Chip Scoggins is a Star Tribune sports columnist. He has temporarily returned to cover the Minnesota Vikings. He had the beat from 2008-2011 after covering college football for five years. Chip has been with the Star Tribune since January 2000. He can be followed on twitter at @chipscoggins.Find Chip on Facebook.
Mark Craig has covered football and the NFL the past 20 years, including the Browns from 1991-95 and the Vikings and the NFL since 2003. Since 2008, Craig has served as one of the 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. He can be followed on Twitter at @markcraignfl.
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.
Once again, Leslie Frazier's support of quarterback Christian Ponder was unwavering.
"He's our starter," the Vikings head coach said today during his final press conference of the 2013 season.
As for the team's plans for No. 2 QB Joe Webb and No. 3 QB McLeod Bethel-Thompson, well, the support from the top of the Purple coaching tree was polite, but far from unwavering.
"[Webb will] be a guy that will compete for the No. 2 spot again next year, barring something that we may end up doing in our personnel meetings," Frazier said. "But we'll discuss Joe's position and everyone's position in our personnel meetings and then we'll make a decision what's best."
Asked about Bethel-Thompson's status as the No. 3 QB and the possibility that a veteran could be brought in to be the the No. 2 while Webb fills the No. 3 job, Frazier said, "It's so hard to say just two days after our season. ... Our roster is going to change. All of us in this building who've been around this league as long as we have know that. It's hard today to say that Bethel's going to be No. 3 until we see how the roster unfolds."
Webb played only three snaps during the regular season and didn't attempt a pass. Bethel-Thompson was inactive for all 16 games. But they moved up the pecking order when deep bruising on the triceps and elbow of Ponder's throwing arm kept him from playing in Saturday night's 24-10 wild-card playoff loss at Green Bay.
Webb played the whole game and was, well, awful. Trailing the Packers 24-3 after three quarters, Webb had completed 7 of 20 passes for 61 yards, an interception and a 23.1 passer rating.
"Yeah, it was a tough day for Joe," Frazier said. "Tough day all the way around. Put in a tough situation having to go start a playoff game in that environment against a good football team. We still have a lot of confidence in Joe. We understand the circumstances he played in."
Meanwhile, Frazier was clear-cut in his feelings about Ponder being the team's long-term answer at quarterback.
"We're excited about his progress," Frazier said. "The way he played down the stretch, he was great. He had a lot to do with us winning those last four games the way we did. It's unfortunate he wasn't able to play that last ballgame up at Lambeau. He wanted to play. He tried everything he could to get on the field. It just wouldn't have been a wise decision to put him out there with the injury that he had. Just didn't get the flexion back in that tricep. But he did everything in his powers to get out there. His rehab, his work ethic was tremendous. So we're pleased with the progress that he's made.
"We saw glimpses of what he can bring to our football team and the way he led us down the stretch, you feel like you've got a chance to win every game when your quarterback plays the way he played. So we're excited about his development and looking forward to him getting better this offseason."
Kluwe to have surgery on left knee: Punter Chris Kluwe, who spent several weeks on the injury report with a left knee injury, will have surgery to repair the meniscus, Frazier said. Defensive end Jared Allen will have shoulder surgery after the Pro Bowl. Special teamer Tyrone McKenzie (shoulder), cornerback Antoine Winfield (hand) and quarterback Christian Ponder (right triceps, elbow) won't require surgery, while running back Adrian Peterson's abdominal injury will be evaluated after the Pro Bowl. Peterson battled the injury down the stretch and left the Houston game early with it , but only after the Vikings had full control of the game.
Singletary, Priefer to interview with the Bears: Frazier confirmed reports that linebackers coach and special assistant to the head coach Mike Singletary and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer are among the 13 candidates who have been asked to interview for the Bears' vacant head coaching position. Singletary, who played his Hall of Fame career in Chicago, and Priefer, whose NFL coaching career began in 2002 in Jacksonville, joined the Vikings in 2011. Singletary was the 49ers' head coach from the final nine games in 2008 until the 15th game of the 2010 season.
Frazier said he would like to keep this year's coaching staff intact for next season.
