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.
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.
Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams missed today's practice to tend to a personal matter, but his knee is good to go on Sunday in Chicago, coach Leslie Frazier said after practice.
"[Missing practice] has nothing to do with him physically," Frazier said. "He should be ready to go on Sunday."
Williams, who suffered a severely strained right knee in the third preseason game, missed the season opener at Detroit. The Lions won 34-24 and were able to run well between the tackles with running back Reggie Bush, who averaged 4.3 yards on 21 carries.
Williams was listed as probable. The Vikings listed six other players as probable. The only one with limited participation in today's practice was center John Sullivan (knee). Listed as probable with full participation were: LB Larry Dean (shoulder), LB Erin Henderson (heel), RT Phil Loadholt (knee), S Mistral Raymond (shoulder) and CB Josh Robinson (quadriceps).
For the Bears, CB Charles Tillman (knee) and DE Julius Peppers (illness) were listed as probable. Peppers was limited in practice. Tillman had full participation.
Defensive tackle Kevin Williams walked off the practice field after limited participation and gave a positive report on his first practice since suffering a severely strained right knee in the third preseason game at San Francisco.
"We went out to see how it felt," he said. "And it felt great."
But that's not the end of it. Not yet.
"Questions?" Williams said when asked if there were any questions that he would play on Sunday at Chicago. "I'll tell you tomorrow. Hopefully, it won't be sore tomorrow and we'll go from there."
If Williams gets up Thursday with unusual soreness, the Vikings are likely to back off and not practice him on Thursday. If he's not too sore, the Vikings will ramp up his work when they put the pads on for an afternoon practice. Either way, he'll only be limited in Thursday's practice.
"[Thursday morning] is pretty much the key," Williams said.
Also on today's injury report as being limited were cornerback Josh Robinson (quadriceps), center John Sullivan (knee) and right tackle Phil Loadholt (knee). Those three are expected to play on Sunday.
Two starters -- middle linebacker Erin Henderson (heel) and strong safety Jamarca Sanford (shoulder) -- are on the injury report but had full particpation in today's practice.
Not only did Leslie Frazier reassert his faith in Christian Ponder, the Vikings coach made sure to point out that the rest of his players aren't pointing fingers at the starting quarterback after Sunday's four-turnover performance in a 34-24 season-opening loss at Detroit.
"On Sunday, it was not all about Christian," Frazier said Wednesday as the Vikings amped up their preparation for Sunday's game at Chicago. "He had his mistakes. But the fact is the quarterback position is much more magnified. He just happens to play the position with the most scrutiny. We had other guys, trust me, that when we watched the tape, the scrutiny that needed to be had in those moments, they are well aware that they have to play better. They're not looking only at our quarterback and saying, `If he had done this or that, we would have won that ballgame.' We need to play better across the board."
Those hoping for a quick hook on Ponder can fahgedaboutit, too.
"You don't want to say that you can't get this turned and going in the right direction after just one week," Frazier said. "I just don't think that would be wise."
Frazier also pointed to the team's 4-0 playoff push to end last season -- particularly the playoff-clinching 37-34 win over the Packers -- as proof that Ponder has gotten the job done before.
"That Green Bay game at the end of the year, that was a terrific performance by Christian," Frazier said. "So we've seen him do it on repeated occasions. Consistent play is what we're looking for. We need a good week this week.
"[Ponder's] body of work is somewhat limited. [Sunday] was his second start on opening day and his first on the road [on opening day] a week ago. I have seen him make throws on the run. I have seen him make plays in the pocket, out of the pocket. All you have to do is throw in a tape from last December. There were a number of moments like that. We need consistent good quarterback play for our offense to thrive and for our team to be successful. Christian knows that as well as anybody. There are certain things we can't do. Our margin of error is small. So if we're turning the ball over, it just shrinks our opportunity to win. But I have seen him him make those plays in and out of the pocket."
Frazier, however, did point out that Ponder has to improve his play when things break down around him.
"Not every pocket is going to be clean in the NFL," Frazier said.
Ponder opened his weekly press conference today by saying what 99.9999 percent of all players coming off a loss say to the media. Here's part of the opening statement:
"Well, the good thing about football, especially the NFL, is you got to move on quickly," Ponder said. "Watching the film Monday and Sunday night, a lot of things are easily correctable. We'll get them fixed. We're too good of a team to be making those mistakes. We have to establish the run better. ... And we can't turn the ball over.
"There are things I can do better. That everybody can do better. The running back, the receivers. It's something as an offense, we correct as a whole."
Ponder also subtly dropped in a reference to last year's season-opener in which he directed a long, game-tying drive as time expired against visiting Jacksonville. The Vikings went on to win in overtime.
Asked when he felt the Lions game got away from the Vikings, Ponder said, "The feeling that it got away from us never happened. it was just a couple of bad mistakes. ... We were into it until the very end. We still had time with a couple of minutes left to score two touchdowns. We won a game with 14 seconds left where we had to drive 80 yards or whatever to get a field goal and we did that. So I don't think a game is really ever out of our reach."
In other news, Frazier said everyone is expected to practice today. That includes defensive tackle Kevin Williams, who missed the opener because of a badly strained knee, and center John Sullivan, whose left knee was chopped by Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh during an interception return. Sullivan finished the game. Suh did, too, but his wallet ultimately got lighter by 100 grand when the league fined him on Tuesday.
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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