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.
As the Vikings prepare for Sunday’s game with Washington at FedEx Field, we asked Mike Jones, the Redskins beat writer for the Washington Post, to give us his up-close-and-personal scouting report. Here are four things you need to know …
1.Believe the hype. Redskins rookie Robert Griffin III is quickly emerging as a big-time difference maker.
Jones points first to Griffin’s 69.1 completion percentage through five games, tops in the NFL. Then there’s the fact that the rookie quarterback has thrown only one interception in 139 pass attempts.
Indeed, the intelligence NFL folks raved about before the draft is being shown.
“The way he’s been able to read defenses and take care of the ball has been impressive,” Jones said. “We knew of his great athleticism and knew he’d be able to make plays with his legs. But there was a question on whether he’d be dangerous right away with his arm. Now he’s come out and hasn’t been limited in the passing game at all.”
Griffin reached 1,000 yards passing in his fourth NFL start, a feat only two other rookies in league history have accomplished. He was also named the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Month in September.
2.That RG3 charm that you’ve heard so much about over the last year has been well received in Washington.
It’s not just Griffin’s magnetic smile and natural charisma. He’s also shown a superb work ethic and a sincere willingness to learn. That has only heightened the respect he’s gained from the Redskins.
“His teammates have embraced him,” Jones said. “They all will tell you that even though this kid has become a star overnight, he doesn’t act like it. He has a laid-back but confident manner. And that’s had guys rallying behind him.”
The biggest fear with Griffin is that his ability to make plays on the run will expose him to too many brutal hits. That was evidenced against Atlanta on Sunday when a kill shot from Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon forced Griffin out of the game with a concussion.
A week earlier, the Bengals sacked Griffin six times and delivered countless big hits as Griffin ran a flurry of option plays as well.
Said Jones: “The thing he’s still learning is that in college, you could carry out some of those fakes and still make that option pitch and be OK. Well, in the NFL, defenders are so much faster, they’re going to get to you sooner. So I think he’s learning to not sell those fakes quite as hard.”
The beating Griffin has taken has also maybe put the Redskins coaching staff on higher alert.
“Since then they seem to have gone to a much more vanilla approach,” Jones said, “much more in line with the traditional Mike Shanahan-Kyle Shanahan offense. So you can guess that they’re trying to protect him a little bit more.”
3.Running back Alfred Morris has had a surprise breakout as a rookie.
In April, 11 running backs were drafted before Morris was taken in the sixth round with the No. 173 overall pick. Even the reporters in Washington saw an uphill battle for the power back out of Florida Atlantic to make the roster considering the Redskins had Tim Hightower, Roy Helu and Evan Royster in the mix.
“We were thinking Morris was a practice squad guy,” Jones said.
Then the preseason arrived. Hightower was slow in recovering from the torn ACL he suffered last October and was eventually released.
Helu was bothered by toe and Achilles tendon injuries. (He’s now on injured reserve.) And Royster developed knee soreness that kept him out for spurts.
So an opening was there and Morris pounced to win the starting job.
“He runs hard. He’s incredibly physical. He doesn’t dance around,” Jones said. “He just hits the hole and drives his legs. This is a guy who squats 645 pounds. He has a ton of power and he just doesn’t mess around.”
RG3 + Morris = jackpot.
“That’s two huge building blocks for an offense,” Jones said.
4.The Redskins defense has been hindered greatly by injuries.
Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Orakpo was lost for the season in Week 2 with a torn pectoral muscle. Defensive end Adam Carriker also suffered a season-ending injury in that game, tearing the quad tendon in his right leg.
Brandon Merriweather, who was supposed to be the starter at strong safety, injured his left knee in the preseason and has yet to return. And fellow safety Tanard Jackson has been sidelined by a suspension related to his latest violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
No wonder the Redskins have had such difficulty defending the pass.
They’ve allowed an average of 328.6 passing yards per game and 13 touchdowns. Plus they have only eight sacks.
Defensive linemen Stephen Bowen and Barry Cofield have stabilized the defense against the run. But with Orakpo out, Rob Jackson and Chris Wilson haven’t supplied nearly the same pass rush from the edge.
And Ryan Kerrigan has drawn added attention on the other side of Washington’s 3-4 defense.
“Kerrigan was the Robin to Orakpo’s Batman,” Jones said. “But now he’s having to step up and be the leading pass rusher. And that means he’s the one drawing the double-teams now.”
Oh, and that familiar face on the back end of the Washington defense? That’s nine-year vet Madieu Williams, who spent three seasons with the Vikings (2008-10) but has been just OK for Washington.
"He’s a very smart guy,” Jones said. “But he’s still limited in pass coverage and gets beat on double moves and things like that too often.”
Here's a number that suggests Percy Harvin will be on the field the first time Jacksonville kicks off on Sunday at Mall of America Field.
