With the trading of Percy Harvin for multiple draft picks in the next two years, the Vikings had added fan attention/concern to the upcoming NFL Draft. It was painfully obvious Minnesota lacked wide receiver talent in 2012, Letting go the only receiver to perform well last year seemed insane. But when players express a desire to be traded, the reality is they are probably not worth much to you. Getting a first round pick (among others) was better than could have been hoped.
And now with the signing of Greg Jennings, another in a slew of former-Packers players who seem to want to play for their rival, it seems Minnesota has already addressed the loss of Harvin in part. And with the 23rd and 25th pick in the upcoming draft, are poised to further amend the neediest of positions on the present roster. For after Jennings, the next most-highly regarded receiver is probably Jarius Wright. Or perhaps Jerome Simpson. You see the problem?
We need receivers now.
That is not the only need unfortunately. With Jasper Brinkley leaving for Arizona, there is an immediate hole at the vital position of middle linebacker. There has been talk of stealing Brian Urlacher away from another rival, the Chicago Bears. WLB Erin Henderson, entering his 6th year, is also a concern to some fans. Only Chad Greenway is above reproach at SLB, and he in his 8th season and thirty years old.
We might need a linebacker or two.
Antoine Winfield, easily the most consistent performing cornerback, was let go to free salary cap room. At thirty-five years old, Winfield is in the twilight of his career. Yet he would have been a starter for certain, Chris Cook and Josh Robinson give fans hope for a good future. A.J. Jefferson and Marcus Sherels remind us of how badly we need the aforementioned corners to stay healthy. Brandon Burton should be in the equation in 2013, and Sherels is a decent return guy, but even a blind man can see the need for help here.
Cornerback is in Spielman's front brain.
Adrian Peterson is entering his 7th season, and coming off of one of the greatest seasons in football history (and that is not hyperbole). He is in the prime of his career. The front line did an admirable job helping him find holes. They did less of a job protecting a skittish Christian Ponder. The loss of OG Geoffrey Schwarz creates a further need to improve at the guard position.
It is important to note that the Super Bowl champion Ravens had two former Vikings (Birk,McKinnie) on their front line. While Matt Kalil is proving an upgrade, and John Sullivan more than solid at center, there is a need to improve the depth and talent of guard. The right guard position presently belongs to Brandon Fusco. Charlie Johnson was recently signed to man the other guard. He is entering his 8th season, and was not resembling former All-Pro (happy retirement!) Steve Hutchinson in 2012.
Guard is a need in 2013.
On the other side of the ball, the Vikings have serious talent. DT Kevin Williams has given us ten good years at defensive tackle. DE Jared Allen enters his 10th year as a pro, and all have been exceptional since coming from the Chiefs. Add improving DE Brian Robison and you have one of the better front fours in football. But also maybe one of the oldest. All three will be thirty years old (or older) at the start of the season. Only NT LeTroy Guion at 26 is considered young in this group.
Luckily, Minnesota possesses others at defensive line who are ready to contribute. Everson Griffen showed signs of life in 2012, and in only his 4th season, is probably ready to replace someone at end. DT Christian Ballard is entering his 3rd season, and appears capable. So to is NT Fred Evans, though he is entering his 8th season. D'Aundre Reed should be back at defensive end, but has yet to get a chance to prove himself.
Defensive line is needing youth.
And so over the next forty days I will be offering reviews of prospects for this year's NFL Draft. Minnesota has eleven selections in the draft. They have five in the top one hundred. Now is the time for the return to atop the North division. The Packers, still the team to beat, are an Aaron Rodgers injury away from mediocrity. Their defense is suspect. And now they are without Jennings on offense. The Bears and Lions are good, but so are we. We might even be better?
Thirty-Nine days and counting...
Coming off of the loss in Seattle, Minnesota finds itself at 5-4 and facing a difficult schedule. In fact, besides the road game at St. Louis ahead, this home game vs. the Lions might be the only game in which the Vikings will be near favored. (Oddsmakers are actually favoring Detroit by a little). And they will play without Percy Harvin, out with an ankle injury.
