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.
Update: Defensive end Everson Griffen and linebacker Jasper Brinkley were fined for plays in last Sunday's loss to the Packers in Green Bay. Griffen was fined $15,750 for roughing Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers on Sunday. Brinkley was fined $7,875 for a facemask of receiver Randall Cobb. Brinkley wasn't flagged on the play.
The only other fine from the game came to Green Bay's Tramon Williams, fined $21,000 for unnecessary roughness on a helmet-to-helmet hit on a deep pass to running back Toby Gerhart.
Griffen was flagged for roughing Rodgers on a second-quarter play that nullified an interception by teammate Jared Allen. Williams hit Toby Gerhart helmet-to-helmet on a third quarter pass by Christian Ponder. On the next play, with the Vikings trailing 20-14, Ponder threw an interception from the Packers' 25.
Update II: The Vikings have promoted offensive tackle Troy Kropog from the practice squad to the 53-man roster. He takes the roster spot that opened when Percy Harvin was placed on injured reserve on Wednesday.
Except for Percy Harvin and Chris Cook, the Vikings are expected to have everyone who was on their opening day roster availble to them when they play the Bears on Sunday at Mall of America Field in what essentially is a playoff game for the Vikings.
Defensive end Jared Allen (shoulder/back) had full participation in today's practice after missing practice on Wednesday and Thursday. He has been listed as probable.
Also listed as probable after having full participation in today's practice are: tight end Kyle Rudolph (shoulder), linebacker Jasper Brinkley (shoulder), center John Sullivan (ribs/knee), right tackle Phil Loadholt (knee), punter Chris Kluwe (knee) and nose tackle Letroy Guion (shin). Listed as probable after being limited on Friday is cornerback Antoine Winfield (knee).
Running back Adrian Peterson, who was rested on Thursday, was taken off the injury report today.
The Vikings also worked out three receivers today. One of them was former Chargers receiver Bryan Walters, who was with the Vikings in training camp this season. The Vikings have a roster spot open since placing receiver Percy Harvin on injured reserve on Wednesday.
From the Bears' injury report:
Linebacker Brian Urlacher (hamstring), cornerback Tim Jennings (shoulder) and receiver Earl Bennett (concussion) are out.
Listed as questionable are: running back Michael Bush (ribs), defensive tackle Stephen Paea (foot) and guard Chris Spencer (knee). Listed as probable are: offensive lineman Gabe Carimi (hamstring), receiver Devin Hester (concussion) and receiver Alshon Jeffery (knee).
Cornerback Chris Cook returned to practice Thursday afternoon, exactly six weeks after breaking his right arm in a Week 8 home loss to Tampa Bay. The following day, Cook was placed on injured reserve with designation to return, a new label that was implemented this season.
That move required Cook to be out of practice for six weeks following his placement on I.R.
With the designation to return -- which a club can only use on one player per season -- players are not eligible to play in a game until eight weeks after being placed on I.R. That means Cook’s first possible action would come in Week 16 in Houston, which is the Vikings’ current target date for his return.
“That's the goal,” head coach Leslie Frazier said. “It was good to see him out here today moving around. We’ll have to see how progresses.”
In other injury news, both running back Adrian Peterson and defensive end Jared Allen were given Thursday’s practice off. Allen is listed on the injury report with shoulder and back injuries but is expected to return to practice Friday.
Peterson should be back on the field Friday too and was given Thursday’s practice off as a means to rest, according to Frazier.
The Vikings who were limited in practice Thursday were Kyle Rudolph (shoulder), Jasper Brinkley (shoulder), Antoine Winfield (knee), Phil Loadholt (knee) and John Sullivan (ribs/knee).
Defending quarterback Christian Ponder was the general theme of Vikings coach Leslie Frazier’s press conference at Winter Park on Monday, a day after the Packers beat the Vikings 23-14 at Lambeau Field.
Ponder was 12 for 25 for 119 yards and had two critical interceptions in the game, negating a 210-yard rushing performance by Adrian Peterson.
Frazier said he “never really” considered replacing Ponder with backup Joe Webb, but said Ponder would “have to be better” on Sunday when the Vikings play the Bears at the Metrodome.
What does Frazier say to the fans who want Ponder benched?
"When you are in a business where you're judged by results and results for us are based on wins and losses, when you come up short that does create some frustration,” Frazier said, “but we do have confidence that Christian will continue to get better. That was a tough day at times for him yesterday. … We think he's more than capable of being successful. He showed it early in the season, he's played some consistent football for us. We've got to get him back to playing that way.”
Frazier acknowledged that Ponder was tentative at times: “Sometimes you got to throw the ball when guys come out of their breaks. In our league, it's not very often that guys are going to be wide open. So when we say throw it on time, on time means when the guy comes out of his break deliver the football. You've got to be able to make that decision whether you can get it in there or not.”
