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.
For this week’s edition of “Behind Enemy Lines,” we reached out to Josh Katzenstein, Lions beat writer for the Detroit News. Here are five questions we posed to Katzenstein in advance of Vikings-Lions and the final game in the Metrodome on Sunday
1. What happened in the final six weeks of the season that led to the Lions’ fall from first place in the NFC North?
JK: It didn’t seem like they were taking any of their opponents lightly. It was more just an in-game focus issue. The offense in the last six games had 21 turnovers averaging 3.5 turnovers and lost five of those games. On defense, they only forced three turnovers in those six games. They were just throwing possessions away and weren’t doing anything to get them back. Eventually those mistakes are going to cost you.
2. How much of this collapse is on head coach Jim Schwartz’s shoulders?
JK: The mood around Detroit is that Schwartz won’t be back next season but of course there’s nothing official to that. I think everything in the Lions’ locker room has been taking the blame. They’re saying that they’re the ones out there playing and the coaches coached them up enough. But at some point, you do have to question some of the decisions Schwartz and the coaching staff has made over the last six weeks just because it seemed there were times where they weren’t always ready for the opponents.
3. Is it time to question quarterback Matthew Stafford’s ability and decision making?
JK: I think those questions have already surfaced. Just watching Stafford even beyond the turnovers (19 interceptions and 12 fumbles), he makes a lot of really questionable decisions. He seems to rush throws at times, he seems to make off balanced throws at times. The Lions have locked him in for the future (three-year extension in the offseason with $41.5 million guaranteed) and certainly he’s going to be there for the next handful of years, but at some point you’re going to have to question exactly what his ceiling is. At times he looks like the sky is the limit but at other times it looks like the guy is throwing away the season. If you want to blame anyone more than Schwartz, it would have to be Stafford for the late season collapse.
4. What’s been the overall issue with the defense?
JK: I think consistency has been the main problem on defense. Even though the Lions’ run defense is good (fourth in the NFL allowing 94.8 yards a game) the front four has not lived up to expectations this year. They’re tied for 29th in the NFL in sacks this season and really had one dominant game and that was against the Packers on Thanksgiving when they had seven sacks. At times they’re not getting enough pressure and even when they are there seems to be a problem in the secondary.
5. What’s the mood around the team as it plays the final game at the Metrodome without playoff implications?
JK: The mood has been kind of down this week compared to the last couple months because I think guys are upset they don’t have a shot at making the playoffs. I think they are looking forward to getting back and regaining some of the pride that’s maybe been lost these last six weeks. I’ve been asking some guys about Metrodome memories, and I think they do know it’s going to be a tough test because the Vikings have been playing for pride these last several weeks and playing really well. All these guys see that on film and they know it’s going to be a crazy crowd. They just got to find a way to tune it out and hopefully finish this thing strong.
Every Tuesday morning, we take a look at where the Vikings would pick in the 2014 NFL Draft if the season ended today.
Note: The first tiebreaker is strength of schedule where the team with the worst strength of schedule percentage wins the tiebreaker and gets a better pick. Strength of schedule is based off the win percentage of a team’s opponents, so there’s two ways to calculate it during the season. One would be to factor in a team’s entire 16-game schedule, or the other method would be to tally the records of games already played (the method used in this blog). At the end of the year, both methods will result in the same SOS percentage.
A Tuesday after a win surely meant the Vikings would slide in the current draft projection order, but two teams in front of them also won.
The Vikings are just outside the top five at the moment with the 23-20 overtime win over the Bears. Here’s how the draft order looks right now (records and strength of schedule, if necessary, in parentheses):
They’re still not in a bad position for a possible top five pick, but again that tie against the Packers isn’t helping out their situation. If the Vikings’ would’ve lost, their strength of schedule would be adjusted from .514 to .521.
The Vikings and Redskins would have the same strength of schedule percentage. The next tiebreaker is division records, but they bypass that since they’re not in the same division. The third tiebreaker is conference records, which applies in this situation because they’re both in the NFC.
The Redskins sit at 1-8 against the NFC at the moment. The Vikings would go from 2-7-1 to 2-8 with the hypothetical Packers loss. So here’s how the draft order would look in that situation:
They’d jump three spots to third at the moment, with one of those conference wins against the Redskins. With four weeks left, it’ll be fun to see how this plays out.
The Rams-Redskins trade for quarterback Robert Griffin III in the 2012 NFL Draft doesn’t look so bad now for St. Louis.
The morning after the Vikings 23-20 overtime win over the Bears, we take a look at the snap distribution on offense and defense
Offense: 86 snaps
QB Matt Cassel – 61 snaps (played 71% on offense)
QB Christian Ponder – 25 (29%)
Ponder left the game due to concussion symptoms right before halftime, but the offense was more effective under Cassel, who’s responsible for all three wins this season.
