have to have some rules about what you're doing because you're probably going to have to adjust as the game goes on. It might not be what you saw on tape."
Frazier and his coaches also began watching tape of former Broncos running back Willis McGahee, whom the Browns signed on Thursday.
"You look at the system and we'll go back and look at a little bit of what he did in Denver," Frazier said. "We're somewhat familiar with him but we still need to go back and look at what he did last season to get a feel for him. You still have to look at the system, but you know the system is going to change a little bit."
Asked what he saw on McGahee, Frazier said, "He's a good back. He's been a good back for a while."
So your opponent starts its Wednesday by promoting the No. 3 quarterback to starter and ends its Wednesday by trading its running back and best offensive player.
Whaddaya do on Thursday?
Defensive end Jared Allen, who is preparing for Browns QB Brian Hoyer and Browns RB to-be-determined, was asked that question earlier today.
"I’ve been trying to watch preseason tape of the quarterback and now I’m trying to throw darts at a board and see who the running back is going to be," Allen said. "If it’s going to be [Willis] McGahee [as speculation suggests], at least we can go back and watch some film on him. It is tough. It makes it tough to prepare. I think one thing coach has been adamant about, it doesn’t change the scheme. It doesn’t change the plays they’re going to run. It doesn’t change how they’re going to block them up front and it doesn’t change the fact that they’re an effective running football team."
This alleged power running game ranks 29th in the NFL. It averages 56.0 yards per game.
"They run a lot of downhill power game and they want to hit you in the mouth and that’s a fun type of football game," Allen said. "People hear Trent's gone and you hear all the talk about them kicking it in for the season. That’s not the case.
"This is a humbling league and if you don’t take every opponent serious, if you don’t think someone can come in – I was reminding the guys that we didn’t know who the Arizona running back was last year, I think he ran for like a buck, 50 – so this is how this league stays successful because guys get an opportunity to shine and we just got to make sure no one shines on us.”
Allen was referring to then-Cardinals back LaRod Stephens-Howling, who ran for 104 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries (5.2) and caught four passes for 45 yards and a touchdown in a 21-14 loss at the Metrodome a year ago.
No other running back has carried the ball for the Browns in their first two games. Richardson had carried it 31 times for 105 yards (3.4). Bobby Rainey is the backup, while Chris Ogbonnaya is the first-team fullback.
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