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.
The Vikings coaching staff and front office are in the process of fully evaluating their roster as they plan for the opening of free agency in March as well as April’s NFL Draft. As General Manager Rick Spielman, head coach Leslie Frazier and their respective staffs put their heads together, the Access Vikings team is doing the same. We are in the middle of delivering snapshot evaluations of every position group. Today, we look at the defensive backfield.
Get excited: In his rookie season, safety Harrison Smith proved to be a legitimate difference maker. He was not only able to deliver the big hits on a regular basis but also frequently contributed the big play. Smith returned two interceptions for touchdowns – a 31-yarder against Arizona in Week 7 and a 56-yarder versus Chicago seven weeks later. Both of those pick-sixes came in 21-14 Vikings victories, in games in which Christian Ponder threw for fewer than 100 yards with the defense, consequentially, needing to deliver a game-changing play. Smith also had a hand in hand breaking up two passes that would have been Calvin Johnson touchdown catches in Week 4. The Vikings beat the Lions 20-13 in that game.
And just like that you can see how an upstart and hungry team saw its win total balloon to 10 in 2012. Quite simply, players like Smith delivered clutch contributions.
No, we’re not classifying Smith as the next Ronnie Lott or Troy Polamalu. He had tackling lapses at times and still has plenty of room to continue developing. But what the Vikings loved most about Smith heading into last spring’s draft – his knack for understanding the defense and routinely being in the right spot at the right time – showed up throughout the season.
For his size, Smith also moves with notable quickness and fluidity and he quickly earned the unabashed respect of the rest of the veterans on the defense.
Keep an eye on: When Chris Cook and Antoine Winfield are at full strength and on the field together, the Vikings’ secondary has an added edge. Even at 35, Winfield showed he can still be an impact corner, extraordinary in run support and capable of steadying the secondary overall. And Cook seems to have all the physical tools to be a valuable outside starter for years to come.
But then there’s this: over the past three seasons, Cook and Winfield have both started and finished only 22 regular season games together.
Cook has missed 26 games in his first three NFL seasons with a broken arm sidelining him for six contests this past season. As much potential as he has, staying available has been a major problem to this point and something the Vikings will need to keep tabs on as Cook enters the final year of his rookie deal.
As for Winfield? Head coach Leslie Frazier has made it very clear he’d love to have Winfield back in the mix in 2013, wanting to utilize his intelligence and leadership in a young secondary for as long as possible.
Winfield is one of the most adored and respected veterans in the locker room. As safety Mistral Raymond said at season’s end, “He’s probably one of the most talented guys I’ve ever been around. He’s smart. His heart is in it. Personally I hope he’ll be here next year. I’m hoping he’ll be here as long as he wants.”
Following the playoff loss in Green Bay earlier this month, Winfield vowed to return for a 15th NFL season. Still, even with that objective, you get the sense he hasn’t fully locked in his commitment to give things one last go-‘round.
“There are some things, of course, he wants to think about this offseason,” Frazier said. “But all indications are he wants to give it another try.”
Reason for worry: It sure seemed like the Vikings’ pass defense was worlds better in 2012 than it was in 2011. And statistically, they were improved across the board. But they were still a bottom-10 defense against the pass, allowing 244.2 yards per game, only 7 yards fewer than the 2011 defense surrendered. Quarterbacks also completed 63.9 percent of their passes against the Vikings this season, throwing 28 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions.
And even for the progress safeties Jamarca Sanford and Raymond made, the Vikings will need greater production from both players in 2013. Otherwise, Robert Blanton may quickly climb the depth chart.
Furthermore, given Winfield’s age plus Cook’s durability/availability issues, more will also be needed from cornerbacks A.J. Jefferson and Josh Robinson. Don’t be surprised if General Manager Rick Spielman eyes a few secondary upgrades in the draft and free agency.
GREEN BAY -- Joe Webb might get a chance to throw some passes for the Vikings after all this season.
Quarterback Christian Ponder was listed on the Vikings injury report as questionable because of an elbow injury, but team officials said all week they were confident Ponder would be ready for tonight's game against the Packers here at Lambeau Field.
The two quarterbacks will work out before the game, and an NFL source said "it's looking more likely" that Webb will start, meaning Ponder's elbow might not be ready.
No decision has been made yet.
With Ponder limited in practice all week, Webb has taken snaps with the offense and shouldn't be terribly uncomfortable if pressed into action.
Webb's only action this season has been a kneeldown in victory formation.
We'll have updates as the game nears.
