Tuesday, August 4, 2015

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Heck, it has been a while, so let’s do this thing:

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As the Vikings approach their week five matchup against the Titans, a number of high profile Vikings have unexpectedly been added to the injury report, and here is the report from Wednesday:

LIMITED PRACTICE:  Erin Henderson (concussion), Charlie Johnson (back), Christian Ponder (knee), Marcus Sherels (quadriceps), and Antoine Winfield (knee).

DID NOT PARTICIPATE:  Jared Allen (groin), Michael Jenkins (ribs), Mistral Raymond (ankle), and Andrew Sendejo (ankle).

Christian Ponder wore a wrap during practice on Wednesday but is expected to play on Sunday.  Henderson, who suffered his head injury in week two, is being worked back into the practice routine with great caution.

Allen was able to return to the Lions game after stretching his groin, so it seems likely that the Vikings are just giving him some rest so he can be ready to go against the Titans.

A month ago, most NFL observers wouldn’t have guessed that the Minnesota Vikings would be heading into week five with only one loss.  Those that believed it to be possible certainly wouldn’t have predicted an impressive victory over the Niners would have been a part of that win total.

So, with the Vikings in sole possession of first place in their division (for at least one day), what can we make of this team as they prepare to take on a struggling Titans team at home?  Let’s take a look at what clues can be taken away from Sunday’s win in Detroit.

1.  The Special Teams Were Special Indeed

Sure, Blair Walsh missed his first field goal and Chris Kluwe continued to struggle with a couple of punts.  Outside of that, however, the special teams of the Minnesota Vikings was fantastic.  Percy Harvin made a statement on the opening kickoff in the form of a 105 yard touchdown return and Marcus Sherels followed up by taking the first punt return of the second half 77 yards for a score.  Walsh hit two of his three attempts, including a 49 yarder, but was a beast kicking off as the Lions never even got to return the ball once.  The coverage team struggled a little more keeping Stefan Logan bottled up on Kluwe’s punts, but nothing disastrous took place.

2.  The Passing Game Still Needs Work

Everyone is waiting for Christian Ponder’s light bulb to go on, and despite the 3-1 start, there is no question that it hasn’t happened yet.  He just hasn’t shown the ability to put this team on his back and will it to victory yet.  Sunday he was 16 of 26 for a measly 111 yards and no touchdowns.  In fact, his offense was really only responsible for six points, as the special teams scored the other 14.  That type of special teams production can’t be counted on every week, so Ponder and the gang have to get their act together if they want to continue winning football games.

Jerome Simpson was relatively quiet against the Lions, but he did make an impact in his first game as a Viking.  He played the role of field-stretcher which resulted in four catches, 50 yards, and two important pass interference penalties.  He was the team’s leader in receiving, but that isn’t saying much this week.

3.  Peterson’s Comeback Couldn’t Be Going Much Better

Many of us, including me, have openly questioned the team’s wisdom in bringing Adrian Peterson back into a featured role so quickly after his devastating knee injury.  Four weeks into the 2012 season, however, Peterson appears more than capable of shouldering a hefty load and making this offense better.  Against the Lions he carried the ball 21 times for 102 yards and added four catches for 20 yards, and has shown no signs of being hampered by pain or discomfort.  If the Vikings are truly going to embrace the idea that they can remain on top of the NFC North, then Peterson will be a main ingredient moving forward.

4.  Young Defenders Provide A Spark

Jared Allen got a sack on Sunday and did his signature dance.  The real story here, however, is the impact made by the youngsters on defense that should make Vikings fans hopeful when it comes to dreaming about the future.

Rookie safety Harrison Smith was only credited with one tackle on Sunday, but his impact was greater than his stat line would suggest.  Smith was in on a number of pass break ups with the most notable coming on an end zone play in which he dislodged the ball from the hands of Megatron to prevent a sure touchdown.  Rookie cornerback Josh Robinson was penalized (wrongfully) for a suplex-like tackle that displayed his strength, but his other seven solo tackles (tied with Chad Greenway for the most) did not go unnoticed.  The kid can fly around and make plays.

Perhaps even more notable were the performances of two of the team’s youngest defensive linemen.  Letroy Guion and Everson Griffen each had two sacks, including Griffen’s sack on the final play of the game, denying Detroit a chance at another miracle hail mary.

Middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley also had a solid game, playing a big part in the team’s success against the Lions running game.  55 yards is all that Detroit was able to gain on the ground.

5.  A Tale Of Two Third Downs

On one hand, the Vikings defense was able to force Detroit’s hand on 63% of their third downs (and 67% of their fourth downs).  On the other hand, however, the Vikings offense failed to convert on third down 75% of the time (3 of 12).

Christian Ponder was inaccurate and inefficient on third downs, particularly when rolling to his right, and the Bill Musgrave called plays in a way that made me question the trust he has for Ponder to not make big mistakes.  The Vikings coaching staff, at some point, will have to take the cuffs off and let Ponder win or lose football games as a 25% conversion rate on third down is not going to win very many more games.

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The Vikings host the Buffalo Bills tonight at Mall of America Field in their second preseason game of the year. Last week when the Vikings traveled to San Francisco, I saw some positive signs of improvement but I also saw some all too familiar shortcomings. While watching the game tonight (7:00 PM CDT), I’ll be paying close attention to the items below and, in general, looking for more signs that this is an improved unit who can surprise some doubters this year.

