Matt Vensel is in his first year at the Star Tribune after covering the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun for six years. He is a Pittsburgh native and a Penn State grad. Follow him at @mattvensel.
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.
Another step for Peterson
For the first time since returning to practice, running back Adrian Peterson was allowed to absorb some contact Monday.
“Today is another step in the process,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said of the decision to let defenders hit Peterson, but only above the waist, and not into the ground. Frazier said Peterson responded well, looked good, was able to move and change direction. The next step is for Frazier to talk to Peterson to see how he felt after practice, and then seeing how sore Peterson's surgically-repaired knee is tomorrow morning.
“We told our defense to hit him a little bit, see how he responded,” Frazier said. “I told (running backs coach) James Saxon to tell them they will be contacting (Peterson) today.’’
Apparently it got Peterson pretty fired up. “He told James Saxon, he said, ‘Coach, you better tell those defenders to buckle up,’ ‘’ Frazier said. “I knew it would get him fired up. He did pretty good. We’ll see how he feels.’’
It was decided last week that Peterson would not appear in a preseason game. The goal has been for him to be ready on opening day. But not even Frazier knows exactly what that role will be. “I want to see what he has to say after today,” Frazier said. “Then we need to go through a whole week with him in the game plan to see how he responds.”
Guard Geoff Schwartz took part in practice for the first time since having hernia surgery Aug. 7. He didn’t take full part, only participating in offensive line drills. Still, Schwartz returned a little ahead of schedule; Frazier said Sunday he might start practicing next week.
Now there is a chance Schwartz could take full part in practice next week and be available for opening day.
--Frazier said tight end John Carlson moved better Monday, his second day back at practice since recovering from a knee injury. “He feels more comfortable with the brace now,” Frazier said. “I think he’ll be OK.”
--With Marcus Sherels nursing a sprained ankle, Reggie Jones could see some work as a punt returner Thursday in Houston. Backup running back Jordan Todman also worked out at the position, but probably won’t return a punt in the game. But he could get a kickoff return or two, Frazier said.
Ever the optimist
Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave is an optimist. How else to describe a coach who can look at last Friday’s preseason loss to San Diego – one in which the offense never really found a rhythm, with quarterback Christian Ponder getting sacked five times -- and find a superlative or two?
But that’s exactly what Musgrave did during his Monday meeting with the media: “We didn’t put our best foot forward (on offense)," he said. “[But] we did some things better than we ever have done them before. We want more of those things.”
Musgrave was talking about the emphasis he is putting on getting big plays through the air.
“We hit Percy (Harvin) on a 40-yarder and missed a 54-yarder (to Harvin). We’re doing a better job of achieving those chunks down the field. We did that against Buffalo (Aug. 17) as well. We want to be able to do that, which will complement our strong running game.”
Against Buffalo, Vikings QBs completed four passes for 21 or more yards, with Ponder having three of those strikes.
That said, though, Musgrave said the offense started out slowly in the team’s first two drives against San Diego. As for those five sacks, Musgrave echoed what Ponder said Sunday. Namely that he could have avoided many of those sacks by responding to the pressure better.
With starters taking the final preseason game off, Thursday’s game in Houston will be about watching which backups shine. One who figures to be playing with unmatched intensity is safety Robert Blanton, the rookie out of Notre Dame who has yet to play this preseason.
Blanton, battling a hamstring injury, has not gotten on the field. But the combination of the coaches wanting to get a good look at him and the team’s injury situation at backup safety means Blanton will log a lot of minutes in Houston.
What does defensive coordinator Alan Williams want to see?
“Just that he can get lined up, to see if he looks like he belongs, in terms of when he has a chance to make a play, see how he functions in terms of tackling,’’ Williams said. “I do recognize it will be his first live action, so we want to see if he belongs out there.”
Blanton, a fifth-round pick, played corner at Notre Dame, and Williams said that coverage ability has carried over with his switch to safety. Blanton was good enough in coverage during organized team activities that the Vikings think he can be effective covering receivers in the slot as well.
“He was aggressive,” Williams said of what he saw in Blanton before the injury. “It looked like he had good instincts.”
Schwartz returns to practice
For the second straight day, the Vikings got a player back to practice. Monday it was guard Geoff Schwartz, who donned shoulder pads and a helmet and returned to practice for the first time since having hernia surgery Aug. 7.
Meanwhile, defensive backs Chris Carr (back), Marcus Sherels (ankle), Andrew Sendejo (ankle) and Mistral Raymond (back) and fullback Ryan D'Imperio (shoulder) missed a second straight day of practice.
On Sunday, Frazier praised the play of rookie Jarius Wright as a punt returner. Wright figures to get the bulk of the return work Thursday in Houston with Marcus Sherels nursing a sprained ankle. Monday special teams coordinator Mike Priefer was complimentary of Wright as well, though more restrained.
Wright’s 24-yard punt return late in the first half set up a Vikings score against San Diego.
Priefer said Wright made good decisions. He bluffed a return that resulted in a personal foul penalty on San Diego, for example. But Priefer said Wright could have broken an arm tackle on the 24-yard return and perhaps scored.
“I don’t think he ran with enough conviction there,” Priefer said. “When he saw it on tape, I think he believed what I was telling him.”
Priefer was asked if Wright has shown enough reliability at the position to be considered the top option. He said he wouldn’t be sure until after Thursday’s game.
--Williams said he hasn’t decided who will be the No. 3 cornerback yet. Veteran Chris Carr and speedy rookie Josh Robinson are vying for playing time there. Carr has the edge in experience and he can play both outside and in the slot. Robinson, out this week with a concussion, has shown his great speed and a knack for coverage.
-- Mistral Raymond is still in the running to start at one of the safety spots on opening day, though Williams did express regret that Raymond (back spasms) wasn’t able to play Friday after a strong game against Buffalo in the second preseason game. “He looked like a starter to me in that game,” Williams said.
--Williams was asked how many defensive backs he’d like to keep on the final roster. “Ah, 20,” he joked. Ten or perhaps 11 seems like a more reasonable number, he said.
--Williams echoed head coach Leslie Frazier’s comments Sunday by praising the play of middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley’s play against San Diego.
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.
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