Vikings players streamed into Winter Park on Monday with jumbo-sized luggage in tow. An overnight flight to London awaited as the team made final preparations for a week spent abroad.
NFL coaches and players are creatures of habit who rarely deviate from their routine. To that end, coach Leslie Frazier’s goal is to simulate a typical work week in another country with a six-hour time difference.
Complicating matters is the fact his team is 0-3 and sorting through myriad issues after a deflating 31-27 loss to the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. Now, they give up a home game to play the 0-3 Pittsburgh Steelers in a neutral setting.
The Vikings don’t embark on their international getaway under ideal conditions or in the best mood, but everyone inside the organization agrees on one thing: The team desperately needs a victory, regardless of the venue.
“We’re not going out to have a vacation,” quarterback Christian Ponder said.
Frazier appeared particularly dejected after the loss, but said Monday that he doesn’t believe substantial changes in personnel are necessary to fix his team’s problems.
“You only want to make changes if there’s a problem in an area where you feel like you have a better solution,” he said. “I don’t know if change for the sake of change is the right thing to do. You got to be able to stand in front of the guys in the locker room and talk to them about why you’re making the change. Then it’s got to be something you feel like is going to help your football team be successful. So change for change sake — I don’t totally buy into that.”
In other words, fans clamoring for a change at quarterback won’t get their wish this week. Frazier reiterated that Ponder remains his starter and that breakdowns in all areas have contributed to the poor start.
“We are doing enough things that are not right across the board that are affecting our win-loss record, and it is not just the quarterback position,” Frazier said. “He has to play better, but so do some other groups on our football team. I don’t think that where we are is necessarily purely because of Christian Ponder.”
It’s hard not to become transfixed on Ponder’s ineffectiveness, though. He’s thrown five interceptions and only two touchdown passes and also fumbled twice. His 65.9 passer rating ranks 30th among starting quarterbacks. The Vikings and Jaguars are the only two teams in the NFL that have zero touchdown catches by their wide receivers.
Ponder’s flaws are compounded by subpar play around him. Throw a dart at a board and it likely will find an area of deficiency:
• The offensive line has looked out of sorts since the preseason. Ponder was sacked six times Sunday and defenses are swarming Adrian Peterson.
“We’ve got to find a way to get five guys executing correctly on each and every play,” Frazier said.
• The Vikings rank 28th in pass defense, 29th in total defense, 30th in scoring defense. They’ve allowed game-winning touchdowns on the final drive in the past two games.
• The Vikings have created 10 takeaways, tied for second-most in the NFL. Conversely, they’ve turned the ball over 10 times, second-most in the league.
“You can’t turn the ball over at the rate that we’re turning it over and expect to win,” Frazier said. “Unless you’re so superior to your opponents, and we’re not.”
• Special teams have cost them dearly. In Week 2, the kickoff team allowed Devin Hester to set a team record with 249 return yards. On Sunday, two miscues allowed the Browns to score 10 points. The Vikings got fooled on a fake punt that went for 34 yards and then allowed an 11-yard touchdown pass on a fake field goal after they neglected to cover Jordan Cameron along the sideline.
That’s a lot to fix in an unusual work week.
“I don’t sense that guys are going to be walking around when we are in London as if the season is done,” Frazier said. “I sense that we have real good leadership, and they will handle this in the right way.”
Tight end Kyle Rudolph believes a temporary change in routine and scenery might even prove beneficial.
“Obviously we won’t be here at our own house, but it doesn’t matter,” he said. “We can use that as an opportunity to come together as a team. I think it will be extremely important for us going over there to try and use this as a springboard to come together as a group and get our first win.”