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.
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.
What would you rather do on a Saturday morning than wake up early and read weekly picks and power rankings involving 32 teams that basically are of equal strength and ability to beat, lose to or tie anyone on any given Sunday, Monday, Saturday, Thursday (and some day, when the revenue ceiling needs to be extended to a gazillion bazillion dollars, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday as well)?
CRAIG'S NFL POWER RANKINGS
BEST OF THE BUNCH
1. Broncos (2-0)
Why: Because it’s still the regular season and they still have Peyton Manning.
2. Seahawks (2-0); 3. 49ers (1-1); 4. Saints (2-0); 5. Bears (2-0); 6. Packers (1-1); 7. Texans (2-0); 8. Patriots (2-0); 9. Falcons (1-1); 10. Bengals (1-1); 11. Chargers (1-1) ; 12. Ravens (1-1); 13. Chiefs (3-0) ; 14. Dolphins (2-0); 15. Bills (1-1); 16. Colts (1-1); 17. Titans (1-1); 18. Raiders (1-1); 19. Cowboys (1-1); 22. Rams (1-1); 21. Cardinals (1-1); 22. Lions (1-1); 23. Eagles (1-2); 24. Jets (1-1); 25. Giants (0-2).
26. Vikings: Let’s play the “throw-out” game we hear far too often from some people when they discuss NFL games, which often are contests to see which team messes up the fewest number of times. Throw out that Christian Ponder’s pass that was returned 44 yards for a touchdown and he played well. Throw out those two Jay Cutler passes to Martellus Bennett for 39 yards and a touchdown on the last-minute, game-winning drive and the defense played well. Sorry, Roger Goodell says no mulligans in football. That’s three balls in the woods. You’re hitting seven from the tee and the Vikings are still 26th in the power rankings.
THE REST OF THE REST
27. Redskins (0-2); 28. Panthers (0-2); 29. Buccaneers (0-2); 30. Steelers (0-2); 31. Jaguars (0-2).
WORST OF THE BUNCH
32: Browns (0-2): On paper, the Jaguars are actually worse. But, unlike the Browns, the Jaguars didn’t use that paper to raise as a white flag on the season after two games.
Browns plus-6 at Vikings: Vikings 28, Browns 10
Why: The Browns can’t protect the passer, and that was before they chose to start their inexperienced No. 3 passer and trade their running game to the Colts. The Vikings’ defense should have few problems, although keep an eye on receiver Josh Gordon, who’s coming back from a two-game suspension. If QB Brian Hoyer gets any time at all – doubtful considering it’s only his second start, it’s the Metrodome, where the Vikings’ pass rush is at its best – Gordon could do some damage. Defensively, the Browns aren’t a joke. The front seven on their 3-4 defense will be difficult for the Vikings’ power running game. And that happens QB Christian Ponder will have to play like he did in the second half last week, not like he played when he threw that pick-six in the first half.
Last week: Vikings plus-6 ½ at Bears. The pick: Bears 28, Vikings 14. The final: Bears 31, Vikings 30. Record: 1-1, 0-2 vs. the spread.
Packers plus- 2 ½ at Bengals: Packers 35, Bengals 31.
Why?: Aaron Rodgers and his receivers are on a roll after last week’s rout of the Redskins. Yeah, stopping Cincinnati’s offense will be difficult. Receiver A.J. Green could have another big game, and Cincinnati has two weapons at running back as well. But the guess here is Rodgers will just score his way through any of the team’s defensive difficulties.
Last week: Bengals plus-3 at Bears. The pick: Bengals 24, Bears 21. The final: Bears 24, Bengals 21. Record: 0-1.
Chargers plus-3 at Titans: Chargers by 7.
Buccaneers plus-7 at Patriots: Patriots by 3.
Texans minus-2 ½ at Ravens: Ravens by 3.
Rams plus-4 at Cowboys: Cowboys by 7.
Cardinals plus-7 ½ at Saints: Saints by 3.
Lions plus-1 ½ at Redskins: Redskins by 3.
Giants plus-1 at Panthers: Panthers by 7.
Falcons plus-2 at Dolphins: Falcons by 3.