1. Harrison Smith

The Vikings invested pretty heavily in the Notre Dame safety this past draft. And while reports from training camp say Harrison Smith has looked great so far, we’ve yet to really see what he can do in-game. Tonight though, we should get that opportunity as Harrison Smith is set to make his first start for the Vikings.

What I’ll be looking for: Intensity. Some of the buzz surrounding Smith is that he brings a certain edge to the Vikings secondary that hasn’t been around for a while. It was even reported a while back that the rookie got into a minor scuffle with Percy Harvin during practice after repeatedly trying to strip the ball out of his hands. After the shoving match, Smith said, “I don’t think it was me standing my ground. It’s just football… Football is an aggressive sport played by aggressive people.” I want to see that aggressiveness  in game. I want to see Smith attack defenses. Be quick to the ball on rushing downs and be quick and responsive in coverage. The Vikings really needs their secondary to make improvements this year and I’ll be looking for any glimpse of them tonight.

2. Run Defense

Simply stated, the Vikings defense got torched on the ground last week against the 49ers. The team had a hard time filling gaps and just looked a little sluggish getting to the ball overall. The caveat was that the Vikings defense was missing major contributors who probably wouldn’t have allowed it to get so out-of-hand (or out-of-hand at all). Tonight, there will be no excuses as all healthy players are expected to play. That means Jared Allen, Kevin Williams and Brian Robison will all be in with the first teamers. Antoine Winfield, known for his run-stopping and tackling, will also be starting tonight.

What I’ll be looking for: The Vikings not getting ran over. The defensive line needs to show that what happened last week is not a representation of what this defense is going to do in the regular season. The Bills don’t have the best running backs in the NFL, but Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller are both very capable. And if the defense performs like it did last week, we could expect to see a similar result.

Beyond stopping the run, I expect Jared Allen to really get after Ryan Fitzpatrick as last year’s leading sacker will be going up against rookie left tackle Cordy Glenn.

 3. The Offensive Line

Much has been made over the offseason about how improved the Vikings offensive line is this year. With the addition of first round pick Matt Kalil and the shuffling around of other pieces, the unit is expected to be much better than last season. Last week against the 49ers, the first team offensive line performed pretty well overall against one of the toughest defenses in the league. Tonight, they will be tested even further going against what could be one of the best defensive lines this season. A defensive line that features Mark Anderson, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and, Buffalo’s big offseason signing, defensive end Mario Williams. Phil Loadholt, the lineman in charge of covering Williams, will definitely be tested tonight as goes up against one of the best ends in football right now (behind our Jared Allen, obviously).

What I’ll be looking for: I’m looking for Kalil to continue to impress and show everyone why he was worth such a high pick in the draft. I’m also looking for Ponder to not even come close to being touched. He should have adequate time to complete his drop, go through his reads and get the ball out before defenders are in his face. If that can happen tonight against the Bills first team defensive line, I think it would be safe to say that our new and improved offensive line is legit.


Make sure to check back tomorrow for my in-depth analysis and notes from the game.

Some of us think that Rick Spielman has put together a roster that potentially has the ability to surprise NFL observers as soon as this coming season.  Heck, if you look into the darkest corners and the deepest abyss, you might even find a Vikings fan that thinks the Vikings could soon be in contention for a Super Bowl.

From what I have seen out of the Vikings coaching staff this offseason, however, I think that they are having trouble believing in themselves and instead want to pull every trick out of the hat possible in an effort to simply do well enough to not get fired.

First, as Brett passed along in the post below this one, the team is allowing Adrian Peterson to rush himself back into action.  Sure, they are parading Peterson out in front of the press allowing him to talk about his “vision” and make himself out to be some sort of Superman capable of making this comeback in short order.

If Peterson were actually Superman, his knee never would have been shredded in the first place.

Allowing him to push himself during the rehab process is one thing.  Allowing him to run with the reckless abandon we all know and love during a meaningless preseason game, or even early in the regular season, is quite another.  Make no mistake about it, this is shaping up to be the biggest gamble this team has taken since they swung a certain trade with a certain Texas franchise to obtain a certain high profile running back.

And it could backfire.

Another sign that the coaching staff is in self preservation mode is the handling of Everson Griffen.  Griffen was shaping up to be an above-average defensive end that could push Brian Robison for playing time, and also made an impact as the NFL’s biggest special teams gunner.  So, they switched him to linebacker for a spell in an effort to give him more snaps.

Now, I have no problem with experimenting and trying to play to the strengths of your roster, but this particular experiment went too far.  They have already canned the idea of Griffen playing at linebacker, but not after he shed a significant amount of weight to try and win a job there.  Making that type of change to your body in an effort to win a position you clearly weren’t meant to play is just ridiculous.

I am even more perplexed that they would move Griffen away from the end spot while at the same time make a big deal out of putting Jared Allen on a pitch count.  Griffen, by all appearances, was at least the third best pass rusher on this roster last season and should be an obvious choice to spell Allen if that truly is the plan.  Now, I am concerned that Griffen’s weight loss will at least temporarily hinder his ability to be productive at that spot, let alone as a part of the defensive tackle rotation.

The handling of these two very different situations follow a troubling pattern that cause me to flash back to my objections to the handling of Joe Webb, Donovan McNabb, and Chris Cook.

Troubling patterns are the worst kind, and the fact that I am starting to notice them is giving me an uneasy feeling.

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