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.
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.
As the Vikings prepare for Saturday’s playoff showdown with Green Bay at Lambeau Field, we asked Tyler Dunne, who covers the Packers for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, to give us his up-close-and-personal scouting report. Here are four things you need to know …
1) The Packers will welcome two key contributors back to the field – one on offense, one on defense.
After missing last Sunday’s game with an ankle injury, receiver Randall Cobb has been back at practice all week and progressing nicely, likely to start Saturday night and eager to add some pop to the Packers offense.
On the other side of the ball, defensive back Charles Woodson, a 15th-year veteran, seems likely to return after a nine-game absence due to a broken collarbone.
So which return is more important?
Cobb was Aaron Rodgers’ top target during the regular season, registering 80 catches for 954 yards with eight TD catches.
“The Vikings had a little bit of success blitzing Rodgers last week,” Dunne said. “He wasn’t lights out like he usually is against that. But I’d have to think having Cobb back in the slot and on the same page, that’s a big cure for that. And it’s been a long time since we’ve seen the Packers offense with both Cobb and Greg Jennings together, both at full strength, playing their best. That’s a big deal.”
As for Woodson, his last action came on Oct. 21 in St. Louis. With the Packers having significant confidence in a young secondary that includes Casey Hayward, M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian, Woodson’s veteran presence isn’t mandatory but should help. His versatility allows defensive coordinator Dom Capers to unleash his impressive creativity as well.
“As good as those young guys have been, they all had key errors in that game last week,” Dunne said. “So there’s definitely room for Woodson.”
Now it remains to be seen just how extensive a role Woodson will be able to take on, his conditioning certainly lessened due to his extended absence.
“They seem pretty confident that he can jump right in and be a difference maker,” Dunne said. “But you’d have to think there will be some type of transition.”
2) Green Bay’s defense still has no answers for Adrian Peterson.
If at first you don’t succeed, try try again. And if you don’t succeed then? Well, that’s the predicament the Packers seem to be in after allowing Peterson to run for 409 yards in two regular season games. Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy continues to insist that his defensive players simply need to do a better job of tackling to slow Peterson. But that’s an easy request for a coach with a headset to make. For the guys absorbing Peterson’s shoulder blows and stiff arms and ridiculous power, the challenge is elevated.
“The Packers can say all the right things around here,” Dunne said. “But you’d have to think that Adrian Peterson, to some degree, has gotten in their heads a little bit. How in the heck do you stop this guy? And what’s even more confusing is that their tackling has been better this season. They did shutdown Arian Foster [29 yards on 17 carries] and Chris Johnson [11 for 28]. They did a pretty good job with Marshawn Lynch [25-98]. Yet, for whatever reason, Peterson owns them.”
Peterson’s 199 yards Sunday came with the Packers devising a decent game plan designed to keep the star running back inside. Still, the yards just kept coming.
“He was chipping away, chipping away,” Dunne said. “That has to be a concern. It seemed like the Packers had a good game plan and guys in position to make stops all game long. And still, they couldn’t do it. So now what?”
3) As good as Peterson is, reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers was at the top of his game last Sunday as well.
During one break in the action, Peterson and Rodgers stopped to talk with one another, both offering sincere praise of the other as the best in the game at their position. So, see, it’s not just the fans who recognized the legendary qualities of Peterson and Rodgers last weekend.
Troubling for Rodgers in last week’s loss: Green Bay’s slow start. The Packers punted on their first three possessions, allowing the Vikings to build confidence and a 13-0 lead.
“Some of that is an offensive line getting comfortable and being able to make calls in a tough environment on the road,” Dunne said. “Similar things happened at Detroit, at Seattle. Sometimes on the road, it’s been a little rocky at the start of games just getting assignments down and knowing who blocks who and getting into a rhythm for everybody. But once they figured that out, they got on a roll.”
Not troubling for Rodgers: he found his groove eventually leading six scoring drives on the Packers’ final seven possessions. Green Bay probably would have won last week’s game had they had the ball last, especially with Rodgers in a zone and picking apart a Vikings’ secondary that lost Antoine Winfield to a hand injury late in the first half. Rodgers threw for 318 of his 365 yards after Winfield’s exit.
“That was as good as they’ve looked in a really long time,” Dunne said. “And after Winfield went out, the Packers went after [Marcus] Sherels. They were just attacking him for big chunks.”
The Packers offense also got a notable boost last week from 24-year-old running back DuJuan Harris, who had 70 yards on 14 carries. Signed to the practice squad in October and later promoted, the diminutive Harris didn’t see his first action until Week 14 as he became the next man up in an injury-ravaged Green Bay backfield. His effort last Sunday was impressive.
“The Packers have a lot more trust and confidence in the guy,” Dunne said. “And his running style is just a little different than everybody else. Ryan Grant is so good on those stretch plays where he can press the hole and cut upfield when something’s there. Alex Green is more of a spread offense kind of back. Harris just gets it and goes. He’s a north-south tough runner.”
4) It’s not just the Vikings trying to vanquish the bad memories of their last playoff game.
For the Vikings, a 31-28 overtime loss to New Orleans in the 2009 NFC Championship game doesn’t require revisiting. It was 236 different kinds of painful. And Saturday will be their first playoff game since.
Green Bay’s last playoff game? A 37-20 home loss last January to the Giants, filled with uncharacteristic errors and providing a galling conclusion to a season in which the Pack went 15-1 during the regular season.
“That was a strange game, especially for the offense,” Dunne said. “They had three fumbles all year and then three fumbles in that game. They rarely dropped passes all year then dropped a ton of passes in that game. With the season on the line and so much at stake, everybody just fell apart, crumbled, played bad. That’s where the sting remains. They just weren’t themselves when it mattered most.”
The emotional scars of that loss won’t impact Saturday’s game with the Vikings much if at all. But certainly it provides motivation and a reminder of capitalizing on postseason opportunities as much as possible.
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