Dan Wiederer began covering the Vikings in 2011, enthusiastically delivering insight on the team across the Star Tribune's print and digital products. Prior to joining the Access Vikings team, he spent seven seasons covering ACC basketball at The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer. He also covered the Chicago Bears in 2003 and 2004. Follow him on Twitter @StribDW.
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.
With their first playoff appearance since 2009, the Vikings have had ample opportunity this week to reflect on the catalysts of their impressive turnaround this season. With so many players showing notable growth, it’d take awhile to complete a full roll call. But Jared Allen delivers an unsolicited shout out to safety Jamarca Sanford, whose whose behind-the-scenes push to get better this season has been underrated.
Said Allen: “I’ve seen [him] different, in his preparation and his attitude and his focus of where he wants to go. Last year he was out there for us, and he had the potential to make big hits. This year he’s been an impact player on our defense.”
Sanford is proud of his maturation. After losing his starting job to Mistral Raymond in training camp, he was forced back into a leading role after Raymond dislocated his ankle in Week 3. Sanford played so well in the six games Raymond missed that he earned the opportunity to keep starting with the two safeties splitting time over the final seven games.
Sanford credits veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield with teaching him how to be a more complete player.
“Like I tell a lot of people, last year was my first year starting,” Sanford said. “And I was just really happy to be out there, still shocked that I’m in the NFL and I’m starting. And I was just out there on my natural ability. This year, I’ve gone up a level. This league isn’t about how athletic you are, it’s how smart you are. How well can you study film and break a team down. When you know stuff that’s going to happen before it happens, it’s incredible. I learned a lot from Antoine. And the thing I put in my mind this offseason is that I’ve never been the weak link of whatever part of the team I’m on. I want to be at my best for what I do or at least live up to the standards of the guys around me. And one thing about this defense here, you can’t be the weak link. They’ll find someone else to do your job.”
Sanford shared a few other thoughts with the Star Tribune this week. Among the more notable …
On what was going on beneath the pile when he recovered a third quarter Aaron Rodgers fumble last week …
“Under that pile, there’s a lot going on. You might get a little punch in the side, some pinching. Guys crawling trying to get to the ball. I was making sure we came out of there with that ball. Luckily we did. That was a big-time turnover at a critical time. I had it at first and then it bounced out of my arm. It was really a struggle under the pile. Eventually, I heard Everson yelling, ‘I got ya! I got ya! I got ya!’ At first, it was and somebody else had it halfway. But Everson was under there pulling off arms. And by the time he pulled that guy’s arm, I finally got total control of it and it was time to get up.”
On carrying Adrian Peterson off the field after Sunday’s win …
“That adrenaline was pumping. Adrian deserved that. I wanted him to know our appreciation. After the season he had, he deserved to be carried off. Like I said, my adrenaline was pumping. And when I did set him down, I was pretty tired. He’s pretty heavy. … This is a legend right in front of your eyes. I’ve heard of the great backs of all-time – Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson, all the greats. To see one with my own eyes is special. … When A.D. is running, he’s just different. He plays like a guy on defense. He’s always loose. And if you hit him hard one time, you have to come back and do it again the whole game. Some backs, you hit them in the mouth one time, they start tiptoeing. Not Adrian. He just keeps coming.”
On whether he still communicates with close friend Percy Harvin, who has been absent from the Vikings’ facility since being put on injured reserve in early December …
“Percy and me are always texting. I’m making sure he’s still good, keeping his head up and reminding him to be ready to come back strong next year. He loves the success we’re having. He tells me he’s really proud of us. I know it was hard for him [to go on I.R.] He wants to be with this team, helping this team win. But unluckily he got hurt. That’s part of the game. So all he can do is sit back and watch. He just has to be ready to recover from that injury and be ready for next year.”
The Vikings seems to have little doubt that veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield will play Saturday night in Green Bay. But even if Winfield can start, there’s no guarantee he’ll be able to finish, still dealing with a fractured right hand that is significantly swollen and grew so painful Sunday that he left the game for good in the second quarter.
Marcus Sherels supplanted Winfield as the slot corner thereafter and may still be the Vikings’ most likely option there if Winfield can’t play or is limited this weekend. But defensive coordinator Alan Williams admitted that he is shuffling things around in practice this week and has tried everyone from Josh Robinson to A.J. Jefferson to a few of the team’s safeties as the Vikings look for reinforcements to their passing defense.
Reflections of …
When the Vikings left Green Bay at 6-6 following a Week 13 loss to the Packers, most outsiders figured it would be a longshot for the Vikings to win out and reach the playoffs. Jared Allen? He thought back to 2008 when the Vikings were 5-5 and in a crowded NFC North race yet won five of their final six to reach the postseason.
Said Allen: “You start looking around your team and realizing, hey, we’ve got a better team here than 2008. We’re deeper. We have more depth, and we’re injury-free. And we’ve got, especially on the defensive side, some guys playing at a high level. And our back end is playing really well.”
Allen said the Vikings channeled that big-picture into focus and went about plucking off each of their final four wins as independent lines on a checklist.
It might have seemed like special teams coordinator Mike Priefer was kidding Wednesday when he mentioned the constant lobbying that Adrian Peterson does to find a role on special teams. He wasn’t.
“He always asks,” Priefer insisted. “He’s a football player. Gunner, field goal block, returner. The guy is awesome. I always say yes. And then I ask the head coach and he says no.”
Peterson confirmed his desire to get on the field more with a role outside of the offense.
“Yeah, for the past two years I have been trying to get in on field goal block,” he said. “Come in off the edge. You know. It’s just going to take one block for them to really be [like], ‘OK, you know what, let’s take the chance and let you go out there and get it done.’ … I believe in having your best players on the field, especially in critical times. You never know what can happen. That’s what I would do.”
