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.
Percy Harvin, who had a 105-yard kickoff return against Detroit on Sunday for a touchdown, has been named the NFC's special teams player of the month.
Here's the release from the Vikings:
HARVIN NAMED NFC SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE MONTH FOR SEPTEMBER
Percy Harvin has been named the Special Teams Player of the Month for September. It is the first time in Vikings history a return specialist has earned the award. In his 4th season from Florida, Harvin leads the NFL with a 38.3 kick return average and recorded the longest play in Vikings history with a 105-yard touchdown return on the opening kickoff against Detroit (9/30/12). Harvin has returned 9 kickoffs for 345 yards during the Vikings 3-1 month of September. The Pro Bowl return specialist has 5 career kick return TDs and only Hall of Famer Gale Sayers has more (6) during the first 4 years of his career.
Steve Hutchinson has seen the visiting locker room at Mall of America Field before. But it’s been a long, long time -- from back when he was with Seattle, his first NFL team.
“I was just thinking how weird it is to go back,” Hutchinson said today.
Hutchinson, the Vikings left guard for six seasons, will be back Sunday, this time playing guard for the visiting Tennessee Titans. Hutchinson was with Seattle from 2001 through 2005, then was signed away by the Vikings thanks to a seven-year, $49 million contract. He played six seasons in MInnesota, a tenure than ended with the Vikings letting him go shortly before free agency began last spring.
“I got a call,” he said. “They told me the decision they were going. But it wasn’t completely a blindside to me, knowing the direction the team was going. They were trying to get younger in areas. I kind of saw the writing on the wall. It was a fun run. It was a good six years. But it’s a business, too, and they have to do what they have to do.”
The Vikings revamped the left side of their line, moving Charlie Johnson from tackle to guard and plugging first-round draft pick Matt Kalil in at tackle. Hutchinson signed a three-year, $16 million deal with Tennessee.
Hutchinson said the hardest part about moving was relocating his family. As for continuing his career? That decision was pretty easy. “I had it in my head that, If I had played this last contract out with the Vikings, that would have put me at 12 years,” he said. “And that sounded like a good number to me, a dozen years. I don’t know if I felt comfortable hanging it up after 11. … I don’t know what this contract will take me to. I don’t know if all three years will come into play. But it wasn’t a hard choice to figure out that I wanted to keep playing.”
It appears, though, that Hutchinson has kept tabs on what has happened with the Vikings this season. He said he isn’t surprised by Minnesota’s 3-1 start. “I know the character of the guys in that locker room,” he said, “and the leaders they have on that team.’’
Hutchinson also said he expected quarterback Christian Ponder to blossom in his second NFL season. “I think last year, with the new offensive system and the lockout and no off-season, asking a rookie to come in and grasp every aspect of the game at the quarterback position at the NFL level is hard to do. I knew, once he settled in, he’d be good. They’re doing well, looking good. And I’m sure the fans are happy, and they deserve that.”
Despite reports to the contrary, Titans coach Mike Munchak said he hadn’t completely ruled out quarterback Jake Locker.
Locker dislocated his left (non-throwing) shoulder Sunday. It was the second such injury for Locker, who also did it opening day against New England.
Munchak said he would wait a couple days before officially declaring Locker out. But he also said he wouldn’t put Locker into the game if he hadn’t been able to practice, so it appears all but certain 37-year-old veteran Matt Hasselbeck will play.
Hasselbeck completed 17 of 25 passes for 193 yards, two TDs and two interceptions against Houston last Sunday.
“He takes great control of the huddle,” Munchak said of Hasselbeck. “He has a lot of confidence in himself. He can get the football where it’s supposed to go, and very quickly.”
Room to improve
Last Sunday Chris Kluwe’s 47-yard punt that was downed at the Detroit 2-yard line late in the fourth quarter helped the Vikings seal their win against the Lions. It was the final blow in a game that featured near-perfect special teams play by the Vikings.
But Kluwe said he needs to get more consistent with his punting going forward.
“Not yet,” he said, when asked if he had hit his groove yet this season. “I still had a couple punts in the middle of (Sunday’s) game that I didn’t hit the way I wanted to. And I need to focus on cleaning those up, hitting those better.”
Kluwe is averaging 46 yards per punt with a 40.2-yard net average, both strong numbers. But he sees room for improvement. “It’s just minor errors here or there,” he said. “It’s the difference between dropping it an inch or the right or an inch inside to the left. It’s minor stuff.”
Kluwe, part II
Kluwe, whose active defense of gay rights have made him something of a spokesman in that area recently, said he has received numerous proposals of marriage – via Twitter – since first voicing his opinion on the subject.
