Vikings pencil in Cassel as starter
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Leslie Frazier announced a change in starting quarterbacks Wednesday for the fourth time in 13 games. And that doesn’t count the number of weeks the Minnesota Vikings coach weighed his starting options and stuck with the inconsistent Christian Ponder.
Matt Cassel, who just weeks ago was excluded by Frazier from competing with Ponder and Josh Freeman for the starting job, is back in for at least one start when the Vikings (3-8-1) travel to play the Baltimore Ravens (6-6) on Sunday. Ponder is out for at least one week after suffering more symptoms Wednesday from the concussion that knocked him out of the Vikings’ 23-20 overtime win over the Chicago Bears on Sunday.
Cassel is 1-1 as a starter this season. He looked really good in a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in London in Week 4 and really bad in a home loss to the Carolina Panthers in the team’s next outing.
“Part of (the reason for Cassel starting this week) is what he did in the second half of that ballgame on Sunday,” Frazier said. Cassel led the Vikings back from a 20-10 deficit with a fourth-quarter touchdown pass and a last-minute, game-tying field goal drive in regulation.
“Also, seeing (Cassel’s) comfort level with where we are, and having a comfort level with him as well. But his work on Sunday has a lot to do with it. He did an outstanding job.”
Regarding the NFL’s concussion protocol, Frazier said Wednesday, “There are some things that, at this stage, (Ponder) has to get done that he wasn’t able to get done today. More than likely Matt Cassel is going to be our starter for this ballgame. We’ll proceed accordingly with Josh as our backup, understanding where Christian is in trying to pass those tests.”
If Ponder were cleared to practice Thursday, the plan could evolve, but Frazier said that is unlikely.
Waiting to see what happens at quarterback from week to week is an all-too-familiar theme for the Vikings. Naturally, the starter for the home game against the Philadelphia Eagles on Dec. 15 is anyone’s guess at this point.
“Well, you’re always graded on performance,” Frazier said. “So if (Cassel) performs, we’ll sit down and talk about it Monday and make a determination from there.”
When Ponder broke a rib against the Cleveland Browns in Week 3, Cassel started Week 4 against the Steelers. Cassel threw for two touchdowns in a turnover-free victory and kept the job. He was replaced by Josh Freeman a week later after throwing two interceptions in a 35-10 loss to Carolina.
Freeman’s only action as a Viking came during his lone start at the New York Giants on Oct. 21, 14 days after he was signed as a free agent. He completed just 20 of 53 passes (37.7 percent) in a nightmarish performance as the Vikings lost 23-7. The Minnesota offense didn’t score a point.
Freeman suffered a concussion in that game, and he has not played since. Talking about his upcoming No. 2 role in Baltimore, Freeman tried to help explain his recent inactivity.
“An NFL offense — and I know you (reporters) haven’t been around them — but they’re pretty complex,” he said. “There are different layers. There’s stuff that they might’ve run earlier in the year that’s a pretty hard concept that they just installed for the certain week. There’s a lot to take in, and it’s been fun learning it.
“Of course, as a competitor I want to play. But I’m a guy that’s just going to work my butt off until that opportunity comes.”
With Freeman still learning and Ponder ailing, Cassel said he isn’t examining his role beyond the game at Baltimore.
“If you start looking ahead, looking for the future, the what-ifs and putting added pressure on yourself, it’s as difficult as it can possibly be every Sunday because there’s always good opponents,” said Cassel, who completed 20 of 33 passes for 243 yards with one touchdown pass and one interception against the Bears. “But my focus is always on this opponent, this game, and we’ll worry about the future later.”
n Adrian Peterson had another one of those milestone games that left everyone trying to figure out where he’ll end up ranking in NFL history once he’s finished playing.
In surpassing 10,000 yards with a 35-carry, 211-yard performance against the Bears, Peterson made it onto a long list of post-game notes that put his name alongside the greats of the game.
He became the fifth player to reach 10,000 yards in his first seven seasons. The only players to do it quicker than Peterson’s 101 games were Eric Dickerson (91) and Jim Brown (98).
Someone asked what a 16-year-old Peterson would have thought, had he been compared to Dickerson and Brown.
“I would have believed it,” he said. “This has been my mind-set since I was young, to be the best to ever play. You have got to believe in order to accomplish it. So if you had told me that, I would have been like, ‘Hmmm ... he is thinking what I am thinking.’”
n Coach Leslie Frazier is stuck between a Hall of Fame running back he played with and a future Hall of Fame running back he’s oh so happy to have on his team.