"I mentioned earlier that our coaches did a great job getting our players ready to play every week," he said. "Barring someone getting a promotion, I'm hoping all our guys are back. They did a terrific job throughout the season."
Evaluating the season: Frazier obviously was disappointed to see the season end after the first round of the playoffs. But he's also encouraged because, well, you know, all the rest of us thought they'd win six games, max.
"The foundation has really been set for our team without question," Frazier said. "Our core identity showed up. The traits that we talked about throughout the year, about being a tough, smart, disciplined football team were exemplified through this group of young men."
What about that contract extension, Leslie?: Frazier, whose contract expires after next season, is expected to receive an extension soon. Asked if he's talked to ownership about a contract extension, he said: "I haven’t had a chance to talk with them at this point. These last 48 hours in the building have been meeting with players and talking with them about the future and so on, and some other things in their lives. But eventually we will talk and not worried about it. Things will work out just fine. Not worried at all."
Asked if his agent, Bob Lamonte, has spoken with ownership, Frazier said: "Not at this point. But we will have those discussions.”
The biggest surprise of the first day of the NFL playoffs came 90 minutes before the Vikings kicked off at Lambeau Field. That’s when 16-game starter Christian Ponder was declared inactive, too bothered by a stiff and bruised throwing arm to get the green light for Saturday’s game.
Like the rest of the country, many of the Vikings players said they had no idea Joe Webb would be their starting quarterback until they were inside of 2 hours before kickoff.
“I didn’t know at all,” cornerback Antoine Winfield said. “Until I saw Joe out there warming up. That’s when I knew.”
It was a late twist that left the Vikings handicapped for their playoff opener, a 24-10 loss to the Packers.
Having not thrown a pass in a game since August, Webb sputtered to an 11-for-30, 180-yard passing night. He also threw an interception and lost a fumble in the third quarter. And after scoring a field goal on the opening drive, the Vikings went nine scoreless possessions before adding a late meaningless touchdown.
As for the mental hurdle of trying to ready for a high-stakes playoff contest with such a late change in plans, Jared Allen simply shrugged.
“Honestly,” he said, “I don’t think there was a mental hurdle for us. When you find out, you have to go with it. There are no surprises in this league. People go down, the next guy’s got to step up. You can’t sit around like, ‘Oh, goodness!’ You’ve got to give that guy your full support and go out there and try to win the game.”
Allen pinned the blame of Saturday’s loss on a defensive effort that allowed 326 total yards and 24 points and not on the late quarterback switch.
“When you hear that [news], you just keep your mind focused on what you can do,” Allen said. “I can’t throw the ball. I can’t hand it off. So it doesn’t matter what they do over there. So if I can tackle guys and get to the quarterback, I’m doing my part.”
Receiver Michael Jenkins, who had two catches for 66 yards including a late 50-yard TD grab on busted coverage, also admitted surprise at the quarterback decision.
“We didn’t know until game time like everybody else,” Jenkins said. “But [Joe] prepared all week like he was going to be the starter. And he did everything he could. We just weren’t efficient as we could have been on offense trying to win the game.”
Counting to 12
Jasper Brinkley might have been the Viking caught sprinting to the sideline when the field goal block unit was flagged for having 12 men in the huddle in the third quarter. But Brinkley wasn’t the one at fault. Instead, he was designated to count the Vikings on the field, a role that requires him to sprint off if there are too many out there.
“We needed to get one of our defensive ends off the field,” said coach Leslie Frazier. “We had two defensive ends on the field that play the same position.”
That penalty was arguably the most costly of the four flags the Vikings drew Saturday night. It came on fourth-and-4 with Green Bay’s Mason Crosby lining up for a 32-yard field goal. Instead, the Packers received a first down at the Vikings 9 and completed the drive on the next play with a 9-yard TD catch by John Kuhn.
Allen was miffed at the 12 men in the huddle call, under the impression the ball had to be snapped for the defense to be penalized in that situation.
Said Allen: “The refs said that was a new rule this year. Because I don’t know how a defense ever has 12 men in the huddle. We don’t huddle. … So that was news to me. I guess I should let the refs explain it. I really didn’t want to hear it. So I was just like, ‘See ya.’”
