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 line.
Get excited: At this time last year, the Vikings were vowing to find ways to get Everson Griffen on the field more, hoping to take greater advantage of his rare blend of size, strength and quickness. A training camp experiment with Griffen at linebacker was quickly scrapped and defensive coordinator Alan Williams instead settled on a role that utilized Griffen as both an end and as an inside rusher in passing situations. Griffen finished the regular season with eight sacks, third on the team behind Jared Allen (12) and Brian Robison (8.5). Griffen also had an interception in Week 15 in St. Louis, returning that 29 yards for a touchdown. It was an eye-opening display of speed and athleticism for a guy who measures 6-foot-3, 273 pounds. He also had one of three Viking sacks of Aaron Rodgers in the Vikings’ playoff loss in Green Bay.
Coach Leslie Frazier continues to laud Griffen’s maturity and increased willingness to study the game. And Griffen’s emergence will allow the Vikings some flexibility on the d-line as they put together their future plans.
Griffen is entering the final season of his rookie contract. And if his production continues escalating, you can bet General Manager Rick Spielman will try to find the right timing to lock Griffen up for the long-term well before he’d be able to become a free agent in March 2014.
Keep an eye on: Defensive tackles in this spring’s draft. There’s a belief that this year’s draft class is stacked at that position, which may tempt Spielman to alter the 2012 interior rotation that featured Letroy Guion and Fred Evans at nose tackle and Kevin Williams and Christian Ballard at the under tackle spot.
On a draft analysis conference call Wednesday, ESPN expert Mel Kiper Jr. rattled off a handful of tackle prospects who might make sense for the Vikings. Say, for example, the team uses free agency to address its need for an outside receiver. Then it could possibly make sense to give Georgia’s John Jenkins a long hard look with the No. 23 pick. Jenkins is 6- 3, 358 pounds and can be a fantastic plug in the middle of the defense.
But even if the Vikings wanted to wait to address their defensive tackle needs, they’ll have decent options in later rounds. In the Round 3 range, for example, Kiper mentions Penn State’s Jordan Hill as an option. He also offers a couple of sleepers for the fourth or fifth round in Missouri Southern State’s Brandon Williams and Georgia Southern’s Brent Russell.
There’s also Bowling Green’s Chris Jones, who will be cast aside by many teams as undersized. But Jones is a smart player with a high motor whom Kiper said was “as productive as any defensive tackle in college football this year. At any school, at any program.”
Reason for worry: Age. Three of the Vikings’ four d-line starters in 2012 will be in their 30s by the time training camp opens.
So now comes time to ask that difficult but necessary question: Just how much do the older guys have left in the tank? And might the Vikings ask either Jared Allen or Kevin Williams to restructure their contracts this offseason?
Allen will head to his fifth Pro Bowl in the last six seasons next week. But his inclusion in this year’s game was based more on past reputation than this season’s production. Allen played most of the year with a torn labrum in his left shoulder, an injury he will need surgery to fix following his trip to Honolulu. How fast he bounces back remains to be seen. Contract-wise, he’s also entering the final year of his deal and will be owed in excess of $14 million in 2013. And it’s far from a given that Allen, now nearing his 31st birthday, will remain with the organization beyond that.
Williams, meanwhile, will turn 33 in August. And while he’s one of those ideal hard-working, low-maintenance leaders who fits Frazier’s blueprint for success, the mileage of 10 full NFL seasons is catching up. Taking loyalty and emotion out of the equation initially, it’ll be up to Spielman and his staff to deliver an honest assessment of just how much they think they can still squeeze out of Williams going forward. At present, Christian Ballard is in line to be Williams’ successor. But Ballard hasn’t yet established himself as a can’t-miss fallback plan.
It wasn’t long ago that Allen and Williams were dominant game changers whose presence was noticeable every Sunday. And to be clear, both are still very good players who can steady and energize the defense. But for how much longer? That’s the type of question that the NFL’s best teams have instinct for answering.
Postgame snapshot from the Edward Jones Dome, where the Vikings beat the Rams 36-22.
Good news: The Vikings defense came to play Sunday afternoon. And it started on the first series. A Brian Robison sack was the biggest play on the Rams’ opening possession, forcing a punt that allowed the Vikings to start their first TD drive in Rams territory. The offense responded with a 45-yard march and the Vikings took a quick 7-0 lead. In building a 30-7 halftime advantage, the Vikings defense got sacks from Robison, Christian Ballard and Erin Henderson and takeaways from Kevin Williams and Everson Griffen. Griffen returned his second quarter interception 29 yards for a touchdown. The Vikings finished plus-two in turnover margin. Quarterback Christian Ponder (17-for-24, 131 yards plus a 5-yard TD run) steered clear of costly mistakes. And, oh yeah, that Adrian Peterson kid busted off an 82-yard touchdown run as part of a ho-hum 24-carry, 212-yard day.
Bad news: On a day where so much went right, it’s hard to find much bad news. But the Vikings’ clock management again seemed suspect at the end of the first half. They took over for their final drive with 1:00 left at their own 47 and got four consecutive Ponder completions netting 29 yards. But the final pass of the half was a strange 2-yarder to Jerome Simpson. And with timeouts left, the Vikings probably could have run a few more plays. Instead, they let the clock run down to 0:04, called timeout and let Blair Walsh kick one of his five field goals on the day.
