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.
All in his feet
When it comes to being more accurate as a passer, Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder says it all starts with his feet.
This comes courtesy of Ponder, who talked about his accuracy issues of the past week – particularly in the Washington game Sunday – with the media. He talked specifically about passes he missed to tight ends Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson and the pass intended for wide receiver Michael Jenkins that was intercepted by Madieu Williams and returned for a score.
“The one I threw short to Kyle, I flipped my feet around and I should have just stayed on the run and threw off-balance,” Ponder said. “I had a missed throw to John Carlson on a little corner route that I didn’t really set my feet. It’s all footwork. ... The one to Jenkins I was hitching up because I was looking left and he was on the right and I never got my foot all the way to the right and that's why I kind of dropped the ball and it sailed on me."
Ponder has four interceptions in his last two games.
“I think when I get myself in trouble is when I get to the top of my drop and just kind of hop there and sit back there rather than moving forward,” Ponder said. “I definitely make a lot of my better throws when I move forward and that’s something I’ve got to continue getting better at, making that a habit rather than hopping at the top of my pocket. That’s what I did in college and got away with it. Obviously the ends are rushing upfield a lot more and they’re a lot better (in the NFL). So I’ve got to keep doing a good job moving forward.”
So working on his footwork has become a priority for Ponder.
Postgame snapshot from FedEx Field in Landover, Md., where the Redskins beat the Vikings 38-26.
Good news: The Vikings are not in the NFC East. It’s safe to say they’ll be glad they won’t have to face Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III very often. After a lethargic first quarter, RG3 got into a groove, leading Washington to scores on four straight drives in the second and third quarters. Griffin finished the day 17-for-22 passing for 182 yards. That included a 6-yard touchdown toss to Darrel Young. Griffin also ran the ball 12 times for 139 yards, scoring on a 7-yard run in the third quarter and the electrifying game-sealing 76-yard score with 2:43 left.
Bad news: The Vikings fell apart in the second quarter. Offensively, they had just one first down in three possessions. They were also outgained 115-9 in the quarter. Washington scored 17 unanswered points to take a 17-9 halftime lead. That included a pair of touchdowns just 13 seconds apart. After Alfred Morris delivered a 1-yard touchdown run with 2:27 left before halftime, quarterback Christian Ponder lost a fumble on the next play from scrimmage. The Redskins quickly capitalized with the TD pass to Young. Ponder had a shaky outing. He was 35-for-52 for 352 yards with a 9-yard TD toss to Michael Jenkins midway through the fourth quarter. Ponder also had three turnovers, including an atrocious fourth-quarter interception that former Viking Madieu Williams returned for a score to put Washington ahead 31-12.
Extra point: Truth be told, rookie kicker Blair Walsh didn’t make an extra point Sunday. But he did make field goals from 20, 27, 27 and 37 yards. Walsh is now 16-for-17 on field goals this season. He has also produced touchbacks on 23 of his 33 kickoffs.
Next up: The Vikings will host Arizona in Week 7. The Cardinals hosted Buffalo this afternoon and were tied 16-16 in overtime after Jay Feel’s 61-yard field goal at the end of regulation.
As the Vikings prepare for Sunday’s game with Washington at FedEx Field, we asked Mike Jones, the Redskins beat writer for the Washington Post, to give us his up-close-and-personal scouting report. Here are four things you need to know …
1.Believe the hype. Redskins rookie Robert Griffin III is quickly emerging as a big-time difference maker.
Jones points first to Griffin’s 69.1 completion percentage through five games, tops in the NFL. Then there’s the fact that the rookie quarterback has thrown only one interception in 139 pass attempts.
Indeed, the intelligence NFL folks raved about before the draft is being shown.
“The way he’s been able to read defenses and take care of the ball has been impressive,” Jones said. “We knew of his great athleticism and knew he’d be able to make plays with his legs. But there was a question on whether he’d be dangerous right away with his arm. Now he’s come out and hasn’t been limited in the passing game at all.”
Griffin reached 1,000 yards passing in his fourth NFL start, a feat only two other rookies in league history have accomplished. He was also named the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Month in September.
2.That RG3 charm that you’ve heard so much about over the last year has been well received in Washington.
It’s not just Griffin’s magnetic smile and natural charisma. He’s also shown a superb work ethic and a sincere willingness to learn. That has only heightened the respect he’s gained from the Redskins.
“His teammates have embraced him,” Jones said. “They all will tell you that even though this kid has become a star overnight, he doesn’t act like it. He has a laid-back but confident manner. And that’s had guys rallying behind him.”
The biggest fear with Griffin is that his ability to make plays on the run will expose him to too many brutal hits. That was evidenced against Atlanta on Sunday when a kill shot from Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon forced Griffin out of the game with a concussion.
A week earlier, the Bengals sacked Griffin six times and delivered countless big hits as Griffin ran a flurry of option plays as well.
Said Jones: “The thing he’s still learning is that in college, you could carry out some of those fakes and still make that option pitch and be OK. Well, in the NFL, defenders are so much faster, they’re going to get to you sooner. So I think he’s learning to not sell those fakes quite as hard.”
The beating Griffin has taken has also maybe put the Redskins coaching staff on higher alert.
“Since then they seem to have gone to a much more vanilla approach,” Jones said, “much more in line with the traditional Mike Shanahan-Kyle Shanahan offense. So you can guess that they’re trying to protect him a little bit more.”
3.Running back Alfred Morris has had a surprise breakout as a rookie.
In April, 11 running backs were drafted before Morris was taken in the sixth round with the No. 173 overall pick. Even the reporters in Washington saw an uphill battle for the power back out of Florida Atlantic to make the roster considering the Redskins had Tim Hightower, Roy Helu and Evan Royster in the mix.