“It’s about 70 percent women, 30 percent guys,” said Kluwe, who is married and has two young children.
But that percentage might change.
Kluwe was recently interviewed by Out Magazine, a publication that offers a gay and lesbian perspective on style, entertainment, fashion and politics. As part of the interview he took part in a photo shoot, and his picture will be on the cover of the magazine’s November issue.
After delivering a near flawless special teams effort in a season opening win over Jacksonville, Mike Priefer’s unit had its struggles in last week’s upset of San Francisco. The Vikings special teams coordinator met with reporters Thursday and offered his diagnoses for a handful of things that went wrong against the Niners.
Yes, there were the huge second half kickoff returns by San Francisco’s Kyle Williams, one for 94 yards and another for 50. And Priefer offered his general assessment of what went wrong with his coverage on those.
“Number one, they blocked us up well,” he said. “We knew going in they were very good at it. And we did not do a great job with our lane integrity.”
But a couple of more minor mistakes had Priefer equally aggravated. Take Chris Kluwe’s first punt of the day, for example, a wobbly 35-yarder in which his drop was too far inside.
And then there was Kluwe’s best punt which came with 13:19 left and the Vikings protecting a 24-13 lead. From the 42, Kluwe bombed a perfect directional kick that landed just a couple yards in front of the right pylon with cornerback A.J. Jefferson coming off a block well and blazing down the sideline with a chance to down the ball inside the 2. Instead, Jefferson got to the punt, corralled it but dropped it on the goal line for a touchback, costing the Vikings valuable field position.
“That’s a heartbreaker right there,” Priefer said. “[Jefferson needs to] throw it back a little further. Or even if you’re near the sideline, we’ve talked about knocking it out of bounds. And A.J. hasn’t been around us. I mean, he was coached well at Arizona, don’t get me wrong. But there are little minute detail things that we talk about all the time that the more he hears it, the better he’ll respond.”
Around the block
Priefer was much more pleased with the special teams effort at the close of the first half with Letroy Guion blocking a 43-yard David Akers kick with 52 seconds left and rookie Blair Walsh capitalizing a few moments later by nailing a 52-yard field goal of his own. Instead of holding a 14-6 halftime advantage, the Vikings led 17-3.
“Huge swing against a very good football team,” Priefer said. “It gave us a lot of momentum going into the half.”
As for Guion’s big moment? The energetic defensive tackle combined with Matt Kalil to get great push against the 49ers’ front. And it’s Priefer’s belief that had Guion not got his hand on Akers’ kick, Kalil would have.
“Letroy comes off the ball so hard and so low and he’s got great timing,” Priefer said. “Being a defensive lineman, it’s a little bit easier for him than it is for a guy like Matt Kalil, who’s obviously going off a snap count. So our goal is to get Matt even better with his get-off and have those two working together and continuing to work together as the year goes on.”
If it seems like Percy Harvin has no caution when fielding kicks deep in his own end zone and bringing them out, that’s by design.
“Overly aggressive is not a term [with us],” Priefer said. “We’re going to be aggressive. We’re going to get after it. And we’re going to bring it out when we have an opportunity to bring it out. And the only way we keep him in is determined by a situation. Up by 10, 4 minutes left to go in the game, let’s give the ball to the offense at the 20, try to grind it out in the 4-minute situation and give us the best field position we can. But I’ll be honest with you, I think with our returners back there and the guys we have blocking for them, we have a chance to score every time.”
Harvin caught one kick against San Francisco six yards deep and returned it only to the 14. But that’s OK. Priefer wants his kick return unit to have a fearless confidence.
“If I look at Percy and say, ‘We need to keep this one in,’ he’d look at me cross-eyed. He believes he’s going to score every time. And I think the guys around him believe he’s going to score every time. We’ve darn near broke about three this year.”
For the year, Harvin has returned eight kickoffs for an average of 30 yards, ranking eighth in the NFL heading into Week 4. The Vikings have taken touchbacks on five of the 17 kickoffs they’ve received.
He keeps going and going and going …
Priefer hasn’t needed much time this week to review the strengths and weaknesses of Lions kicker Jason Hanson, who’s been booting balls in Detroit since 1992. Hanson is in his 21st season now. And last week, after punter Ben Graham suffered a season-ending calf injury, Hanson was called into emergency duty as a punter as well. Hanson’s busy day in Tennessee included three punts for an average of 39.3 yards. He also added field goals from 47, 53, 33 and 26 yards and made three extra points.
Hanson was reportedly unhappy with his punting effort.
