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.


Posts about Ryan Longwell

Chat OT: Secondary strides, Ponder's growth, Walsh's weaponry

Posted by: Updated: October 3, 2012 - 8:29 AM
If you missed my live Vikings chat on Tuesday afternoon, you can check in here and read the back and forth in full. In addition, each week I will attempt to go overtime, bringing good questions I didn’t get around to answering on the chat here to the Access Vikings blog for discussion. Here are Tuesday’s leftovers from our brilliant chat audience.
Question 1: It was nice to see the Vikings beat a pass-happy team like the Lions. Moving forward, we'll need more plays from our secondary in order to compete with the Brandon Marshalls, Andre Johnsons and Greg Jennings of the world. Do we stand a chance in a shoot-out with these teams? Can our young secondary keep it up?
Well, first things first. While the Vikings will play a lot of very good receivers over the final 12 weeks, none will be more talented or more explosive than the guy who wears number 81 for the Lions. So imagine just what kind of confidence builder it was for this young defense and this once-awful secondary to have the success they had against Calvin Johnson. Again, success against Megatron is relative. He still had five catches for 54 yards and drew three penalties for 75 yards. That’s a 129-yard day for Calvin and yet the Vikings were thrilled he never exploded the way he’s capable of exploding.
Same goes for Stafford, who really never seemed to be put much stress on the Vikings’ defense. The Vikings schemed to take away Johnson and made sure they didn’t get beat over the top. And Stafford had merely an average day. He didn’t throw a TD pass for just the third time in his career. And 13 of his 30 completions and 141 of his 319 passing yards came in the fourth quarter with the Vikings’ D in prevent mode.
Long story short: Fantastic day for the secondary with no play bigger than the hit Harrison Smith put on Johnson late in the first half that turned a certain Lions touchdown into an incompletion. Smith had another clutch pass break-up on Johnson on a deep ball in the third quarter too. So now we’ll see whether the Vikings can replicate their effort against Johnson when they run across Marshall (Weeks 12 and 14), Andre Johnson (Week 16) and Greg Jennings (Weeks 13 and 17).
Question 2: Why is Ponder being called a game manager by so many people? He brought the Vikings back for the win against Jacksonville. He rallied them from 14 points down to tie the game against the Colts. He threw two touchdowns and ran for another against the 49ers. For everyone that wants him to take more shots down the field, who do they want him to throw to? Jerome Simpson is a nice player, but is certainly not a top tier receiver.
Question 3: Surprised by all these questions about whether Ponder has the ability or willingness to throw deep. Seems fans don't remember him putting up 380 yards last year against a very good Denver defense. I don't get it. If he were to force the issue, there would be interceptions and people telling him he needs to play smarter. Guy can't win, I guess. What do you think?
Question 4: what kind of QB do you see Ponder being at the end of the season, if he stays healthy?
Welcome to the NFL, where if you’re a head coach, a quarterback or an offensive coordinator, you’re almost always going to have people begging non-stop for you to do exactly the opposite of what you’re currently doing. Thankless roles, really. And that’s it with Ponder right now.
So many fans want him to join the fireworks show that we see with passing attacks around the NFL. Outsiders want him to put up X-box numbers like Brees and Rodgers and Stafford and Eli. But if he were to start throwing long consistently and then turned the ball over a bunch, critics would wonder why he was taking so many foolish chances.
As I’ve said repeatedly since April, the Vikings want Ponder to make his biggest strides in 2012 with his decision making. He needs to avoid sacks that kill drives. He needs to eliminate bad interceptions. Think of all the costly turnovers he had a year ago. Just off the top of my head, I remember two terrible interceptions against Denver – one a pick six and another deep in his own territory in a tie game in the final 2 minutes. There was also a fumble lost for a TD and another pick six in Detroit. There was a pick six against Chicago in the season finale. And at the end of the year the Vikings were left blathering on and on about how frustrating it was to lose so many close games. Well, guess what? The elimination of untimely turnovers turns those heartbreaking losses into encouraging wins.
A few days after Ponder’s solid day against the Niners, Bill Musgrave was asked if that was the most complete game the young QB had played. Musgrave referenced the positive things Ponder had shown in rookie home starts against Green Bay and Denver in 2011 but then issued the reminder that turnovers in those games helped trigger losses.
