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 dog days of training camp have officially arrived here in Mankato.
With head coach Mike Zimmer and the Vikings nearly two weeks into training camp and just four days away from their first preseason game against the Raiders at TCF, you definitely get the sense that the players are ready to start smashing helmets with someone in a jersey of a different color.
That’s not to say that today’s practice was chippy. We have yet to see anything that could be remotely described as a skirmish or an altercation during Zimmer’s first training camp. Honestly, I’m a little bummed out I haven’t been able to write the word brouhaha. Well, until now, that is.
But after nine long days in the sun, you can feel that the anticipation for an actual game is building. Zimmer will be challenged to keep his players focused on the now, as monotonous as these summer practices can become once you flip the calendar to August, instead of looking ahead to Friday.
SETTING THE SCENE: At the start of practice, the sky was overcast and a little ominous with a stiff breeze. But the nasty weather held off, and soon the sky was blue. The temperature was in the high 70s. Zimmer had the Vikings practicing in full pads for the sixth time in their past seven practices.
YOUR DAILY QUARTERBACK SMORGASBORD: After throwing a bunch of passes in team drills Saturday night, the quarterbacks weren’t asked to throw much in 11-on-11 situations today. Matt Cassel, who worked mostly with the ones, completed eight of his 10 attempts. Teddy Bridgewater completed eight of his nine attempts, including three of four in a stint with the first-team offense. And after he didn’t throw a single pass in team drills Saturday night, Christian Ponder got a chance to run a two-minute drill early in practice. He completed four of his seven attempts to third-stringers, but one of the incompletions was a drop and the other two were spikes to stop the clock. That was it for Ponder in 11-on-11 drills, though, as once again Cassel and Bridgewater hogged the huddle.
TEDDY CAN PUNT, TOO: Zimmer doesn’t fall into coachspeak as often as his peers, but he does talk a lot about situational football. During about every practice, he prepares his team for some rare and random occurrence. Today, he had quarterbacks practice pooch punts. Bridgewater can apparently punt a little bit, too. He booted both punts high into the sky. The latter of the two had a hang time of about four seconds. Jeff Locke need not worry about his job, but that was impressive.
CROCKER ISN’T EASED IN: The new guy, veteran safety Chris Crocker, wasn’t just limited to individual work and the occasional cameo during his first practice with the Vikings. Crocker was part of the safety rotation, usually with the second-team defense. Credit his familiarity with Zimmer and his defensive scheme for that. Crocker has played for Zimmer in each of the past seven seasons, and he said after practice that he wouldn’t have come out of semi-retirement for any other coach.
SPEAKING OF SAFETIES: With Crocker on the field and fellow safety Andrew Sendejo activated from the PUP list, the secondary was crowded with eight safeties, though Zimmer did let Harrison Smith take it easy, perhaps to get a better look at the other guys. Zimmer checked out a bunch of different combinations, and everyone from Jamarca Sanford and Kurt Coleman to Crocker and rookie Antone Exum got looks with the ones or twos. This camp competition gets murkier by the day.
TALKING ‘BOUT PUNTS: Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who returned punts for the Panthers, got a chance to field a few of them today, though the only thing I would take away from that is that his hamstring is healthy enough for him to practice without limitations. No, the Vikings won’t need him if they keep Marcus Sherels, who broke a punt return for a long gain down the left sideline at the end of practice. The only one standing in his way was Locke, and I wouldn’t have liked his chances.
INJURY REPORT: Rookie left tackle Antonio Richardson left practice after his left leg got rolled up on a run play. Linebacker Brandon Watts (hamstring) and cornerback Josh Robinson (hamstring) returned to practice. Remaining sidelined were safety Robert Blanton (hamstring) and tight ends Chase Ford (foot) and AC Leonard (head). Ford is no longer in a walking boot -- a good sign.
Earlier this week, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said that he and the coaching staff would huddle on Tuesday and come up with a plan to redistribute reps to the players. That plan apparently included giving Teddy Bridgewater and Anthony Barr work with the starters.
Midway through practice, during an 11-on-11 drill, Bridgewater stepped into the huddle with the first-team offense and took five or six snaps. It was not his sharpest practice, though. He missed on a few throws, leading Zimmer to remark after practice that Bridgewater wasn’t as accurate as usual. Soon, Cassel was back on the field, but the crowd buzzed for a while after Bridgewater’s cameo.
Barr, meanwhile, spent most of the practice with the first team. He flashed a couple of times off the edge and on one play hurried Bridgewater. But Zimmer didn’t exactly give him a glowing review.
“The only time I noticed him, he was late on a blitz,” he said. “And I talked to him about it.”
SETTING THE SCENE: After a day off, the Vikings were back in pads. I’ve got to say, today was the nicest day so far. It was partially cloudy and pleasant, with temperatures in the 70s.
YOUR DAILY QUARTERBACK BLURB: This was the dullest day for the quarterbacks since training camp began. Well, except for Christian Ponder, who threw an accurate five-yard dump-off to a running back on his only pass of the day in team drills. I was a little scatterbrained today so these numbers are unofficial, but I had Cassel at 7-for-11 during team drills and Bridgewater at 8-for-13. The quarterbacks particularly struggled in the blitz period.