As the Vikings prepare for Sunday’s game with Houston at Reliant Stadium, we asked John McClain, who covers the Texans and the NFL for the Houston Chronicle, to give us his up-close-and-personal scouting report. Here are four things you need to know …
1) Without one of the top four quarterbacks in NFL history, you might not beat the Texans this season.
Through 14 games, Houston has stumbled just twice. In Week 14, New England’s Tom Brady had no trouble handling Houston’s blitzes, throwing for 296 yards and four touchdowns to ignite a 42-14 Patriots blowout. Eight weeks earlier, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers lit the Texans up for 338 yards and six touchdown passes in a 42-24 Packers win.
Rodgers was nothing short of surgical in his dominance. Four of his TD tosses came against perfect coverage. Another came with a blitzer hitting him as he released the ball.
Both losses humbled Houston but did not cause panic.
“Those two losses weren’t pretty,” McClain said. “But when you take a step back, they ran into what I believe are two of the four greatest quarterbacks in history, both at the top of their games. I put Rodgers and Brady in that class along with Johnny Unitas and Joe Montana.”
Needless to say, Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder isn’t quite on that same list.
The Vikings will also be facing a Texans squad Sunday hungry to lock-up home field advantage throughout the playoffs, a goal the entire city has rallied behind.
“The road to the Super Bowl has never gone through Houston,” McClain said. “Going back to the ‘Luv Ya Blue’ era with Bum Phillips, Earl Campbell, Elvin Bethea, they never had home field and lost two AFC Championship games in Pittsburgh with the feeling that if ‘Well, had we played this game in the Astrodome we would have won.
“And then in the Run-and-Shoot Era with Jack Pardee, Warren Moon, Mike Munchak and Bruce Matthews in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, they went to the playoffs every year. But they never had the home-field advantage.”
“So two things we’re hearing about every day this week are home-field advantage and Adrian Peterson.”
2) Speaking of Peterson, the Texans may have the best chance of any defense this season to hold the Vikings star in check.
Houston ranks fifth in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing 93.2 yards per game. Obviously, the Texans have yet to face a back as explosive as Peterson. But having the ability to consistently lockdown against the run has been a big part of the team’s success.
Only two backs this year have topped 100 yards against Houston. In Week 4, Chris Johnson went for 141 yards on 25 carries. Last weekend, Indianapolis rookie Vick Ballard rushed for 105 yards.
With Houston blowing Tennessee out, Johnson got big chunks of his yardage on draw plays late in the game. Ballard, meanwhile, had 60 of his yards on one series in the third quarter last Sunday.
Even with linebacker Brian Cushing being lost for the season in Week 5 with a torn ACL, the Texans have remained sturdy up the middle of their defense with nose tackle Shaun Cody and linebackers Bradie James and Darryl Sharpton playing well.
“This is the game Cushing would have helped the most,” McClain said. “He would have covered Peterson on pass routes. He would have been the guy between the tackles. This would be the time they’d really need Cushing to try to contain Peterson. Because overall, they’re just in awe of him.”
3) J.J. Watt is as good as advertised. Maybe even better.
Consider this. McClain has been covering professional football since the mid 1970s and he’s certain he’s never seen a more dominant season from a defensive player than the one Watt’s having.
Pick whatever stat you’d like, it’s bound to shed light on Watt’s dominance. He has 19.5 sacks, 38 quarterback hits and 15 pass deflections. He has also forced three fumbles and recovered two. Plus, he’s a beats against the run.
“Coupled with having the talent, he’s very coachable,” McClain said. “He takes coaching and has really learned. And then on top of that, he has that high motor. It just doesn’t stop.”
Five of Watt’s deflections have led to interceptions with his combination of strength, effort and timing paying off.
“He’s become very good at kind of pushing off and jumping,” McClain said. “Not just leaping but pushing back a couple of steps and jumping. He’s so quick about it that nobody’s been able to stop it so far.”
4) Receiver Andre Johnson is back on the top of his game.
Hamstring issues in both legs hindered Johnson in 2011. A groin issue slowed him some early this season.
Back in early October, following a four-game slump in which Johnson totaled nine catches for 164 yards, doubt began to creep in on whether his dominance had disappeared.
Yet since Week 6, Johnson has been back to his old self.
“Everybody was thinking, this guy turned 31, hit the wall and couldn’t play anymore,” McClain said. “But he didn’t say very much, kept at it. And now he’s on a rampage over the last nine games in which he’s averaging 8.4 catches and 119.6 yards [per contest].”
Johnson’s has 43 career games with at least 100 receiving yards and his 16 career games with at least 10 receptions and 100 yards are the most in NFL history, tied with New England’s Wes Welker.
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