So here’s what Musgrave then said: “The quickest way to lose in this league or at any level is to beat yourself and last year, we did some good things but we had some untimely mistakes that caused it to be really tough for us to get the outcome that we want. And we want to keep playing at a high level. But number one, we don’t want to beat ourselves.”
Whether you like it or not, this is the directive. This is how Ponder’s Year 2 success will be measured. So far, so good. And so at the end of the year, based on what he’s shown to date, I expect Ponder to continue evolving and getting better while still being smart and cautious as much as possible.
Question 5: Who deserves the credit for the punt return touchdown: Marcus Sherels, for breaking about six tackles and getting to the sidelines, or the Vikings' special teams, for forming a massive wedge around him?
Don’t forget about the poor tackling shown by the Lions’ special teams. The punt coverage unit probably had three fairly easy chances to take Sherels down and failed, starting with Kassim Osgood who got to Sherels right as he fielded the punt. Erik Coleman and Don Muhlbach also blew chances to tackle Sherels and the Vikings’ return unit turned several impressive blocks. Brandon Burton and Josh Robinson were solid in gunner control along the sideline. Rhett Ellison delivered a solid block. Matt Asiata drilled punter Nick Harris. And Sherels was left to do the cutting and weaving to get to the left sideline. The craziest thing to see on that return was when Sherels got outside and reached the 30 yard line or so, he had a wall of teammates – Burton, Audie Cole, Tyrone McKenzie, Larry Dean and Devin Aromashodu – escorting him to the end zone.
Question 6: Any idea why Walsh missed that last attempted FG? Was it a bad snap? He had been so consistent up until then.
I’ve watched it a half-dozen times now. And to my naked eye, I can’t quite detect for certain what went wrong there. Snap and hold looked pretty good. Seemed like Walsh just yanked the kick. Hey, nobody’s perfect right. Walsh makes that kick and all of a sudden he’s a perfect 3-for-3 on field goals against Detroit and a perfect 10-for-10 on the season. Plus all five of his kickoffs against Detroit went for touchbacks.
Think about this: last season Ryan Longwell produced 19 touchbacks in 78 kickoffs. In September of his rookie year, Walsh produced 12 touchbacks on 20 kickoffs and his average of 70.2 yards per kickoff leads the NFL. That’s a big-time weapon to have.
Lastly, on a side note, I needed a place to bring this up. On the third-and-6 play before Walsh missed his 46-yard kick in the fourth quarter, Ponder panicked and wasted an opportunity to keep what could have been a game-sealing drive alive. Out of the shotgun, Ponder felt pressure when cornerback Jacob Lacey frazzled left tackle Matt Kalil a bit on a blitz. Linebacker Justin Durant also got good push on Phil Loadholt. Yet Ponder was so locked in on Kyle Rudolph from the snap that he never saw how open the left side of the field was. Had he turned his eyes only a fraction of the way to his left, the entire left side of the field was open. He had Percy Harvin wide open and maybe could have run for the first down as well. Instead, he retreated a full 13 yards behind the line of scrimmage on a stressed roll to his right and never really had a chance to complete the bullet he threw toward Rudolph. No, Ponder didn’t take a sack nor throw a bad interception. So that’s commendable. But it sure looked like he needs to progress better with his vision there.
Question 7: Has anyone ever done an analysis of fundamentally sound football versus having better skills players? Can a case be made that intelligent, fundamentally sound play is more important than having better skill players?
I know of no study or in-depth analysis that has been done to differentiate the value of having superb talent versus having fundamentally sound play. But I can tell you that this is the grand experiment being conducted at Winter Park under Leslie Frazier and Rick Spielman.
That is not to say that the Vikings are averse to having very talented football players on their team. Look at the current roster and all the talent – from Peterson to Jared Allen to Harvin to Greenway to Kevin Williams to Winfield to Matt Kalil … I could go on and on. That’s a ton of premier talent.
But here’s the deal going forward: Frazier and Spielman are really, really trying to find intelligent and disciplined football players who are not only fundamentally sound but also are incredibly dedicated to getting better. Again, it sounds obvious. But sometimes it’s those guys who put forth more time and investment into mastering their roles that spark the big NFL run faster than the guys with all the talent and athleticism but without the super savvy and work ethic.
So this is the Frazier-Spielman vision – to catalyze their rebuilding effort with good players who won’t make costly mental mistakes and who are dedicated enough to study more and dial in every week. They believe and I agree that that kind of thing becomes contagious. And it’s at least one small reason they’re off to this 3-1 start.

