Chip Scoggins is a Star Tribune sports columnist. He has temporarily returned to cover the Minnesota Vikings. He had the beat from 2008-2011 after covering college football for five years. Chip has been with the Star Tribune since January 2000. He can be followed on twitter at @chipscoggins.Find Chip on Facebook.
Mark Craig has covered football and the NFL the past 20 years, including the Browns from 1991-95 and the Vikings and the NFL since 2003. Since 2008, Craig has served as one of the 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. He can be followed on Twitter at @markcraignfl.
The Vikings rank last in the NFL in pass defense, allowing 326 yards per game. They are tied for first in touchdown passes allowed with 10.
In Sunday's 34-27 victory against Pittsburgh in London, the Vikings two best corners were rookie Xavier Rhodes and Marcus Sherels, who made the team primarily as a punt returner.
Chris Cook did not play because of a groin injury, Josh Robinson continued to struggle and A.J. Jefferson got zero snaps on defense, playing strictly on special teams.
Their cornerback situation is a mess right now and you wonder if Leslie Frazier and his staff won't use the bye to consider personnel changes.
Many fans would welcome the return of Antoin Winfield. Short of that, one logical move would be to replace Robinson with Rhodes as the starter at left cornerback, and possibly slide Sherels into that slot/nickel role.
Rhodes has been the team's best corner through four games. But in Cook's absence, Frazier's staff has resisted moving Rhodes to the right side. Instead, they started Sherels at right cornerback against Pittsburgh with Robinson starting on the left side.
Even if Cook returns next week against Carolina, you wonder how long the coacing staff will stick with Robinson. Until this point, Frazier has said he prefers to keep Rhodes as the outside corner in the nickel package, noting that Rhodes gets plenty of snaps because the Vikings use their nickel so often.
Rhodes has played in 71 percent of the team's snaps this season. But Robinson looks lost right now. According to Pro Football Focus, he has allowed 91.9 percent of passes thrown his direction to be completed for 377 yards.
Robinson also was called for a 48-yard pass interference penalty on Pittsburgh's opening drive of the second half that gave the Steelers the ball at the 1-yard line.
"He’s had some struggles, in particular inside playing the nickel position," Frazier said. "That’s been a challenge for him with all the things we ask that position to do. He’s had some good moments and he’s had some moments I’m sure he looks back at the end of the four weeks and said, ‘Man, I can do that better,’ and we think he will. We knew going in this offseason and even in training camp that there were going to be some moments that we would have to work through and we’re experiencing some of that, but he’s doing some good things as well."
Frazier was asked if the staff will consider moving Rhodes into the starting lineup because of Robinson's struggles.
"Xavier is doing some good things," Frazier said. "He is playing a lot in our nickel package which almost equates to being a starter with the number of snaps you get. We’ll see how he continues to progress. Josh has had some ups and downs, but we think he’s going to get better. We’ll evaluate that coming out of the bye as well."
Rhodes made a mistake on Pittsburgh's final drive. He went for an interception on a pass to Jerricho Cotchery and missed, which led to a 36-yard catch and run.
"If he makes that play the game is over," Frazier said. "I like the aggressiveness. We worked on that play, he anticipated, he was there and came up a little bit short. You like to believe if we’re in that situation again, as he gains more experience, he’s going to make that play. You don’t want to stifle that aggressiveness at the corner. The fact that he had enough gumption to go try it, that’s a good thing. But if you don’t make the interception, you have to make the tackle. You can’t do both. But he’ll learn from it and fortunately we survived it. That’s part of some youth in the secondary."
Quick postgame keys to the Vikings’ 34-27 victory over the Steelers at Wembley Stadium.
The Cassel effect. Backup Matt Cassel got the start at quarterback because of Christian Ponder’s rib injury and was efficient and turnover free (although he got lucky on a fumble). Greg Jennings was engaged for the first time this season, and scored two touchdowns off Cassel passes. And Adrian Peterson got some more room, and ran for 140 yards.
Scary defense. The Vikings defense did enough to win, but did anyone feel comfortable late as the Steelers seemed on the verge of a comeback? Only a big play by Everson Griffen, with a sack on the final stand, saved the day.
Just in time victory. Only one team has started 0-4 and made the playoffs, so this was a must-win for the Vikings.
It's worth noting that one of the first things Coach Leslie Frazier said after the game is Ponder is his starting quarterback. So ... let the QB controversy begin.
Here are the video highlights and final stats.
The Vikings have a bye this week before playing Carolina at home on Oct. 13.
Do the Big Ben jokes ever get old?
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who traveled to London on a promotional trip in July, said not yet, even though he spent part of one day posing in front of the famous English clock tower.
“It didn’t get as much run as I anticipated, so that was good,” he said. “There were a lot of pictures out there, and people didn’t make a big a deal out of it.”
Roethlisberger and the Steelers play the Vikings on Sunday, and he said he changed his attitude on the game after his tour.
“I took it as this is just a money-making thing for the NFL, but when I got over there, I got to see that there were a lot of football fans over there,” he said. “So once I got to see that, I got to see that it’s going to be neat for them and a neat experience for us, so I’ve embraced it a lot more than initially.
“There is a Steelers Nation UK, so there’s a lot of Steelers fans there, and they all told me they were going to be there.”
The Steelers, like the Vikings winless at 0-3, will fly to London after Thursday’s practice, arriving on Friday. They are the “road” team for the game.
