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.
Coach Leslie Frazier downplayed the significance of the team's decision to work out Brian Stahovich and other free agent punters just five days after Chris Kluwe's poor performance helped put the Vikings in an early 10-0 hole en route to 36-17 loss to Tampa Bay at Mall of America Field.
"We worked out some different guys [Tuesday]," Frazier said. "We worked out some linemen, some punters. We worked out a defensive back over the weekend. We worked out different positions. It's something we'll do throughout the season. We'll probably bring in some guys next week as well.
"[General Manager] Rick [Spielman] and the personnel department do a great job of just helping us to have a rolodex of players that could be avialable if we have an injury or something else occurs. It's something that will we ongoing for us through the year, bringing in guys. We've always done that."
Kluwe has been one of the best punters in team history since signing as a free agent in 2005. Thursday was one of the worst performances of his career. He averaged just 37.8 yards on six punts. His second punt was a 20-yard shank out of bounds. The Bucs got the ball at their 42-yard line and turned the short field into a field goal
"Chris is a pro," Frazier said. "He'll figure this out. Between [special teams coordinator] Mike Priefer and our staff, he'll come through it. He's been in this league for awhile now. He knows how to look at himself and look at tape and figure things out. Mike always does a great job with him so he'll get through this."
Frazier said he doesn't think Kluwe's political activism has anything to do with Thursday's poor performance on national prime-time television.
"He's been able to deal with so many things in his career," Frazier said. "He's able to focus in these situations on the task at hand. He's been a very good punter, which he is. So I don't think anything off the field is distracting him. He knows how to focus on his job. We fully expect him to have a big game for us on Sunday."
Kluwe said the team's decision to work out punters doesn't bother him.
"That's the way the NFL is run," he said. "It's nothing personal. If they feel I'm not performing my job, they will find someone who can.
"I just approach each week the same way. That I'm going to try and do the best job possible. The way I've always approached this job is I will be cut if I don't perform. There's no extra incentive there because that's the way I've always viewed it."
Kluwe said his problem Thursday is easily correctable.
"I'm just going too fast and not letting myself get situated with my drop," Kluwe said. "So that leads to an inconsistent drop and just not hitting the ball well. Just try to slow myself down and not rush myself and just hit the ball the way I know I can hit it.
"It's just correcting some minor things and then going out and hitting the ball consistently well, which I've been able to do for quite a while now. I just have to start doing it again."
Despite Frazier's attempt to downplay the significance, Kluwe said he knows why they worked out punters.
"The main problem is you can't have a 20-yard punt in the first quarter on a long field against a team and give them momentum like that," he said. "That can't happen in the NFL. I just have to have better punt there."
Kluwe also was asked for his reaction to the outcry via Twitter and elsewhere that he "just focus on football" rather than choose to be such an outspoken proponent of gay marriage rights.
"Generally, I just ignore them," Kluwe said. "I read all of them, but I don't really think about them. The funny thing is if you look at that argument, the basic foundation of that argument is why don't you worry more about a children's game than basic human rights. Yeah, generally I'm going to go with the basic human rights on that issue."
Frazier still mulling cornerback decision: The assumption is cornerback Chris Cook's broken arm will force the Vikings to move Josh Robinson from nickel back to starter and A.J. Jefferson from dime back to nickel back. Hold on a second, says Frazier, who won't make that call until the end of the week.
Asked what he was looking for from the Cook and Jefferson, Frazier said, "The consistency in practice and who grasps the game plan the best and gives us the best chance at this stage of the season to go out and be effective at the cornerback position opposite Antoine [Winfield]."
Frazier said the coaches are leaning one way, although he wouldn't say which way.
"We have an idea of what direction we want to go," he said. "But we have to see how it goes in practice the next couple of days."
Vikings still have roster opening: The Vikings still haven't filled the roster spot that's been open since they put Cook on injured reserve on Friday. Frazier was asked if the team is waiting to make a move until Thursday's 3 p.m. trade deadline.
"It's different factors, without giving too much [information] away," Frazier said. "You want to do everything you can. I know [General Manager] Rick [Spielman] and our personnel department is doing everything we can to improve our team. You want to exhaust all avenues in doing that."
In other news:
At the end of an intense and frustrating Thursday night at Mall of America Field, the Vikings didn’t try to sugarcoat their 36-17 loss to Tampa Bay.
It was a home stumble with so many flaws that the first step to recovery will require an honest self-
“You can’t lay an egg like that at home the way we did,” linebacker Chad Greenway said in a glum Vikings locker room. “It’s unfathomable that it would happen like that.”
Added coach Leslie Frazier: “We didn’t play up to our standards.”
Maybe these Vikings weren’t quite ready for prime time. Perhaps they don’t deserve status as a serious contender in the NFC playoff picture.
It sure seemed that way Thursday, particularly through a first half in which the run defense was gashed, the second-year quarterback was booed and even the star running back had trouble taking care of the ball.
Just like that, the Vikings found themselves in a 30-10 third-quarter hole, unable to match Tampa Bay on either side of the ball.