I have listened to my fellow Vikings' fans lament the play of Christian Ponder. And truthfully, he has been awful. Ponder helped the Vikings get off to a fast start by reducing mistakes, finding Harvin and Kyle Rudolph, and escaping the rush well enough to avoid sacks. But lately he has faltered. Ponder did not throw an interception in the first four games, where Minnesota went 3-1. In the last five games Ponder has thrown eight interceptions and Minnesota is 2-3 in those games. Ponder was sacked nine times in the 4-1 start, 14 times in the 1-3 stretch we have just endured.
But as any coach or knowledgeable fan knows, there is much that is hidden. From the television angle, I can see pass rushes are now getting through our line. Recently I have watched replays where John Sullivan,Charlie Johnson, Brandon Fusco, and Phil Loadholt have been beaten. Blitzes are not being picked up by running backs and/or tight ends. Even phenom Matt Kalil has allowed hits to Ponder. Opposing defenses are pressuring Ponder. Other than Harvin, no one else appears to getting open regularly. If quarterbacks face pressure without open receivers it gets ugly quickly. Just ask Michael Vick.
And the defense is suffering from the lack of passing offense. The Vikings have surrendered 30 or more points in their last three losses to Washington, Tampa Bay, and Seattle.Those teams are 23rd, 13th, and 32nd in passing offense. And that has not mattered because it has been through running games that Minnesota has collapsed. Against Washington Robert Griffin III slipped through countless tackles on his way to 138 yards in only 13 carries. Doug Martin did the same in his 135 yards on 29 carries (which turns out not so bad compared to other Martin games). And there is no shame in allowing Marshawn Lynch 124 yards on 26 carries, other than that means you do not have the ball. Inability to stop the run is the death of many teams.
And excuses are available. The defensive secondary misses the play of Chris Cook and Mistral Raymond until recent. Cook was having a great year and that freed up guys like Harrison Smith and Jamarca Sanford to make tackles. Josh Robinson, along with others, is raw and will be beaten at times.
Losing to ground games is often at the fault of the 'front seven'. In the case of RGIII, the front four needs to contain him within the rush and often a linebacker is assigned to quicker QBs. Neither did their job. It seemed in the loss to the Bucs and Seahawks that linebackers were simply missing assignments and/or tackles. Chad Greenway tackles so many people that we tend not to see fault in him, but the microscope is on Erin Henderson and Jasper Brinkley. And one cannot help but wonder if the "have to get that sack" mentality of Jared Allen and Brian Robison is negatively impacting the run defense, as most yardage allowed appears to be leaning to the outside gaps.
Fast forward to today. At 5-4, and this being the easiest of the three remaining home games,today's game vs. the Lions becomes a must win to entertain a winning season or slim remaining playoff hope. Having beaten them earlier in the season Minnesota should have a winning recipe. Contain the run and put pressure on Stafford with the front four. Offensively, do enough with the passing game to allow Adrian Peterson just a little wiggle room. And avoid mistakes in your own territory.
With Percy Harvin out that job just became harder. Harvin has been electric in all aspects of his game. Harvin is on pace to shatter personal receiving records in this his fourth year. While his receiving efforts are probably most missed today, the idea of not having Harvin return kickoffs is also disheartening, He was averaging almost 36 yards per return, with four returns over forty plus yards in sixteen attempts.
Can Minnesota right the ship with a season sweep of the Lions? Without Harvin, it appears that the job of kick off returning us to winning football just became available. Marcus Sherels, the punt returner, appears to be most likely to have that chance. And this also means someone like Jerome Simpson. Michael Jenkins, Devin Aromashodu, or Kyle Rudolph will have to pick up the slack receiving.
Because Lord knows Adrian Peterson cannot do it all.
The third preseason game between the Vikings and the Cowboys shed light on what to expect this season. Minnesota played well, and if not for a special teams miscue, probably would have defeated a good Dallas team. But that is why they have preseason, and certainly a blocked FG return for a touchdown is no reason to have deflated hopes. These things can be fixed in time.
The offensive line, much aligned in media, responded with their best game. John Sullivan opened up a few big holes, as did Steve Hutchinson. Charlie Johnson played well at left tackle, Anthony Herrera was decent. Phil Loadholt was beaten on a rush once or twice, but held his own for the rest. The second unit faltered some, but Joe Webb appears to like that -- as he can then run free. Adrian Peterson looked brilliant again. Donovan McNabb was precise in attack. Bernard Berrian made some decent catches. All in all, a good day on the offense.
