Vikings chuck Freeman audition in favor of competing with Cassel
With coach Leslie Frazier still trying to save his job near the end of a lost season and quarterback Matt Cassel coming off a 382-yard passing performance in an 48-30 upset win over the Eagles, it’s pretty obvious the season will end without the Minnesota Vikings getting a second chance to evaluate Josh Freeman on the field.
Cassel is the unquestioned starter at the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. The Vikings (4-9-1) are 2-1 this month in part due to Cassel’s play, and 6-2 in the past two Decembers. Beating the Bengals (9-5), who lead the AFC North and are 6-0 at home this season, would further boost Frazier’s argument that he deserves another year to establish himself as an NFL head coach, as well as Cassel’s contention that he’s capable of once again being a regular starter, either here or somewhere else.
Throw in the expected return of running backs Adrian Peterson (foot) and Toby Gerhart (hamstring), cornerback Chris Cook (knee), right guard Brandon Fusco (knee) and tight end John Carlson (concussion) and, well, the Vikings are more excited about their chance at a third upset in four weeks than they are about whether Freeman will get playing time.
So pardon Frazier for sidestepping the question about wanting to get another look at Freeman, the former Buccaneers quarterback who was signed on Oct. 6, when the season concludes a week from Sunday against the Lions at Mall of America Field.
“I’d like to see Matt play well this week,” said Frazier, who has switched back and forth among three quarterbacks because of injuries and performance this year. “Personally, you guys might not believe this, but I don’t like juggling quarterbacks. I like to have a quarterback and not even have to worry about that position at all.
“Believe me, things would be a lot better, a lot easier. But we’re counting on Matt having success and playing again the next week and leading us to victory the next couple of weeks. But right now, our focus is on this Cincinnati game. That’s the most important one to our team.”
Cassel is 2-2 as a starter. He also came on in relief against the Bears on Dec. 1 when Christian Ponder suffered a concussion in the final minute of the first half. It was Cassel’s calm passing that led the Vikings back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to an overtime win.
Ponder, who gets credit for the Bears victory, is 2-6-1 this season. Freeman is 0-1 with his only start being the Oct. 22 Monday Night Football game at the Giants.
Freeman made his lone start and appearance after just four practices with the first team. It was assumed that the Vikings would take a long look at him since they were 1-4 and going nowhere. But a concussion suffered during a horrendous outing against the Giants led to Ponder returning to the lineup and Freeman disappearing for what appears to be the rest of the season.
It has been a somewhat puzzling situation since the Vikings beat out other teams to acquire Freeman and give him $2 million for 12 games. Freeman will be a free agent after the season.
What makes the odd situation less puzzling is the fact Frazier doesn’t have a contract beyond 2014. The team didn’t give him a multi-year extension after a surprising 10-win playoff season a year ago.
Not that Frazier wouldn’t be trying to win anyway, but he really can’t afford to be holding auditions at quarterback. Especially after how poorly things turned out the first time he gave Freeman a chance.
Cassel is 31 and in his ninth NFL season. Ponder, who is in his third season, and Freeman, who is in his fifth season, are 25. Where Cassel has set himself apart from the other two is poise in the pocket. Although, to be fair, Freeman’s situation was completely different than Ponder’s in that Freeman had been on the roster for only 14 days before he was asked to start a game.
Cassel, according to ESPN Stats and Information, ranks second among all NFL quarterbacks with a passer rating of 114.9 when facing five or more rushers. Ponder ranks 30th in that category with a 78.6 passer rating.
“Matt knows where to go with the football in pre-snap and gets it out of his hands because of that,” Frazier said. “He doesn’t hesitate. He knows exactly where it has to go and that’s his veteran experience and the confidence he has that he can make those plays.”
And with a head coach’s job possibly hanging in the balance, Frazier understandably is focused on preparing Cassel for victory than auditioning Freeman for some other coach next season.
SERIES HISTORY: 12th regular-season meeting. Vikings lead series, 6-5. The Vikings have never lost to the Bengals at home, but are 1-5 against them on the road. The last meeting came in 2009, a 30-10 win by the Vikings at the Metrodome. The last meeting in Cincinnati was a 37-8 Bengals win in 2005.
n Receiver Jerome Simpson had one of the stranger post-game interviews in recent memory.
