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.
Our snapshot of the first half as the Panthers lead the Vikings 14-3 at Mall of America Field in a battle of teams not wanting to be 1-4. If Vikings coach Leslie Frazier loses, he'll be 1-4 for the second time in three years. If Panthers coach Ron Rivera loses, he'll be 1-4 for the third time in his three years in Carolinia. ...
Score: Panthers 14-3.
The Good: Chad Greenway shot through a gap and stoned fullback Mike Tolbert for no gain on third-and-1 from the Vikings' 2-yard line. But the Panthers scored on the next play. Earlier in that first-quarter drive, Greenway sacked Cam Newton on a blitz on third-and-nine. But that, too, went for naught as Chris Cook was called for holding Steve Smith. ... After the Vikings' third consecutive poor drive to open the game, punter Jeff Locke boomed a 60-yard punt with a net of 51, flipping the field position to the Carolina 18-yard line. ... Adrian Peterson took a swing pass and blasted out eight yards on third-and-eight from the Carolina 21-yard line. He then got nine more on a run on the next play. He fumbled, but Jarius Wright was there to recover for the Vikings. Unfortunately for the Vikings, second-and-one at the Carolina 4 led to nothing but a 23-yard field goal.
The Bad: The Vikings allowed the Panthers to convert twice on fourth-and-1 in their opening drive, including a 2-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith. The drive covered 62 yards in 15 plays. ... Vikings linebacker Desmond Bishop is out for the rest of the game because of a knee injury. ... Having to settle for a field goal in the closing seconds despite having second-and-1 at the Carolina 4-yard line. Matt Cassel threw over the middle for no gain to Greg Jennings and then threw to Kyle Rudolph, who caught the ball just out of bounds in the back of the end zone.
The Ugly: Cook, in his first game back from a groin injury, ruined a great stop on Carolina's first third-play. A Greenway sack on third-and-nine from the Carolina 39 was negated by Cook's hold on Smith. The Panthers went on to score a touchdown on the drive and take a 7-0 lead. On Carolina's third possession, Cook gave up an 11-yard completion on third-and-10 when he played too far off of Brandon LaFell on a crossing route. That third-down conversion also led to a touchdown and a 14-0 Panthers lead. ... Matt Cassel's first pass that went farther than 20 yards downfield was badly overthrown past Greg Jennings and intercepted by safety Mike Mitchell. The pick led to a Carolina touchdown. .. Tolbert took a simple shovel pass from Newton on second-and-goal from the 10-yard line. From there, the bowling-ball-shaped fullback busted through five wanna-be tacklers en route to the end zone for a 14-0 lead with 3:43 left in the half. Hard to tell what was worse, that play or the fact that nose tackle Letroy Guion was flagged 15 yards for taunting after it was over.
What we've learned: So far, it won't be too hard fitting Josh Freeman in at quarterback once he's ready. Cassel has completed 15 of 19 passes, but has only 110 yards and three points despite having second-and-1 at the Carolina 4. Cassel also has an ugly overthrow that was picked and led to Carolina's first touchdown. Peterson has only 28 yards on seven carries.
The Vikings practices were wrapped up this afternoon, and reporters were leaving Winter Park, when the shocking word came in: The Cleveland Browns, who play the Vikings on Sunday, traded running back Trent Richardson to Indianapolis for a No. 1 pick in 2014.
Richardson was the third overall choice in 2012 -- remember, the Browns traded four picks to the Vikings to move up one spot to take him. And Richardson, just a couple of hours before the trade, spoke to Twin Cities media on a conference call and was very optimistic about the Browns' future.
And so it goes for the Browns' star-crossed franchise.
So, on to notes from earlier in the day ...
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier admitted he was pleased that the Cleveland Browns announced Wednesday morning that No. 3 quarterback Brian Hoyer -- and not backup Jason Campbell -- will start Sunday in place of injured starter Brandon Weeden.
"A lot better than finding out Sunday at noon," Frazier said. "Promise you that."
Frazier said his coaching staff spent the past two days studying tape of Campbell in anticipation that he would replace Weeden, who suffered a thumb injury on Sunday. Now, they'll have to switch gears and study tape of Hoyer, who has started one career game -- last season against San Francisco when he played for the Arizona Cardinals.
"We’ll have to do our homework on Brian and learn a little bit about him," Frazier said.
Frazier preached patience with Peterson
Adrian Peterson said he needed some "soul-searching" after rushing for 100 yards with no touchdowns and one fumble on Sunday. Peterson said he felt "hesitant" running the ball against the Bears.
Frazier said he doesn't think Peterson looked hesitant but that he looked for the big play too often.
"I don’t know if hesitancy is the word [but] trying to make every run a 60-yard run, which is not always going to be the case," Frazier said. "Sometimes, you’ve just got to get what’s there. And he’s been good at that and he’ll be better going forward."
Focus on your job only
Linebacker Chad Greenway hasn't performed to his standards the first two games, and he expressed frustration over his missed tackles after Sunday's loss. Frazier said he believes Greenway is trying to make plays for other guys instead of just concentrating on his responsibilities.
"Just got to slow down a little bit and do the things he's always done," Frazier said. "He does not have to make anybody else's plays. Just do your job, calm down, relax and play the way he's always played. He's had a lot of success for us. He's played at a Pro Bowl level. Just don't feel like you have to do any more other than your job."
