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.
Don’t worry, Christian Ponder said. Upon further review, all the hiccups he and the Vikings offense showed in Friday’s loss to San Diego can be corrected.
The offense, which had been developing a preseason rhythm, struggled in the 12-10 loss to a Chargers team that, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said, played some pretty good defense.
Over two-plus quarters Ponder completed nine of 16 passes for 115 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. He struggled – especially early, on third down. And he was sacked five times. And while that stat – along with the Vikings’ difficulty finding running room – can be traced in part to the offensive line, there are things Ponder said he has to do better.
--Stepping up in the pocket to avoid sacks. “After watching [the tape], that’s the biggest thing for me,” Ponder said after Sunday’s practice. “It’s something we focused on today, doing some drills. Just hitting the last step in the drop, setting the depth and just moving forward.”
--Improving his touch. Ponder said a couple of the key incompletions – including two third-down misses to Michael Jenkins that ended the Vikings’ first two drives – came as a result of his throwing the ball too hard. “It was early in the game, I was pumped up, and I just let it go,” he said.
That said, Ponder said, don’t worry.
“We left a lot of plays out on the field,” he said. “We moved the ball, but just had dumb mistakes that came at the wrong time. Completely correctable.”
Thin at safety
With so many injuries at safety, and with the Vikings loathe to play their starters in this week’s preseason finale in Houston, the question is who will play safety?
Harrison Smith and Jamarca Sanford played mega minutes Friday, because Mistral Raymond experienced pre-game back spasms, Eric Frampton strained his groin in the second half and Andrew Sendejo sustained an ankle sprain.
None of the injuries appear to be significant. But Raymond and Sendejo missed Sunday’s practice.
So who will play Thursday? Start with Robert Blanton. Frazier said Blanton – coming back from a hamstring injury – would start in Houston and play significant minutes while getting his first preseason action.
“We plan on starting him, playing him for quite a while so we can properly evaluate him,” Frazier said. “He’s missed a lot of time.”
And at the other safety? “We’re going to mix and match, whatever we have to do to get through the game,” Frazier said. “We’re fortunate that at this point the injuries don’t seem to be the ones that should hinder the guys who from playing in the first [regular season] game.”
Wright getting comfortable
Will Marcus Sherels' ankle sprain Friday open a door as a returner to Jarius Wright? Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer has said he liked Wright’s big-play upside, but needed to see more consistency catching the ball. Frazier said the coaches saw just that Friday.
Wright returned two punts for 29 yards, including a 24-yard return that set up a field goal late in the first half.
“He seemed very comfortable catching the ball,” Frazier said. “He showed some confidence. So we’ll keep feeding him. He showed something. He showed he’s worthy of us giving him more opportunities.”
Tight end John Carlson, out with a knee injury since early in camp, returned to practice today, but won’t play in Thursday’s game.
That was one bit of good news on the injury front. Others? Cornerback Chris Cook (concussion) returned to practice and rookie defensive tackle Letroy Guion (knee) continued to work out. But Frazier said none of the three would play Thursday.
Offensive guard Geoff Schwartz, coming back from a sports hernia operation, is moving well and could return to practice next week, though he will continue to miss workouts this week, Frazier said.
Also not practicing Sunday were Raymond, Sendejo, cornerback Josh Robinson (concussion), cornerback Chris Carr (back spasms) and fullback Ryan D’Imperio (shoulder). Frazier said D’Imperio would be evaluated further.
Rooting for Rice
On Thursday, just minutes from where the Vikings and Houston will end their preseasons, Rice University will open its season by hosting UCLA. Frazier and Houston coach Gary Kubiak each have sons playing for the Owls. Corey Frazier is a senior safety and Klein Kubiak is a junior receiver. By following their sons play, Frazier and Kubiak have become friends.
“We’ll both have our minds split a little bit, I guarantee you,” Frazier joked.
--Frazier said middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley made great strides Friday. Frazier was particularly happy with Brinkley’s lateral quickness and his ability to change directions to make a play. “We feel much better about where he is now than we did prior to that game,” Frazier said.
There are two more preseason games to go and special teams coach Mike Priefer still isn’t sure who his full-time punt returner is. And, frankly, Priefer might not get the final call there, depending on who head coach Leslie Frazier decides to keep on his final roster.
In Friday’s game against Buffalo, Jarius Wright, Josh Robinson, Bryan Walters and Marcus Sherels all got a shot at the position. Priefer likes the big-play potential of Robinson and Wright – who is still very inexperienced at the position. But he loves the reliability of Sherels, who might not break many big returns, but can be depended on to secure the ball.
Buffalo punters did a good job, which made Priefer’s job of evaluating his returners more difficult.
“We have to solidify who that is going forward, because we’re running out of time to make that decision,” Priefer said. “I have my ideas because of practice tape. … The guy I’m most comfortable with would be Marcus, because he’s done it before and he’s very sure-handed. Josh has got some juice to him, as you’ve seen on defense as well. Walters has been there before, and Jarius is kind of in the developmental stage right now, to be honest with you. He’s getting better. He has a lot of talent as well.”