Cassel went 20 of 33 for 243 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He finished with an 80.7 quarterback rating. Ponder was 3 of 8 for 40 yards.
RB Adrian Peterson – 78 (91%)
FB Jerome Felton – 38 (44%)
RB Toby Gerhart – 7 (8%)
It took the Vikings five possessions to take advantage of the Bears worst-ranked run defense in the NFL. But once they started, they relied heavily on the shoulders of Peterson, who had 35 carries for 211 yards (both season highs).
Peterson was healthy enough where the team didn’t use Gerhart as much compared to last week against the Packers where Peterson played 65 of the team’s 81 snaps (Gerhart spotted him on 14 plays).
Wide Receiver/Tight End
TE John Carlson – 78 (91%)
WR Greg Jennings – 50 (58%)
WR Cordarrelle Patterson – 48 (56%)
TE Rhett Ellison – 45 (52%)
WR Jerome Simpson – 40 (47%)
WR Jarius Wright – 31 (36%)
TE Chase Ford – 10 (12%)
WR Joe Webb – 5 (6%)
Something about Cassel brings out the best in Jennings. He caught his third touchdown this season, all thrown by Cassel, and led the team with seven receptions for 78 yards. Jennings had just one catch for two yards with Ponder. Carlson also had a solid game with four receptions for 61 yards.
Patterson started over Simpson for the third straight week and received a season-high 48 snaps. He’s had over 40 reps in three straight games, but the rookie finished with one catch for four yards. Patterson did, however, score on a 33-yard run in the second quarter
G Charlie Johnson – 86 (100%)
C John Sullivan – 86 (100%)
T Phil Loadholt – 86 (100%)
G Brandon Fusco – 86 (100%)
T Matt Kalil – 86 (100%)
As it’s been for most of the season, the starting unit played the entire game against the Bears. Cassel and Ponder were sacked a combined five times in the game (Bears defensive end Julius Peppers had 2.5 sacks), but the Vikings ran for 283 yards.
Defense: 66 snaps
DE Jared Allen – 58 (88%)
DE Brian Robison – 56 (85%)
DT Kevin Williams – 45 (68%)
DE Everson Griffen – 33 (50%)
NT Letroy Guion – 29 (44%)
NT Fred Evans – 22 (33%)
DT Sharrif Floyd – 21 (32%)
The front line had three of the team’s four sacks (Allen, Robison and Floyd) and hurried Bears quarterback Josh McCown six times.
Guion had five fewer snaps than he did in his return last week against the Packers (34). Evans, who had 17 reps last week, played more as a result.
LB Audie Cole – 66 (100%)
LB Chad Greenway – 64 (97%)
LB Marvin Mitchell – 20 (30%)
LB Larry Dean – 2 (3%)
Although he was suited up on the sideline, linebacker Erin Henderson did not play for a second consecutive game. He missed last week's game due a personal issue, which was revealed Henderson was arrested for an alleged DWI on Nov. 19.
Cole replaced Henderson last week in his first career start and has played the entire game in consecutive weeks. He had nine tackles and a pass deflection.
Greenway left the game during the overtime session due to a wrist injury he’s played through for over a month, but he only missed two plays. He tied for a team-high 10 tackles, three for loss, and a sack.
FS Andrew Sendejo – 66 (100%)
CB Xavier Rhodes – 66 (100%)
SS Jamarca Sanford – 66 (100%)
SS Robert Blanton – 45 (68%)
CB Chris Cook – 43 (65%)
CB Marcus Sherels – 24 (36%)
Rhodes put together another good game with six tackles, one for loss, and a nice pass deflection in the end zone against Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall.
Cook was ejected for making contact with an official after allowing a 46-yard touchdown to wide receiver Alshon Jeffery in the third quarter. It left a thin unit to rely on Sherels, who typically plays a spot corner, to play opposite of Rhodes and Blanton as the nickel corner.
Jeffery broke the Bears’ franchise record with 249 receiving yards. He also had 12 receptions and two touchdowns, both against Cook.
The Vikings have a 13-7 halftime lead over the Packers at Lambeau Field. Vikings running back Adrian Peterson scored on a one-yard touchdown with 50 seconds left in the half to give the Vikings their first lead. He has 14 carries for 72 yards and a touchdown.
The good: Vikings linebacker Audie Cole made the most of his first career start during the first half. He recorded his first career sack on the first play of the game and led the team with five tackles (four solo).
The Vikings also didn’t commit a penalty in the first half. The Packers have two for 20 yards.