Extra point: With two games left in the regular season, Peterson has 1,812 rushing yards. He needs to average 147 per game in contests against the Texans and Packers to break Eric Dickerson's NFL single-season record of 2,105 yards.
Next up: The Vikings will travel to Houston next weekend. The Texans improved to 12-2 Sunday with a 29-17 home win over the Colts, clinching the AFC South title.
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.”
CHICAGO -- It's gotten very ugly very quickly for the Vikings at Soldier Field.
So what else is new? They haven't won here since 2007, and a fifth consecutive loss at Chicago seems a certainty at this point.
Christian Ponder was sacked for a 9-yard loss on the first play. And things didn't get any better from there.
Adrian Peterson lost a fumble for the second time this season, giving the Bears a short field and a 7-3 lead that grew to 25-3 when a Ponder interception gave the Bears an even shorter field and a 13-yard touchdown pass from Jay Cutler to former Gophers tight end Matt Spaeth with 1:48 left in the half.
The Vikings did lead 3-0 when the offense turned a Chad Greenway fumble recovery into a four-play, 6-yard, um, march to a 40-yard Blair Walsh field goal.
Walsh also had a 30-yard field goal blocked -- only his second miss of the season -- while a 23-yard shanked punt by Chris Kluwe led to yet another short field and a 47-yard field goal by Robbie Gould.
The lowest of the first-half lowlights possibly came during the Bears' 14-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter. They converted three third downs, a fourth down and reached the 1-yard line on a questionable pass interference penalty on Antoine Winfield, who was covering Brandon Marshall in the end zone. Winfield was arguing for offensive pass interference because Marshall had his right arm extended, holding Winfield at a distance while the ball was in the air.
The Bears capped that humiliating drive with a 2-point conversion run by holder Adam Podlesh. Podlesh simply took the snap and ran untouched over the left side of the line. Ouch.
The Bears probably could have scored another touchdown late in the game -- after the Vikings' offense used up only 27 seconds on a three-and-out. But they didn't use their time outs and settled for a 39-yard field goal attempt, which Kevin Williams blocked.
Here are some first-half stats to chew on:
. The Vikings have more turnovers (1) than first downs in the first quarter.
. The Bears lead in first downs, 16-3.
. The Bears have converted 7 of 10 third downs and 1 of 1 fourth downs.
. The Vikings have only 92 yards.
. Peterson has 25 yards on seven carries.
. Ponder has a 33.9 passer rating, completing 8 of 17 passes for 70 yards and one pick.
Vikings safety Mistral Raymond and linebacker Jasper Brinkley each drew personal foul penalties within 2 minutes of each other during the fourth quarter of last weekend's 34-24 win over Detroit. It turns out those infractions will cost the duo a combined $28,875.
Raymond drew a 15-yard personal foul penalty for his late hit on Lions running back Mikel Leshoure, falling on top of Leshoure a moment after Kevin Williams had made the tackle. That hit will cost Raymond $7,875 as a result of a fine administered by the NFL.
Three snaps later, Brinkley delivered a helmet-to-helmet shot on Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson, a hit that will cost him $21,000. Johnson made a 25-yard reception on the play and the Lions were also awarded 2 yards on a half-the-distance to-the-goal penalty. Brinkley's fine, the league said, was assessed due to "helmet-to-helmet contact with a defenseless player."
|Vikings (3687)||People (1)|
|AFC (89)||Bears (452)|
|Ex-Vikings (45)||Football on TV (53)|
|Lions (354)||NFC (1351)|
|NFL draft (255)||NFL post-season (28)|
|Packers (508)||Super Bowl (265)|
|Vikings coaches (83)||Vikings defense (255)|
|Vikings fans (116)||Vikings injury report (291)|
|Vikings management (31)||Vikings off the field (281)|
|Vikings offense (366)||Vikings quarterbacks (257)|
|Vikings road games (77)||Vikings rookies (36)|
|Vikings roster moves (40)||Vikings special teams (37)|
|Vikings training camp (132)||Injury report (344)|
|Off the field (137)||On the road (81)|
|Quarterbacks (324)||Rookies (77)|
|Roster moves (17)||Vikings draft (266)|
|Vikings trade talk (2)||Vikings players (805)|
|Adrian Peterson (959)||Anthony Herrera (161)|
|Antoine Winfield (409)||Ben Leber (97)|
|Bernard Berrian (213)||Bobby Wade (16)|
|Brad Childress (639)||Brett Favre (808)|
|Brian Robison (169)||Bryant McKinnie (106)|
|Cedric Griffin (194)||Chad Greenway (201)|
|Chester Taylor (79)||Chris Kluwe (118)|
|Darrell Bevell (120)||E.J. Henderson (183)|
|Heath Farwell (50)||Jared Allen (405)|
|John Sullivan (206)||Kevin Williams (224)|
|Leslie Frazier (935)||Madieu Williams (78)|
|Pat Williams (152)||Percy Harvin (679)|
|Phil Loadholt (164)||Ray Edwards (173)|
|Ryan Longwell (145)||Sage Rosenfels (102)|
|Sidney Rice (273)||Steve Hutchinson (191)|
|Tarvaris Jackson (171)||Tyrell Johnson (151)|
|Visanthe Shiancoe (216)||Brad Childress (643)|
|Darrell Bevell (121)||Leslie Frazier (944)|