Here's a number that suggests Percy Harvin will be on the field the first time Jacksonville kicks off on Sunday at Mall of America Field.
That's the average yards per kickoff return for the teams that played the Jaguars this preseason. That also was the worst kick coverage performance in the league during the preseason.
Granted, it's a number that scrubs and guys who are no longer on the team helped compile. But it's still a fair comparison because it's not like the other 31 teams were using their best players throughout the preseason.
A look at who the Jaguars have at kicker suggests the issue is coverage-related rather than kick-related.
"[Josh Scobee] has a big-time leg," Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer said today. "He's outstanding. He's very, very good. He's one of the better combination kickoff-field goal guys in the league."
The Jaguars kicked off 21 times in the preseason. Eleven of them (52.4 percent) were touchbacks.
Harvin is one of the best kick returners in the league, but the Vikings are extra careful not to give him too many touches, particularly when his value on offense skyrockets with fellow receiver Jerome Simpson suspended and running back Adrian Peterson limited at best as he returns from his left knee reconstruction.
Asked if he'll have Harvin at kickoff returner on Sunday, Priefer said, "I hope so. That's the plan. Anytime you have the best athlete on your team out there as your kickoff returner, that's what you want."
Prepping for MJD: Defensive coordinator Alan Williams isn't buying the Jaguars' claims that Maurice Jones-Drew, last year's league rushing champion with 1,606 yards, will be relegated to use on third downs because his contract holdout just ended this week.
"Did you believe that?" Williams asked reporters earlier today.
Not really, now that you mention it.
"I've seen him the last few years while I was at Indy," said Williams, the former Colts defensive backs coach. "Preseason or not, I'm not sure that if he was there that he would have been playing in the preseason anyway. So I don't take any stock in that. We'll be ready for him on first, second, third and fourth down. He's a guy you have to pay attention to. We're going to know where he's at at all times."
No advantage to facing young QBs: On the flip said, Williams said something himself that was hard to swallow.
Asked if he thinks it could be an advantage to face so many young quarterbacks early on this season, Williams said:
"I don't know because when you have a young quarterback, you don't have a ton of film on that guy. We don't have a ton of film on what [Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert] is doing in [coach Mike] Mularkey's system. I don't view that as a good thing. When you know what you're getting, you have a little bit of a comfort zone. Right now, we don't with this quarterback. No, it's not a comfort zone for our secondary whatsoever. I'd rather be able to prepare them for what we think they're going to see."
Well, there's plenty of film out there on Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. But it's safe to say the Vikings would prefer facing three rookies and two second-year guys in their first nine games.
Rookie as `calming' influence: If you think rookie free safety Harrison Smith looks mature beyond his greenhorn status, Williams agrees with you.
"He's a physical ballplayer, he's smart and he does not look like a rookie out there in terms of the plays overwhelming him," Williams said. "He looks like he belongs. It's nice to have a guy out there that settles the defense, settles the secondary. We also have some other guys. [Antoine Winfield] is a guy who is a calming influence on your secondary, on your team. So he's another guy who is like that, gets lined up, is smart and who plays smart."
Asked if he's ever had a rookie be a "calming influence" in the secondary, Williams said:
"I've played with rookies before. When I was in Indy, Antoine Bethea was a rookie and played every ballgame through the Super Bowl and played great ball. Bob Sanders, when he came in as a rookie, he played when he got healthy he played a ton of ball. That's OK. As long as they're good football players. And Harrison is a good football player."
Branch will move around: Reports on second-round draft pick Andre Branch say the young defensive end will be a factor on a pretty good Jaguars defense this year.
Said Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave: "For a rookie, he's very good. He'll be matched up against [left tackle] Matt Kalil a bunch. On third downs, they'll switch him over to [right tackle] Phil [Loadholt's] side. He's been very active and really impressive for a young guy."
Peterson getting between 25 and 35 reps in practice: Musgrave said "there's not too much doubt" that running back Adrian Peterson will be able to play on Sunday. "We've seen progress every day," Musgrave said. In case you're the last person in the Milky Way that didn't know, Peterson had his left knee reconstructed a little more than eight months ago. The question of every nanosecond between now and kickoff will continue to be "Will Adrian play on Sunday?'
Musgrave said Peterson's reps have been increased from 18 last week to between 25 and 35 this week. Asked how much contact has come with those reps, Musgrave said, "I'd say he's taken what a normal player would take in practice." And that means very little contact, no tackling to the ground and no targeting of the legs by defenders.
Musgrave said Peterson's practice load is about equal to what Toby Gerhart is getting.
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