He was talking about a taunting penalty he received in the win over the Eagles when he made a point to bring up that the official said something objectionable to him and other Vikings players.
He wouldn’t elaborate. But when a public relations official stepped in to end the interview, Simpson said he wanted to keep talking. But then he didn’t give any details on what he was talking about. Or which official he was talking about.
“It was kind of some stuff that’s controversial things that he said to our players about that,” Simpson said.
Asked (begged?) to explain since, after all, he was the who brought the whole thing up in the first place, Simpson said, “It was definitely nothing that you say - that you should say to our players. What he said, I didn’t like it. I wanted to go ask him about it after the game but he took off into the locker room.”
Simpson did say it “wasn’t racist.”
Coach Leslie Frazier was asked about it on Monday. He wouldn’t give any details, either.
“It’s much more than it needed to be (from Simpson),” Frazier said. “I don’t think it’ll come to a whole lot.”
n For the 30th time in four seasons, once-promising second-round draft pick Chris Cook wasn’t there for his team. A bruised knee suffered in last Friday’s practice knocked the cornerback out of Sunday’s game. The other starting corner, Xavier Rhodes, didn’t practice all week because of a badly sprained ankle.
An MRI on Cook’s knee revealed a bone bruise. Whether he played or not was a matter of pain tolerance. Cook tested the knee Sunday morning and couldn’t go.
That forced the Vikings to start Shaun Prater, a second-year player they claimed off waivers from Philadelphia on Oct. 22. Prater made his first NFL start against the team that released him. He also used a savvy move in zone coverage to grab his first career interception on a deep ball inside the 10-yard line. And with that pick, he now has one more interception than Cook has in his entire career.
Cook began his career with so much promise as the team’s top pick in 2010. He had the size and speed the Vikings coveted. But injuries and legal issues have made him the least reliable player on the team. His contract is up after this season and it’s unlikely the team will even try to re-sign him.
Frazier sounded a little fed up when asked how frustrating it has been having Cook leave the team hanging so many times in four years.
“You can have talent but if you’re not available, that kind of negates everything that you’re trying to get done as a player and it really makes it tough for your teammates as well,” Frazier said. “I know he’s trying to get out there.”
BY THE NUMBERS: 0-7-1 — The Vikings’ road record, including 0-1 in the playoffs, since beating the Texans in Houston in Week 16 a year ago. The Vikings did beat the Steelers in a neutral site, London, where they were designated the home team.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “The game is so popular. And (scoring) kind of drives the engine. ... The popularity of our league really drives what happens for all of us that are involved. So I’m not sure it’ll change anytime soon.” — Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, a defensive guy, when asked if the NFL — which is averaging 47.5 points per game and is on pace to break the mark of 46.5 set in 1948 — is going overboard in its quest for increased scoring.
Strategy and personnel
n WR Greg Jennings will make his 100th career start on Sunday. He’s coming off a career-high 11 catches for 163 yards. The yardage total was four shy of his career high and the most by a Viking since Sidney Rice had 201 while playing with Brett Favre against the Lions in 2009.
n QB Matt Cassel threw for 382 yards in last week’s win over the Eagles. It was the fourth-highest total of his career and the most by a Viking since Brett Favre threw for 446 against the Cardinals in 2010. Cassel also has two touchdown passes of 70-plus yards. That ties a team record.
n RB Matt Asiata went into the Eagles game with just three career carries. He carried it 30 times for 51 yards and three touchdowns against Philadelphia. He became the first Vikings player to rush for three touchdowns in his first career start since Daunte Culpepper did it in 2000.
n CB Shaun Prater’s first career interception in his first career start came against an Eagles team that released him two months ago. Now, he faces the Bengals, the team that drafted him a year ago.
n DEs Brian Robison and Jared Allen lead the team with nine sacks apiece. Each had two sacks against the Eagles a week ago. The Vikings haven’t had two players in double digits in sacks since DT Kevin Williams (12) and DE Lance Johnstone (11) did it in 2004.
