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.


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

Posted by: under Vikings, Lions, Leslie Frazier, Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Leslie Frazier, Percy Harvin, Phil Loadholt, Ryan Longwell 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.

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Date/Opponent Time W L Score
2014 preseason     
Aug 8 - vs. Oakland 7 pmX10-6
Aug 16 - vs. Arizona 7:30 pmX30-28
Aug 23 - at Kansas City 7 pmX30-12
Aug 28 - at Tennessee 7 pmX19-3
2014 regular season     
Sep 7 - at St. Louis NoonX34-6
Sep 14 - vs. New England NoonX30-7
Sep 21 - at New Orleans NoonX20-9
Sep 28 - vs. Atlanta 3:25 pmX41-28
Oct 2 - at Green Bay 7:25 pmX42-10
Oct 12 - vs. Detroit NoonX17-3
Oct 19 - at. Buffalo NoonX17-16
Oct 26 - at Tampa Bay Noon
Nov 2 - vs. Washington Noon
Nov 9 - Bye
Nov 16 - at Chicago Noon
Nov. 23 - vs. Green Bay Noon
Nov. 30 - vs. Carolina Noon
Dec 7 - vs. NY Jets Noon
Dec 14 - at Detroit Noon
Dec 21 - at Miami Noon
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