Walsh wins NFC Special Teams Player of the Week

Posted by: Mark Craig Updated: September 12, 2012 - 9:55 AM

First, he wins Zygi's purple tie, and now this ... 

BLAIR WALSH WINS NFC SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE WEEK HONORS
 
Eden Prairie, MN (September 12, 2012) Vikings rookie K Blair Walsh has been named the NFC’s Special Teams Player of the Week for his performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The 6th-round draft pick out of Georgia was a perfect 4-4 on field goals in his NFL debut. Walsh connected on FGs of 20, 42, 55 and 38 yards, he was 2-2 on extra points. The 55-yard kick sent the Vikings/Jaguars game to overtime and is tied for the 2nd longest FG in team history. Walsh connected on a 38-yard FG in overtime that proved to be the game-winning kick. The 38-yard kick is tied for 3rd longest OT winner in team history.
 
Walsh is the 1st rookie kicker in Vikings history to win the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week award. Ryan Longwell is the last Vikings kicker to win the award in 2008. Other Vikings kickers to win the award are: Fuad Reveiz (2x), Gary Anderson (4x), Eddie Murray and Ryan Longwell (2x).

 

Vikings return to practice after opening victory

Posted by: Chris Miller Updated: September 10, 2012 - 12:54 PM

The story of the Vikings' 26-23 victory over the Jaguars, along with a postgame breakdown video is here.

JIm Souhan wrote about Adrian Peterson's day here.

The hero of the day was rookie kicker Blair Walsh, who replaced Ryan Longwell this season and got his shot to shine right away, Mark Craig reports.

Mark also wrote about Christian Ponder's outing, which improved as the game went along.

And Mark's Five Extra Points are here.

Percy Harvin's impressive day was the lead to the notebook.

And ... then there is Sid's column.

Vikings coach Leslie Frazier and players talk early this afternoon, so the guys will have more notes in just a bit.

Final gun report: Walsh's field goals give Vikings the victory

Posted by: Updated: September 9, 2012 - 3:15 PM

Rookie kicker Blair Walsh has quite the nerve. The Vikings’ wild win was made possible by the 55-yard game-tying field goal that Walsh made as the final gun sounded. Ryan Longwell, whom Walsh supplanted this season, wouldn’t have had the range to make that kick. Walsh then won the game with a 38-yarder in overtime. Walsh's end-of-regulation kick was made possible by the moxie shown by second-year quarterback Christian Ponder, who with only 20 seconds left on the clock, completed passes to Devin Aromashodu for 26 yards and to Kyle Rudolph for four yards to push the ball to the Jacksonville 37. Ponder, after a rocky start, finished 20-for-27 for 270 yards,

Bad news: There were shades of 2011 in the building. Not only did the Vikings play miserably for the first 27 minutes of game action with offensive ineptitude, costly penalties and a defense’s inability to get off the field on third down, then came a near-galling finish with Blaine Gabbert hitting Cecil Shorts III on a 39-yard go-ahead touchdown pass with 20 seconds left. Shorts’ TD grab came one play after the Jaguars converted a fourth-and-3 with a 10-yard pass to rookie receiver Justin Blackmon. It was a defensive unraveling that could have been miserable had the offense and Walsh not produced a miracle comeback.

Extra point: Adrian Peterson not only got the green light to play Sunday. He carried the ball 16 times, rushed for 88 yards and scored both Vikings’ touchdowns on runs of 3 and 2 yards. Peterson’s first score, with 1:47 left before halftime, provided a huge boost of energy to the Vikings offense, which had punted on its first four possessions. Peterson also rushed for 27 yards on the Vikings’ game-winning drive in overtime and broke Robert Smith’s franchise record for career rushing yards.

Next up: The Vikings will head to Indianapolis to play the Colts in Andrew Luck’s regular season home debut at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Colts are getting walloped in Chicago this afternoon (34-21 at last check).

Here's the game report from the Associated Press:

MINNEAPOLIS - His left knee fully healed, Adrian Peterson ran hard for Minnesota. Rookie Blair Walsh's leg handled the rest.

Walsh kicked four field goals, including a 55-yarder as regulation expired and another in overtime, and Peterson returned from his left knee injury to lift the Vikings to a 26-23 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday.

Peterson ran 17 times for 84 yards and two touchdowns for the Vikings, who led for most of the second half until Blaine Gabbert's 39-yard touchdown pass with 20 seconds left in the fourth quarter gave the Jaguars a 23-20 lead.

For the first time since the NFL's new overtime scoring rule was installed last season, the first team to score didn't immediately run off the field a winner.

After Walsh's 38-yard kick, the Vikings had to play defense again while the Jaguars had their chance to match. But Gabbert was hurried into a fourth-down overthrow, spoiling the debut for new Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey, who played for the Vikings in the 1980s and was Atlanta's offensive coordinator the past four seasons.

For two teams that combined for eight wins last season, this game had a little bit of everything.

Cornerback Chris Cook's sack helped force a punt by the Jaguars in the closing minutes, but the Vikings went three-and-out and punted the ball right back clinging to a 20-15 lead.

With no timeouts, 91 seconds left and starting at his 24-yard line, Gabbert put together perhaps the best drive of his brief career. He completed a fourth-down pass to rookie Justin Blackmon and then found Cecil Shorts III open in man-to-man coverage against Cook near the sideline.

Shorts, who played at Division III Mount Union College in Ohio and had only two receptions last season, pivoted to make a twisting catch just inside the pylon with 20 seconds left, sending a stunned silence over the stadium.

But the Vikings still had two timeouts, and with two quick passes by Christian Ponder they hustled in position for Walsh to kick the tying field goal with room to spare as the fourth quarter ended.