So you’ll have to excuse Frazier for putting on his tap dancing shoes when asked to pick between Peterson and former Bears teammate Walter Payton as the player he considers the best running back of all-time.
“We watched Mr. Payton play and I’ve talked to Adrian about that a few times,” Frazier said. “Adrian is, in today’s football, the best running back in pro football. Walter, he’s pretty special. That would be a good argument to have, who is the best of all time. I love the fact that Adrian is on our team and we don’t have to defend him. He’s incredible.”
In team history, the Vikings had only 200-yard game by a runner — by Chuck Foreman - in their first 694 games. In the 101 games since Peterson arrived, Peterson has five of them. The only player with more in NFL history is O.J. Simpson with six.
Strategy and personnel
n RB Adrian Peterson set a team record for most carries in a game. His 35 attempts broke his team record of 34 set against the Packers in Week 17 a year ago. With 211 yards rushing, he also became the 28th player in NFL history to reach 10,000 rushing yards (10,027).
n WR-KR Cordarrelle Patterson became the sixth Viking and first rookie in team history to score three different ways in a season. His 33-yard touchdown run gives him scores rushing, receiving and returning. Former Viking Percy Harvin did it three separate years.
n WR Greg Jennings clearly has a better connection with quarterback Matt Cassel than starter Christian Ponder. Jennings had one catch for 2 yards with Ponder in the game until a minute left in the first half. With Ponder out with a concussion and Cassel in the game, Jennings had six catches for 76 yards and a touchdown, including three catches for 38 yards in overtime. All three of Jennings’ touchdown catches as a Viking have been thrown by Cassel.
n FS Andrew Sendejo tied for the team high in tackles with 10. It’s the fourth time he’s finished in double digits in the seven games he’s started in place of the injured Harrison Smith. Smith is a star player and one of the league’s best young safeties. He’ll get his job back as early as the Eagles game a week from Sunday, when he’s eligible to come off injured reserve. But that doesn’t mean Sendejo hasn’t played himself into consideration at the other safety spot. The Vikings rotate safety responsibilities, so players are trained in both free and strong. Sendejo has been active and physical enough to push Jamarca Sanford at the other safety.
n DE Jared Allen had one sack, giving him just six on the season. He vowed last week to finish with 10 and beat out fellow defensive end Brian Robison in their friendly competition for the team lead. Robison also had a sack, giving him six on the season as well. Allen has not finished in single digits nor failed to lead his team in sacks since 2006, his third season in Kansas City.
n LB Chad Greenway (wrist) revealed that he’s been playing with fractures in his right wrist for more than a month. He hasn’t missed a practice or a game, but says not being able to grip with that hand has affected his play.
n TE Kyle Rudolph (foot) fractured his left foot in the Dallas game and could return to practice this week. The No. 1 tight end job has fallen to John Carlson. Carlson is similar but not quite as good as Rudolph. He had three catches on Sunday.
n CB Josh Robinson, the second-year pro who had struggled in trying to replace the departed Antoine Winfield, missed his second straight game and could miss the rest of the season because of a fractured sternum. The Vikings are still holding out hope that he will return late in the season. Robinson had gotten better of late, but still has a long way to go. Rookie first-round draft pick Xavier Rhodes replaced Rhodes and had his best game as a pro with four passes defensed until leaving late with a concussion.
n S Harrison Smith (turf toe) hasn’t played since the fifth game and is on injured reserve with designation to return. He’s eligible to return for the final three games. He returned to practice last Friday and is ahead of schedule.
Report card vs. Bears
PASSING OFFENSE: B —- Christian Ponder was ineffective with a 54.2 passer rating and just three completions for 40 yards before leaving with a concussion with minute left in the first half. But threw himself back into the mix at the position when he came on and led the Vikings from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to a 20-20 tie at the end of regulation. He had two excellent drives that included an eight-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings and a fourth-and-11 conversion from his own 8-yard line en route to the tying field goal with 20 seconds left. In overtime, he was efficient, completing three of four passes for 38 yards. Three of those overtime completions and all 38 yards went to Greg Jennings, who is much more in sync with Cassel than he his Ponder. Cassel completed 20 of 33 passes for 243 yards, a touchdown, an 80.7 passer rating and an interception that would have been a 4-yard touchdown had receiver Rhett Ellison not let a well-thrown slant bounce off his chest at the goal line.
