Sunday, July 5, 2015

Linebacker Erin Henderson hasn’t seen any playing time these last two weeks, after his drunk driving arrest was made public, but that will change this week.  Also, after getting ejected from last week’s game for making contact with an official, cornerback Chris Cook should return to his starting post.

Cook’s disappointing contract season hit an all-time low last Sunday as Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery repeatedly abused Cook on his way to a record-setting performance.  Cook’s early exit was the result of frustration on his part, supposedly because the referee had failed to call a penalty for what Cook thought was offensive pass interference on Jeffery.

Cook has been fined $26,250 by the NFL, a standard fine for making contact with an official, but already had his agent appeal it.  It’d be a pretty big shock if he won any sort of appeal.

Cook, who avoided the media following the game and has stayed away from social media (presumably to avoid people like me) all week, admitted he needs to keep his cool and that he has a lot riding on these last four games.

“I know I have to keep my composure, that’s basically what [Frazier] told me, that was the big thing,” Cook said via 1500ESPN. “I was just frustrated with some things that happened in the game, lost my composure. I can guarantee it won’t happen again. ”

Coach Leslie Frazier expressed to Cook that the nature of the cornerback position means you will be on the wrong end of a lot of big plays and that a key part of being successful is handling those moments better than Cook handled it last weekend.  With Cook’s rookie contract nearly up, and with him still struggling as a player and as a personality, it is looking more and more likely that Rick Spielman will let his former second rounder enter free agency unrestricted.

Henderson started this season as the team’s middle linebacker, but has officially lost his job after his arrest open the door for Audie Cole to have back-to-back performances that show promise, and we have now learned what many of us suspected all along.  This week, speaking with the media, Leslie Frazier admitted that having Henderson play in the middle was not the team’s first choice and that the results of the Draft made him the best choice by default.

“He was moved to the ‘Mike’ linebacker position not necessarily because that’s what we wanted to do, but that was the plight that we were in,” Frazier said. “He didn’t come in a year ago as our middle linebacker. There were some things that happened over the offseason that resulted in him being our middle linebacker. He’s a very good outside backer and expect him to play well on Sunday.”

As 4-3 outside linebackers go, Henderson has been one of the better weakside guys in the NFL since Ben Leber left the vacancy open, and it’ll be interesting to see how he plays at his intended spot.  Henderson talked a big game prior to the season, denouncing the critics and the speculation surrounding the team’s decision to sign Desmond Bishop, but now Henderson admits he heard what was being said and that it impacted him personally.

“I have a lot of things to be happy about and thankful for, aside from all the naysayers and haters everybody else who’s had different things to say about me throughout the year,” Henderson said. “Sometimes I let it get to me and get down too much. I’ve come to grips with it and come to terms with it and I’m able to look at myself and know the man that I am and accept it.”

Cole is intriguing.  Henderson moving back to the weakside is interesting.  However, what most has my curiosity up is the question of who the Vikings were targeting in April’s Draft that was going to be the solution, and why Rick Spielman was unable to haul his guy in despite having (by the end of the night) three first round picks at his disposal.

I’m not saying the three picks he made were bad ones, I love this year’s rookie class, but it was no secret all offseason long that middle linebacker was a huge need for the Vikings and Rick Spielman’s inability to find a fix is a glaring mistake on his record.  It isn’t like this problem can simply be blamed on injuries or suspension, this appears to be a flat-out swing and a miss.

And, in somewhat out-of-character fashion, Frazier seems to have gone out of his way to let the world know that he was given second-tier options at arguably the defense’s most important position.

 

With Christian Ponder yet to pass the concussion tests required for him to suit up, and Josh Freeman still mysteriously riding the bench, the Vikings sound as if they’ll ride the hot hand of Matt Cassel for at least another week.

The weekly quarterback updates this season have been almost as tiring as all of the losses, but it is still important to note that Cassel will get the nod against Baltimore this week.  As of now, Leslie Frazier acknowledged that Cassel will start and Freeman will back him up, but qualified his statements by saying that could change should Ponder make quick progress.

“More than likely, Matt Cassel is going to end up being our starter for this ballgame,” Frazier said. “We’ll proceed accordingly, with Josh (Freeman) as his backup, understanding where Christian is, in trying to pass those tests. … It’ll probably be tough (for Ponder). If he were able to practice (Thursday), maybe — but we’re not planning on it.”

By pretty much every unit of measurement, Cassel has been the Vikings most successful quarterback this season, and for a coach who desperately needs to accumulate some wins it seems like the most logical choice by a long shot.