For one night anyway, the Buccaneers were the much better team and their highlights were many.
First and foremost, there was the dazzling running of Doug Martin, an emerging rookie out of Boise State who shredded the Vikings defense with his power, quickness and assertiveness on his way to 214 total yards and two touchdowns.
Martin broke the game open early in the second half with a 64-yard touchdown catch on a screen pass, a huge play on which he burst past Greenway and left at least three defensive backs in his wake.
All night long, Martin gave the Vikings headaches, the third player in three weeks to top 100 yards on the ground against the Vikings.
“He just runs hard,” safety Harrison Smith said. “He’s a complete back. He runs it, he can catch it. He’s a power back. But he has some moves too. He has some speed. He’s an impressive player.”
Yet there was also the hustle of 16th-year veteran Ronde Barber, who stripped Adrian Peterson late in the first half, creating a turnover that Tampa Bay quickly turned into a touchdown.
And that score was a thing of beauty itself, a 3-yard catch by Mike Williams on a fade in which he leapt above rookie cornerback Josh Robinson to grab the ball, then tapped both feet down inbounds in the back of the end zone.
If Tampa Bay came to the Twin Cities to prove it was much better than its 2-4 record, it succeeded.
The Bucs arrived on a hot streak offensively. They totaled 976 yards of offense in their previous two games. Against the Vikings, they amassed 416 yards with Martin’s big night complemented nicely by quarterback Josh Freeman (19-for-36, 262 yards, three touchdowns) and Williams (six catches, 68 yards).
Tampa Bay’s final touchdown drive was a 16-play, 87-yard submission hold that ate up more than 9 minutes of clock.
“We had to get off the field if we were going to do anything,” Greenway said. “We knew that.”
So now the Vikings hit the season’s midpoint at 5-3 and get nine days to sort through their shortcomings.
Offensively, it’s hard to find fault in the efforts of playmakers Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin.
Peterson rushed for 123 yards Thursday to shoot into the NFL lead. He also delivered his longest run of the season, a 64-yard TD sprint that pulled the Vikings within 30-17 in the third quarter.
Meanwhile Harvin (seven catches, 90 yards) had provided earlier fireworks, most notably with his diving 18-yard touchdown catch on a perfectly run corner route in the second quarter.
So naturally the conversation shifts to Christian Ponder’s struggles and an unsatisfactory October that included eight turnovers and far too many discouraging drives.
Ponder misfired on his first five pass attempts against Tampa Bay as the Vikings went three-and-out on their first three possessions. Ponder wound up throwing for 251 yards against a sputtering Tampa Bay defense that came in ranked 31st against the pass.
But without question, there’s been an offensive confidence dip that will have to be addressed.
“Our passing game has to improve,” Frazier said. “I mean, it’s hard to just continue to try to pound it. There are going to be games where you’ve got to throw it.”
Somehow, Thursday’s loss had an ominous feel to it, as if the Vikings’ early-season surge was exposed as somewhat hollow.
They now enter the teeth of their schedule with a difficult challenge to prove otherwise.
In his 12-year career, outside linebacker Matt Blair was named to six straight Pro Bowls, was an all-Pro once. He played in two Super Bowls.
In honor of that career the Vikings will induct Blair into the team’s Ring of Honor at halftime of Thursday’s game with Tampa Bay at Mall of America Field.
But when Vikings coach Leslie Frazier introduced Blair to reporters Monday, his main message was thanking Blair for helping the team win this year. Seems Frazier likes to have former Vikings standouts talk to the team before training camp starts. Last year it was Jim Marshall, this year Blair.
“He talked to players about visualizing success,” Frazier said of Blair. “And he talked to them about not getting caught up in the past, but just focusing on the moment. And that really was something that was a part of our approach with our team. And so, without me even talking to him about what direction I wanted to take our team in that first meeting, it was so apropos to listen to him talk about success and visualizing success.’’
Blair’s message was about players putting all their emphasis on preparation so that execution becomes nearly second nature. “It takes your entire heart to make it happen,” Blair said.
Blair related a story about a game against the St. Louis Cardinals during his rookie season. He made a few mistakes covering Cards tight end Jackie Smith and was benched. But coach Bud Grant put him back on the field to start the second half. “After the game Bud was asked ‘What did Matt Blair bring to the game?’ And Bud said, ‘Lack of experience.’ From that day on I decided I need to do a little bit more. And that’s what it’s all about.”
When asked what his induction into the Ring of Honor meant, Blair got a bit emotional.
“It’s very humbling to be put in with great players – the Tarkentons, the Ellers, the Carters, the Marshalls, the Grants, those guys are just legendary.’’
One of the highlights of Sunday’s defensive effort, according to Frazier, was the pressure the team was able to get from the front four without having to resort to blitzing. It was encouraging, even though the injury-plagued Arizona offensive line has struggled.