Colts plus-10 ½ at 49ers: 49ers by 7.
Jaguars plus-19 at Seahawks: Seahawks by 14.
Bills plus-2 at Jets: Jets by 3.
Bears minus-2 ½ at Steelers: Steelers by 3.
Raiders plus-15 at Broncos: Broncos by 10.
Record: Last week: 10-5; 8-7 vs. the spread. Overall: 14-16; 10-19-1 vs. the spread.
Not only did Leslie Frazier reassert his faith in Christian Ponder, the Vikings coach made sure to point out that the rest of his players aren't pointing fingers at the starting quarterback after Sunday's four-turnover performance in a 34-24 season-opening loss at Detroit.
"On Sunday, it was not all about Christian," Frazier said Wednesday as the Vikings amped up their preparation for Sunday's game at Chicago. "He had his mistakes. But the fact is the quarterback position is much more magnified. He just happens to play the position with the most scrutiny. We had other guys, trust me, that when we watched the tape, the scrutiny that needed to be had in those moments, they are well aware that they have to play better. They're not looking only at our quarterback and saying, `If he had done this or that, we would have won that ballgame.' We need to play better across the board."
Those hoping for a quick hook on Ponder can fahgedaboutit, too.
"You don't want to say that you can't get this turned and going in the right direction after just one week," Frazier said. "I just don't think that would be wise."
Frazier also pointed to the team's 4-0 playoff push to end last season -- particularly the playoff-clinching 37-34 win over the Packers -- as proof that Ponder has gotten the job done before.
"That Green Bay game at the end of the year, that was a terrific performance by Christian," Frazier said. "So we've seen him do it on repeated occasions. Consistent play is what we're looking for. We need a good week this week.
"[Ponder's] body of work is somewhat limited. [Sunday] was his second start on opening day and his first on the road [on opening day] a week ago. I have seen him make throws on the run. I have seen him make plays in the pocket, out of the pocket. All you have to do is throw in a tape from last December. There were a number of moments like that. We need consistent good quarterback play for our offense to thrive and for our team to be successful. Christian knows that as well as anybody. There are certain things we can't do. Our margin of error is small. So if we're turning the ball over, it just shrinks our opportunity to win. But I have seen him him make those plays in and out of the pocket."
Frazier, however, did point out that Ponder has to improve his play when things break down around him.
"Not every pocket is going to be clean in the NFL," Frazier said.
Ponder opened his weekly press conference today by saying what 99.9999 percent of all players coming off a loss say to the media. Here's part of the opening statement:
"Well, the good thing about football, especially the NFL, is you got to move on quickly," Ponder said. "Watching the film Monday and Sunday night, a lot of things are easily correctable. We'll get them fixed. We're too good of a team to be making those mistakes. We have to establish the run better. ... And we can't turn the ball over.
"There are things I can do better. That everybody can do better. The running back, the receivers. It's something as an offense, we correct as a whole."
Ponder also subtly dropped in a reference to last year's season-opener in which he directed a long, game-tying drive as time expired against visiting Jacksonville. The Vikings went on to win in overtime.
Asked when he felt the Lions game got away from the Vikings, Ponder said, "The feeling that it got away from us never happened. it was just a couple of bad mistakes. ... We were into it until the very end. We still had time with a couple of minutes left to score two touchdowns. We won a game with 14 seconds left where we had to drive 80 yards or whatever to get a field goal and we did that. So I don't think a game is really ever out of our reach."
In other news, Frazier said everyone is expected to practice today. That includes defensive tackle Kevin Williams, who missed the opener because of a badly strained knee, and center John Sullivan, whose left knee was chopped by Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh during an interception return. Sullivan finished the game. Suh did, too, but his wallet ultimately got lighter by 100 grand when the league fined him on Tuesday.
MANKATO -- Vikings receiver Greg Jennings met with reporters after practice today. He talked about "the talk" he had with coach Leslie Frazier, apologized via the media to former teammate and current Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and even mentioned Rodgers by name, something he hadn't been doing since switching sides in this NFC North rivalry.