Cornerback Antoine Winfield fought through the pain in his fractured right hand as best he could Saturday. Winfield started and never aggravated the injury but admitted afterward the sturdier soft cast he wore to protect the hand made it more difficult to jam receivers.
“The way my hand was in the cast, it wouldn’t bend all the way back,” Winfield said. “So my hand placement was kind of off.”
Winfield, 35, has now completed his 14th season in the league and has one year left on his contract. He said he certainly plans to be back in 2013.
“Without a doubt,” he said. “I’ve got to get 15 in. That’s a good number.”
Quotes of note
Here’s Vikings coach Leslie Frazier on the pride he had in this season’s 10-win campaign: “The effort they gave every single week over the course of this season, including tonight. These guys never let anyone put limitations on what they could achieve. They played as hard as they could and tried to do the very best they could to give us a chance to win. And I told them that after the game. We are all extremely proud of every one of them.
And here’s Frazier on the skills in Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers he admires: “He’s a very accurate passer on the run. That’s the thing that sticks out. When you get him moving around like you want to, he has the ability to make throws on the run. [That] creates a lot of problems for your defense. Because guys end up uncovered even when you get a good pass rush. It just creates a lot of problems, his ability to throw as well as he does on the run.”
Quarterback Christian Ponder is listed as questionable for the Vikings-Packers game tomorrow because of his sore right elbow. Ponder had limited participation in practice all week.
Cornerback Antoine Winfield is also questionable because of his broken right hand.
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said Thursday that he expected both to play.
Tyrone McKenzie, one of the team's top special teams player, is out because of an injured shoulder.
Listed as probable are running back Adrian Peterson (abdomen), safety Harrison Smith (knee), defensive end Brian Robison (shoulder), defensive end Jared Allen (shoulder), cornerback A.J. Jefferson (ankle), defensive end George Johnson (quadriceps), punter Chris Kluwe (left, or non-kicking, knee) and right tackle Phil Loadholt (knee).
Update: For the Packers, defensive end Jerel Worthy (knee) and wide reciever Jarrett Boykin (ankle) are out, and running back James Starks (knee) is questionable.
Cornerback Charles Woodson returns from a broken collarbone and is probable, as are wide receiver Jordy Nelson (knee), receiver/kick returner Randall Cobb (ankle) and running back Alex Green (hip).
Out means a player has no chance of playing (unless he's Brett Favre). Questionable is 50 percent chance. Probable is virtual certainty he will play.
As the Vikings prepare for Saturday’s playoff showdown with Green Bay at Lambeau Field, we asked Tyler Dunne, who covers the Packers for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, to give us his up-close-and-personal scouting report. Here are four things you need to know …
1) The Packers will welcome two key contributors back to the field – one on offense, one on defense.
After missing last Sunday’s game with an ankle injury, receiver Randall Cobb has been back at practice all week and progressing nicely, likely to start Saturday night and eager to add some pop to the Packers offense.
On the other side of the ball, defensive back Charles Woodson, a 15th-year veteran, seems likely to return after a nine-game absence due to a broken collarbone.
So which return is more important?
Cobb was Aaron Rodgers’ top target during the regular season, registering 80 catches for 954 yards with eight TD catches.
“The Vikings had a little bit of success blitzing Rodgers last week,” Dunne said. “He wasn’t lights out like he usually is against that. But I’d have to think having Cobb back in the slot and on the same page, that’s a big cure for that. And it’s been a long time since we’ve seen the Packers offense with both Cobb and Greg Jennings together, both at full strength, playing their best. That’s a big deal.”
As for Woodson, his last action came on Oct. 21 in St. Louis. With the Packers having significant confidence in a young secondary that includes Casey Hayward, M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian, Woodson’s veteran presence isn’t mandatory but should help. His versatility allows defensive coordinator Dom Capers to unleash his impressive creativity as well.
“As good as those young guys have been, they all had key errors in that game last week,” Dunne said. “So there’s definitely room for Woodson.”
Now it remains to be seen just how extensive a role Woodson will be able to take on, his conditioning certainly lessened due to his extended absence.
“They seem pretty confident that he can jump right in and be a difference maker,” Dunne said. “But you’d have to think there will be some type of transition.”
