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.
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.
The Vikings won’t know until later in the week whether cornerback Antoine Winfield will be available for the Packers game on Saturday.
Winfield broke his right hand in the Vikings’ victory at Houston Dec. 23. He returned to play in Sunday’s game against Green Bay before pain forced him to leave the game. The Packers passing game heated up quickly after that.
During his press conference Monday, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said was simply pain – not further injury – that forced Winfield out of the game. As for his availability for Saturday’s rematch with the Packers in Green Bay?
“We don’t know what’s going to happen with Antoine,” Frazier said. “We’ll see how he does throughout the week. He was in quite a bit of pain [Sunday], so we’ll have to see how he does throughout the week and make a decision, maybe, later on.”
Marcus Sherels was inserted as Winfield’s replacement as the slot cornerback in passing situations. Frazier said the team went with – and stayed with – Sherels for the rest of the game because he has gotten more reps in the slot than rookie Josh Robinson, and that Robinson was best suited to play on the outside. That said, Frazier hinted that, should Winfield be unavailable, the Vikings might re-think their nickel defense.
“There are some things we’ll have to look at for this ball game that we might do a little bit different,” Frazier said. “But it goes back to who is an inside corner and who is an outside corner.”
Frazier said defensive end Brian Robison, who returned from a sprained shoulder to play Sunday, came out of the game OK.
Running back Adrian Peterson told Frazier that he felt better coming out of Sunday’s 199-yard performance than he did a week ago, when he finished the Houston game feeling a bit banged up.
Frazier said safety Harrison Smith – who left Sunday’s game for a spell with a shoulder issue – should be able to practice this week, though perhaps in a limited way. He is expected to play in Green Bay. The same goes for tackle Phil Loadholt. Frazier said there were some other players who were “nicked up.”
Peaking at the right time?
Recent history suggests that it is sometimes the hottest team – rather than the team with the best record overall – that has an edge as the playoffs begin. So does that mean the Vikings. Who won their last four regular season games, are in a good spot?
Frazier wouldn’t go that far. But it can’t hurt.
“We’ve played some games, in this last month, where we pretty much had our back against the wall, where we needed to get a win each week,” Frazier said. “Particularly these last four weeks. And our guys have risen to the challenge, played extremely well, and got us those wins. Now we’re into a whole new season. We hope we can continue that and improve, ‘cause we’re going to need to improve to go play on the road. It’s a big challenge for us, but we need to keep improving.”
Searching for lost yards?
Given that Peterson finished just nine yards short of setting the NFL’s all-time rushing record, Frazier was asked Monday if he was going to have somebody review the season to see if a few extra yards could be found.
“If we could find those hidden yards, we would do it,” Frazier joked. “They have different people who will be doing that. But we’ll be doing our own homework as well. If we can find nine yards, we’re going to find them.”
Seriously, though, Frazier said he expected another run at Eric Dickerson’s record next season.
“As you know, it doesn’t take much to get him going when he sets a goal,” Frazier said. “I wouldn’t put it past Adrian Peterson to shoot for that record next year and even attain it. He is one of those guys you never bet against. If that’s in his sights, it’s possible. Anything’s possible with Adrian.”
A familiar opponent
Saturday will mark the third game between the Vikings and Packers in five weeks. So, it will probably be difficult for either side to do anything to fool the other.
“We’ll look as hard as we can to see if there is anything we can do differently to help us,” Frazier said. “And for how we can improve across the board as a team. But we’re so familiar with one another, there aren’t a whole lot of new things you can do. But you can try to improve on what you have been doing. And what’s what we’ll try to get done.”
Upon further review…
Frazier said linebacker Erin Henderson should have stayed with Packers receiver Greg Jennings on the third-quarter Packers touchdown. Henderson let Jennings go, and Jennings was all alone in the left corner of the end zone for his five-yard TD reception .
Are the Vikings really out of step in a pass-happy NFL? Six of the eight top rushing teams in the league are in the playoffs, including the second-ranked Vikings.
And the ability to run could become even more important in a game where weather could inhibit a passing attack.
“I would think so,” Frazier said. “I don’t know what the conditions are going to be at Lambeau yet, but I’m still going back to what I think is best for us. It’s a formula I think that can work no matter the conditions.”
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier can point to the moment he felt his team coming together, the game in which he felt everybody arriving on the same page, the day he felt the Vikings were becoming a cohesive team.
Interestingly, it did not come in a victory.
With a win-and-in game with Green Bay at Mall of America Field fast approaching, Frazier pointed to the Vikings loss in Green Bay Dec. 2 as that vital moment.
Really? A game in which the Vikings lost in large part because of two Red Zone interceptions by quarterback Christian Ponder?
“That game helped us in some ways,” Frazier said at his Monday press conference. “We found out a lot about ourselves on the road and I told our players after that game that I thought that, more than any point in our season, we had played as a team. I really felt like we were coming together at the right time. I’m sure when they heard me say that they were like, ‘What’s he talking about? We just lost to our rivals on the road.’ But I saw something in our team in that game that made me believe we had a chance to really take off.”
The Vikings have not list since that day, winning three straight, including road wins at St. Louis Dec. 16 and the big upset in Houston Sunday.
“Green Bay the first time was sort of like, ‘Wow, we’re really good, we’ve just got to figure out how to navigate those last two quarters and find a way to get a tough win,’ ‘’ linebacker Chad Greenway said. “I think these last two road games for us have been an indication that maybe we’re starting to figure out how to play together for four quarters and put it all out there. That doesn’t mean we’re going to get a win this weekend just because that happens. It just means that, hopefully, we can remain consistent, keep doing that. And realize that when we play our kind of football and don’t make mistakes, that we’re pretty good.”
