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.
LONDON -- Here's what we're seeing at halftime as the Vikings lead the Steelers 20-10 at Wembley Stadium:
The Good: Blair Walsh making a 54-yard field goal on the opening drive, salvaging a drive in which Matt Cassel threw incomplete on his final three passes, and extening his streak of 50-yard makes to start a career to 12. Walsh added a 37-yarder in the closing minute of the half. ... Greg Jennings making two defenders miss, splitting Pittsburgh's secondary and then outrunning two DBs, including Troy Polamalu for a 70-yard touchdown run, his seventh career 70-yard reception. ... Adrian Peterson's 60-yard touchdown run, which came with Jerome Felton leading him, and ended a streak of four consecutive three-and-outs by the two teams. ... Two possessions, 10 points to open a "noon" "home" game played at 6 p.m. 4,000 miles from the Metrodome. ... Jared Allen spanking left tackle Mike Adams. Allen has two solo sacks, one that was announced as half a sack with Sharrif Floyd. And he forced a holding call on Adams.
The Bad: Marcus Sherels negating a 67-yard punt return deep into Steelers territory by making a weak fair-catch signal. ... Josh Robinson having a poor first half, including giving up a 36-yard completion to Emmanuel Sanders to set up Pittsburgh's first touchdown. ... Giving up an eight-yard touchdown run to rookie Le'Veon Bell on an easy run around right end. The Steelers came in averaging 3.0 yards per carry, 30th in the NFL. This, however, is Bell's NFL debut after spraining a foot in the preseason.
The Ugly: Giving up two third-and-long situations on the Steelers' field goal drive late in the second quarter. Robinson gave up a 14-yarder to Antonio Brown on third-and-11. But the real killer was a 28-yard pass to Heath Miller. Safety Harrison Smith made that one much worse with a helmet-to-helmet hit that tacked on 15 more yards.
What we learned in the first half: Matt Cassel doesn't look much different than Christian Ponder. He's 0-for-2 on balls thrown farther than 20 yards from the line of scrimmage. Both were bad overthrows of Jerome Simpson. One should have been intercepted in the end zone, but Ike Taylor dropped it. Cassel also misfired on many other passes. and is 6 of 15 for 128 yards, one TD and no turnovers. But at least it appears Cassel's luck is better. He was stripped of the ball while scrambling. The ball shot forward and was recovered by Simpson for a 10-yard gain. The 70-yard TD to Jennings was a pass that traveled only seven yards.
After rolling his ankle late in Tuesday afternoon's practice, Vikings defensive end Jared Allen returned to the field Wednesday morning for the team's walk-through, moving without much of a limp. Head coach Leslie Frazier said Allen's ankle injury was not serious. Nor was Harrison Smith's knee injury. The second-year safety twisted a knee on Tuesday.
That's big news for the Vikings, who will need both Allen and Smith to be major contributors on defense this season.
Meanwhile, both cornerback Xavier Rhodes and linebacker Desmond Bishop continue to ease back from hamstring injuries. Both players are expected to do some light work this afternoon, though neither figures to play Friday night in the first preseason game.
The Vikings will return to the field at 2:30 p.m. for their final practice of this week. Their preseason opener comes Friday night at Mall of America Field against Houston.
Aaaaand …. here we go! In many ways, the Vikings’ 2013 season officially gets underway Friday – first training camp walkthrough at 10:30 a.m., first practice at 2:45 in Mankato. And yes we know a lot can and will happen between now and Sept. 8, the day the Vikings open the regular season at Detroit. But taking the 90 players currently on the roster, we’re delivering our in-depth position-by-position report as a primer for the opening of camp.
Currently on roster: 16
Likely to make opening day roster: 9
Certain to make the team: Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Brian Robison, Everson Griffen, Sharrif Floyd, Letroy Guion, Fred Evans
On the bubble: Christian Ballard, Lawrence Jackson, Everett Dawkins, D’Aundre Reed, George Johnson
Practice squad candidates: Chase Baker, Anthony McCloud
Camp depth: Collins Ukwu, Marquis Jackson
Biggest offseason developments: The Vikings were stunned when star defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, widely projected as a top 5 pick for April’s draft, was still on the board when they came on the clock at No. 23. They didn’t hesitate a second in making Floyd their top pick, the first of three first-rounders they nabbed. … The Vikings also restructured the contract of defensive tackle Kevin Williams, reducing his 2013 pay by $2 million and eliminating the 2014 season from his current deal.
What we’ll be watching: Allen and Robison were each hampered significantly in 2012 by injuries. Allen dealt with a torn labrum in his left shoulder and a meniscus issue in his left knee for most of the season. And Robison played through an elbow injury for most of the year before a severely sprained shoulder hindered his mobility even more for the final two regular season games and the playoffs.
Those physical setbacks were a partial reason the team’s sack total dipped from 50 in 2011 to 44 last season. But now both veteran ends feel as if they are back at full strength and aiming to stay as fresh as they can.
Allen’s disdain for the dog days of training camp are well documented. And he figures to add at least a couple of quips weekly to reinforce those sentiments. So it won’t be a surprise if the coaching staff ends up giving Allen several afternoons off during the stay in Mankato to keep him fresh physically and mentally.
