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.
Hope everyone had a Merry Christmas. Now back to football.
In case you somehow forgot, Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel had four turnovers in Sunday’s loss to the Bengals. We’ll take a look at two this week that resulted in 14 easy points for the Bengals in the first half.
The situation: On the opening drive, the Vikings faced a 3rd and 6 at the Bengals’ 45. They attempted to convert on pass play.
The reason: The Vikings received good field position on wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson’s return but gained just four yards on the first two run plays to running back Adrian Peterson. A three-and-out would be a devastating start given the drive began in their opponents’ territory.
The result: Cassel fumbled while he was sacked. Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap recovered the loose ball and returned it 46 yards to the Vikings’ 4. Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis scored two plays later.
"There are some things we could have done a little bit different to help us there," head coach Leslie Frazier said about the offensive line. "We could have done better and we did better as the game went on, but on that very first one we didn’t handle it as well as we should have.”
How it happened:
As Cassel drops back, the Bengals bring six defenders (marked with red "x"), but it shouldn't be a problem with seven blockers (marked with yellow "x"). Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict drops in coverage just as the ball is snapped.
Of course, just because the Vikings have more blockers doesn't mean Cassel will be assured good pocket protection. More on that in the next still, but clearly Cassel is under pressure. The Bengals are playing man coverage on the outside receivers and use Burifct to play underneath the slot receiver with a safety over the top.
So why exactly did Cassel feel heat with more blockers? First, running back Toby Gerhart (circled in yellow) did a good job picking up the linebacker blitzing from the A gap, but the right side of the line doesn't shift over. Center John Sullivan doesn't have anyone to block. Not only do the Bengals have one-on-one matchups across the line but there's a defender that goes untouched.
Cassel goes down and doesn't protect the football. It's bad enough that the Vikings wasted great field position on a short opening drive but this fumble was costly. He has to do a better job of holding on to the ball.
"We probably could have protected a little bit better," Frazier said. "There were some things we could have done a little bit better as an offense as a whole that maybe could have helped Matt some, but he still has to do a good job protecting the ball."
The situation: Down 14-7 with 10:10 left in the second quarter, the Vikings face a 3rd and two at their 20 and go with an empty backfield.
The reason: By this point in the game, Gerhart doesn't play again with his hamstring injury and Peterson wasn't effective dealing with his foot sprain. He had no gain on first down but Patterson's eight-yard rush gave the offense to a managable situation.
The result: Bengals linebacker Vincent Rey intercepted Cassel's pass and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown.
"Anytime you turn the ball over and you have drive start, in their case, from the four, that’s tough," Frazier said. "The pick-six, those are tough to overcome on the road. You don’t want to dig yourself a hole of any kind. You don’t want to give people things on the road.”
How it happened:
Just as the offense gets set, Burfict (circled in red) makes a late defensive adjustment on the coverage. The Vikings have three wideouts bunched on the right side with two on the left. The Bengals don't show blitz before or after Burfict's adjustment.
In fact, the Bengals just rush three and drop eight on the short yardage play because the Vikings have an empty back set. Cassel shifts his attention to the trips side on a three-step drop, so he'll likely get the ball out quickly.
Cassel stares down at Greg Jennings, Cassel's favorite target, on the play and hits his third step at this point. Rey (circled in red) notices Cassel's eyes and sits in that area with tight end Rhett Ellison cutting across.
Eyes don't lie in this case. Cassel throws to Jennings just as he breaks on the five-yard route and Rey reads it the entire way. He jumps the pass for the interception and scores easily.
The situation: With the Vikings up 24-9 with 10:30 left in the third quarter, the Eagles attempted a play action pass to wide receiver DeSean Jackson at the Vikings 44-yard line.
The reason: The Eagles had to abandon the run with such a deficit and picked up 13 and 16 yards on pass plays on a drive that started at their own 20. They were looking for a home run play on first down.
The result: Cornerback Shaun Prater incepted quarterback Nick Foles’ pass and returned it 30 yards to the Vikings 35.
"If you had a camera on me this entire week, I’ve spent so much time watching film, stretch, watching more film," Prater said. "Just asking the coaches everything, being a little gnat and it showed."
How it happened:
The Vikings are in a Cover 3 look. Jackson (in red) is in motion pre-snap, which the linebackers adjust their alignment. Safety Jamarca Sanford creeps up to the line to contain a possible run or drop back in coverage.
It's a play action incorporating running back LeSean McCoy. The linebackers and Sanford react by dropping into their assignments. Prater (in yellow) is down the field covering wide receiver Riley Cooper on a post route, but Jackson (in red) is open.
Prater (in yellow) realizes there's help over the top with safety Harrison Smith (in blue), and breaks off to cover Jackson (in red), who heads upfield on his route.
"Usually, that’s a guy who has been playing a while and has been in that situation a number of times and makes that play," head coach Leslie Frazier said. "But his awareness and his acute alertness of what needed to happen was impressive to see. He made some other plays too that shows you he’s a very aware guy and very smart football player."
Foles throws it to Jackson right as Prater (in yellow) breaks off to cover Jackson. Defensive end Jared Allen brought pressure that forced the throw downfield.
Prater makes the interception and does a good job understanding where he's at on the sideline to get both feet in bounds and allow for a return.