That's the average yards per kickoff return for the teams that played the Jaguars this preseason. That also was the worst kick coverage performance in the league during the preseason.
Granted, it's a number that scrubs and guys who are no longer on the team helped compile. But it's still a fair comparison because it's not like the other 31 teams were using their best players throughout the preseason.
A look at who the Jaguars have at kicker suggests the issue is coverage-related rather than kick-related.
"[Josh Scobee] has a big-time leg," Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer said today. "He's outstanding. He's very, very good. He's one of the better combination kickoff-field goal guys in the league."
The Jaguars kicked off 21 times in the preseason. Eleven of them (52.4 percent) were touchbacks.
Harvin is one of the best kick returners in the league, but the Vikings are extra careful not to give him too many touches, particularly when his value on offense skyrockets with fellow receiver Jerome Simpson suspended and running back Adrian Peterson limited at best as he returns from his left knee reconstruction.
Asked if he'll have Harvin at kickoff returner on Sunday, Priefer said, "I hope so. That's the plan. Anytime you have the best athlete on your team out there as your kickoff returner, that's what you want."
Prepping for MJD: Defensive coordinator Alan Williams isn't buying the Jaguars' claims that Maurice Jones-Drew, last year's league rushing champion with 1,606 yards, will be relegated to use on third downs because his contract holdout just ended this week.
"Did you believe that?" Williams asked reporters earlier today.
Not really, now that you mention it.
"I've seen him the last few years while I was at Indy," said Williams, the former Colts defensive backs coach. "Preseason or not, I'm not sure that if he was there that he would have been playing in the preseason anyway. So I don't take any stock in that. We'll be ready for him on first, second, third and fourth down. He's a guy you have to pay attention to. We're going to know where he's at at all times."
No advantage to facing young QBs: On the flip said, Williams said something himself that was hard to swallow.
Asked if he thinks it could be an advantage to face so many young quarterbacks early on this season, Williams said:
"I don't know because when you have a young quarterback, you don't have a ton of film on that guy. We don't have a ton of film on what [Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert] is doing in [coach Mike] Mularkey's system. I don't view that as a good thing. When you know what you're getting, you have a little bit of a comfort zone. Right now, we don't with this quarterback. No, it's not a comfort zone for our secondary whatsoever. I'd rather be able to prepare them for what we think they're going to see."
Well, there's plenty of film out there on Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. But it's safe to say the Vikings would prefer facing three rookies and two second-year guys in their first nine games.
Rookie as `calming' influence: If you think rookie free safety Harrison Smith looks mature beyond his greenhorn status, Williams agrees with you.
"He's a physical ballplayer, he's smart and he does not look like a rookie out there in terms of the plays overwhelming him," Williams said. "He looks like he belongs. It's nice to have a guy out there that settles the defense, settles the secondary. We also have some other guys. [Antoine Winfield] is a guy who is a calming influence on your secondary, on your team. So he's another guy who is like that, gets lined up, is smart and who plays smart."
Asked if he's ever had a rookie be a "calming influence" in the secondary, Williams said:
"I've played with rookies before. When I was in Indy, Antoine Bethea was a rookie and played every ballgame through the Super Bowl and played great ball. Bob Sanders, when he came in as a rookie, he played when he got healthy he played a ton of ball. That's OK. As long as they're good football players. And Harrison is a good football player."
Branch will move around: Reports on second-round draft pick Andre Branch say the young defensive end will be a factor on a pretty good Jaguars defense this year.
Said Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave: "For a rookie, he's very good. He'll be matched up against [left tackle] Matt Kalil a bunch. On third downs, they'll switch him over to [right tackle] Phil [Loadholt's] side. He's been very active and really impressive for a young guy."
Peterson getting between 25 and 35 reps in practice: Musgrave said "there's not too much doubt" that running back Adrian Peterson will be able to play on Sunday. "We've seen progress every day," Musgrave said. In case you're the last person in the Milky Way that didn't know, Peterson had his left knee reconstructed a little more than eight months ago. The question of every nanosecond between now and kickoff will continue to be "Will Adrian play on Sunday?'
Musgrave said Peterson's reps have been increased from 18 last week to between 25 and 35 this week. Asked how much contact has come with those reps, Musgrave said, "I'd say he's taken what a normal player would take in practice." And that means very little contact, no tackling to the ground and no targeting of the legs by defenders.
Musgrave said Peterson's practice load is about equal to what Toby Gerhart is getting.
Veteran cornerback Chris Carr was by far the biggest surprise cut as the Vikings trimmed their active roster of 21 players to reach the 53-man roster by the 8 p.m. deadline. Also cut was 12-year veteran Sage Rosenfels, the No. 3 QB who was given a $500,000 guarantee for 2012 as part of a two-year deal he signed after last season.
Here's how the Vikings reached the 53-man limit:
Placed On Reserve/Injured: OT DeMarcus Love.