“I still think he's a very confident quarterback. I really do. We just got to get him to the point where we're making some of those plays that we know he's capable of making. … in our business, so much falls on the quarterback's shoulders. He's the guy who gets a lot of accolades when the team wins and he gets a lot of blame when your team loses. But there are some things he can do better and he knows that.”
Frazier was asked about backup quarterback Joe Webb, and said, “We think Joe can do it. We think he's a quality quarterback. He's our backup now. If he had to step in and play, we have confidence that he would do a good job. But we do have confidence that Christian is going to play better. He knows he has to in order for us to win. But with Joe, we think he's very capable. That's why we kept him on the roster, kept him in the spot that he's in. We know if necessary he'd be able to help us.”
Frazier didn’t seem to rule out pulling Ponder from a game, however. When asked about Vikings players losing faith in Ponder, Frazier said, “When you're struggling at a position, the guys know how we talked about everybody doing their jobs and why it's important for us to have our success. You don't want to send mixed messages at any position. It's important that all the positions do their jobs and function well. The quarterback position is always under that bright light. … There's a lot riding on this next ballgame for our football team and I'm sure there are a lot of guys looking and wondering if we can get it done under the current situation. I believe we can. I believe we'll play better, not only at the quarterback position but at other positions as well.”
Vikings wide receivers did not catch a pass against the Packers until the final minutes, and have come under heavy criticism the past few games for their lack of production.
“They've got to get open,” Frazier said. “They've got to make the catch when the opportunity comes. … We had a number of dropped balls in that Chicago ballgame and it wasn't all just on Christian to get some completions. It's a combination of protection along with guys getting open and making catches when they have an opportunity and the quarterback being able to deliver the football. That's part of having a good passing game. So our receivers know that, our quarterback knows it, our offensive line knows it and now we've got to find a way to be more productive in the passing game."
On the injury front, Frazier said defensive end Jared Allen had back spasms and was having an MRI today, although he suspected Allen would be ready to play Sunday against Chicago. Center John Sullivan (rib contusion) is also likely to play. Percy Harvin (ankle) has missed the past two games, and Frazier said the team would know more about him “as the week goes on.”
A lot has already been said and written about the Vikings’ lackluster 28-10 loss in Chicago on Sunday. And until the Vikings flip the page this weekend in Green Bay, a whole lot more will be said and written about what all went wrong.
But perhaps the simple solution to ceasing all the frantic discussion is with this simple recognition: Chicago is undeniably a better team than the Vikings in all three phases. Done and done.
Still, the Vikings’ failed to light the wick for their upset bid at Soldier Field in big part because they delivered a dud effort offensively in the first half, falling behind 25-3 and never getting back on track. The Vikings had seven possessions before halftime and did next to nothing with any of them.
Just like that, they were buried on the road.
Here’s a snapshot of how the first half in Chicago fell apart offensively.
Three plays, 4 yards
Time of possession: 1:48
End result: Punt
Place the blame on: Right guard Brandon Fusco
Worst mistake: On the first play, with an empty backfield and five receivers spread wide, Christian Ponder had barely caught the shotgun snap when he was devoured by Henry Melton for a 9-yard sack. Melton used a basic swim move to slither past Fusco. Center John Sullivan failed to redirect Melton as well. And that was that. Facing second-and-19 and third-and-18, the offense had little chance to make up for the offensive line’s malfunction.
Four plays, 6 yards
Time of possession: 0:50
End result: Field goal
Place the blame on: Receiver Jerome Simpson
Worst mistake: A Chad Greenway fumble recovery put the Vikings in ideal position to deliver an early uppercut. Taking over at the Chicago 28 should have been just the kind of jolt the Vikings needed to jumpstart their day. Instead, on third-and-4, Christian Ponder’s slant dart to Simpson hit the inconsistent receiver in the hands, then hit the ground. Opportunity squandered.
One play, 1 yard
Time of possession: 0:06
End result: Fumble
Place the blame on: Running back Adrian Peterson
Worst mistake: Peterson was simply carrying the ball too loose and light contact from linebacker Nick Roach jarred it loose. Peterson lost control of the football, the first of his two fumbles on the day and an indication that Peterson might not have had his usual focus. Don’t forget, he also missed the team bus from the hotel to the game and had to take a taxi to Soldier Field.
Three plays, 9 yards
Time of possession: 1:32
End result: Punt
Place the blame on: Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave
Worst mistake: After a 1-yard completion to Simpson on first down, it’s hard to know what the objective was on second-and-9. Musgrave went with two tight ends but kept both Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson in as blockers. That left the Vikings with Simpson trying to get open against Tillman and Michael Jenkins working against Tim Jennings. Jenkins wasn’t even out of his break yet when Ponder bolted from the pocket and rolled right – signs of the receiver’s lack of speed and the quarterback’s impatience. Eventually, Ponder threw the ball out of bounds. A third down completion to Jarius Wright on a drag route netted 8 yards but not enough for a first down.