That Green Bay game was also the point at which it became clear what had to happen over the final quarter of the season for the Vikings to make the playoffs. Namely, win. That was the week that both defensive end Jared Allen and owner Zygi Wilf talked with the team. Their message was simple: The team had to win the final four games.
“We kind of knew where things were and how important this final month of the season would be,” Frazier said. “But then you’ve still got to go out and play well. You have to prepare properly. And to our players’ credit and our coaches, they’ve done a great job of doing just that.”
A magnetic resonance imaging test done Monday morning showed that cornerback Antoine Winfield finished Sunday’s game with a small hand fracture. He was able to finish the game and is expected to play Sunday with a soft cast on the hand.
The Vikings hope defensive end Brian Robison, who missed Sunday’s game with a sprained right shoulder, will be available this week. “We’ll have to take it day-to-day with him,” Frazier said, “just to see what he’s able to do when he gets back to practice Wednesday.” Robison did some things in practice Friday, but was still in too much pain to play against Houston. “We weren’t sure if he’d be able to go out and protect himself,” Frazier said of the decision to sit Robison. “He needs to be able to tackle someone or, if someone is pushing up against him, he can protect himself. If he can do that, then he’ll be ready to go.”
Meanwhile, running back Adrian Peterson is still experiencing soreness with his abdominal issue and could be limited this week.
For the first nine games, rookie receiver Jarius Wright was inactive. In the last six games he has caught 19 passes for 220 yards and a touchdown. Sunday in Houston he had five catches. Three of those plays resulted in first downs for the Vikings. Monday Frazier talked about the strides Wright has taken.
“He’s just taken off as he’s gotten more confident with what he’s doing and what we’re asking him to do,” Frazier said. “The game he had yesterday was a big-time game. He ran good routes, got yards after the catch for us. He’s a young guy we have high hopes for.”
The Vikings’ final two opponents for 2013 will be set following Sunday’s game.
They will play each team in the NFC East and AFC North next season.
The Vikings’ home games will be against Philadelphia, Washington, Cleveland, the NFC South team that finishes in the same position as the Vikings (currently New Orleans), Green Bay, Detroit and Chicago. The Sept. 29 game in London against Pittsburgh also counts as a home game.
Road games will be at Dallas, the N.Y Giants, Baltimore, Cincinnati, the NFC West team that finishes in the same position as the Vikings (currently Seattle), Green Bay, Detroit, Chicago.
Longwell logs in
Former Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell broke his Twitter silence Sunday afternoon to laud his replacement, Blair Walsh. Longwell, who was bothered by never making the Pro Bowl, clearly thinks Walsh should be the NFC kicker as a rookie. His series of tweets read: "I've purposely not commented on any football stuff this entire year so let me make my first one now. I've seen many great seasons go unrewarded by not getting voted to Pro Bowl. But if @BlairWalsh3 does not get voted in this year it will prove system is broke! What more can the guy do?? Accuracy, 9-9 50+ yarders, Kickoff touchbacks and a game winner in his first career game!!"
Walsh is third in the NFC with 128 points, second in field goal percentage (behind Dallas’ Dan Bailey) and set an NFL record with his ninth field goal of 50 yards or more on Sunday.
Believe it or not, Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder had more to talk about than just his marriage Wednesday. In revisiting Sunday’s 36-22 win in St. Louis, Ponder again noted the significance of the Vikings’ opening drive, a 45-yard touchdown march that set the tone for the day.
On a series in which Adrian Peterson was stopped for minus-3 yards on five rushes, Ponder’s playmaking proved key in sparking the Vikings to an early 7-0 lead.
Included on the march: an 11-yard completion for a first down to Jerome Simpson and a key 13-yard connection to Stephen Burton on third-and-14.
The latter put the Vikings in position to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Rams 7. Ponder converted that play with a frenetic 3-yard scramble.
“On fourth down, obviously we love coach going for it,” he said. “As players we love that. He took the risk and we converted, which was big.”
Moments later on third-and-goal from the 5, Ponder finished the drive with an improvised touchdown run. The designed play called for a pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph. But Rudolph was double-covered coming off the right side of the line. Ponder’s second option would have been to Michael Jenkins, running an out route against Bradley Fletcher on the outside to the right.
But once Robert Quinn blew by Charlie Johnson, penetrated the backfield and slapped Ponder in the face, the quarterback instinctively took off and dove in for the score.
“We knew that winning on the road is hard,” Ponder said. “And for us to do it, we have to start fast. And it was crucial to finish that first drive.”
Griffen’s maturation obvious
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier had high praise for defensive lineman Everson Griffen on Wednesday. Griffen’s interception and 29-yard return for a touchdown was one of the key plays in Sunday’s win and it continued an encouraging season for Griffen. The third-year lineman has been active all year long when on the field and has continued to produce even after experiencing a significant emotional blow in October when his mother unexpectedly passed away while visiting.
Here’s what Frazier had to say of Griffen: “He’s come so far. I talk to him about it often. Just seeing the maturation, even through this last offseason, being able to manage his free time, understanding what it means to become a pro and to act like a pro both at practice and in games as well. And he’s one of the guys that as we speak has really bought into the right way of doing things. … He’s one of those guys who has paid attention and listened.”
Frazier said he is proud of Griffen’s continuing maturity and the emotional toughness he’s shown the past two months.
“The tragedy that he faced this season, losing his mother, that was hard,” Frazier said. “But the way he responded, even in the midst of that tragedy, you take your hat off to him with how courageous he is. And I’ve told him, I know his mother would be extremely proud of him and the way he’s handled himself. He’s come a long way”
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