On the interior, once the pads come on, we’ll be eager to see just how quickly Floyd adapts and excels in the middle of the defense. And it will also be a big camp for Guion, the incumbent starter at nose tackle who will have to fend off Evans to retain that role.
All in all, Allen feels terrific. He’s re-energized. He’s dedicated. He’s eyeing a dominant 2013 and believes he has three or four more good seasons left.
But there is also an intriguing subplot lurking.
In April, Allen turned 31. Two months earlier, he had surgeries to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder and a meniscus problem in his right knee. And, oh yeah, he has entered the final year in his six-year contract.
So with all factors considered, could this really be Jared Allen’s last season as a Minnesota Viking? A farewell tour?
To be clear, that’s not Allen’s desire. But it could be his reality. Which is why he refuses to spend much time thinking about life beyond January.
“I pray about it,” Allen said. “I talk to my wife. And we’ll end up going where the good Lord takes us. But I don’t know where that path is headed.”
-- May 24
The Vikings will hold their 10th and final Organized Team Activity on Thursday at Winter Park before reconvening next week for a three-day mini-camp. And as the offseason program enters the finishing stretch, third-year quarterback Christian Ponder continues zeroing in on making good reads more consistently.
On Wednesday afternoon, before teeing off at the team’s annual golf outing, an event that benefits the Vikings’ Children’s Fund, Ponder was asked how he’s measuring himself during this OTA stretch.“
The biggest thing is decision making,” he said. “Obviously you want to complete as many balls as possible, especially in things like 7-on-7. But we’re being put into some hard situations as well. Third-and-long. Blitz. A lot of blitz drills and everything. So it’s tough. I think the defense definitely has the upper hand in these drills. But it’s good for us to see that. And it makes the quarterback make smart decisions and get the ball out quick. So you want to see completions and the right decisions.”
Ponder knows the bar has been raised for him in his third year as a starter. And with back-up Matt Cassel now in the picture, his leash might not be quite as long in 2013 if his struggles are extreme. Still, the Vikings quarterback said the key in May and June is to feel things out within the offense without feeling exorbitant pressure.
“This is a time for us as an offense to just try a bunch of new stuff and see what sticks and see what we like,” Ponder said. “And there are a lot of new plays going in and everything. So it’s a fun time. It’s fun to try out quirky plays and see what the defense does. And the defense is doing the same thing, running funky coverages and everything. But our mindset is we want to get better every day and see a progression heading into training camp.”
On the injury front, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier reported that Chad Greenway’s Thursday morning arthroscopic surgery to clean up his left knee went well as expected. Greenway will be out of action until training camp begins in late July.
Fellow linebacker Nate Williams, signed in April as an undrafted free agent, has also undergone minor ankle surgery and, according to Frazier, will be sidelined until camp opens in Mankato as well.
The Vikings have their share of injuries to keep tabs on, especially with Pro Bowl defensive end Jared Allen continuing rehabilitation on his left shoulder in which he had a labrum tear repaired shortly after last season ended. Allen has been at Winter Park the past two weeks but not on the practice field. And he won’t be back in action during mini-camp next week either.
But Frazier said Wednesday he anticipated very few injury issues to still be a concern when the team reports to Mankato. The longest shot to be ready may be second-year receiver Greg Childs, who continues attacking his recovery from torn patellar tendons in both knees.
Frazier said after Tuesday’s practice that he isn’t certain how quickly Childs will receive medical clearance to return to full action but won’t rule out the receiver getting back to practice early in training camp.
"I have my fingers crossed, hoping that that will happen," Frazier said. "I'm waiting on [head athletic trainer] Eric Sugarman and our medical staff to give us the green light. But that would be my hope. We'll see what happens. I'm not sure what direction it will go."
Center of attention
On Wednesday, Frazier also noted that the team is closely monitoring the progress of standout center John Sullivan, who had microfracture surgery on his left knee.
In Sullivan’s absence during OTAs, the Vikings have tinkered with back-up plans at center. Veteran Joe Berger has seen work there. In addition, Brandon Fusco, who started all 16 games at right guard and is the expected starter there for 2013, has also handled snaps.
“We don’t see any problems with Sully being ready to go,” Frazier said. “But you want to make sure that you have other guys prepared.”
Fusco was a center during his college career at Slippery Rock and could be an option at the position if Sullivan’s recovery was to hit an unforeseen snag or if he had any lingering knee issues that sidelined him during the season.
Sliding Fusco to center, of course, would then open up the competition at right guard where rookies Jeff Baca and Travis Bond as well as veteran Seth Olsen could figure into the mix.
Still, Frazier believes Sullivan’s recuperation will stay on track which would give the Vikings the luxury of opening training camp with the same starting offensive line that started all 16 games last year.
“We’ve still got to see a little more progress out of John Sullivan,” Frazier said. “He’s making progress. But we want to continue to see that. … You just want to see him continue to gain confidence and not be worried about the surgery but just move on. And he’s making progress. From everything that Eric Sugarman tells me, he’s on target. He’s moving in the right direction. And we’ve got enough time for him to continue to improve. Hopefully when we get started, he’ll be able to go full go right away.”
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