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The Sports Xchange, Published September 26 2013

Vikings unveil QB sneak in England

The Minnesota Vikings may have found a convenient way to take a look at backup quarterback Matt Cassel without technically benching the struggling Christian Ponder.

Whether anyone buys it is another matter entirely.

The team is an hour outside of London in a quiet countryside hotel and practice facility as they prepare for a "home" game against the Steelers on Sunday at Wembley Stadium.

It also appeared on Wednesday to be the perfect setting in which to subtly drop in the news that Ponder had suffered a rib injury early in the Cleveland Browns game and might not be able to play against the Steelers.

Ponder said the injury didn't prohibit him from throwing normally during the rest of the Browns game, nor was it preventing him from throwing on Wednesday. He said the biggest concern is taking contact, adding that throwing is "uncomfortable, but (the pain is) manageable."

"I wasn't sure how serious it was and kind of played through it and was fine," Ponder said. "I got the news yesterday morning that it was injured."

So, to be clear, it was news to him.

Ponder, per team protocol, wouldn't reveal the extent of the injury. He said his mindset is to do everything in his power to play but "would be smart" about not risking further injury.

"My mindset is we're going to do what's best for the team," Ponder said. "If I can't perform my regular duties, then Matt is going to step in and play."

Coach Leslie Frazier said Wednesday that he needed to watch Ponder in practice this week to make a determination. Ponder was limited in practice on Wednesday even though the injury was never mentioned on Sunday or Monday.

Early signs point toward Cassel, the former Chiefs starter who was a Pro Bowler in 2011 and a turnover machine that got benched a year ago, will make his Vikings debut on Sunday. The Vikings and Steelers are both 0-3 and desperate to shake things up.

Ponder returned to practice in London on Thursday and is expected to start with tender ribs.

The embattled quarterback, booed mightily in his home stadium in Minneapolis last week, split repetitions with backup Cassel Thursday and veteran wide receiver Greg Jennings noticed one major difference.

"He's more verbal, kind of commanding in the huddle," Jennings said of Cassel. "That's the difference. That comes with him having more experience."

Frazier said the notion that the Vikings are pulling for Cassel to play this week is without merit.

"We want Christian to play," Frazier said.

The Steelers are the only team in the league without a takeaway, while the Vikings have turned the ball over 10 times, second most in the league behind only the Giants. Ponder has continued his trend of up-and-down play. He's spent more times down than up, having turned the ball over seven times while posting a 65.9 passer rating that ranks 30th in the league.

"Christian's a tough kid," Cassel said. "I don't know his situation or how it's going to go, but I've got to prepare like I'm going to play."

Given the suspicious nature of Wednesday's events in London, that would be a wise move on Cassel's part.

SERIES HISTORY: 16th regular-season meeting. Vikings lead series, 8-7. Steelers won the last meeting, beating a Brett Favre-led team 27-17 in Pittsburgh. The most historic meeting came in Super Bowl IX at the end of the 1974 season. The Steelers won 16-6.

NOTES, QUOTES

• Running back Adrian Peterson had to deal with more than fans and reporters when it came to criticism of the Vikings' upset loss to the Browns on Sunday. That was a warm-up for his young daughter, who laid into him, saying she "couldn't believe you lost to the Browns.

"She kind of shocked me when she said it," Peterson said. "Kind of threw me off a little bit. In my head, I was like, got to give credit to those guys. They were pretty good. Not the same old Browns I remember."

• Peterson was reminded by a member of his struggles - relatively speaking, of course -- this season when a member of the British media said, "Since that fine run you had in the opening match, you've had a bit of tough sledding."

Peterson's first carry of the year went 78 yards for a touchdown. He's averaged 3.0 yards on his next 68 carries.

"You're facing eight and nine man boxes and teams come in focusing on stopping the run and try and make the team offensive one dimensional," Peterson said. "You're going to have some games like that where it's tough sledding."

BY THE NUMBERS:

29 - Number of consecutive regular-season starts for quarterback Christian Ponder, who might miss Sunday's game against the Steelers because of a rib injury. Although he has the regular-season streak going back to the seventh game of the 2011 season, Ponder did miss last year's wild-card playoff game because of an injured elbow on his throwing arm.

