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.
When Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway puts on tape of the Seattle Seahawks offense, he sees a whole lot of what he sees on the Vikings’ practice field every day.
He sees an offense that mirrors what the Vikings do. He sees a scheme that is not overly complex from a formation standpoint. He sees a team determined to start by establishing the run, then working off of that with a play-action passing game. Familiar? Yes. Even more so because many of the Vikings’ vets were here when Darrell Bevell – the Seahawks offensive coordinator – was doing the same job here through the 2010 season.
But that doesn’t mean Seattle will be easy to stop.
“I don’t know if it gives us an advantage,” Greenway said. “You still have to go out and play and react. But we do have a better sense of what (Bevell) is trying to accomplish, having been around him so much – the type of scheme, the type of passing game he’s going to utilize off what he’s doing in the running game. And that play-action stuff. They’re going to throw some (bootleg plays) at you, try to suck the linebackers up and throw over the top of you. All these things we know. But we have to go out and play the game.”
Fellow linebacker Erin Henderson agreed. “You have a good idea of how they want to do things, what they want to get done,” Henderson said. “But you won’t know for sure until you go out and see their first 15 plays.”
Despite the good numbers Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch has put up, the Seahawks have struggled to move the ball consistently and to score points; the team ranks 30th in the NFL in yards gained and 27th in scoring.
For the Vikings to make sure that continues they have to stop the Seahawks running game first. That’s a goal that, considering the problems Minnesota has had stopping the run of late, won’t be easy to reach.
But familiarity might breed defensive consistency.
“They are built very similarly to us,” Greenway said. “I mean, the biggest thing for us is going out and playing in a very tough environment. We’ll see if we can handle it or not. This will be a huge game for us.”
Thinking of home
Henderson is from Aberdeen, Maryland, which is about 45 minutes north of Baltimore. He has a lot of family there, as well as some family that lives in the New York area. So he has spent a lot of time the past few days keeping in contact with people back home to see how they’re dealing with Hurricane Sandy.
“They didn’t get hit to bad in Maryland,” Henderson said. “Just some high winds and a bit of rain, stuff like that. But I had some family in New York that got affected a little bit more. It was kind of devastating to see some of the pictures they sent us. Everybody made out OK, though.”
Still, Henderson said it hasn’t been easy to be in Minnesota while family out east dealt with the storm.
“You want to be there with them, and be there to support them as best as possible,” he said. “But you have a job to do. You have responsibilities you have to tend to here. It’s just a matter of trying to communicate as much as possible on the phone, make sure everything is OK.”
A game of inches
It’s not just last Thursday’s game that is bothering Vikings punter Chris Kluwe. Halfway through the season Kluwe ranks 11th in the NFC with a 43.5-yard punting average and eighth with a 39.9 net average. Both are down from his career averages.
“I’d say mediocre,” Kluwe said when asked to assess his season so far. “I'd like to, obviously, be leading the league in both gross and net. Unfortunately sometimes you don’t punt well.”
The difference between a good punt and a bad one? Less than you might think. Kluwe said he was rushing himself a little bit, trying to go a little too fast. “And my drop hasn’t been super consistent,” he said. “That’s something to hopefully hone in on and try to get corrected.”
Kluwe said a drop that is even an inch off can change a kick. "Or maybe the ball is tilted three or four degrees forward or three or four degrees back," he said. "That can change the entire outcome of the kick. It's a very small window that you have to hit in order to kick the ball well."
The Vikings special teams will be dealing with a bit of an unknown this week in Redskins kicker Kai Forbath, who was signed Wednesday to replace the struggling Billy Cundiff.
Forbath was touted as one of the best kickers coming out of college last year but went undrafted in 2011. He was picked up by the Cowboys but put on the Non-Football Injury (NFI) list with a quadriceps injury last season.
Forbath was in camp with the Buccaneers this preseason but ultimately couldn’t beat out Connor Barth for the placekicking job there. So now the Redskins will give him a look.
Preparing for Forbath will be a bit of a challenge. Even during his standout career at UCLA, Forbath only kicked field goals and didn’t handle kickoff duties.
“[We’ve got] no tape on him from last year because he was injured,” Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said. “And he had nine kickoffs and five field goals that I’ve studied from the preseason.”
So what’s the added challenge for Priefer this week?
“It’s different,” he said. “Because you’re always trying to figure out tendencies and those sorts of things. But there’s really not enough tape on him to show any tendencies. Plus, he was kicking for a different team too when we did study the tape. So it will be a unique situation.”
Priefer’s special teams also face another unique twist this week: this will be the Vikings’ first true outdoor game during the regular season.
Said Priefer: “It’s wind, weather, where to align our returners if there’s a cross wind. How do we punt? How do we set up Marcus [Sherels] on punt returns? Those sorts of factors come into play.”