RUSHING OFFENSE: A-plus — Adrian Peterson mashed a beat-up Bears defense with a career-high 35 carries for 211 yards. The longest run was only 23 yards, so it was a consistent dose of battering that the Bears received. The Vikings also lined up big rookie receiver/returner Cordarrelle Patterson as a tailback for one snap. He took a pitch to the right, made a defender miss, ran through another and scored on a 33-yard touchdown run.
PASS DEFENSE: D — The Vikings held Brandon Marshall to four catches for 45 yards, deflected a Josh McCown shovel pass to create a turnover and came up with four sacks. But there wasn’t much else to celebrate as Alshon Jeffery punished the Vikings’ secondary with 12 catches for 249 yards and a pair of long third-down touchdowns. Cornerback Chris Cook was so frustrated by Jeffery that he got ejected from the game after making contact with an official after Jeffery’s second touchdown of the quarter. Cook, who was beaten for scores of 80 and 46 yards, appeared to be upset about what he thought was offensive pass interference on an earlier play. His ejection forced the Vikings to play punt returner Marcus Sherels for the final 23 minutes of regulation and overtime. But the Vikings actually played better defensively after Cook left the game. Of course, part of that had to do with the Bears becoming too conservative after going up by 10.
RUSH DEFENSE: C — It could have been a worse grade if Bears coach Marc Trestman hadn’t elected to attempt a field goal on second down in overtime. The Bears had gone 24 yards on five carries through the heart of the Vikings defense when Trestman decided to kick the field goal that would have won the game. But the 47-yarder was wide right. Overall, the Vikings did OK against the run. Matt Forte ran for 120 yards on 23 carries with a 41-yarder. That’s a 5.2 average, but only 3.6 without the 41-yarder. The Bears had only two other carries for 15 yards. Michael Bush had a 15-yarder, but it was his only carry of the game.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C — Obviously, the Vikings did enough right on special teams to win an overtime game on a 34-yard field goal by Blair Walsh. However, they sure made it harder than it should have been. A face-mask penalty on Ellison on a successful 39-yard field goal on the Vikings’ first possession of overtime ruined quite the celebration. As soon as Walsh’s kick cleared the uprights, fireworks went off. The guys who carry the flags that spell out Vikings rushed the field. Two players — safety Jamarca Sanford and Jennings — ran up the tunnel to the locker room. But the flag ended the celebration and sent team employees up the tunnel to retrieve Jennings and Sanford. The ensuing 15-yard mark off and a loss of three yards by Peterson resulted in Walsh pulling a 57-yard attempt off the lower left upright. It was his second miss from beyond 49 yards this season. A year ago, he went 10 of 10 from that distance. The Vikings also made a mistake in kicking the ball away to Devin Hester after tying the game with 20 seconds left in regulation. Hester, who has four return touchdowns against the Vikings in his career, almost broke free for a touchdown. His 57-yarder did, however, reach midfield and give the Bears a chance to attempt a 66-yard field goal as the fourth quarter expired. The Vikings did other things right, though. Hester had only eight yards on two punt returns. Punter Jeff Locke averaged 44.0 yards with a 42.7 net, two punts inside the 20 and a long of 55.
COACHING: B — His team is far from crisp, but Leslie Frazier continues to deserve credit for having his team emotionally ready to play despite a lost season, record-wise. Offensively, the Vikings had Cassel ready to step in and play the majority of the game, and play well. That’s saying something about the coaching and Cassel’s professionalism considering that he hasn’t been treated equally compared to Ponder and Josh Freeman when it comes to competing for the starting job. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave continues to expand on the creative ways to use rookie receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. Lining him up in the backfield and simply pitching him the ball so he can use his size, strength, speed and athleticism is something that could have been done weeks ago when the season hadn’t crashed. Defensively, the Vikings overcame injuries and Cook’s third-quarter ejection. Coordinator Allen Williams tried some new things up front when he had nickel inside pass rusher Everson Griffen stand up and move around before the snap of the ball. The Vikings need to do more things defensively to create confusion before the snap. On special teams, the decision to kick to Hester with seconds left in regulation could have been a huge gaffe. Instead, it was a learning experience that convinced them to come back with a squib kick in overtime.