n RB Adrian Peterson (foot) missed the second half of the Baltimore game and the entire Eagles game, but is expected return this week at Cincinnati.
n RB Toby Gerhart (hamstring) missed the Eagles game but is expected to return on Sunday in Cincinnati. If for some reason Gerhart and Peterson can’t play, the Vikings will lean on Matt Asiata again. Asiata went into the Eagles game with three career carries. He finished with three touchdowns in 30 carries for 51 yards.
n TE John Carlson (concussion) missed the Eagles game, but has passed the NFL protocol for concussions and is expected to return on Sunday.
n CB Xavier Rhodes (ankle) was injured at Baltimore and did not play against the Eagles. He missed practice on Wednesday and will need to make significant progress to have a chance to play on Sunday. Without Rhodes last week, punt returner Marcus Sherels made his fifth career start. He’s not the most physically gifted player, but he’s a quick little scrapper who knows how to stay in position.
n RG Brandon Fusco (knee) was injured in the Baltimore game and was unable to play against the Eagles. He’s expected to play on Sunday. If he can’t, Joe Berger, a quality veteran interior backup, has stepped in the past two games and held his own.
n CB Chris Cook (knee) was a surprise addition to the injury report last Friday. He was injured in practice and did not play on Sunday. He’s expected to return Sunday. With Cook out, the Vikings gave Shaun Prater, whom they claimed off waivers from Philadelphia on Oct. 22, his first NFL start. Prater responded with his first career interception.
GAME PLAN: Much will depend on whether the Vikings feel comfortable putting Peterson (foot) and/or Gerhart (hamstring) back on the field a week after holding them out because of injuries. Frazier said he expects both to be ready to play. But even if they aren’t, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave still found a way to be balanced in the win over the Eagles a week ago. With No. 3 running back Matt Asiata carrying the ball 30 times, the Vikings ran the ball 35 times and passed it 35 times.
The running game averaged only 2.4 yards a carry, but slamming the line of scrimmage 35 times helped Cassel have the finest game by a Vikings quarterback since Brett Favre in 2009. Cassel threw for 382 yards and two touchdowns and, of course, will start again this week. If Peterson plays, he’ll still get his touches, but Cassel gives the Bengals something to worry about when it comes to pushing the ball down the field. Peterson could exploit that if Cincinnati chooses to keep seven in the box.
Defensively, the Vikings have been blitzing more and playing man press coverage on the outside. With no playoff picture to worry about, look for them to continue that. Especially if they get Rhodes back from his ankle injury.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
Vikings CBs Marcus Sherels and Robert Blanton vs. Bengals WR A.J. Green. Rhodes battling a serious ankle injury that could knock him out of his second straight game, the Vikings could be in a serious mismatch situation against the rangy, 6-4, 207-pound Green. Rhodes doesn’t have the experience to match up to Green, but he does have size, long arms and growing confidence.
Sherels is a scrapper, but primarily he’s a smallish punt returner. He held his own in an emergency start against the Eagles last week, but he has only six NFL starts and only plays corner when others are injured.
Blanton, meanwhile, is a former college corner who was converted to safety as a rookie last year. He has spent the past four games playing the nickel slot corner position. Nickel basically is the Vikings’ base defense, so Blanton has started the past two games. He’s usually a half-step slow and is susceptible to holding and illegal contact penalties as he scrambles to try and keep up. Look for the Bengals to exploit that matchup with Green. Green already has a team-record six 100-yard games. He ranks sixth in the league in catches (87) and receiving yards (1,268).
Vikings LT Matt Kalil vs. Bengals WLB Vontaze Burfict. Kalil hasn’t played as well in his second season as he did as a rookie. Of course, none of the offensive linemen have been as good this year as they were last year. Kalil has had lapses where he has looked like he’s standing still while the defender runs easily by. He has played better of late, but will be among the blockers who is tested by Burfict. With 182 tackles (124 solo), Burfict leads Cincinnati by 83 stops. And this is a year after he led them with 174 as an undrafted free agent rookie. Burfict also has 10 passes defensed (third most on the team), an interception and eight quarterback pressures.