The final roster decisions will have a huge impact. Sherels handed the job full time last season, averaging 8.4 yards per return. But, with the competition more intense in the defensive backfield this year, being the punt returner might be Sherels' best chance to make the final roster.
That means Priefer could be in a situation where he might have to lobby with Frazier to get Sherels a roster spot. “Like any roster spot, returner is extremely important,” Priefer said. “At this time of the year, I have to pick and choose my battles. That’s why I watch practice and listen to the other coaches and their evaluations of the position players. It’s going to be real interesting the next couple weeks what we end up doing.”
That means the development of Robinson and Wright will be closely watched. Both have had difficulties tracking the ball, especially on kicks outside. That said, Priefer said he would also pick the sure-handed receiver.
“I’ve preached ball security since I’ve been here,” he said.
Injuries have given Brandon Fusco the starting right guard spot almost by default. But Frazier doesn’t want Fusco to get too comfortable. That’s why he’s doing everything he can to keep motivating the second-year player.
“We still have to keep giving him more opportunities to be in situations,” Frazier said. “This weekend will be a good test for him. San Diego has a good front, although it’s a 3-4. He’s been a lot more consistent than he has been in the past.”
Injuries have decreased the competition at the spot. Geoff Schwartz is out with a sports hernia, and neither Joe Berger nor Chris DeGeare has been able to unseat Fusco. Still, Frazier does not want the second-year guard to feel the position is being handed to him.
“You don’t want it to be starter by default,” Frazier said. “You want to keep putting him in situations to see how he handles things, and then make a determination on it. He’s done a good job, but he’s had a limited amount of experience.”
Passing the test
Rookie kicker Blair Walsh had a very busy night Friday against Buffalo, making five of six field goals. He made a 22-yarder first, missed a 49-yarder, then came back to hit from 47, 45, 40 and 30 yards.
Priefer said Walsh missed the 49-yarder by pushing it right. But what he liked most was the way the rookie bounced back.
“He came back and made virtually the same kick, just two yards shorter,” Priefer said. “And he drilled it. … That’s where you figure out whether or not, mentally, the guy can handle it. He responded very well.”
--Cornerback Chris Cook (concussion) is still not cleared to practice. Frazier said he hoped Cook could practice Wednesday, but that Cook would probably miss the third preseason game. That means more snaps for Robinson and Chris Carr. Frazier didn’t say which would start.
--Everson Griffen, who missed Monday’s workouts due to illness, returned to practice today. Also back on the field was linebacker Solomon Elimimian (hamstring) returned after missing two days of practice. Not practicing were Cook, receiver Jordan Kamar (hand), guard Bridger Buche, Schwartz and John Carlson (knee).
--OL DeMarcus Love looked good in practice Monday and could play in Friday’s game against San Diego.
--Frazier said he would limit the snaps for RB Toby Gerhart over the final two preseason games.
Jerome Simpson's 33-yard reception -- where he hurdled over Bills defensive back Jairus Byrd -- was the highlight play of the first half as the Vikings took a 16-7 lead over Buffalo at Mall of America Field.
Simpson's catch helped set up a 1-yard scoring pass from Christian Ponder to Jerome Felton to cap the opening drive of the game.
Rookie Blair Walsh had field goals of 22, 45 and 47 yards for the Vikings, and missed wide right from 49. He added a 40-yarder late in the third quarter.
Buffalo scored on a 31-yard pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Donald Jones in the second quarter.
And at the start of the second half, Tashard Choice scored on a 1-yard run. It was set up by a 64-yard Vince Young pass to Dorin Dickerson.
Ponder completed 10 of 13 for 136 yards, and backup quarterback Joe Webb had two carries for 64 yards, including a 41-yard run. Toby Gerhart ran for 30 yards on six carries. Simpson had three catches for 43 yards.
Fitzpatrick was 8 of 11 for 58 yards before being replaced by Young.
By Kent Youngblood -- @BloodStrib
Greetings. Kent Youngblood here with an update following Tuesday's walkthrough. The Vikings will return to the practice field at 2:45 p.m. with the offense looking to bounce back from a somewhat disappointing Monday practice. On to the notes ...
Friday’s preseason opener in San Francisco will mark the first time a number of players will have to see how they operate in a game-like situation. And they won’t be alone. This will also be Alan Williams’ first game as the team’s defensive coordinator.
“I’m looking forward to working with the staff in game mode,” Williams said. “It’s not just a first-time run-through for the players, it will be a first-time run-through for our staff in terms of communicating.”
Williams said he would work the game from the field rather than the press box. He has done both in his career. But in his first go as a coordinator in the NFL, he wanted to start out on the field to make sure the lines of communication were clear and the staff was adept at making in-game adjustments.
“If it works fine, I think I’ll stay (on the field),” Williams said. “If it’s working, why try to fix it? I’ll start there, see what happens, and then adjust.”
