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.
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.
ARLINGTON, TEXAS -- Matt Cassel will serve as the Vikings backup quarterback today, not Josh Freeman.
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier declined to announce his backup on Friday after officially naming Christian Ponder the starter for today's game against the Cowboys.
But Freeman's name is on the inactive list. That pretty follows the quarterback rotation that the Vikings used in practice this week during individual drills: Ponder, Cassel and Freeman.
The other inactives are cornerback Chris Cook, safety Jamarca Sanford, nose tackle Fred Evans, offensive guard Jeff Baca, running back Matt Asiata and tight end Rhett Ellison.
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.
Matt Cassel went from the Vikings starting quarterback to No. 3 on the depth chart in one week. Coach Leslie Frazier said Cassel is no longer in the mix to be starter as the team continues its quarterback carousel.
Frazier said either Christian Ponder or Josh Freeman will start Sunday at Dallas.
"You’ve got to handle it as a professional," Cassel said after practice Wednesday. "Would I like the situation to be different? Of course I would. But at the same time, I’ve been in this league long enough to understand that right now things are changing from week to week. All you can do as a teammate is not be distraction, help the guy that’s playing and do your best to try and get back out on the field somehow."
Cassel went 1-1 as a starter. He played well in leading the Vikings to their only win of the season against the Steelers in London. He threw two interceptions in the loss to Carolina the following week and was demoted to No. 3 after Freeman's signing.
Cassel was asked if he believes he's getting a fair shot given the struggles of the other two quarterbacks as well.
"Unfortunately, I don’t make the decisions," he said. "Coach Frazier and whoever is making the decisions have decided to go this direction. As a player, you might not always agree with it, but you accept it and move forward and continue to work hard. You have a choice. Any time adversity comes our way as players, we can feel sorry for ourselves and become a distraction. Or you can continue to work, be professional and do what you’re paid to do. That’s my choice."
Cassel was asked if he believes the team simply wants to evaluate the two younger quarterbacks with an eye on the future.
"I don’t really concentrate on that," he said. "I don’t look at the situation as, ‘Well, why are they doing this, why are doing that?’ If you try and answer those questions, a lot of times as a player you can get in your own head. For me, all I can control is myself. I can just continue to come out and work hard and if my opportunity comes up again, I’ll be prepared and ready to go."
Cassel said he had a "good conversation" with Frazier after Freeman's arrival moved him down the depth chart.
"I’m not going to get into specifics about what was said, but obviously we both had our opinions on it," Cassel said. "But at the end of the day, he’s the head coach. He makes the decisions. You accept that as a player and try and move forward."
Josh Freeman was able to do some work in practice on Friday after clearing the NFL protocol tests, but he will be inactive for Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers.
Freeman is expected to return to practice fully next week, but it's unclear if he will remain the starter, or Christian Ponder.
"The entire organization’s focus is on Sunday night," he said. "It’s going up against the Packers and finding a way to get a win. My role for the game, I’ve got to any way I can help Christian out there. He had an excellent week of practice. He’s dropping dimes left and right. I know everybody is excited about moving forward.”
Freeman said he's not sure on which play he suffered his concussion in the third quarter of a 23-7 loss to the New York Giants. He said he didn't experience any symptoms until Tuesday morning.
"I just learned this talking to the doctors, but oftentimes with concussions they don’t really start showing noticeable symptoms until hours later," he said. "That was the case on Monday night and really Tuesday morning is when I got the full onslaught of symptoms. In the game, when you're focused and locked in on your job, oftentimes the man concussed is the last to really truly notice anything is off. It’s something that is definitely going to heighten my awareness toward it.”
Freeman said this is the first concussion he's suffered in his five-year NFL career. Former NFL player and current NBC analyst Rodney Harrison reportedly made comments that raised speculation that Freeman might not have suffered a concussion.
According to ProFootballTalk, Harrison, in a radio interview said: "I can’t say that I believe he has a concussion. I can’t say that I’m 100 percent sold on it. I’m not trying to doubt the seriousness of his injury if he has one, but it just seems like a convenient excuse to get out of a situation. That’s what it seems like. Because maybe he’s looking around [and] saying, ‘You know what, maybe Greg Jennings is not as good as I thought. Maybe this wide receiving corps [isn't as good as I thought]. Adrian Peterson is struggling. Heck, I just want out of this situation. I can’t wait for this season to end.’”
Freeman said he had not heard about Harrison's comments.
"As a competitor, the last thing you want to do is have a situation where you’re sitting out the following week due to being on the sideline most of the week in practice," he said. "So my feeling toward that is all I can do is live my truth. I didn’t hear any comments. I really don’t pay a lot of attention to what’s going on in the outside world. I’m just focused on what I can do to be the best quarterback I can be for this team regardless of my role on Sundays.’’
Freeman's debut was a mess. He completed only 20 of 53 passes for 190 yards with one interception. He had 15 overthrows and looked lost after having only four practices with the first-team offense.
He was asked if, in hindsight, he felt he played too soon.
"There’s a lot of different things that go into that," he said. "Looking back, maybe I was a little too fired up at first. There’s definitely a lot of correctible things, things that going into the game I would’ve banked on me being able to complete or get done on the field. But at the same time we weren’t able to do so, so I’m moving forward and just got to find a way to be better prepared.”
The Vikings declared Freeman, Rhett Ellison, Matt Asiata and Rodney Smith out.
Defensive tackle Fred Evans (knee) and safety Jamarca Sanford (ankle) are questionable.
For the Packers, Jermichael Finley, Clay Matthews and Ryan Taylor are out. Wide receiver James Jones is doubtful.
Linebackers Brad Jones and Nick Perry are questionable.
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