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.
For this week's edition of "Behind Enemy Lines," we reached out to Tyler Dunne, Packers beat writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Here are five questions we posed to Tyler in advance of Sunday's Vikings-Packers game at Lambeau Field:
1.The Packers had 55 rushing yards against the Giants. How has quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ absence affected the run offense?
That’s been really a huge adjustment for this offense. This time last year, they were trying to get teams out of those two-deep looks. They wanted the safety to come into the box to help the passing game and now they can’t get that safety out of the box. They’re getting eight, nine guys in the box trying to stop [Packers running back] Eddie Lacy. The rookie hasn’t been able to find much running room these past couple weeks.
Without Rodgers in there, it makes a huge difference. And Aaron Rodgers is really good at audibling to certain run plays. [Packers quarterback] Scott Tolzien has got just so much on his plate. It’s really difficult for him to do that right now. I think that’s really what the team’s challenge is right now is trying to run the ball against teams that know they’re going to run.
2.Tolzien started calling audibles in the third quarter of the Giants game. Was there a noticeable difference that he started on Sunday compared to replacing quarterback Jason Campbell against the Eagles?
I think it was a big difference in that they definitely had a conservative game plan to run to set up the pass. They didn’t put too much on his plate in terms of changing plays and going no huddle, but he did more as the game progressed. A lot of those deep passes did open up. [Packers head coach] Mike McCarthy said that he’s never had a quarterback complete that many deep balls in the game, all his deep balls in the game. It worked.
It’s just the turnovers. That’s really been his issue right now. In both games, he had a huge interception that just changed the complexion of the game.
3.Do you recommend bringing earplugs for Vikings wide receiver Greg Jennings’ reception when he returns to Lambeau Field?
I think Greg Jennings kind of benefits from all the other craziness going on in Green Bay right now with everything at quarterback, the injuries and the significance of this game. Nobody has really been talking about Greg Jennings, or at least as much as they were before the game going into Minneapolis. But Packers’ fans can be a pretty fickle bunch. They’re not going to forget the offseason. Personally, I don’t think Greg Jennings did anything to abrasive, but this team is a religion for fans. Anytime a player crosses the border to Minnesota or anytime a player speaks out against their team, they don’t forgive and they don’t forget. I imagine it’ll be pretty loud.
4.Linebacker Clay Matthews has played the last two games with a club after missing four weeks due to a broken right thumb. How has he looked while playing with a club?
He looked better this past game. He did have movement in his four fingers, but it was still difficult for him to grab, clutch and clutch. He had a sack, but he’s still not the Clay Matthews he wants to be. He has figured out a way to play with the cast as it gets smaller and smaller but a broken thumb, it’s not like you can just cut loose and do everything you want to do regardless of the cast.
It’s still an adjustment for him but really they need him out there. They don’t have a lot of better options. I’d understand if they had somebody else in there that can play, but Nick Perry has been injured. He was coming out before he broke his foot earlier this season. Mike Neal, a converted defensive end, was really good for a while but his body has kind of worn out a little bit. They’ve been given him rest at practice.
5.Four defensive backs on the injury report this week. Is there a concern of depth at the position for Sunday’s game?
I remember [Packers defensive back] Tramon Williams just a couple weeks ago telling me this was the deepest cornerback group he’s ever been around. This is a guy who played with Charles Woodson and Al Harris too. And so he kind of chuckled and said, ‘Yeah, I guess we’re going to find out exactly how deep we are.'
Sam Shields (hamstring) has really been shutting guys down this season. Casey Hayward (hamstring) might be done for the season. The injury list just keeps getting bigger and bigger and longer and longer [Packers defensive backs James Nixon (knee) and Micah Hyde (groin)]. It’ll be interesting to see who’s healthy out there.
I think luckily they play [Vikings quarterback] Christian Ponder instead of Drew Brees, but Ponder still might be able to take advantage of some things if he’s got a healthy receiving core.
Prediction: Packers 24, Vikings 16. They win, but I don’t think it’ll be a pretty game.
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier announced Christian Ponder will start against the Cowboys on Sunday at AT&T Stadium.
Frazier made the decision public on Friday, although he knew Ponder would start earlier in the week. Ponder took first team reps throughout the week during the open portion of practice and did not participate after practice in team sessions with the second team.
Frazier said he chose Ponder because he felt the Dallas native would give the Vikings the best chance to win, but he didn’t commit to Ponder at quarterback beyond Sunday’s game. Ponder played at Colleyville Heritage High in Colleyville, Texas, about 20 minutes away from AT&T Stadium.
“You’re hoping that a guy will have a great game and you don’t have to have these conversations going forward,” Frazier said. “I’m hoping he has a great game on Sunday, and can lead us to victory and move on from there. It’s just like the rest of our season, it’s one game at a time for us right now.”