Both offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and Williams said a final decision on how much time their starters will play against San Francisco has not been made. Both will take their lead from head coach Leslie Frazier. But Musgrave said he wanted to take his starters as deep as he can in the first quarter while still trying to get sufficient tape on everybody.
Williams, meanwhile, said being new wouldn’t alter his approach to playing his starters. It remains to be seen how much veterans like Antoine Winfield, Kevin Williams and Jared Allen would play. It would be a surprise if any of them played much; Allen has already jokingly asked out of the action.
One thing is clear: The Vikings are still in camp mode, in the sense that they are not game-planning for the 49ers at all. And, given the fact that the two teams meet again in Week 3 of the regular season, you can bet the schemes will be vanilla.
“That’s definitely a factor when you talk about what you’re going to show, what we want to work on and what we could care less about,’’ Musgrave said.
Musgrave said he hoped his offense would bounce back this afternoon after struggles Monday in move-the-ball and goal-line drills.
"Yesterday we took a step backwards in a couple periods," Musgrave said. "We're looking to make those corrections and be better the next time.
A complete corner
Williams went out of his way this morning to praise third-year cornerback Chris Cook for his play in camp so far, referencing a handful of impressive interceptions he has made, both in team work and in one-on-one drills.
“There was one play when he really broke downhill and made a nice interception,” Williams said of a play last week. “Then, in one-on-ones they tried to throw a deep ball on him, and he intercepted that one, too. And if you were here (Monday), you saw on goal line he stuck it up in there and made a tackle and stopped [Toby Gerhart] short of the goal line. I’m seeing a complete football player, which is what you want to have.”
Williams playing well
Alan Williams said defensive tackle Kevin Williams is having a strong camp. In analyzing the players after being hired, Alan Williams said the veteran defensive tackle played better at the end of the season compared to the beginning, when he was battling plantar fasciitis. “He’s playing at a high level,” Alan Williams said.
Griffen gets opportunity
Williams said linebacker Everson Griffen would get looks both as an outside linebacker in the normal defense and as a pass rusher against San Francisco. On Monday, Griffen took a number of snaps as a stand-up rusher in certain sets.
“We’re trying to evaluate him, see what he does best,” Williams said. “We like his playmaking ability, his athleticism. We want to see, in a game-like situation, see how he functions with the lights on, see if he can operate within the scope of the defense.”
Musgrave said running back Jordan Todman (ankle) would try to practice this afternoon. The young tailback tried to practice Monday, but couldn’t. There is a spirited competition between Todman and Lex Hilliard for a backup spot in the rotation, a rather big issue considering Adrian Peterson is coming back from knee surgery and remains on the camp PUP list. Hilliard is a more bruising runner, Todman more elusive. Musgrave said he might go easy on Toby Gerhart on Friday in San Francisco, so Todman (if healthy) and Hilliard could see a lot of action. Derrick Coleman will also get a share of the workload.
Vikings running back Adrian Peterson will appear in court Monday morning in Houston in connection with a July 7 incident during which police allege he resisted arrest during a skirmish with security at a nightclub.
Peterson will fly to Texas on Sunday and his mandatory court appearance means he will miss a day of Vikings training camp in Mankato. Yet Monday will likely be the only day on which he misses any football-related time due to his legal proceedings.
Monday’s hearing – Peterson’s second court appearance in the case – will be procedural with the prosecution formally announcing whether it wants to go forward and set a trial date or drop the charges altogether.
The state could request more time to investigate and review the case. But even in that instance, Peterson’s defense team will request that a trial date be set.
Peterson’s attorney Rusty Hardin has pushed to have the case thrown out but otherwise will work with the prosecution to have a trial scheduled during the week of Nov. 12. That’s Week 11 on the NFL schedule, which is the Vikings’ bye week.
A source said a trial on Peterson’s case would likely last two or three days. So setting the trial for the bye week would keep Peterson from missing any additional practice time with the Vikings.
Houston police have alleged that, on the night in question, Peterson was belligerent and argumentative when asked to leave the Houston nightclub Live! at Bayou Place at closing time. After words were exchanged, police say Peterson became angry and "assumed an aggressive stance” with three officers then needed to restrain the Vikings star.
Peterson has been adamant that he did nothing wrong, insisting that security and police initiated the altercation, tackling him and punching him in the face several times.
Upon reporting to training camp on July 26, Peterson made it clear he would continue to fight the misdemeanor charges, not wanting his reputation as one of the NFL’s kindest and most modest stars to be tainted by an incident he says was unprovoked and unwarranted.
“The situation is what it is and I haven’t lost any sleep over it,” Peterson said. “I know in due time things will get handled and justice will be served. It’s an unfortunate situation but I feel like everything works itself out … Wrong is wrong and right is right. I did nothing wrong in this situation and ultimately that will be shown.”
Hardin has said he has provided the state with Peterson's version of the events and has submitted statements from three witnesses not connected to either the Vikings running back or the Houston police. Those witnesses, Hardin said, have indicated Peterson had not been a troublesome patron and was unnecessarily attacked.
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