The defense once again missed a few tackles, but not too many. There was definitely openings in zone coverage that allowed Dez Bryant to haul in big gains. The pass rush, so important to the coverage, was not as strong as hoped. Jared Allen did seem to hurry Tony Romo a few times, but obviously this team needs Kevin Williams to penetrate from the inside. Fred Evans and Guion started at tackle and were adequate. Christian Ballard did get a sack in the second half. Chad Greenway looked like a 'franchise-tag' player. The Hendersons were decent, though E.J. was run through on the Cowboys only offensive TD. In the secondary, Cedric Griffin made tackles, but often it was after a decent gain. Chris Cook also gave up a few significant gains. Players fighting for roster spots stepped up, most notably Marcus Sherels and Jordan Parks.
Just about ready for the start. The only problem is, so is everyone else....
The Green Bay Packers, owners of four Super Bowl rings (including last year), are poised and ready. They get back JerMichael Finley and Ryan Grant to an already explosive offense. Aaron Rodgers has looked better every year and the only question marks seem to be the offensive line's struggle in the preseason. They are the favorite to win the division.
The Chicago Bears, last year's winner, will be in the mix. Jay Cutler has his best year in some time, and Matt Forte proved he was not on the decline in 2010. Also running the ball could be Marion Barber and Chester Taylor. The Bears' defense will be strong led by Brain Urlacher and Lance Briggs. While not expected to win the division, many are choosing the Bears as a wild-card entrant.
The Detroit Lions are poised to achieve their first winning season in a long while, and with Matthew Stafford, Jahvid Best and Calvin Johnson, have big play potential that has been lacking. Of course, all the attention is on the defensive tackles: Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Expectations are higher in Detroit than at anytime since Barry Sanders left. The Lions are the popular "sleeper" pick for 2011.
So where does that leave the Vikings?
Most do not think Minnesota has a shot at the playoffs, but concede they will be improved under the new regime of Leslie Frazier and the savvy quarterback Donovan McNabb. Losing the entire Williams' wall for at least part of the season should have an impact on the defense. The secondary is suspect at best. The best hope is that the Vikings find a pass rush that limits the secondary being exposed.
An 8-8 season would be an accomplishment according to those in the know. The division is fierce, the schedule is tough. But the Dome has been repaired, and a new brighter look comes from the changed roof. The turf is new, and hopefully, safer than previous turf. Anything can happen, right?
I think the Vikings will be better than expected. If the turnover ratio changes, and it should, Minnesota will find itself in games many would not expect. McNabb's veteran leadership, combined with Adrian Peterson's skills, could be enough to make a run for the division title again. After all, Minnesota has won the division (in its' many forms) eighteen times, eight more than the nearest competitor (Green Bay and Chicago). We are quite used to winning.
A final preseason game stands in the way. Important battles to make the roster are the news of the day. The spots for the secondary and wide receiver should be especially tough. Sherels has become a fan favorite, as he is a Gophers alumni. Another former Gopher, defensive lineman Cedric McKinley, played well late in the Dallas game. At receiver, my new favorite, Emmanuel Arceneaux will try land a spot, or at minimum, make the practice squad. After his big catch against the Cowboys, the secret may be out. It is my opinion that he will soon make us forget about Sidney What's-his-Name.
My prediction? The Vikings will be better. Will better be enough? I do not know yet.
Most won't watch. The first preseason game is like a movie trailer. it will give you a quick glimpse of the future, but only enough to entice. Was that Adrian Peterson in there? Will Donovan McNabb throw a touchdown? Who will replace the recent departed Bryant McKinnie? We will not learn tonight.
Tonight is a chance for players to hit someone other than their teammate. A chance to look good for coaches. A first look at new offenses and defenses for many. A chance to turn it up a notch, as it were. And the starters will be on a short string. But we should get a chance to see some rookies. My underdog rookie claim is Emmanuel Arceneaux. I want him to be the next Sidney Rice.
Oh, I will be watching. I have taken all I can of "Jersey Housewives", people who hoard, and crews that look for ghosts in the dark. Tonight is about reclaiming the television. Tonight is a glimpse of sixteen Sundays. As a Vikings fan I have been accustomed to winning, and despite a 6-10 2010 season, I want to win now. Again.
