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.
It's a quick turnaround this week for the Vikings following a 27-23 loss to the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium on Sunday. They return home to face the Redskins on Thursday in attempt to snap a four-game losing streak and avoid the first 1-8 start in franchise history. Here's your first look at the week ahead:
1) Can the secondary perform an encore?
While Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo threw for 337 yards, he had 90 yards on the game-winning drive when the Vikings opted not to send pressure. With that said, the unit had a solid performance despite injuries to defensive back Chris Cook and starting safeties Harrison Smith and Jamarca Sanford before the game.
The secondary even dealt with the loss of defensive back Xavier Rhodes in the game with a left leg injury and finished the game with just four corners. A.J. Jefferson made a great play on the interception with 4:35 left in the game that the offense couldn't capitalize on, leading to the Cowboys' game-winning touchdown drive.
The Vikings have three days to prepare and recuperate for the Redskins and quarterback Robert Griffin III. The health status of Cook, Rhodes and Sanford will likely be the biggest storyline leading up to the game behind the season-long debate. Griffin's going through a sophomore slump with the same amount of touchdowns, nine, as fumbles and interceptions, but he’s still a duel threat quarterback that’s capable of posting 350 yards of total offense alone.
2) Who will be the starting and backup quarterbacks?
Yes, the Cowboys have the worst total defense in the NFL, and yes, quarterback Christian Ponder didn’t move the chains on a 3-and-out with 2:51 left in the game that could’ve sealed the win, but he played well enough to start again Thursday. In a short week, it’s difficult to make a quarterback change when there aren’t as many days to prepare for the opponent.
It seems as if quarterback Matt Cassel isn’t an option to start now given how he won’t be a potential future quarterback for the organization. The other option, quarterback Josh Freeman, was inactive Sunday as he returned to the field last week following concussion-like symptoms in his first start against the Giants on Oct. 21. Do you make Freeman the starter, or even the backup, on a short week or go with the same look for the third consecutive week (Ponder starting, Cassel as the backup)?
3) Is the offensive line streak all but over?
The Vikings offensive line will likely see a starting lineup change for the first time in two seasons. Right tackle Phil Loadholt left Sunday’s game because of a concussion, and Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said he doesn’t expect him to play Thursday.
That would snap 25 consecutive games (including playoffs) without a lineup change for the offensive line that dates back to the start of last season. J’Marcus Webb replaced Loadholt in the third quarter and was beaten by Cowboys defensive end George Selvie, who stripped the ball out of Ponder’s hand in the end zone resulting in a defensive touchdown. Webb will be one of two options, along with backup center Joe Berger, to fill Loadholt’s void and end an impressive feat.
Best Quote From The Game
“I didn’t know it was a flag. The play was over with and I didn’t know it was a flag.” - Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant on his 15-yard penalty for removing his helmet on the field.
It’s known as “The Emmitt Rule” because former Cowboys running back and Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith constantly ripped off his helmet after scoring a touchdown. The rule was introduced in 1997.
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.
Cornerback Chris Cook (hip) and safety Jamarca Sanford (groin) did not practice for a second consecutive days. Coach Leslie Frazier said he's hopeful that both players can do some work on Friday.
If not, there's a possiblility the Vikings could enter Sunday's game at Dallas without three starters in the secondary. Safety Harrison Smith already is on injured reserve because of turf toe.
"It's a little scary when you start getting into your depth this early in the season," Frazier said.
It's possible that the Vikings starting secondary on Sunday could consist of Andrew Sendejo and Mistral Raymond at safety and rookie Xavier Rhodes and Josh Robinson at cornerback with Marcus Sherels entering the game in nickel situations.
In other injury news, wide receiver Greg Jennings returned to practice after sitting out Wednesday because of a sore knee. Frazier said Jennings experienced some soreness while working out on his off-day this week. Jennings was limited on Thursday, but Frazier said the injury is not considered serious.
Running back Matt Asiata (personal) and tight end Rhett Ellison (ankle) did not practice.
Defensive tackle Fred Evans (knee) and right tackle Phil Loadholt (illness) were limited.
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.
Josh Freeman, who had concussion-like symptoms after Monday's loss to the Giants, was cleared to practice and went through drills with the Vikings today, but Christian Ponder will be the starting quarterback on Sunday night against Green Bay.
Coach Leslie Frazier said Ponder will be backed up by Matt Cassel, and that Freeman would be inactive.
Freeman said he isn't sure which hit during Monday's game injured him, but said he felt concussion-like symptoms on Tuesday morning.
Freeman said he hadn't seen comments by TV analyst Rodney Harrison where Harrison speculated that Freeman was faking the symptoms to get out of a "bad situation in Minnesota."
Running back Matt Asiata (shoulder), tight end Rhett Ellison (ankle) and receiver Rodney Smith (hip) also will be inactive.
New on the injury report is defensive tackle Fred Evans (knee), who is expected to be ready to play.
Running back Adrian Peterson (hamstring) should also be ready to go.
Frazier talked about the team's struggling running game. According to Pro Football Focus, Peterson had 40 runs of 15 yards or longer last year. He has only four this season, and said after the Giants game that the team needed to be "more physical."
"We are averaging a yard less (per carry) than we did last year, but it's more than just the offensive line," Frazier said. "Tight ends are a big part of our run-blocking, as are wide receivers. It's a number of things that have hurt us. And, yes, we do need to be more physical up front."
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