Nine plays, 53 yards
Time of possession: 3:32
End result: Blocked field goal
Place the blame on: Receiver Jarius Wright
Worst mistake: Technically, you could easily point the finger at Fusco and Phil Loadholt, who both failed to slow the push of Julius Peppers on Blair Walsh’s 30-yard field goal attempt. Peppers blocked that kick. But the Vikings were only left to attempt that after stalling inside the red zone. Most confounding: on second-and-4 from the Chicago 12, Musgrave called in a play that seemed to show his desperation with Percy Harvin out and no other reliable receivers to turn to. Instead, the Vikings only had one receiver on the field: Wright, a rookie, who didn’t really do anything wrong but couldn’t get open in the middle of Chicago’s zone. The Vikings had four other potential pass catchers on the play, including three tight ends. But John Carlson was slow getting off the line, was only 2 yards down field when the pocket began to cave and was knocked off his path by Lance Briggs. Rhett Ellison was still early in his route and Kyle Rudolph was never open. Ponder ended up under-handing an incompletion out of bounds just to avoid a sack.
Five plays, 14 yards
Time of possession: 2:06
End result: Interception
Place the blame on: Quarterback Christian Ponder
Worst mistake: On an afternoon where Ponder never seemed settled and his pocket poise was absent, his worst throw cost the Vikings dearly. On a second-and-10 from the Vikings 25, Ponder felt pressure from Nate Collins and tried to gun a pass to Devin Aromashodu on a dig route 18 yards down the field. But Ponder’s pass sailed way over Aromashodu’s head and hit Bears safety Chris Conte right in the numbers. Conte returned the ball to the 13. And Chicago scored on the very next play. Ponder said after the game that he has to learn not to force the ball downfield. But in truth, the throw was far more worrisome than the decision. Also worth noting: Collins stunted and ran right over Fusco, who had been beaten a play earlier by Israel Idonije.
Three plays, 5 yards
Time of possession: 0:27
End result: Punt
Place the blame on: Ponder
Worst mistake: After taking possession with 1:48 left before halftime, the Vikings inability to run more than 27 seconds off the clock before punting was inexcusable. On first down, Ponder had no one open and skipped a pass in the direction of Wright. On second down, Ponder got pressure from Shea McClellin and airmailed Rudolph on a deep ball down the seam. On third down, Ponder settled for a 5-yard safety valve completion to Wright. The Vikings’ third three-and-out of the day was a fitting way to end the half.
The Bears entered Sunday’s game with the Vikings ranked near the bottom of the league at allowing sacks. So why is it the only time Bears quarterback Jay Cutler was technically sacked was when he got his foot stepped on by his own lineman, falling to the ground?
In other words, why were the Vikings unable to get to the quarterback?
A big reason, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said, is that the Vikings rarely put the Bears in the position of having to get the ball deep downfield. “They had a lot of five, six-yard passes and trying to run after the catch,” Frazier said. “So we didn’t get them into the kind of game we needed to be, where we were able to take advantage of what we thought was an opportunity for our defensive line.”
The Bears started the game by chipping on the Vikings defensive ends with the tight end, and never really had to deviate from that plan. Things were different for the Bears against San Fransicso the week before. In that game Chicago got behind early and had to get more aggressive in the passing game.
Sunday the Bears came out with a conservative game plan -- helping the line with tight ends and backs -- and the Vikings never forced Chicago to change.
“Their passing game was different than what they had used the week before or the week before that,” Frazier said. “They really shortened some things down, which was smart. They did the right things to do.”
And the Vikings offense never put the Bears in a position to have to change things up.
“In (the San Francisco) game they were behind,” defensive tackle Kevin Williams said. “They had to get receivers out and backs out to catch the ball. (Sunday) they chipped our ends and doubled up inside. That made it tough to get to the quarterback.”
--Williams was asked if playing outside, on natural grass, was a problem for the Vikings. Minnesota will do that again this week in Green Bay. “You’ve just got to execute,” Williams said. “Doesn’t matter where you play the game at. It’s about executing and doing your job. If you don’t do it you don’t win, whether it’s inside, outside or on the roof.”
--Center John Sullivan said the Bears used an unusually high amount of line stunts in an attempt to get pressure on quarterback Christian Ponder. “There were a lot of line stunts, but that’s also because they were up by so much, we were forced to pass the ball. It’s a byproduct of how the game is going. When a defense like the Bears can get you behind, and they can just pin their ears back and pass rush, it can be a pretty tough group to deal with.”
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