I will hope to see rookies Christian Ponder, Kyle Rudolph, Christian Ballard justify their selection. I do not need much, just a play that says "Wow, he could be...". That's all.
I want to see McNabb protected. Brett Favre looked an awful lot like Archie Manning last year, which in turn made the turnovers, which led to the awful point differential, and hence a poor record. Guys like John Sullivan, Anthony Herrera, and Ryan Cook have to improve. We need to see recent picks Chris DeGeare and Phil Loadholt start to pan out. And most important, someone needs to emerge as a solid left tackle. Right now that looks like former-Colt Charlie Johnson.
I need to see a pass rush. Brian Robison steps in for departed Ray Edwards. There seems to be depth at the defensive line, and it has religiously been our bread and butter for good defense. If the line returns to elite form, the high ranking will follow, and so will the wins. Pat Williams is gone. Kevin will need a substitute. Will Ballard be good enough in his rookie year to play? How good are Fred Evans and Letroy Guion going to be?
I hope to see the team play inspired. In the words of Tupac, "Keep Your Head Up". Too much negativity last year. It is hard not to be down when the Packers and Bears are playing in the NFC Championship and the Lions win out to finish ahead of you. The talent is there. Much of it was in the 2009 NFC Championship. A rise to the top may not be as hard to accomplish as most think. I want the 2011 Vikings to play with more heart than in 2010.
No, I am ready for the 2011 season to begin. The final countdown begins....
Right after "Marley and Me".
They gave up fourteen in New Orleans. They surrendered fourteen vs. Miami. And now ten to Detroit. The Minnesota Vikings' defense is for real. Their 12.7 points per game average does not take into account two scores handed to the opponent. Today, Brett Favre threw an interception that was nearly returned for a TD. The Lions would score their only TD from the 12-yard line. Last week, his fumble was recovered for a defensive touchdown. Take those two blunders away and the defense has been responsible for 24 points in three games.
The Vikings defenses of the late 1960s and early 1970s was that good. Minnesota led the league for three consecutive years in points allowed from 1969-1971. Two of those years they averaged less than ten points per game (ppg). If Favre does not make those two mistakes Minnesota's defense would be averaging 8.0 ppg. As it is, 12.7 is pretty good. Only a handful of teams are close. Included in that feat is a game at New Orleans facing arguably the best quarterback in the NFL.
Watching today in the stands I was in awe of the complete dominance. A summary of the first three drives by the Lions:
3 plays, 3 yards.
3 plays, 7 yards.
3 plays, 3 yards.
Three three-and-outs to start the game. And while the Lions are not know for offense prowess, they did manage 32 points vs. the Philadelphia Eagles last week. Shaun Hill felt pressure. The Lions running game was like watching a featherweight jab at a heavyweight. Even if something did work, it just did not matter.
It did not matter than Favre made another poor decision and threw an interception nearly returned for a TD. Or that the Lions went up 7-0. Everyone in the stands knew. Even the fans in Blue seemed to hold back excitement despite good fortunes early. Detroit would soon botch a punt return that led to a 7-7 tie. When Adrian Peterson scampered eighty yards for his longest career touchdown, it was over.
Hill led a few late drives that ended in interceptions. The last two drives totaled 131 yards, but zero points. Actually, Detroit did start to move the ball after the early failure. They mounted four straight drives over thirty yards, but came away with only a field goal that felt empty as the Lions appeared to give up thoughts of trying for a touchdown. In all, Detroit totaled near 300 yards, but this is a case where statistics mean nothing. Down two TDs, Hill spent the fourth quarter in shotgun, throwing under deep coverage. The Lions longest play of the day was 24 yards.
The offense woke up, or figured out how strong Adrian Peterson is these days. Even on his short runs, he made people miss, ran them over, or a combination of the two. He was very good. The 24 points scored was a far cry from the 20 total in the season's first two losses. Despite losing center John Sullivan on the first play, Minnesota had success on the ground. Peterson would finish with 160 yards on 23 carries, two touchdowns, and the eighty yard run. Favre found many receivers for just enough. He would finish with 201 yards on the day.
Many began to doubt the 2011 Vikings. Many still do. But today, like the first two games, the defense of Minnesota made a case that this team is every bit as special as the great Vikings' teams of yore. Or last year.
If only we could keep the offense awake.
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