Frazier was asked if it's possible that Greenway is trying to provide help to new middle linebacker Erin Henderson and thus getting himself out of position.
"That's something we've got to guard against," he said. "You've just got to trust that he's going to do his job, you do your job and we'll be fine as a group. He shouldn't feel like he has to do any more than he has in the past."
Ponder not second-guessing play calls
The Vikings had a chance to put Sunday's game away when they had the ball first-and-goal from Chicago's 6 late in the fourth quarter. But they got stopped on three plays and kicked a field goal to take a six-point lead.
Bill Musgrave's third-down call -- a Peterson run to the left side into the teeth of the Bears defense -- gained zero yards and drew criticism for being conservative.
Ponder defended that play call.
"We have the best running back in the league," he said. "Again, we wanted points on the board. We didn’t want anything crazy to happen. We wanted to keep the clock running or force them to take a timeout. So if we incomplete a ball, the clock stops and they don’t need to take a timeout. You know, unfortunately, Monday morning quarterback, it’s easy to look back and think that we could’ve done things differently. But I wouldn’t expect that if it happens this week that we would change that. I mean, Adrian can make plays all the time, and he does a great job of it.”
The Vikings will hold their 10th and final Organized Team Activity on Thursday at Winter Park before reconvening next week for a three-day mini-camp. And as the offseason program enters the finishing stretch, third-year quarterback Christian Ponder continues zeroing in on making good reads more consistently.
On Wednesday afternoon, before teeing off at the team’s annual golf outing, an event that benefits the Vikings’ Children’s Fund, Ponder was asked how he’s measuring himself during this OTA stretch.“
The biggest thing is decision making,” he said. “Obviously you want to complete as many balls as possible, especially in things like 7-on-7. But we’re being put into some hard situations as well. Third-and-long. Blitz. A lot of blitz drills and everything. So it’s tough. I think the defense definitely has the upper hand in these drills. But it’s good for us to see that. And it makes the quarterback make smart decisions and get the ball out quick. So you want to see completions and the right decisions.”
Ponder knows the bar has been raised for him in his third year as a starter. And with back-up Matt Cassel now in the picture, his leash might not be quite as long in 2013 if his struggles are extreme. Still, the Vikings quarterback said the key in May and June is to feel things out within the offense without feeling exorbitant pressure.
“This is a time for us as an offense to just try a bunch of new stuff and see what sticks and see what we like,” Ponder said. “And there are a lot of new plays going in and everything. So it’s a fun time. It’s fun to try out quirky plays and see what the defense does. And the defense is doing the same thing, running funky coverages and everything. But our mindset is we want to get better every day and see a progression heading into training camp.”
On the injury front, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier reported that Chad Greenway’s Thursday morning arthroscopic surgery to clean up his left knee went well as expected. Greenway will be out of action until training camp begins in late July.
Fellow linebacker Nate Williams, signed in April as an undrafted free agent, has also undergone minor ankle surgery and, according to Frazier, will be sidelined until camp opens in Mankato as well.
The Vikings have their share of injuries to keep tabs on, especially with Pro Bowl defensive end Jared Allen continuing rehabilitation on his left shoulder in which he had a labrum tear repaired shortly after last season ended. Allen has been at Winter Park the past two weeks but not on the practice field. And he won’t be back in action during mini-camp next week either.
But Frazier said Wednesday he anticipated very few injury issues to still be a concern when the team reports to Mankato. The longest shot to be ready may be second-year receiver Greg Childs, who continues attacking his recovery from torn patellar tendons in both knees.
Frazier said after Tuesday’s practice that he isn’t certain how quickly Childs will receive medical clearance to return to full action but won’t rule out the receiver getting back to practice early in training camp.
"I have my fingers crossed, hoping that that will happen," Frazier said. "I'm waiting on [head athletic trainer] Eric Sugarman and our medical staff to give us the green light. But that would be my hope. We'll see what happens. I'm not sure what direction it will go."
Center of attention
On Wednesday, Frazier also noted that the team is closely monitoring the progress of standout center John Sullivan, who had microfracture surgery on his left knee.
In Sullivan’s absence during OTAs, the Vikings have tinkered with back-up plans at center. Veteran Joe Berger has seen work there. In addition, Brandon Fusco, who started all 16 games at right guard and is the expected starter there for 2013, has also handled snaps.
“We don’t see any problems with Sully being ready to go,” Frazier said. “But you want to make sure that you have other guys prepared.”
Fusco was a center during his college career at Slippery Rock and could be an option at the position if Sullivan’s recovery was to hit an unforeseen snag or if he had any lingering knee issues that sidelined him during the season.
Sliding Fusco to center, of course, would then open up the competition at right guard where rookies Jeff Baca and Travis Bond as well as veteran Seth Olsen could figure into the mix.
Still, Frazier believes Sullivan’s recuperation will stay on track which would give the Vikings the luxury of opening training camp with the same starting offensive line that started all 16 games last year.
“We’ve still got to see a little more progress out of John Sullivan,” Frazier said. “He’s making progress. But we want to continue to see that. … You just want to see him continue to gain confidence and not be worried about the surgery but just move on. And he’s making progress. From everything that Eric Sugarman tells me, he’s on target. He’s moving in the right direction. And we’ve got enough time for him to continue to improve. Hopefully when we get started, he’ll be able to go full go right away.”
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