“I don’t know if we’ve done it that effectively without blitzing,” said Frazier of the Vikings seven-sack effort. Of those, a career-high three came from end Brian Robison, two from end Jared Allen and one from tackle Kevin Williams. “In the past we probably would have mixed in a little more pressure than we did (Sunday). That was our goal, to go into this game and be able to generate a pass rush without having to bring five or six guys, and our D-line stepped up to the challenge. They dominated just like we hoped they would and really took a lot of pressure off our secondary.”
Through Sunday’s games the Vikings ranked third in the NFC with 22 sacks, with Allen tied for eighth individually with six.
Frazier said not having to blitz allowed the rest of the defense to concentrate on slowing receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Jr., who wound up with four catches.
ON SECOND THOUGHT…
Frazier admitted that he probably would do things differently if he had the final moments of Sunday’s first half to do over.
The Vikings decided to go for a field goal rather than take a knee late in the half. The result was a Christian Ponder interception. The Cardinals missed a field goal as the first half expired.
“Looking back on it, it probably wasn’t the wisest thing to do,” Frazier said. “We probably could have went in at the half and taken that 14-7 lead and say, ‘Hey, let’s just start the second half.’ ‘’
SMITH STAYS AGGRESSIVE
Vikings safety Harrison Smith is learning how to play aggressively without going over the line and incurring the fines he’s had to deal with this season.
“Sometimes when you get fined as often as he’s gotten fined in these first seven games, it can tip your emotions and make you start playing a little tentatively,” Frazier said. “That hasn’t been the case with him. He’s been aggressive. He’s still in tune with everything we’re trying to get done. He doesn’t seem to be sidetracked by anything that happened. … He’s a bright guy, and very, very athletic. But his maturity, not letting stuff hang onto him that can be negative, it’s impressive.”
Smith turned his first career interception into his first touchdown Sunday, a score that gave the Vikings a 21-7 lead early in the third quarter.
“That’s just how I’ve always tried to be on and off the field,” Smith said. “Just learn from your mistakes, but at the end of the day, I’m not going to try to slow down my play or play softer. I’m just going to try and play within the rules and play at a high tempo.”
NOT HIS CALL
Frazier was asked if the short turn-around time between Sunday’s victory and Thursday’s game with Tampa Bay put players at further risk for injury.
He was definitely not going there.
“Touchy area, there,” he said. “That’s a bigger call than coach Frazier standing here at the podium. We do what we’re told to do. We got a game on Thursday night, we’ve got to get prepared to play that game.”
Still, the short time to prepare will make this a different week. The players had the day off Monday. The team will get one full practice in Tuesday, then have the traditional walk-through on Wednesday. The coaches have to get the team ready to play while at the same time allowing players to get over the bumps and bruises of Sunday’s game.
“You have to really be smart in your preparation of how you’re going to get it done without overtaxing them mentally, but yet getting them where they need to be physically to go out and play,” Frazier said.
--Running back Adrian Peterson’s sore ankle came out of Sunday’s game OK. Frazier said Peterson was sore, but less so than he was a week ago. It remains to be seen how much Peterson will practice this week.
--Vikings tight end John Carlson, who left Sunday’s game with concussion-like symptoms, probably will not play Thursday, Frazier said. “We will have to take him through the protocol over the next few days, and in a short week, we don’t expect him make it,” he said. Other than that, there were various bumps and bruises, but nothing Frazier said would keep a player out of the game.
The players had Monday off. But the team was required to post an injury report given the proximity to the game. So, had the Vikings practiced today, Peterson (ankle), Allen (groin), CB Antoine Winfield (knee) Carlson (concussion) and T Matt Kalil (low back) would not have participated; S Mistral Raymond (ankle) and Smith (calf) would have had limited participation; and S Robert Blanton (hamstring), LB Marvin Mitchell (calf), QB Christian Ponder (knee), RB Matt Asiata (knee) and DT Fred Evans (knee) would have fully participated.
The Vikings have received a bit of good news on the severity of Mistral Raymond's ankle injury. At this afternoon's press conference at Winter Park, head coach Leslie Frazier revealed that an x-ray on Raymond's right ankle did not reveal a fracture. Frazier still called the injury "significant" noting that Raymond suffered a severe bone bruise and what is believed to be a subluxation (dislocation) of the ankle.
The second-year safety suffered the injury on the final play of the first quarter Sunday, his foot turning awkwardly as he tried to plant and tackle 49ers running back Frank Gore. Raymond was immediately carted off the field and was in the locker room following the Vikings' 24-13 win using crutches to get around with his right ankle in a cast.
The initial fears were that Raymond might need surgery and be lost for the season. That, Frazier said, is not the case.
"It doesn't look like we're going to have to put him on [injured reserve]," Frazier said. "But he will miss some time. For sure. But no high ankle sprain. So just good news all the way around. It looked as if might be something that may require surgery. That's not going to be the case."
Frazier said that Raymond will need to see a specialist for further examination before the Vikings can get a concrete determination on the minimum amount of time Raymond will be out.
Jamarca Sanford replaced Raymond on Sunday and will be the starter alongside Harrison Smith going forward.
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