Roethlisberger and coach Mike Tomlin talked to the Twin Cities “left behind” media today in a conference call at Winter Park, and most of the talk centered on the Steelers’ woes. The six-time Super Bowl champions have not forced a turnover this year and are last in the NFL in rushing, making two trademarks of the team disappear in a hurry. Roethlisberger has four interceptions and the team has lost five fumbles.
“Turning the ball over -- that’s on me, and I can’t have it happen,” he said. “ If we don’t turn the ball over in critical situations, or as much as we have, then we are in most of the those games.”
Tomlin is hoping his team’s struggling offense, especially the running game, can right itself.
“We’ve turned the ball over, particularly in the red area, and obviously that takes points off the board,” he said. “People have scored directly off those turnovers, putting points directly on the board, you can’t do that in the NFL and expect to be better than 0-3. We understand that, but understanding that is only part of it, we got to rectify, we got to fix it.”
Roethlisberger has been sacked 10 times, and Tomlin said, “It’s been a multitude of things, game situations and circumstances have been a part of that -- when you’re in predictable situations because you’re behind, that’s going to dictate how certain people play football. The raw number is a product of that. But we have to do a better job of protecting him.”
The Steelers should have their rookie running back, Le’Veon Bell, a second round choice from Michigan State, back for the game. He has been injured since preseason. Opening day starter Isaac Redman has also been hurt, and Felix Jones is the team’s leading rusher – with only 71 yards.
Cornerback Cortez Allen (ankle) also will return.
Big changes aren’t a coming at Winter Park, says Leslie Frazier, who’s trying hard to keep a calm hand on the wheel of an 0-3 Vikings team.
“I don’t know if change for the sake of change is the right thing to do, from my perspective,” said Frazier, whose team boards a plane for London at 7 tonight. “You got to be able to stand in front of the guys in the locker room and talk to them about why you’re making the change. Then it’s got to be something you feel like is going to help your football team be successful. So change for change sake – I don’t totally buy into that.”
So if you’re pleading for personnel changes, including one at a certain position called quarterback, it’s not going to happen. At least not this week.
“There’s a lot of different things you can do, other than personnel, to change things up a little bit,” Frazier said. “And I’ve taken that approach at times. But when you make those changes, you want to have a reason why you’re doing it.”
It’s not just Ponder, Ponder, Ponder:
For the umpteenth time, Frazier said he’s seen enough from Christian Ponder to believe he is the best option at quarterback. There were Purple breakdowns all over the field in all three phases of the game on Sunday. Ponder didn’t help the situation by completing only 25 of 42 passes for 228 yards, no touchdowns, one interception, one lost fumble and a 64.4 passer rating.
Frustrated fans at Mall of America started a “Let’s Go Cassel!” chant in the third quarter after one of the team’s six three-and-out possessions in the 31-27 loss to the Browns. Cassel is Matt Cassel, former fan villain in Kansas City and now apparent savior in the Twin Cities.
“[Ponder] made some plays for us yesterday that we needed,” Frazier said. “There were some other plays that we needed to make that we didn’t always get. But he’ll have to keep growing and keep developing. We’re doing enough things that are not right across the board that are affecting our won-loss record, and it’s not just the quarterback position. He has to play better, but so do some other groups on our football team. I don’t think where we are is necessarily purely because of Christian Ponder.”
Frazier said the three defensive backs who left Sunday’s game – cornerback Chris Cook (groin), cornerback A.J. Jefferson (ankle) and strong safety Jamarca Sanford (hamstring) – will have magnetic resonance imaging exams today.
Asked if he was concerned that any of them would miss Sunday’s game against the Steelers, Frazier said, “Not at this point, but it’s kind of early. So, I’ll have to wait at least until the end of the day to get some results back.”
Fullback Jerome Felton will return from this three-game NFL-mandated suspension for violation of the league's substance abuse policy, relating to a DWI arrest. To make room for Felton on the roster, rookie fullback Zach Line went on injured reserve.
Kevin Williams will start his 158th game on Sunday, passing Hall of Famer Alan Page for most career starts by a Vikings defensive tackle. Williams trails only Jim Marshall (270) and Carl Eller (201) for most starts by a defensive lineman.
“It’s a blessing to be healthy and to make that many starts,” Williams said. “It’s awesome to be able to start that long and play that well in the NFL nowadays.”
In 11 seasons, Williams has missed only three games because of injury – two in 2005 and the season opener in Detroit two weeks ago.
Asked his secret to staying healthy and being able to play through pain, Williams said, “Maybe being breast fed helped a lot. They say you’re getting the best nutrients you can get. [laughing]. I’m just blessed that I’ve been able to do it. I guess the Good Lord is [responsible] for that.”
Ellison declared out
The Vikings are getting thin at fullback. Jerome Felton will serve the final game of his suspension Sunday and Rhett Ellison was declared out Friday because of a knee injury. That means rookie Zach Line and tight end John Carlson will share fullback duties.
Wide receiver Greg Jennings missed practice Friday to tend to a personal matter. Frazier said Jennings is expected to play Sunday.
Who are these guys
The Vikings probably found little use studying film of Cleveland’s first two games this season. On Sunday, the Browns offense will line up with a new quarterback (Brian Hoyer), new running back (Willis McGahee) and new No. 1 wide receiver (Josh Gordon).
“You can only speculate how different it will be,” Frazier said. “We’ll have to see as the game goes on exactly who the Browns are with some of the new faces in their offense.”
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