They won the coin toss and, with 27 yards on three carries by Peterson to become the franchise's career leading rusher, set up Walsh for his go-ahead kick. Drafted in the sixth round out of Georgia, Walsh replaced veteran Ryan Longwell this year.

Ponder finished 20 for 27 for 270 yards, though he lost a fumble while taking a sack in the third quarter that led to one of Josh Scobee's three field goals.

Peterson, who was supposed to be on limited use a little more than eight months out from reconstructive surgery to fix torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments, had 17 of Minnesota's 29 runs.

Gabbert went 23 for 39 for 260 yards and two scores, but he dropped a snap in the third quarter that was recovered at the Jacksonville 44 by Kevin Williams to set up Peterson's second touchdown run. His Superman-like leap over the line from 2 yards gave the Vikings a 14-9 lead. He then somersaulted up from his back to celebrate with his teammates, yet another sign of his recovery from such a devastating injury last Christmas Eve.

Peterson's first carry was unremarkable in style, a simple 4-yard gain after a stutter step at the line of scrimmage, but the crowd realized the significance and applauded Peterson almost as loudly as they did when he sprinted out of the tunnel during the pregame introduction.

That's all the Vikings gave their fans to cheer until the end of the first half, going almost an hour between first downs, but with one 3-yard touchdown run by Peterson they wiped out most of a bad half by moving within 9-7.

Gabbert, whose 65.4 passer rating was the worst among all qualifying quarterbacks in the league last season, looked more comfortable in the pocket to start his sophomore season and didn't force any throws.

But despite some tough inside running by Maurice Jones-Drew, who skipped training camp in protest over his contract, the Jaguars didn't finish off their drives with touchdowns.

Vikings rookie offensive tackle Matt Kalil blocked Scobee's extra point in the second quarter, too. The Jaguars produced fewer total yards than any other NFL team last season.

Jones-Drew, who like Peterson was purported to be in a limited role, gained 77 yards on 19 carries for the Jaguars.

 

 

Vikings get started against 49ers

Posted by: Chris Miller Updated: August 10, 2012 - 5:28 PM

A video preview of tonight's game betweein the Vikings and 49ers, featuring Dan Wiederer's interview with CineSport anchor Tara Petrolino, can be seen here.

Kickoff is at 8 p.m.

Here's Mark Craig's game preview:

VIKINGS AT 49ERS
8 p.m. at San Francisco's Candlestick Park • TV: Ch. 23 • Radio: 100.3-FM and 100.3-AM

ABOUT THE VIKINGS

After holding his own against reigning NFL sack king Jared Allen over 11 practices, rookie left tackle Matt Kalil will be tested in live game action for the first time in what should be a long Vikings career. Assuming the 49ers play their starters, Kalil, the fourth overall pick, should get at least one series against one of the league's fastest and most physical defenses. Justin Smith, a stout and quick 3-4 end, and rush linebacker Aldon Smith combined for 21 1/2 sacks a year ago. ... Also keep an eye on right guard, where the starting job is Brandon Fusco's to lose; nose tackle, where Letroy Guion has to prove he's not too undersized to make the switch from under tackle; middle linebacker, where Jasper Brinkley will see his first game action since hip surgery wiped out his entire 2011 season; kicker, where rookie Blair Walsh begins dealing with the pressure of replacing veteran Ryan Longwell; and, of course, quarterback, where Christian Ponder is coming off a season in which he went 2-8 as a starter and threw as many interceptions (13) as touchdowns. Watching the depth, especially at receiver and defensive back, will be interesting as well. Rookies to watch include Jarius Wright, who had an unremarkable camp at receiver, and Harrison Smith, who has a nasty side that he'll get to unleash on another team as he tries to become a starter.

ABOUT THE 49ERS

It won't take the Vikings long to see how their refurbished roster compares to the best the NFC has to offer. The 49ers are coming off a conference-best 13-3 record that earned rookie coach Jim Harbaugh the Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year award. The NFC's best defense -- one that allowed only three rushing TDs a year ago -- includes the best and most physical inside linebacker in the league in Patrick Willis. Offensively, the 49ers committed a franchise record-low 10 turnovers as quarterback Alex Smith had a stunning breakout season after bumbling through his first six NFL seasons. His five interceptions were a record low for the franchise and contributed to an NFL-leading plus-28 turnover differential. Running back Frank Gore, 29, keeps chugging along after rushing for 1,211 yards in his seventh season. And, oh yeah, there's the SuperFreak. After a year out of the league, Randy Moss is attempting a comeback in San Francisco. He's in a dead heat for the No. 2 receiver job with Mario Manningham and Ted Ginn Jr. Moss, 35, has a lot to prove. He flopped in 2010, catching just 28 passes with the Patriots, Vikings and Titans.

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