Frazier said he has an idea on who will back up Ponder, but he didn’t make it official. Matt Cassel was the backup last week against the Packers while Josh Freeman, recovering from post-concussion symptoms, was inactive for the 44-31 loss.
“I told them earlier in the week how we were going to approach it and we talked about it rep-wise as well, so they have an idea but I want to confirm it after this practice,” Frazier said.
Running back Matt Asiata (shoulder), cornerback Chris Cook (hip muscle), tight end Rhett Ellison (ankle), safety Jamarca Sanford (groin) and defensive tackle Fred Evans (knee) will not make the trip to Dallas, Frazier said.
The absence of Cook and Sanford gives the Vikings a thin secondary against quarterback Tony Romo. Frazier didn’t announce any moves, but he’ll likely bring up rookie safety Brandan Bishop from the practice squad with just three active safeties on the roster.
Andrew Sendejo and Mistral Raymond will be the starting safeties, while Frazier hasn’t decided who will start with Josh Robinson at corner.
“Those guys have all practiced well this week so we’ve just got to make a decision which guy you want to start opposite Josh,” Frazier said.
Adrian Peterson will return to the Lone Star State this weekend when the Vikings face the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium on Sunday. But Peterson won’t have as many family members as the last time he played in the Lone Star State.
Peterson requested 62 tickets to the game, fewer than the amount he had last year against the Texans in Houston. That was his first game in Texas since his rookie year in 2007, when the Vikings played the Cowboys.
“That’s why it’s 62 now,” Peterson joked. “Everybody is not going to be able to make this trip. But it’s still a lot, and it’s going to be fun.”
He doesn’t have plans to make a stop in his hometown of Palestine, Texas, about two hours southeast of Dallas, and will treat this game like a business trip.
He grew up a Cowboys fan. He knows some of his family members will root for "America’s Team."
“It is what it is; I don’t really get into it that much,” Peterson said. “Some of them, I’m sure they’re going to root for me as well, but if the Cowboys win, that’s what they’re going to be hoping for.”
Peterson had 12 carries for 63 yards in his previous game in Dallas on Oct. 21, 2007.
That type of production has been seen this season as well. Peterson averaged 12 rushes for 50 yards over the past three games, all losses, with only one touchdown.
“I think the last three games, 13 carries, I don’t think that’s ever happened in my career,” Peterson said. “So we’ll put the emphasis on the run and not to get frustrated. I’m not worried about yards, I’m worried about us and getting a win.”
Peterson said he feels comfortable with his hamstring despite some tightness. He used a heat pad on the sideline for the first time to help loosen the hamstring Sunday against the Packers, and Peterson will have the same routine against the Cowboys.
”Once I get warmed up and get going, that’s going to be the most important thing,” Peterson said. “Last week, stretching it a lot, putting some heat on there and getting past that warm-up stage and loosen the muscle up and I was able to do that last week and it felt good.”
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier did not announce a starting quarterback during his press conference Monday, but he eliminated one of the three quarterbacks from the running. Frazier said the decision has come down to either Josh Freeman or Christian Ponder, which leaves Matt Cassel out of the mix.
The Vikings play at Dallas on Sunday.
“[We're] just trying to look at the whole picture and who will gives us the best chance to win from our standpoint as coaches for this Dallas ballgame,” Frazier said. “That’s what it’ll be based on. The other factors will be what the health of the other guys are, but primarily who do you think will give you the best chance in this ballgame against Dallas.”
Frazier will make the decision over the next few days as he evaluates the situation with his staff. Freeman dealt with concussion-like symptoms last week, but was cleared on Friday. Frazier said the staff will be conscious of the injury and it could still play into the decision.
Frazier will also look at Ponder’s performance against the Packers on Sunday night at the Metrodome, and said he felt Ponder looked more relaxed Sunday than he did in his previous three starts. Ponder went 14-for-21 for 145 passing yards and rushed for 38 yards with a late touchdown in the final minutes of a 44-31 loss.
“I don’t want to discount Matt, but Christian did some good things in that ballgame yesterday,” Frazier said. “Obviously there are things he could do better, but that has something to do with it. He has led us to some wins in the past. Josh, we brought him in to evaluate and if he could be a guy that could be a potential player for us in the future.”
Cassel started in the Vikings’ only victory through seven games, against the Steelers in London. He also started after the bye week against the Panthers before he was inactive against the Giants. Cassel was Ponder’s backup in the loss Sunday.
“He’s done everything we’ve asked him to,” Frazier said of Cassel. "He’s practiced well, prepared well. He was ready yesterday if needed be, and he’ll continue to work as hard he can. I don’t know if there’s any one thing I can point to and say why it’s Christian and Josh in this determination.”
Frazier said cornerback Chris Cook suffered a hip muscle strain and safety Jamarca Sanford a groin strain against the Packers. Both players will be listed as day-to-day. Frazier hopes to get tight end Rhett Ellison back this week. He was sidelined because of an ankle injury.