Vested veterans waived: CB Chris Carr, DE Jeff Charleston, S Eric Frampton, QB Sage Rosenfels.
Waived: WR Manny Arceneaux, DT Chase Baker, OG Chris DeGeare, FB Ryan D’Imperio, CB Bobby Felder, DT Trevor Guyton, RB Lex Hilliard, OG Tyler Holmes, CB Reggie Jones, OT Kevin Murphy, LB Corey Paredes, OG Austin Pasztor, DE Nick Reed, C Quentin Saulsberry, TE Mickey Shuler, RB Jordan Todman.
The Vikings only had to clear 21 players because they get a roster exemption for receiver Jerome Simpson, who will serve a three-game suspension to start the season.
Carr came to the Vikings from Baltimore and was working with the No. 1 nickel defense consistently through training camp and the preseason. There was speculation that he might eventually be elevated to a starting role so that 35-year-old Antoine Winfield could play only in the nickel.
Instead, the Vikings decided to keep these six corners: Winfield, Brandon Burton, Marcus Sherels, Chris Cook, Josh Robinson and Zack Bowman. Sherels' case was helped tremendously by his status as the No. 1 punt returner and Percy Harvin's primary backup at kickoff returner.
Rosenfels' release was surprising only because he was considered a security blanket for new general manager Rick Spielman. But the rocket right arm and the greater upside for 24-year-old McLeod Bethel-Thompson trumped the comfort of having the 33-year-old Rosenfels around to help the younger Christian Ponder and Joe Webb.
The Vikings will assemble their practice squad on Saturday morning. Their final 53-man roster could change tomorrow evening based on whether they're awarded any players they put in claims for. The Vikings are third in line for waiver claims, so they have a much better chance of getting players they put in claims for.
Youth movement continues
Of the 53 players the Vikings currently have on their active roster after Friday’s cuts, eight are rookies with 16 more entering either their second or third seasons in the NFL. Defensive tackle Trevor Guyton was the only player from this year’s 10-man draft class to be waived. Guyton, however, seems to be a prime candidate to be added to the practice squad.
Of the 10 players the Vikings drafted in 2011, nine are still around. The only one missing is Ross Homan, a sixth-round pick who was cut before last season.
Love goes on I.R.
The Vikings placed second-year offensive tackle DeMarcus Love on injured reserve Friday, expecting him to need surgery on a lingering shoulder/pectoral injury. As a rookie last season, Love was inactive for all 16 games. He was expected to supply some depth at left tackle behind Matt Kalil, though starting left guard Charlie Johnson would also be an emergency option there. The only other back-up tackle on the roster right now is Pat Brown.
The Vikings' first 15 cuts were so easy, they got them done two days ahead of the NFL deadline.
There are no surprises in the list below. That puts the team's roster at 75. The next round of cuts -- to 53 on Friday -- will no doubt have some surprises.
Here are the players who were released today. Eleven of them are undrafted rookies:
|Vikings (3754)||People (1)|
|AFC (91)||Bears (466)|
|Ex-Vikings (48)||Football on TV (53)|
|Lions (356)||NFC (1377)|
|NFL draft (264)||NFL post-season (28)|
|Packers (511)||Super Bowl (270)|
|Vikings coaches (83)||Vikings defense (259)|
|Vikings fans (118)||Vikings injury report (291)|
|Vikings management (31)||Vikings off the field (282)|
|Vikings offense (367)||Vikings quarterbacks (258)|
|Vikings road games (77)||Vikings rookies (36)|
|Vikings roster moves (40)||Vikings special teams (37)|
|Vikings training camp (132)||Injury report (344)|
|Off the field (140)||On the road (83)|
|Quarterbacks (335)||Rookies (77)|
|Roster moves (17)||Vikings draft (267)|
|Vikings trade talk (2)||Vikings players (808)|
|Adrian Peterson (972)||Anthony Herrera (161)|
|Antoine Winfield (411)||Ben Leber (97)|
|Bernard Berrian (213)||Bobby Wade (16)|
|Brad Childress (640)||Brett Favre (810)|
|Brian Robison (171)||Bryant McKinnie (107)|
|Cedric Griffin (194)||Chad Greenway (208)|
|Chester Taylor (79)||Chris Kluwe (118)|
|Darrell Bevell (120)||E.J. Henderson (183)|
|Heath Farwell (50)||Jared Allen (416)|
|John Sullivan (207)||Kevin Williams (233)|
|Leslie Frazier (937)||Madieu Williams (78)|
|Pat Williams (154)||Percy Harvin (679)|
|Phil Loadholt (165)||Ray Edwards (173)|
|Ryan Longwell (145)||Sage Rosenfels (102)|
|Sidney Rice (273)||Steve Hutchinson (191)|
|Tarvaris Jackson (172)||Tyrell Johnson (151)|
|Visanthe Shiancoe (216)||Brad Childress (644)|
|Darrell Bevell (121)||Leslie Frazier (946)|