Current forecasts are predicting a 73-degree day with winds up to 13 miles per hour.
Go for it
The Vikings’ final touchdown in last week’s 30-7 win over Tennessee – a 15-yard toss from Christian Ponder to Kyle Rudolph – was one the head coach didn’t necessarily want. Leslie Frazier was content running the ball and milking the clock until offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave pushed to run a passing play with a promise that it would produce a score.
Musgrave explained his urging Thursday.
“We were staying on the gas at that point,” Musgrave said. “That’s just a little bit of our philosophy. We want to stay on the gas until someone tells us to get on the brake.”
No big deal
As for Ponder’s first interception of the season – also in the direction of Rudolph – Musgrave was OK with the decision to throw the pass. Unfortunately, with Ponder rolling hard to his left, the pass sailed a bit high and outside for Rudolph.
But in principle, Ponder’s mistake wasn’t troubling.
“We thought it was a good example of the scramble drill, which we practice weekly and emphasize with our young quarterbacks,” Musgrave said. “Because they do have good movement skills. He flushed out to the left. Everybody worked in his direction. He had a couple options there. He just missed his target. I think he probably didn’t have small enough of a target where he wanted to aim to with Kyle. At times, quarterbacks just throw it for the sake of throwing it. But if he can be a little more accurate, we come up with a really big play there at the end of the first half.”
Fusco faring fine
Musgrave had positive reviews of right guard Brandon Fusco, who has held up well
“He can really bend for a big guy, stay on his feet and finish blocks,” Musgrave said. “The more experience [he gets] and the more various looks he’s exposed to, the more he’ll develop and not be as surprised by as many things.”
Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer wasn’t pleased with the 46-yard field goal attempt that rookie Blair Walsh pulled left with 13:15 to play in last Sunday’s game at Detroit.
If Walsh had made that kick, the Vikings would have led 23-6 with their defense playing well. Instead, the miss gave Detroit hope.
“I called him over after that play,” Priefer said. “I wasn’t mad. Because he’s nine of 10. You can’t get mad at what he’s done for us this year. And he kicked off so well and really helped our team win that game. But I said, ‘Do you realize the situation?’ He had already thought about it.
“Now you’re up three scores with 10 minutes to go in the game. The way our defense was playing, I just felt good about us winning that game at that point. But then you’re [only] up 14. And that’s a whole different deal. Two scores is obviously not as good as three scores. Hopefully he’ll grow from that and learn from it and move on.”
Priefer said he expressed his discontent in a calm manner, making sure to get his point across without getting too deep into Walsh’s head.
“I was disappointed for him, disappointed for us,” Priefer said. “And he knows that. He’s a smart guy. He doesn’t have to be told when he does something wrong. We watched it on tape together on Monday morning. He knew what he did wrong.”
Priefer said Walsh got a little too close to the ball on the miss. “Probably lunged into it a little bit and then wrapped his foot around it. He’ll do that every now and then in practice. So we’ll work in here on that.”
Need a break?
Priefer was tempted to use a timeout just 12 seconds into last Sunday’s win. After Percy Harvin returned the opening kickoff 105 yards for a score, Priefer was a bit concerned that his special teams players might be a bit tired and perhaps overly excited for the ensuing kickoff.
“I’ve had it happen before,” Priefer said. “You can give up a long return after a big play like that. Because many of the same guys who are on the return team are on the kickoff phase as well.”
Priefer also thought about asking for a timeout after Marcus Sherels’ delivered his 77-yard punt return score in the third quarter.
“But I already had a sub for Marcus,” Priefer said. “And then I turn around and there he is. I told him, ‘I’ve got somebody for you [on kick coverage].’ He goes, ‘No, I’m fine.’ He wasn’t even breathing hard. That’s what kind of a special kid he is. He was ready to go on the next play.”
Of course, there was little to fear for the Vikings' kickoff coverage team Sunday. Walsh produced touchbacks on all five of his kickoffs.
Priefer also took note of the five-man escort that Sherels had for the final 25 yards or so of his touchdown return.
“That was pretty cool,” Priefer said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that before. I was really fired up about that.”
Here’s the latest dip into the fountain of praise for Harvin, of whom Priefer had this to say: “Offensively and special teams, Percy Harvin is so special. He’s a special athlete and a special young man. He plays hard. He practices hard. He does everything full-go. And that’s the kind of guy you love to coach. No matter what he does out there, he’s going to make us better.”
Percy Harvin, who had a 105-yard kickoff return against Detroit on Sunday for a touchdown, has been named the NFC's special teams player of the month.