What would you rather do on a Saturday morning than wake up early and read weekly picks and power rankings involving 32 teams that basically are of equal strength and ability to beat, lose to or tie anyone on any given Sunday, Monday, Saturday, Thursday (and some day, when the revenue ceiling needs to be extended to a gazillion bazillion dollars, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday as well)?
CRAIG'S NFL POWER RANKINGS
BEST OF THE BUNCH
1. Broncos (2-0)
Why: Because it’s still the regular season and they still have Peyton Manning.
2. Seahawks (2-0); 3. 49ers (1-1); 4. Saints (2-0); 5. Bears (2-0); 6. Packers (1-1); 7. Texans (2-0); 8. Patriots (2-0); 9. Falcons (1-1); 10. Bengals (1-1); 11. Chargers (1-1) ; 12. Ravens (1-1); 13. Chiefs (3-0) ; 14. Dolphins (2-0); 15. Bills (1-1); 16. Colts (1-1); 17. Titans (1-1); 18. Raiders (1-1); 19. Cowboys (1-1); 22. Rams (1-1); 21. Cardinals (1-1); 22. Lions (1-1); 23. Eagles (1-2); 24. Jets (1-1); 25. Giants (0-2).
26. Vikings: Let’s play the “throw-out” game we hear far too often from some people when they discuss NFL games, which often are contests to see which team messes up the fewest number of times. Throw out that Christian Ponder’s pass that was returned 44 yards for a touchdown and he played well. Throw out those two Jay Cutler passes to Martellus Bennett for 39 yards and a touchdown on the last-minute, game-winning drive and the defense played well. Sorry, Roger Goodell says no mulligans in football. That’s three balls in the woods. You’re hitting seven from the tee and the Vikings are still 26th in the power rankings.
THE REST OF THE REST
27. Redskins (0-2); 28. Panthers (0-2); 29. Buccaneers (0-2); 30. Steelers (0-2); 31. Jaguars (0-2).
WORST OF THE BUNCH
32: Browns (0-2): On paper, the Jaguars are actually worse. But, unlike the Browns, the Jaguars didn’t use that paper to raise as a white flag on the season after two games.
Browns plus-6 at Vikings: Vikings 28, Browns 10
Why: The Browns can’t protect the passer, and that was before they chose to start their inexperienced No. 3 passer and trade their running game to the Colts. The Vikings’ defense should have few problems, although keep an eye on receiver Josh Gordon, who’s coming back from a two-game suspension. If QB Brian Hoyer gets any time at all – doubtful considering it’s only his second start, it’s the Metrodome, where the Vikings’ pass rush is at its best – Gordon could do some damage. Defensively, the Browns aren’t a joke. The front seven on their 3-4 defense will be difficult for the Vikings’ power running game. And that happens QB Christian Ponder will have to play like he did in the second half last week, not like he played when he threw that pick-six in the first half.
Last week: Vikings plus-6 ½ at Bears. The pick: Bears 28, Vikings 14. The final: Bears 31, Vikings 30. Record: 1-1, 0-2 vs. the spread.
Packers plus- 2 ½ at Bengals: Packers 35, Bengals 31.
Why?: Aaron Rodgers and his receivers are on a roll after last week’s rout of the Redskins. Yeah, stopping Cincinnati’s offense will be difficult. Receiver A.J. Green could have another big game, and Cincinnati has two weapons at running back as well. But the guess here is Rodgers will just score his way through any of the team’s defensive difficulties.
Last week: Bengals plus-3 at Bears. The pick: Bengals 24, Bears 21. The final: Bears 24, Bengals 21. Record: 0-1.
Chargers plus-3 at Titans: Chargers by 7.
Buccaneers plus-7 at Patriots: Patriots by 3.
Texans minus-2 ½ at Ravens: Ravens by 3.
Rams plus-4 at Cowboys: Cowboys by 7.
Cardinals plus-7 ½ at Saints: Saints by 3.
Lions plus-1 ½ at Redskins: Redskins by 3.
Giants plus-1 at Panthers: Panthers by 7.
Falcons plus-2 at Dolphins: Falcons by 3.
Colts plus-10 ½ at 49ers: 49ers by 7.
Jaguars plus-19 at Seahawks: Seahawks by 14.
Bills plus-2 at Jets: Jets by 3.
Bears minus-2 ½ at Steelers: Steelers by 3.
Raiders plus-15 at Broncos: Broncos by 10.
Record: Last week: 10-5; 8-7 vs. the spread. Overall: 14-16; 10-19-1 vs. the spread.
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|Adrian Peterson (960)||Anthony Herrera (161)|
|Antoine Winfield (410)||Ben Leber (97)|
|Bernard Berrian (213)||Bobby Wade (16)|
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|Leslie Frazier (936)||Madieu Williams (78)|
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