SPEAKING OF THE BLITZ PERIOD: We got a brief look at some of the mayhem Zimmer intends to bring in obvious passing situations. Zimmer tinkered with three-man and four-man defensive lines in his sub packages. On one play, it was Barr and Brian Robison rushing from the edges. On another, it was Robison and Everson Griffen. We also saw Sharrif Floyd on the inside. Zimmer has weapons to work with. The defense certainly won the blitz period today, either forcing errant passes or check-downs to a running back or tight end short of the sticks.
BACK IN A FLASH: Wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson practiced fully for the first time this summer and looked unhindered by the foot injury that sidelined him for the first few practices. It didn’t take long for him make his presence known. At the start of the team takeoff drill, a quick team activity before individual work, Patterson caught a pass from Cassel and turned upfield. That got him a nice ovation from the fans, who were happy to see him back.
PINNING THEM DEEP: With only three touchbacks in his rookie season, Jeff Locke didn’t misfire often when trying to pin opponents deep. Today, he fared well while booming punts from near midfield, dropping many inside the 10-yard line and a couple of them inside the 2-yard line, though confusion between Derek Cox and Jabari Price resulted in one that should have been downed bouncing into the end zone. That couldn’t have made Mike Priefer happy.
KID’S GOT QUICKS: It seems like every day rookie running back Jerick McKinnon grabs your attention with his athleticism. Today, that moment occurred when he caught a quick swing pass from Bridgewater as he sprinted to the right. Rookie corner Kendall James took a bad angle in pursuit, and McKinnon planted his right cleat into the ground and shot up the field into the secondary.
SUBBING IN AT SAFETY: Robert Blanton did not practice, giving Zimmer a chance to try other safeties such as Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond and Kurt Coleman with the first-team defense. Coleman made a couple of nice plays, including one where he raced to the sideline to jar the ball loose from the grasp of tight end Kyle Rudolph. This competition is wide open.
INJURY REPORT: Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (hamstring) returned to practice after being activated from the PUP list this morning, but he did not do much. Blanton and cornerback Josh Robinson also have hamstring injuries, Zimmer said. Rookie tight end AC Leonard left practice with a headache. For more on those injuries and other nuggets, read this post-practice blog.
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer met with his coaching staff during the off day Tuesday to adjust the number of reps given to certain players in preparation for their first preseason game against the Raiders next Friday.
Offensive coordinator Norv Turner wouldn’t go into details about how the reps will be divided between quarterbacks Matt Cassel, Teddy Bridgewater and Christian Ponder, but he said on Wednesday he expects the preseason games will weigh heavily into Zimmer’s decision on choosing a starter.
“We will have these guys ready, and they will have an opportunity to prepare and compete for the job,” Turner said. “Whoever ends up being the starting quarterback, he will be ready to play on opening day. I don’t have any concerns about that."
Turner again reiterated that the organization won’t be afraid to start Bridgewater if he outperforms Cassel and Ponder in training camp. While the quarterbacks are wearing red non-contact jerseys during practice, Turner said Bridgewater has been outstanding handling pressure.
“He doesn’t look at the line; he feels it, keeps his eyes up the field, makes throws with people around him and throws in real tight quarters where he doesn’t have real much room to work,” Turner said. “That’s not a big concern. I think that’s one of the best things he does right now.”
The Vikings offense will install plays during the afternoon practice while the coaching staff continues to evaluate their three quarterbacks. Turner said while the current collective bargaining agreement sets certain restrictions on offseason practices, he feels it’s easier for quarterbacks to learn his offense because it allows more time to teach the system.
“Those walkthroughs aren’t necessarily to teach people how to do it; you’re teaching them the mental part of what to do,” Turner said. “…I think from a quarterback position, I think getting them up to speed in terms of what to do, this system in the way it is now is outstanding for that. You just don’t get quite as many reps.”
Every day On most days, our Vikings reporters walk you through what’s happening that day.
Remember when the Vikings arrived in the Twin Cities a few months ago for the start of the offseason working program and Greg Jennings said Norv Turner’s offense was making his head spin? He gave the juicy sound bite, but he wasn’t the only one feeling overwhelmed by the new offense. After all, the philosophy, the scheme and even the terminology are completely different.
Fast forward to today, the last day in July. The Vikings are now on their fourth time through the installation of Turner’s offense, according to first-string quarterback Matt Cassel, and the offensive players -- and most importantly the quarterbacks -- have gradually gotten it down.
“Each and every day we're working hard to continue learning the nuances of the offense, some checks, and also trying to see it through Coach Turner's eyes,” Cassel said Sunday night.
Cassel and fellow veteran Christian Ponder got an early advantage over first-round pick Teddy Bridgewater, who didn’t join the team until May. Those guys were in the building and in the offense a month earlier. But Bridgewater has proved to be quick learner, putting him in this battle with Cassel.
“It’s a huge difference compared to where things were before,” Bridgewater said. “For me, I'm a step ahead from when I first started learning the playbook.”