The overtime victory against the rival Bears on Sunday was a positive step for Vikings fans that just wanted the team to prove they still know how to win football games, but a step back for those that want to see the Vikings nab the first overall selection of the 2014 NFL Draft.

The mixed emotions about this win don’t end there, though.  A win is a win, but this was not a pretty one, and there is certainly a great deal of things we saw on Sunday that were beyond worrisome.  I’ve decided to split the difference and will look at five things I liked and five things I didn’t following the 23-20 victory.

FIVE POSITIVES

1.  Matt Cassel Shows Stones

When Christian Ponder had to exit early it was Matt Cassel, not Josh Freeman, who was dressed and ready to take the reigns.  Cassel came in as a reserve, but played in a way that should clearly give him a leg up in the quarterback conversation in Minnesota.  He went 20 for 33 and a touchdown.  His lone pick was not his fault in the slightest, as tight end Rhett Ellison bobbled a perfect strike, and it really should have ended up being a second touchdown on the statline.  The only reason it wasn’t a touchdown for the Bears, by all appearances, was Cassel’s hustle as he chased down linebacker Khaseem Greene after he returned the ball for 49 yards.  Cassel may not be the starter next week against Baltimore, because no decision regarding this team ever seems to be the obvious one, but he showed up big after the Vikings offense netted just 16 passing yards through the first half with Ponder at the helm.

2. Nobody Does It Better

Much was written about Adrian Peterson’s greatness Monday, after the future Hall of Famer broke the 10,000 rushing yard threshold Sunday, but I’m so in awe of his everyday accomplishments that I can’t even begin to put into words how prolific his career has been thus far.  Peterson ran for 211 yards on 35 carries (6.0 yard average) against the Bears and seemingly willed the offense down the field at times, including moments in the fourth quarter and in overtime, and you just know he is the still a player that makes his team a competitor week-in and week-out.  Even when they are a bad team.

Quarterback Josh Freeman will continue to ride out the 2013 season as the third-string quarterback for at least another week.  Freeman is inactive for today’s game against Chicago.

The rest of the Vikings inactive players are:  CB Josh Robinson, DT Chase Baker, G Jeff Baca, T Mike Remmers, WR Rodney Smith, and TE Kyle Rudolph.

Linebacker Erin Henderson is active this week, but Audie Cole had a nice debut in his absence last week and is again expected to get the start.

The Bears will be without S Major Wright, QB Jay Cutler, and LB Lance Briggs today.

Join us in our VT Chat Room during today’s actions.

When Rick Spielman decided to win a bidding war with Chicago for the services of right tackle Phil Loadholt, he was willing to make veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield a casualty by sending him packing.  At the time, I opined that the Vikings not only lost their best cornerback as a result, but that they also lost their best linebacker and defensive leader.

Then, through free agency and the NFL Draft, the Vikings refused to make considerable investment into the linebacker position despite numerous opportunities.  Some third day Draft picks, and injury-prone free agent Desmond Bishop, amounted to no immediate upgrade to the starting linebacker positions.  Instead, the team was willing to move forward with Erin Henderson manning the middle.

Now, I am on record as being supportive of Henderson.  I think he has played better than many fans give him credit for.  Until last week, he led the team in tackles.  Only ends Jared Allen and Brian Robison have more sacks than his three.  He leads the Vikings with nine tackles for a loss, is tied for a team lead with two interceptions, and leads all the linebackers with three defended passes.  Those stats, however, have not been enough for fans and analysts to grant Henderson immunity from criticism as the Vikings currently place 29th in pass defense and 24th against the run.

Henderson was expected to step up, take command of the defense, and instead the entire unit has been on a season-long campaign of collapse.  With Winfield gone, and Kevin Williams and Jared Allen clearly on their way out, it seemed natural to look for a leader on defense to ease the transition.  Instead, Henderson has been at the center of a defense that has shown no ability to stop opponents, and instead of being a vocal leader that speaks of consistency and accountability he has found himself in the center of controversy.

That is exactly what you don’t look for in a team leader.

Last week, news broke that Henderson had been picked up for DWI and possession of a controlled substance.  The details are murky right now, and he claims this isn’t the “personal reason” he had for missing last week’s game, but Henderson has a long ways to go before anybody will consider him a legitimate leader on defense.

Henderson counts as the third Vikings player in three weeks to hit the police blotter, which prompted General Manager Rick Spielman to release a public statement, and the Vikings brass cannot be happy about any of this.  Surely this issue will come up when end-of-season evaluations of Henderson’s value are being performed and I can’t imagine the front office will be content relying so heavily on him in 2014 and beyond.

Perhaps the best case scenario, for Henderson, is to end up back at the weakside spot.

That would certainly seem like a preferred alternative to being out of a job.

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