“We were thinking Morris was a practice squad guy,” Jones said.
Then the preseason arrived. Hightower was slow in recovering from the torn ACL he suffered last October and was eventually released.
Helu was bothered by toe and Achilles tendon injuries. (He’s now on injured reserve.) And Royster developed knee soreness that kept him out for spurts.
So an opening was there and Morris pounced to win the starting job.
“He runs hard. He’s incredibly physical. He doesn’t dance around,” Jones said. “He just hits the hole and drives his legs. This is a guy who squats 645 pounds. He has a ton of power and he just doesn’t mess around.”
RG3 + Morris = jackpot.
“That’s two huge building blocks for an offense,” Jones said.
4.The Redskins defense has been hindered greatly by injuries.
Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Orakpo was lost for the season in Week 2 with a torn pectoral muscle. Defensive end Adam Carriker also suffered a season-ending injury in that game, tearing the quad tendon in his right leg.
Brandon Merriweather, who was supposed to be the starter at strong safety, injured his left knee in the preseason and has yet to return. And fellow safety Tanard Jackson has been sidelined by a suspension related to his latest violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
No wonder the Redskins have had such difficulty defending the pass.
They’ve allowed an average of 328.6 passing yards per game and 13 touchdowns. Plus they have only eight sacks.
Defensive linemen Stephen Bowen and Barry Cofield have stabilized the defense against the run. But with Orakpo out, Rob Jackson and Chris Wilson haven’t supplied nearly the same pass rush from the edge.
And Ryan Kerrigan has drawn added attention on the other side of Washington’s 3-4 defense.
“Kerrigan was the Robin to Orakpo’s Batman,” Jones said. “But now he’s having to step up and be the leading pass rusher. And that means he’s the one drawing the double-teams now.”
Oh, and that familiar face on the back end of the Washington defense? That’s nine-year vet Madieu Williams, who spent three seasons with the Vikings (2008-10) but has been just OK for Washington.
"He’s a very smart guy,” Jones said. “But he’s still limited in pass coverage and gets beat on double moves and things like that too often.”
The Vikings cleared salary cap space by releasing safety Madieu Williams, restructuring wide receiver Bernard Berrian's contract and releasing left tackle Bryant McKinnie.
But even with those moves the Vikings remain second-to-last in the NFL when it comes to available cap room, according to Pro Football Talk. The Vikings are only $380,000 below the $120 million cap, putting them ahead of the St. Louis Rams ($270,000).
Those are the only teams that don't have available cap room in the millions. The Atlanta Falcons, who are $1.1 million below the cap, are third from last in the league.
Two big issues remain the cap hits of linebacker Chad Greenway ($10.1 million on a one-year franchise deal) and running back Adrian Peterson ($12.775 million in the final season of his rookie contract). That's why it makes sense for the Vikings to get one or both of those players extended as soon as possible.
It would keep the players' happy and create more salary cap room for 2011, just in case that is needed.
MANKATO -- It was 10 years ago today that Vikings right tackle Korey Stringer died of heat stroke following a training camp practice.
The Vikings have painted Stringer's number, 77, on the practice field closest to the stands in Mankato and have planned a moment of silence before today's opening practice of camp. Coach Leslie Frazier talked today about Stringer at a team meeting.
The Vikings also are doing everything in their power to make sure a tragedy like Stringer's death never happens again.
Eric Sugarman, the team's head athletic trainer, addressed players today for about 20 minutes on the issue of proper hydration and what happens if they get dehydrated. That is even more important this year because there are so many new players in camp -- rosters will start at 90 players -- and the Vikings were unable to communicate with players all offseason because of the lockout.
"I show them some studies on if you lose a certain percentage of your body weight then your performance goes down a certain percentage," Sugarman said. "I don't just make it up, it's from studies that have been done. ... Try to educate them on that. Then I go through basically the process of what we do here at Mankato and throughout the course of the season when we're not in Mankato to help these guys fight heat illness and fight dehydration."
After Sugarman spoke to the players, strength and conditioning coach Tom Kanavy addressed the subject of nutrition. Sugarman later spoke to the media about exactly what the Vikings do to not only encourage proper hydration but also how they deal with any potential heat issues that might occur.
This includes using urine testing, having water and Gatorade available just about everywhere a player can look and having some players ingest a pill that enables the Vikings to monitor their core body temperature with a personal digital assistant.
"I can't prevent someone from getting an ACL injury, I can prevent someone from getting heat illness most of the time and that's really important," Sugarman said. "That the first thing I told these guys in my talk today. The second part of that I tell them, 'It is impossible for me to do it without your help.'"
Sugarman said the topic of what happened to Stringer does come up. "You have to," use that as an example, Sugarman said. "It's not to demean or anything. It's a shame that it happened and you don't want for it to ever happen again. ... Coach talked to the team about Korey today."
Single-game tickets to go on sale
Vikings single-game tickets and multi-game packages will go on sale at 9 a.m. Wednesday in person at the team's ticket office at Mall of America Field at the Metrodome. Cash or credit cards will be accepted but no checks.
At 10 a.m. tickets will be available in person at all Midwest Ticketmaster locations, by phone through Ticketmaster at 1-800-745-3000, or via the internet at www.ticketmaster.com.
Single-game tprices range from $39 to $143. Single-game tickets will be available for all preseason and regular season games with the exception of the Green Bay (Oct. 23) game. Anyone buying a ticket to the Packers game also will have to buy one for the Sept. 1 preseason game against Houston. Two-game packages range from $78 - $286.
Williams joins 49ers
Safety Madieu Williams, who was released by the Vikings last week, has agreed to terms with the San Francisco 49ers according to Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com.
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