Here's the release from the Vikings:
HARVIN NAMED NFC SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE MONTH FOR SEPTEMBER
Percy Harvin has been named the Special Teams Player of the Month for September. It is the first time in Vikings history a return specialist has earned the award. In his 4th season from Florida, Harvin leads the NFL with a 38.3 kick return average and recorded the longest play in Vikings history with a 105-yard touchdown return on the opening kickoff against Detroit (9/30/12). Harvin has returned 9 kickoffs for 345 yards during the Vikings 3-1 month of September. The Pro Bowl return specialist has 5 career kick return TDs and only Hall of Famer Gale Sayers has more (6) during the first 4 years of his career.
Steve Hutchinson has seen the visiting locker room at Mall of America Field before. But it’s been a long, long time -- from back when he was with Seattle, his first NFL team.
“I was just thinking how weird it is to go back,” Hutchinson said today.
Hutchinson, the Vikings left guard for six seasons, will be back Sunday, this time playing guard for the visiting Tennessee Titans. Hutchinson was with Seattle from 2001 through 2005, then was signed away by the Vikings thanks to a seven-year, $49 million contract. He played six seasons in MInnesota, a tenure than ended with the Vikings letting him go shortly before free agency began last spring.
“I got a call,” he said. “They told me the decision they were going. But it wasn’t completely a blindside to me, knowing the direction the team was going. They were trying to get younger in areas. I kind of saw the writing on the wall. It was a fun run. It was a good six years. But it’s a business, too, and they have to do what they have to do.”
The Vikings revamped the left side of their line, moving Charlie Johnson from tackle to guard and plugging first-round draft pick Matt Kalil in at tackle. Hutchinson signed a three-year, $16 million deal with Tennessee.
Hutchinson said the hardest part about moving was relocating his family. As for continuing his career? That decision was pretty easy. “I had it in my head that, If I had played this last contract out with the Vikings, that would have put me at 12 years,” he said. “And that sounded like a good number to me, a dozen years. I don’t know if I felt comfortable hanging it up after 11. … I don’t know what this contract will take me to. I don’t know if all three years will come into play. But it wasn’t a hard choice to figure out that I wanted to keep playing.”
It appears, though, that Hutchinson has kept tabs on what has happened with the Vikings this season. He said he isn’t surprised by Minnesota’s 3-1 start. “I know the character of the guys in that locker room,” he said, “and the leaders they have on that team.’’
Hutchinson also said he expected quarterback Christian Ponder to blossom in his second NFL season. “I think last year, with the new offensive system and the lockout and no off-season, asking a rookie to come in and grasp every aspect of the game at the quarterback position at the NFL level is hard to do. I knew, once he settled in, he’d be good. They’re doing well, looking good. And I’m sure the fans are happy, and they deserve that.”
Despite reports to the contrary, Titans coach Mike Munchak said he hadn’t completely ruled out quarterback Jake Locker.
Locker dislocated his left (non-throwing) shoulder Sunday. It was the second such injury for Locker, who also did it opening day against New England.
Munchak said he would wait a couple days before officially declaring Locker out. But he also said he wouldn’t put Locker into the game if he hadn’t been able to practice, so it appears all but certain 37-year-old veteran Matt Hasselbeck will play.
Hasselbeck completed 17 of 25 passes for 193 yards, two TDs and two interceptions against Houston last Sunday.
“He takes great control of the huddle,” Munchak said of Hasselbeck. “He has a lot of confidence in himself. He can get the football where it’s supposed to go, and very quickly.”
Room to improve
Last Sunday Chris Kluwe’s 47-yard punt that was downed at the Detroit 2-yard line late in the fourth quarter helped the Vikings seal their win against the Lions. It was the final blow in a game that featured near-perfect special teams play by the Vikings.
But Kluwe said he needs to get more consistent with his punting going forward.
“Not yet,” he said, when asked if he had hit his groove yet this season. “I still had a couple punts in the middle of (Sunday’s) game that I didn’t hit the way I wanted to. And I need to focus on cleaning those up, hitting those better.”
Kluwe is averaging 46 yards per punt with a 40.2-yard net average, both strong numbers. But he sees room for improvement. “It’s just minor errors here or there,” he said. “It’s the difference between dropping it an inch or the right or an inch inside to the left. It’s minor stuff.”
Kluwe, part II
Kluwe, whose active defense of gay rights have made him something of a spokesman in that area recently, said he has received numerous proposals of marriage – via Twitter – since first voicing his opinion on the subject.
“It’s about 70 percent women, 30 percent guys,” said Kluwe, who is married and has two young children.
But that percentage might change.
Kluwe was recently interviewed by Out Magazine, a publication that offers a gay and lesbian perspective on style, entertainment, fashion and politics. As part of the interview he took part in a photo shoot, and his picture will be on the cover of the magazine’s November issue.
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