Here are the highlights:
About Frazier talking to him about the comments to the Star Tribune implying that Rodgers considers himself bigger than the team:
"I was on the field. I was wondering where everybody was coming up with that. I was on the field and [Frazier] ran over to me and asked me what I said. That was really the gist of it. He said, `Keep it about our guys.' Literally, that was it. I don't really recall saying anything negative about Aaron or anyone over there, but, hey, I apologize."
About whether he called Rodgers to apologize:
"No. For what? I'm apologizing right now. If it got to him with [the media] right now, I feel if I apologize right here, he'll hear that, too. Will you make sure he hears that?"
About his relationship with the Packers:
"Seriously, those guys across that state line, I had an outstanding time with those guys. Everything I say, I'm joking. I'm messing. I'm pulling Aaron's arm. I mean if he doesn't know that or you guys don't know that, I played with the guy for seven years. I think he knows that.
"Mike [McCarthy], great coach. Again, these were guys who established my career. Guys I went to work with every single day and loved every single minute of it. But it was time. They made a business decision. I made a business decision. I wish them the best, except two games out of the year. I'll still watch those guys. A piece of me is still there. There is still some Greg over there. I put a lot of time in with those guys and no one can take that away, no matter what's done or what's said."
More about Rodgers:
"Aaron's a phenomenal quarterback. He knows that. No one needs to tell him that. What he's done over the course of the last five years? Phenomenal. He set the bar high for quarterbacks in this league. He set the bar high for offenses in this league. Everything I say is all out of fun. I'm just saying something just to say it. They know that's not me."
MANKATO -- Listening to Desmond Bishop speak, it's no wonder the Vikings have chosen to start him out at weakside linebacker as opposed to middle linebacker when training camp practices begin on Friday.
The middle linebacker has an important leadership and directional role on most defenses, and this one in particular. He sets the defense, makes adjustments and has to have a working knowledge of where many of his teammates are supposed to be.
And while Bishop is a talented veteran, he's also a guy who didn't sign with the Vikings until June 24. He missed all the OTAs, the mini-camp and every other bit of offseason instruction. That's not a good thing when one is switching from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 defense.
Other than his training camp roommate, Greg Jennings, whom Bishop knows from their six years together in Green Bay, and Chad Greenway, whom Bishop texted back and forth with a little the past month, Bishop met the rest of his teammates for the first time when he checked in at Mankato on Thursday.
"Right now, I'm just trying to remember all the names that are being thrown at me," Bishop said.
Coach Leslie Frazier announced earlier that Bishop would start out at the weak-side linebacker position. It came as somewhat of a surprise to many who assumed Bishop, who played inside in the Packers' 3-4, was brought in to play middle linebacker while Erin Henderson shifts back to his weak-side job. Henderson will stay in the middle in the base defense and in the nickel. At least for now.
"Because [Bishop] is coming in so late, what we're trying to do is get him up to speed on how we do things from a defensive standpoint," Frazier said. "We think the best way of getting that done is starting him on the outside."
Frazier also said that could change if the Vikings discover that outside linebacker is a bad fit for Bishop or if "we had trouble inside."
Frazier isn't anticipating outside linebacker giving Bishop a problem.
"One of the things I liked is he's a very good blitzer," Frazier said. "He has some good athletic ability. That's what we look for in our outside backers. Guys who have the ability to win one-on-one with halfbacks and fullbacks but yet they're good in coverage as well and can take on lead blockers. He's shown he can do that."
Bishop missed all of last season because of a torn hamstring suffered in the preseason. In 2011, he had 115 tackles and five sacks.
"I think I'll be fine," Bishop said. "I put myself through some rigorous workouts the past two or three months just to see where I'm at. It's nothing like actually putting the pads on and banging around, but I feel good."
Bishop also smiled when talking about switching to the 4-3. He had experience at all three 4-3 linebacker positions before current Packers' defensive coordinator Dom Campers came in and changed Green Bay to a 3-4 in 2009.
"I just recently switched to a 3-4 and everybody was asking, `How are you going to adjust to playing in the 3-4?'" Bishop said. "It's pretty simple. I think switching back to a 4-3 won't be too hard. I think it'll be all right."
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