"At the last second, I see 10 (Jackson) peel out," Prater said. "With the quarterback throwing it up high, it gave me time to make a play on the football."
Without running backs Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart, the Vikings offense still racked up 48 points.
So you won't have to wait until Friday to figure out who will be the starting quarterback. Matt Cassel went 26 of 35 for 382 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in the 48-30 victory over the Eagles.
"No, no questions," Frazier said on next week's starter. "I don't think there are any questions."
Cassel has taken over the starting position, which belonged to Christian Ponder for most of the season until he suffered a concussion two weeks ago. Since that point, Cassel led the Vikings in the second half to beat the Bears, lose in the final seconds against the Ravens, and now blow out an Eagles team jockeying for a playoff spot.
It took 15 weeks, but perhaps the Vikings have solidified the quarterback position for the final two games.
"I don't look in the past to be completely honest with you," Cassel said. "There are decisions that are made and you never know how they are going to work out. At the same time, I'm excited that I was able to go out there and perform today and I continue to look ahead. I never look behind myself and you continue to just look forward."
Wide receiver Greg Jennings has benefited from Cassel’s increased role in the offense. He had a career high 11 catches for 163 yards and a touchdown.
"You wonder it, but I remember mentioning something like that to Matt," said Jennings on if Cassel would’ve started the season at quarterback. "And he said, 'We've got three games left. Let's make the best of it.' And I love it because it’s his mindset. He’s not worried about what could’ve, should’ve or possibly been. He stays in the now.”
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier has listed running back Adrian Peterson as "questionable," meaning the guy we all assumed would miss Sunday's game against the Eagles, now has a 50-50 chance of playing.
Once again, we may find out that assuming the worst for Adrian Peterson isn't a wise thing to do.
Peterson practiced today for the first time this week. According to Frazier, Peterson planted and showed good burst off the right foot that he sprained early in the second quarter of last week's game at Baltimore.
"It was impressive when you consider the early diagnosis," Frazier said. "He's unique. Very unique. He's so different than everybody else when it comes to recovering from injuries. We've been in situations in the past where you thought he wouldn't make it and he made it. So it was always in the back of my mind the chance he would make it. He's amazing."
Frazier sounded optimistic, but was not willing to go beyond listing Peterson as questionable in part because he'll need to see how Peterson's foot responds tomorrow after going through today's workout. Frazier also indicated it could be a game-time decision on whehter to play Peterson.
Meanwhile, running back Toby Gerhart, who suffered a hamstring injury in last week's game, also returned to practice today for the first time this week. Frazier said Gerhart looked good, but was kept from testing the hamstring with the kind of cuts and burst he would typically use in a game.
Cornerback Chris Cook (knee) was a surprise addition to the injury report today. He was limited in practice and has been listed as questionable.
Cornerback Xavier Rhodes (ankle) and right guard Brandon Fusco (knee) did not practice and were listed as doubtful. Marcus Sherels would start for Rhodes while Joe Berger would start for Fusco.
And, finally, tight end John Carlson still has not passed the NFL protocol for returning from the concussion he suffered last week. Rhett Ellison will get the start. Chase Ford also would be available.
Linebackers Larry Dean (knee) and Chad Greenway (wrist) are listed as probable.
In other news, barring an unlikely setback on Saturday, free safety Harrison Smith will be activated from injured reserve on Saturday and will have a role in Sunday's game. Smith has been on injured reserve the past eight weeks because of a turf toe injury. He returned to practice two weeks ago.
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said injured running backs Adrian Peterson (foot sprain) and Toby Gerhart (hamstring) will not practice today and probably won't practice until Friday, if at all. He also said he's more hopeful that Gerhart will be able to practice on Friday than Peterson.
Frazier said Peterson already has assured him that he'll be ready to play, but added that the team will "err on the side of caution," keeping in mind Peterson's long-term value and the fact that the team is mathematically eliminated from the playoff picture at 3-9-1. Frazier also said Peterson would have to practice on Friday before the team would play him in the game on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Frazier officially announced Matt Cassel as the starting quarterback for Sunday's game against the Eagles at Mall of America Field. It will be Cassel's fourth start of the season and second straight start. It will be the first time he's started after losing a start the previous week. But his turnover-free effort in the wild 29-26 loss at Baltimore on Sunday was enough to earn a second straight starting opportunity. Cassel is 1-2 as a starter, but did play the second half of the comeback win over the Bears two weeks ago.
Christian Ponder, who has been cleared from the concussion that sidelined him last week, will serve as the backup. Josh Freeman will be the No. 3 QB.
In other news, tight end John Carlson still has not passed the concussion protocol and cannot practice until he does.
Cornerback Xavier Rhodes (ankle) and guard Brandon Fusco (knee) are day-to-day, Frazier said.
Here is the updated practice/injury report:
Vikings: TE John Carlson (concussion), RB Adrian Peterson (foot), RB Toby Gerhart (hamstring), G Brandon Fusco (knee), CB Xavier Rhodes (ankle) and CB Josh Robinson (chest) did not practice. LB Larry Dean (knee) was limited. LB Chad Greenway (wrist) was a full participant.
Eagles: LB Najee Goode (hamstring) did not practice. S Earl Wolff (knee) was limited. CB Brandon Boykin (hip) was a full participant.
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