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.
Kluwe: It was worth it
The final price tag for Vikings punter Chris Kluwe having voiced his opinion: $5,250.
And it was worth every penny.
Last Sunday NFL uniforms sported a patch celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Kluwe taped to cover the patch, then wrote, “Vote Ray Guy” on it. His point was that no punters were in the Hall of Fame, and that Guy certainly deserves to be the first.
Kluwe, who became a rather famous advocate for same sex marriage this fall, has now gone from Gay rights to Guy rights. And it cost him an NFL fine, standard issue for first-time uniform infractions.
Kluwe knew the fine would be coming, and it was worth it, he said, though he did have to get his wife to sign off on the protest beforehand. “It got people talking about it,” Kluwe said. “I heard the broadcast team talked about it for a bit. And hopefully people will realize, ‘Hey, punters aren’t in the Hall of Fame, maybe we should do something about that.’ ‘’
As usual, Kluwe took to Twitter to announce his fine, tweeting, “The good news is all the money goes to support former players through the NFL charity programs. Maybe they’ll vote for Ray Guy.”
So has Kluwe talked with Guy, whose cause he has taken up? “I haven’t talked with him,” Kluwe said. “Hopefully I’ll get to talk to him when he gets inducted into the Hall of Fame.”
It’s not that there has been a shift in emphasis in the locker room. The goals the Vikings defense enter each game with haven’t changed. But, with a playoff push in progress, defensive end Brian Robison said there were some discussions last week on what the defense needed to do down the stretch.
“To us, it doesn’t matter what the offense does,” he said. “In our minds, we have to out-play the other team’s defense. That’s what it comes down to, the team that makes the most stops wins the games. .. We’ve always depended on ourselves to do that, to be the best defense on the field that day. But we haven’t always played like that. We came out last week and we said, ‘You know what? Enough talking about it, we gotta be about it.’ That’s what we did last week, we out-played them on defense, we scored on defense, we created turnovers, and we want to do the things that put our offense in the best position to be successful. Now we have to do that again.”
One area in which the defense has definitely improved is against the run. After a stretch in which the Vikings were gashed on the ground, the run defense has been good in three of the last four games.
During that four-game stretch Minnesota has allowed 133.3 yards per game, but just 2.6 yards per rush. This week the Vikings will see Steven Jackson, the Rams running back who is 71 yards from reaching 10,000 for his career.
“He looks awesome on film,” safety Harrison Smith said. “He’s a beast – tough to tackle, big, good runner. He’s patient. He gets his blocks and runs off them.”
As a kick returner, Percy Harvin has had a frustrating couple weeks with two near home-runs that seemed to be the equivalent of a fly out to the warning track and a 450-foot bomb that sailed just outside the foul pole.
Last Thursday against Tampa Bay, Harvin didn’t see many pitches he could hit. He was back for eight kickoffs but only had a chance to return one as Bucs kicker Michael Koenen blasted the other seven through the end zone.
“Frustrating for all of us,” Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer said. “We kept preaching though in the huddle, he’s going to give us one.”
Harvin finally got that opportunity midway through the third quarter when he caught Koenen’s kick 7 yards deep and came out flying. He picked up a few solid blocks on the left side from Jerome Felton, Tyrone McKenzie and Rhett Ellison and almost broke free.
“I don’t know if you guys felt it but you can see it on tape,” Priefer said. “The crowd, as soon as the ball’s in the air, they know he’s going to bring it out. They all start standing up. My hair’s up on the back of my neck because I know we’ve got a chance. And he darn near broke it. He got up to the kicker.:
Koenen made a touchdown-saving tackle after a 43-yard return.
A week earlier against the Cardinals, Harvin’s 103-yard return for a touchdown was called back due to an illegal block in the back penalty on Marvin Mitchell, who was penalized for pushing Arizona’s Alfonso Smith.
Priefer acknowledged Thursday that was a legitimate flag.
“You have to call it because of where our guy was,” he said. “His hands were [extended]. I don’t even know if [Mitchell] hit him. But because the guy dove for Percy – and Percy was going to make him miss anyway, so I don’t even think we needed to – but because of the relationship of where he was, the official who called it was in the back and it looked like a block in the back.”
Here’s Priefer’s praise for Seattle return specialist Leon Washington: “He’s a really tough guy to bring down. He’s got great vision. I call it running back vision, because that’s what he is. He runs hard. And once he finds a seam, which a lot of guys can’t see, he can see it and he hits it downhill so fast that he’s extremely hard to tackle. Great quickness, great toughness. He’s a formidable threat. … His best trait is kickoff returns because he’s downhill faster. He’s already got the ball and he’s running downhill 15 or 20 yards before anyone even gets near him. And that’s where he’s a big-time threat. Because, again, he can see that seam and hit it full speed. We’ve got to do a great job of keeping leverage, a great job tackling him, a great job of wrapping him up and getting him down.”
When Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway puts on tape of the Seattle Seahawks offense, he sees a whole lot of what he sees on the Vikings’ practice field every day.
He sees an offense that mirrors what the Vikings do. He sees a scheme that is not overly complex from a formation standpoint. He sees a team determined to start by establishing the run, then working off of that with a play-action passing game. Familiar? Yes. Even more so because many of the Vikings’ vets were here when Darrell Bevell – the Seahawks offensive coordinator – was doing the same job here through the 2010 season.
But that doesn’t mean Seattle will be easy to stop.
“I don’t know if it gives us an advantage,” Greenway said. “You still have to go out and play and react. But we do have a better sense of what (Bevell) is trying to accomplish, having been around him so much – the type of scheme, the type of passing game he’s going to utilize off what he’s doing in the running game. And that play-action stuff. They’re going to throw some (bootleg plays) at you, try to suck the linebackers up and throw over the top of you. All these things we know. But we have to go out and play the game.”
Fellow linebacker Erin Henderson agreed. “You have a good idea of how they want to do things, what they want to get done,” Henderson said. “But you won’t know for sure until you go out and see their first 15 plays.”
Despite the good numbers Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch has put up, the Seahawks have struggled to move the ball consistently and to score points; the team ranks 30th in the NFL in yards gained and 27th in scoring.
For the Vikings to make sure that continues they have to stop the Seahawks running game first. That’s a goal that, considering the problems Minnesota has had stopping the run of late, won’t be easy to reach.
But familiarity might breed defensive consistency.
“They are built very similarly to us,” Greenway said. “I mean, the biggest thing for us is going out and playing in a very tough environment. We’ll see if we can handle it or not. This will be a huge game for us.”
Thinking of home
Henderson is from Aberdeen, Maryland, which is about 45 minutes north of Baltimore. He has a lot of family there, as well as some family that lives in the New York area. So he has spent a lot of time the past few days keeping in contact with people back home to see how they’re dealing with Hurricane Sandy.
“They didn’t get hit to bad in Maryland,” Henderson said. “Just some high winds and a bit of rain, stuff like that. But I had some family in New York that got affected a little bit more. It was kind of devastating to see some of the pictures they sent us. Everybody made out OK, though.”
Still, Henderson said it hasn’t been easy to be in Minnesota while family out east dealt with the storm.
“You want to be there with them, and be there to support them as best as possible,” he said. “But you have a job to do. You have responsibilities you have to tend to here. It’s just a matter of trying to communicate as much as possible on the phone, make sure everything is OK.”
A game of inches
It’s not just last Thursday’s game that is bothering Vikings punter Chris Kluwe. Halfway through the season Kluwe ranks 11th in the NFC with a 43.5-yard punting average and eighth with a 39.9 net average. Both are down from his career averages.
“I’d say mediocre,” Kluwe said when asked to assess his season so far. “I'd like to, obviously, be leading the league in both gross and net. Unfortunately sometimes you don’t punt well.”
The difference between a good punt and a bad one? Less than you might think. Kluwe said he was rushing himself a little bit, trying to go a little too fast. “And my drop hasn’t been super consistent,” he said. “That’s something to hopefully hone in on and try to get corrected.”
Kluwe said a drop that is even an inch off can change a kick. "Or maybe the ball is tilted three or four degrees forward or three or four degrees back," he said. "That can change the entire outcome of the kick. It's a very small window that you have to hit in order to kick the ball well."
The Vikings special teams will be dealing with a bit of an unknown this week in Redskins kicker Kai Forbath, who was signed Wednesday to replace the struggling Billy Cundiff.
Forbath was touted as one of the best kickers coming out of college last year but went undrafted in 2011. He was picked up by the Cowboys but put on the Non-Football Injury (NFI) list with a quadriceps injury last season.
Forbath was in camp with the Buccaneers this preseason but ultimately couldn’t beat out Connor Barth for the placekicking job there. So now the Redskins will give him a look.
Preparing for Forbath will be a bit of a challenge. Even during his standout career at UCLA, Forbath only kicked field goals and didn’t handle kickoff duties.
“[We’ve got] no tape on him from last year because he was injured,” Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said. “And he had nine kickoffs and five field goals that I’ve studied from the preseason.”
So what’s the added challenge for Priefer this week?
“It’s different,” he said. “Because you’re always trying to figure out tendencies and those sorts of things. But there’s really not enough tape on him to show any tendencies. Plus, he was kicking for a different team too when we did study the tape. So it will be a unique situation.”