Some heads are surely still spinning. But it has looked like these two QBs have theirs on straight.
WHAT YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED
--- My colleague Mark Craig hung out with Norv and watched tape of Teddy.
--- CB Xavier Rhodes is still learning to trust his instincts at the pro level.
--- Bracing for a potential Chris Kluwe lawsuit, the Vikings hired two high-powered attorneys.
TWEET OF THE (YESTER)DAY
You have to think years of good drafting (2011-2014) will pay off for #Vikings soon. Unreal talent assembled, just needs to pay off.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) July 29, 2014
AROUND THE NFC NORTH
--- Bears QB Jay Cutler is not resting on his success from last season.
--- Lions QB Matthew Stafford feels rejuvenated working with Jim Caldwell.
--- The Packers are cashing in at Lambeau Field.
TODAY’S VIKINGS SCHEDULE
After a day off, the Vikings are back on the field in Mankato today. Their morning walkthrough got pushed back to 11:20 a.m., and it is now special teams only. They practice in pads at 3 p.m.
SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT
The Vikings allowed 37 passing touchdowns last season, tied for second-most in NFL history, according to Pro Football Reference. You would think with the explosion of NFL passing attacks that the dubious record would be held by a recent team, but it was actually the 1969 St. Louis Rams who allowed 38 passing touchdowns -- and that was in 14 games. The 1981 Baltimore Colts and 1961 Washington Redskins also allowed 37 in one season. Obviously, the Vikings need to be better in 2014, but the good news is Mike Zimmer's Bengals ranked 11th in 2013 with 22 allowed.
After the defense appeared to win the day yesterday, the offense struck back this afternoon.
The passing offense was much crisper today, and you could count on two hands the number of passes that hit the grass in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills. First-stringer Matt Cassel fared the best of the quarterback bunch, completing 17 of his 19 attempts, with one of those passes getting swatted down at the line. Sure, there was some dinking and dunking, but Cassel did complete a few difficult throws downfield against Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer’s defense.
While the players are still playing without pads on and there is no live tacking, this practice was conducted with a faster pace and a little more intensity than yesterday’s training camp kickoff.
SETTING THE SCENE: After a soggy morning walkthrough, the clouds headed for the hills, creating a picturesque afternoon in Mankato with blue skies and temperatures in the mid-70s. Players were in helmets and shells for the second straight day. The practice lasted just under two hours.
YOUR DAILY QUARTERBACK SMORGASBORD: Cassel wasn’t the only one who completed most of his passes. Bridgewater completed 10 of his 13 attempts during 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills and Ponder missed on just two of his 10 throws, including one after he executed a nice pump fake but couldn’t quite connect with Kain Colter, who was unable to make a tricky twisting catch. Bridgewater made a couple of nice throws, including a perfectly-placed lob outside the numbers to wide receiver Adam Thielen for a big gain. Bridgewater overshot a few throws like that during the first two days of camp, but that completion garnered him a loud cheer from the bleachers.
SLIGHT END?: Pretty much every player will tell you this time of year that they are in the best shape of their life, but it is noteworthy that the team as a whole has slimmed down since Zimmer brought stricter standards to the team cafeteria. One of those players who has shed some weight is tight end Kyle Rudolph, who did it in the hopes it will help him get open more often in coordinator Norv Turner’s tight-end-friendly offense. Today, he certainly looked pretty good running routes, changing directions well for someone who is 6-foot-6. But will the weight loss affect his run blocking? We’ll find out soon. The pads get strapped on tomorrow.
ROCKY RHODES: It wasn’t the best day for second-year cornerback Xavier Rhodes. During one stretch, Rhodes, who mans the right sideline, was beat to the inside for a chunk play by wide receiver Greg Jennings, who ran a deep post route. Quarterbacks picked on him a couple of more times for completions along the sideline, leading to some extra coaching from Zimmer.
DAY OF THE SWING PASS: Of all those completed passes today, I’d estimate that at least a third of them went to Vikings running backs. Maybe even half. After practice, Zimmer praised Adrian Peterson’s route-running. Sure, Peterson didn’t have the best day catching the ball yesterday. But he caught one in the open field today and was off to the races. After watching that, you can understand why Zimmer and the coaches are so excited about his potential in the passing game.
EARLY RETURNS: With wide-out Cordarrelle Patterson sidelined, the Vikings got a closer look at a group of potential kick returners that included Colter, Thielen, Jarius Wright, Jerick McKinnon, Josh Robinson and Marcus Sherels. I’d tell you who looked the best, but no one is allowed to touch these guys. For what it’s worth, coordinator Mike Priefer seemed to bark more praise toward McKinnon and Sherels.
INJURY REPORT: Zimmer said that Patterson (foot) and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (hammy) are getting closer to practicing, though he would not offer a timetable. Patterson could be spotted on the far field jogging and doing straddle exercises without a limp. As for safety Andrew Sendejo (lower back and ankle), Zimmer was not as optimistic. Sendejo has been dealing with the back injury since last season, and Zimmer pointed out that he has yet to see him practice. The safety position is a crowded one, so Sendejo will lose more and more ground every day he sits out.
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