2) Green Bay’s defense still has no answers for Adrian Peterson.
If at first you don’t succeed, try try again. And if you don’t succeed then? Well, that’s the predicament the Packers seem to be in after allowing Peterson to run for 409 yards in two regular season games. Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy continues to insist that his defensive players simply need to do a better job of tackling to slow Peterson. But that’s an easy request for a coach with a headset to make. For the guys absorbing Peterson’s shoulder blows and stiff arms and ridiculous power, the challenge is elevated.
“The Packers can say all the right things around here,” Dunne said. “But you’d have to think that Adrian Peterson, to some degree, has gotten in their heads a little bit. How in the heck do you stop this guy? And what’s even more confusing is that their tackling has been better this season. They did shutdown Arian Foster [29 yards on 17 carries] and Chris Johnson [11 for 28]. They did a pretty good job with Marshawn Lynch [25-98]. Yet, for whatever reason, Peterson owns them.”
Peterson’s 199 yards Sunday came with the Packers devising a decent game plan designed to keep the star running back inside. Still, the yards just kept coming.
“He was chipping away, chipping away,” Dunne said. “That has to be a concern. It seemed like the Packers had a good game plan and guys in position to make stops all game long. And still, they couldn’t do it. So now what?”
3) As good as Peterson is, reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers was at the top of his game last Sunday as well.
During one break in the action, Peterson and Rodgers stopped to talk with one another, both offering sincere praise of the other as the best in the game at their position. So, see, it’s not just the fans who recognized the legendary qualities of Peterson and Rodgers last weekend.
Troubling for Rodgers in last week’s loss: Green Bay’s slow start. The Packers punted on their first three possessions, allowing the Vikings to build confidence and a 13-0 lead.
“Some of that is an offensive line getting comfortable and being able to make calls in a tough environment on the road,” Dunne said. “Similar things happened at Detroit, at Seattle. Sometimes on the road, it’s been a little rocky at the start of games just getting assignments down and knowing who blocks who and getting into a rhythm for everybody. But once they figured that out, they got on a roll.”
Not troubling for Rodgers: he found his groove eventually leading six scoring drives on the Packers’ final seven possessions. Green Bay probably would have won last week’s game had they had the ball last, especially with Rodgers in a zone and picking apart a Vikings’ secondary that lost Antoine Winfield to a hand injury late in the first half. Rodgers threw for 318 of his 365 yards after Winfield’s exit.
“That was as good as they’ve looked in a really long time,” Dunne said. “And after Winfield went out, the Packers went after [Marcus] Sherels. They were just attacking him for big chunks.”
The Packers offense also got a notable boost last week from 24-year-old running back DuJuan Harris, who had 70 yards on 14 carries. Signed to the practice squad in October and later promoted, the diminutive Harris didn’t see his first action until Week 14 as he became the next man up in an injury-ravaged Green Bay backfield. His effort last Sunday was impressive.
“The Packers have a lot more trust and confidence in the guy,” Dunne said. “And his running style is just a little different than everybody else. Ryan Grant is so good on those stretch plays where he can press the hole and cut upfield when something’s there. Alex Green is more of a spread offense kind of back. Harris just gets it and goes. He’s a north-south tough runner.”
4) It’s not just the Vikings trying to vanquish the bad memories of their last playoff game.
For the Vikings, a 31-28 overtime loss to New Orleans in the 2009 NFC Championship game doesn’t require revisiting. It was 236 different kinds of painful. And Saturday will be their first playoff game since.
Green Bay’s last playoff game? A 37-20 home loss last January to the Giants, filled with uncharacteristic errors and providing a galling conclusion to a season in which the Pack went 15-1 during the regular season.
“That was a strange game, especially for the offense,” Dunne said. “They had three fumbles all year and then three fumbles in that game. They rarely dropped passes all year then dropped a ton of passes in that game. With the season on the line and so much at stake, everybody just fell apart, crumbled, played bad. That’s where the sting remains. They just weren’t themselves when it mattered most.”
The emotional scars of that loss won’t impact Saturday’s game with the Vikings much if at all. But certainly it provides motivation and a reminder of capitalizing on postseason opportunities as much as possible.
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