Priefer’s special teams also face another unique twist this week: this will be the Vikings’ first true outdoor game during the regular season.
Said Priefer: “It’s wind, weather, where to align our returners if there’s a cross wind. How do we punt? How do we set up Marcus [Sherels] on punt returns? Those sorts of factors come into play.”
Current forecasts are predicting a 73-degree day with winds up to 13 miles per hour.
Go for it
The Vikings’ final touchdown in last week’s 30-7 win over Tennessee – a 15-yard toss from Christian Ponder to Kyle Rudolph – was one the head coach didn’t necessarily want. Leslie Frazier was content running the ball and milking the clock until offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave pushed to run a passing play with a promise that it would produce a score.
Musgrave explained his urging Thursday.
“We were staying on the gas at that point,” Musgrave said. “That’s just a little bit of our philosophy. We want to stay on the gas until someone tells us to get on the brake.”
No big deal
As for Ponder’s first interception of the season – also in the direction of Rudolph – Musgrave was OK with the decision to throw the pass. Unfortunately, with Ponder rolling hard to his left, the pass sailed a bit high and outside for Rudolph.
But in principle, Ponder’s mistake wasn’t troubling.
“We thought it was a good example of the scramble drill, which we practice weekly and emphasize with our young quarterbacks,” Musgrave said. “Because they do have good movement skills. He flushed out to the left. Everybody worked in his direction. He had a couple options there. He just missed his target. I think he probably didn’t have small enough of a target where he wanted to aim to with Kyle. At times, quarterbacks just throw it for the sake of throwing it. But if he can be a little more accurate, we come up with a really big play there at the end of the first half.”
Fusco faring fine
Musgrave had positive reviews of right guard Brandon Fusco, who has held up well
“He can really bend for a big guy, stay on his feet and finish blocks,” Musgrave said. “The more experience [he gets] and the more various looks he’s exposed to, the more he’ll develop and not be as surprised by as many things.”
Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer wasn’t pleased with the 46-yard field goal attempt that rookie Blair Walsh pulled left with 13:15 to play in last Sunday’s game at Detroit.
If Walsh had made that kick, the Vikings would have led 23-6 with their defense playing well. Instead, the miss gave Detroit hope.
“I called him over after that play,” Priefer said. “I wasn’t mad. Because he’s nine of 10. You can’t get mad at what he’s done for us this year. And he kicked off so well and really helped our team win that game. But I said, ‘Do you realize the situation?’ He had already thought about it.
“Now you’re up three scores with 10 minutes to go in the game. The way our defense was playing, I just felt good about us winning that game at that point. But then you’re [only] up 14. And that’s a whole different deal. Two scores is obviously not as good as three scores. Hopefully he’ll grow from that and learn from it and move on.”
Priefer said he expressed his discontent in a calm manner, making sure to get his point across without getting too deep into Walsh’s head.
“I was disappointed for him, disappointed for us,” Priefer said. “And he knows that. He’s a smart guy. He doesn’t have to be told when he does something wrong. We watched it on tape together on Monday morning. He knew what he did wrong.”
Priefer said Walsh got a little too close to the ball on the miss. “Probably lunged into it a little bit and then wrapped his foot around it. He’ll do that every now and then in practice. So we’ll work in here on that.”
Need a break?
Priefer was tempted to use a timeout just 12 seconds into last Sunday’s win. After Percy Harvin returned the opening kickoff 105 yards for a score, Priefer was a bit concerned that his special teams players might be a bit tired and perhaps overly excited for the ensuing kickoff.
“I’ve had it happen before,” Priefer said. “You can give up a long return after a big play like that. Because many of the same guys who are on the return team are on the kickoff phase as well.”
Priefer also thought about asking for a timeout after Marcus Sherels’ delivered his 77-yard punt return score in the third quarter.
“But I already had a sub for Marcus,” Priefer said. “And then I turn around and there he is. I told him, ‘I’ve got somebody for you [on kick coverage].’ He goes, ‘No, I’m fine.’ He wasn’t even breathing hard. That’s what kind of a special kid he is. He was ready to go on the next play.”
Of course, there was little to fear for the Vikings' kickoff coverage team Sunday. Walsh produced touchbacks on all five of his kickoffs.
Priefer also took note of the five-man escort that Sherels had for the final 25 yards or so of his touchdown return.
“That was pretty cool,” Priefer said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that before. I was really fired up about that.”
Here’s the latest dip into the fountain of praise for Harvin, of whom Priefer had this to say: “Offensively and special teams, Percy Harvin is so special. He’s a special athlete and a special young man. He plays hard. He practices hard. He does everything full-go. And that’s the kind of guy you love to coach. No matter what he does out there, he’s going to make us better.”
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