The bad: The Vikings defense didn’t tackle well again, particularly against Packers running back Eddie Lacy. He broke tackles on practically every carry, dragging defenders in the process. Lacy has 13 carries for 62 yards
Vikings offensive tackle Matt Kalil couldn’t handle Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, who had two sacks in the first half. Kalil hardly made any contact with Matthews on his first sack. Ponder was sacked three times in the first half.
The ugly: Packers quarterback Scott Tolzien looked like Johnny Manziel on his six-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. Vikings defensive end Brian Robison bit on Tolzien’s pump fake, then Vikings defensive tackle Letroy Guion whiffed at Tolizen’s video game spin move while he dived into the end zone.
Tolzien went 7 of 15 for 98 yards. He also had two carries for 25 yards and a touchdown.
What would you rather do on a Sunday morning than wake up early and read weekly picks and power rankings involving 32 teams that basically are of equal strength and ability to beat, lose to or tie anyone on any given Sunday, Monday, Saturday, Thursday (and some day, when the revenue ceiling needs to be extended to a gazillion bazillion dollars, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday as well)?
CRAIG'S NFL POWER RANKINGS
BEST OF THE BUNCH
1. Broncos (9-1)
Why: The Chiefs were undefeated and allowing just 12.3 points per game. Then they played Peyton Manning, who, ho-hum, throws for 323 yards, a touchdown, no interceptions and a 94.1 passer rating in a 27-17 victory.
2. Seahawks (10-1); 3. Panthers (7-3); 4. Chiefs (9-1); 5. Patriots (7-3); 6. Saints (9-2); 7. 49ers (6-4); 8. Giants (4-6); 9. Cardinals (6-4); 10. Eagles (6-5); 11. Rams (4-6); 12. Colts (7-3); 13. Bengals (7-4); 14. Bears (6-4); 15. Steelers (4-6); 16. Lions (6-4); 17. Raiders (4-6); 18. Bills (4-7); 18. Dolphins (5-5); 20. Cowboys (5-5); 21. Packers (5-5); 22. Jets (5-5); 23. Ravens (4-6); 24. Chargers (4-6); 25. Browns (4-6); 26. Buccaneers (2-8); 27. Titans (4-6).
28. Vikings 2-7 (Last week: 22): The loss in Seattle kind of sums up where the Vikings are as a franchise. They had enough talent to be competitive early on against the best team in the NFC. But when things got tense in the second half, the quarterback fell apart and the team followed.
THE REST OF THE REST
29. Redskins (3-7); 30. Jaguars (1-9); 31. Texans (2-8).
WORST OF THE BUNCH
32: Falcons (2-9): The Vikings aren’t the only 2012 playoff team doing a face plant. Our bottom two teams – 4-17 this year – were 19-2 at this time a year ago.
Vikings plus-4 at Packers. The pick: Vikings 24, Packers 21.
The Packers are finding out just how easy it is to be average when you go 21 years between quarterbacks who aren’t Hall of Fame-bound. And that newfound running game isn’t quite as effective without Aaron Rodgers on the field. Without Rodgers in the game to play with his favorite toy – the Vikings’ pass defense – the Vikings could control this game with Adrian Peterson. Plus, can’t you just hear fans complaining about how a win over the Packers will hurt next year’s draft selection?
Last week: Vikings plus-12 ½ at Seahawks: The pick: Seahawks 35, Vikings 21. The final: Seahawks 41, Vikings 20. Record: 6-4, 4-6 vs. the spread.
Panthers minus-4 ½ at Dolphins: Dolphins 27, Panthers 24.
Why?: The Dolphins are 2-1 since the Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito/bullying fiasco blew up on them. NFL teams have a way of not being distracted when we all predict they’ll be distracted. They also have a way of losing when they’ve won six in a row, like the Panthers have.
Last week: Lions minus-2 ½ at Steelers. The pick: Steelers 28, Lions 21. The final: Steelers 37, Lions 27. Record: 4-7.
Bucs plus-9 at Lions: Lions by 10.
Jaguars plus-10 at Texans: Texans by 7.
Chargers plus-4 ½ at Chiefs: Chiefs by 7.
Steelers plus-1 ½ at Browns: Steelers by 7.
Bears plus-1 at Rams: Bears by 7.
Jets plus-3 ½ at Ravens: Ravens by 7.
Titans minus-1 at Raiders: Raiders by 3.
Colts plus-2 ½ at Cardinals: Cardinals by 7.
Cowboys plus-2 ½ at Giants: Giants by 7.
Broncos minus-2 at Patriots: Patriots by 3.
49ers minus-5 ½ at Redskins: 49ers by 7.
Record: Last week: 10-4; 9-3-2 vs. the spread. Overall: 88-64; 66-81-4 vs. the spread.
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