The latest glowing endorsement for Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder came Wednesday afternoon via defensive end Jared Allen. The Pro Bowl regular openly praised Ponder’s energy and self-belief during the team’s four-game winning streak to close the regular season. Most of all, Allen said, he’s seen Ponder grow more assertive, leading animated pre-game team huddles to energize the Vikings.
Said Allen: “Hearing your quarterback’s voice and knowing that he’s excited, when he’s pumped up, it gives you the confidence that ‘OK, the head of our offense, he’s ready to go.’”
Allen said he recognized similar leadership qualities while playing with Trent Green in Kansas City and insisted there’s an enlivening reaction within teams when the quarterback feels driven to have his voice heard.
“Even though he’s young and there are older guys on the team that are in leadership positions as well, to be a winning organization, a winning team, your quarterback has to be that dominating force and has to be that guy that everybody looks to,” Allen said. “I think that’s really what he’s starting to do.”
As for precisely what Ponder says in those huddles before games? Let’s just say the words aren’t quite as important as the gesture itself.
“It’s loud. You usually can’t hear what they’re saying,” Allen said. “But just the fact that he’s calling the team up, it’s just him physically getting everybody going like ‘Alright, let’s get ready to play!’ … To see him in the center and him being the dominant voice of that whole team huddle sends a message that ‘OK, he’s ready to go.’”
Vikings defensive end Jared Allen made it very clear during the preseason that he didn’t have it in him mentally to endure a rebuilding season. Even as outsiders saw the Vikings’ youth movement and figured logically that they were at least a season away from maturing and contending for a playoff berth, Allen had no plans on waiting around.
So his August message to a team with so many new faces and so many young players was straightforward.
“I wouldn’t say your patience runs out,” Allen said then. “But at some point, the learning curve has to pick up and they need to catch up to where we’re at. Because it’s not our job [as veterans] to drop down because you’re young. I’m a firm believer that there’s no such thing as a young player. You’re in the NFL and you’re getting paid to do your job. And our job is up here at a high level. That’s where we need to be and everybody needs to get there.”
On Sunday night, after the Vikings defeated Green Bay 37-34 to reach the postseason, Allen reflected back on that sentiment, fulfilled that so many of his young teammates granted his wish.
“That’s just my mindset,” Allen said. “I don’t got time. I don’t have a five-year plan. You know what I mean? I’m here to win now. And that’s what I love about this organization. So are they.”
Allen has been open in his praise of this team’s drive and focus. And while he thinks the veterans and coaching staff do their best to set a good example, he also credits the Vikings’ young players for bringing their own ambition and concentration to the forefront every day.
“If you don’t have that inside of you, it doesn’t matter what a coach says, it doesn’t matter what a teammate says,” Allen said. “Everybody on this team has good character. These guys in this locker room genuinely like football. They don’t like what football gives them. They’re here to win games and they are here to play hard. You see that raw emotion in guys. And that’s what makes it fun. I’ve played with a lot of talented people that didn’t have that drive. You see it all the time. But our guys in here have that drive. They want to be good. And that’s what makes it easy for guys to work hard. That’s what makes it easy as a veteran to say, ‘Hey we need to do this.’ And guys will respond.”
Allen believes the Vikings have seen the rewards for when they invest from a work ethic standpoint and then go out and play sound fundamental football. He also admitted he had “no clue” how good or bad this team might be when training camp broke in August.
“It was kind of cool that there were no expectations to live up to,” Allen said. “So you were going to be what you were going to be. Whatever product we put on the field, that’s what we were going to be. And as we grew, I think guys kind of noticed like ‘Ah, we’ve got something here.’ That chemistry.
“As vets, you sit back with a lot of young kids and watch from afar at first. But then these young cats kind of pull you in and the next thing you know you’re barking in the tunnel. They’ve got me singing songs I’ve never even heard of. … It’s guys believing in their craft and believing that we have a chance to do it. Nobody gave up in here. And look where we’re at.”
Defensive end Brian Robison and cornerback Antoine Winfield are both officially listed as questionable on the Vikings' injury report for this weekend. But it would take an awful lot to keep either veteran from playing in Sunday's high-stakes rivalry clash against Green Bay.
A win will push the Vikings into the postseason. And so Robison, dealing with a sprained right shoulder, and Winfield, with a broken bone in his right hand, both figure to suit up Sunday and play.
Robison missed last weekend’s win in Houston, working back from a Grade 3 sprain of his acromioclavicular joint. He has been limited in practice all week but has shown signs of progress, leaving head coach Leslie Frazier optimistic about his availability.
“He’s much improved,” Frazier said Friday afternoon.
Robison knows what’s at stake Sunday and will push to be in action. If the veteran end does play, the Vikings will keep a close eye on his activity and productivity with comfort that Everson Griffen provides a nice back-up plan.
Frazier said he would listen closely to how Robison feels about his shoulder discomfort and monitor his soreness on Saturday.
“I want to hear what he has to say,” Frazier said.
Winfield broken the second metacarpal in his right hand in the first quarter last weekend and played the rest of the game with the injury; the fracture wasn’t diagnosed until Monday morning. And while the 14th-year corner will need to play with a wrap and a protective pad on his right hand, that shouldn’t limit him much.
“He showed me today that he can grip with it,” Frazier said. “We feel like he’ll be able to tackle and do what he has to do.”
Those listed as probable on the Vikings’ injury report are: Adrian Peterson (abdomen), Jared Allen (shoulder), Chris Kluwe (knee), Phil Loadholt (knee), Marcus Sherels (quadriceps), Marvin Mitchell (illness).
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