QUOTE TO NOTE:

"I might have to take some acting classes and see what I can do. You never know." - RB Adrian Peterson, when asked by a member of the British media whether his cameo on "The League" might be parlayed into a starring role as a future James Bond.

PLAYER NOTES

• SLB Desmond Bishop played 12 defensive snaps, one fewer than starter Marvin Mitchell. Bishop is the better player, but has been slow adjusting to a new team after coming back from a torn hamstring that cost him all of last season with the Packers. The Vikings use so much nickel defense that the strong-side backer isn't on the field much. Bishop, however, is close to overtaking Mitchell, a career special teamer.

• WR Cordarrelle Patterson played 21 snaps against the Browns. That's 10 more than he played in the first two games combined. He also was targeted four times - once more than the first two games combined - and caught two passes for 49 yards. It's only a matter of time before Patterson becomes a starter, but Jerome Simpson has done a good job holding the youngster off so far. But either way, Patterson needs to keep playing more.

• LG Charlie Johnson had his worst game at guard for the Vikings. He gave up two sacks and four hurries, including one knockdown, against the Browns.

• CB-PR Marcus Sherels was a surprise final-roster survivor again this year. His talent doesn't leap out at anyone. But his reliability is top shelf. He's a sure-handed punt returner, a backup kickoff returner and holds his own when calamity strikes at corner, which it did last Sunday. With Chris Cook and A.J. Jefferson out with injuries, Sherels had to play more than three quarters at right corner. He was targeted 18 times but gave up only 50 yards on nine catches because of some solid tackling.

• CB Josh Robinson continues to struggle as a starter in the base and the slot guy in the nickel. According to profootballfocus.com, he was targeted nine times and gave up eight catches for 104 yards. The one incompletion was the only one in 23 pass attempts against Robinson.

INJURY IMPACT

• QB Christian Ponder (ribs) was limited again in Thursday's practice, but spoke afterward and said he did more work on Thursday and felt OK. Coach Leslie Frazier had said earlier in the day that Ponder was "a little sore" after Wednesday's practice. Ponder looked OK in the small portion of practice open to the media, but the Vikings appear to be leaning toward taking advantage of this injury to take a look at backup Matt Cassel without benching Ponder for poor performance.

• CB A.J. Jefferson (ankle) was limited in Thursday's practice after sitting out Wednesday. Barring a setback, it appears Jefferson will start in place of regular starting right cornerback Chris Cook.

• CB Chris Cook (groin) missed practice again on Thursday and now appears unlikely to play on Sunday.

• SS Jamarca Sanford (hamstring) was limited in Thursday's practice after sitting out on Wednesday. The Vikings will be careful with the hamstring, but Sanford might be able to play by Sunday.

• TE-FB Rhett Ellison (knee) missed practice again on Thursday and appears unlikely to play on Sunday.

• RB Matt Asiata (hamstring) returned to practice after missing Wednesday's workout. He was limited on Wednesday and had full participation on Thursday.

GAME PLAN:

The Vikings can't let the Steelers gain the offensive balance they've been sorely lacking. They need to stuff rookie running back Le'Veon Bell early on in his NFL debut. Otherwise, with some help from the running game, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be tough to beat with a secondary that's beat up. The Steelers rank 31st in third-down conversions (27.8 percent). The Vikings need to extend those woes and also eliminate turnovers. They've turned the ball over 10 times, but the Steelers are the only team in the league without a takeaway.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH:

• Vikings RB Adrian Peterson, who was held to 88 yards with a long of just nine a week ago, vs. Steelers Safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark -- Peterson is averaging just 3.0 yards since taking his first carry of the season 78 yards for a touchdown. On Sunday, the Browns took him out of the game by crowding the line of scrimmage with their safeties. Polamalu is still fast enough to show blitz and drop into coverage or show coverage and come up to stuff Peterson. Overall, the Steelers rank 22nd in run defense. The Browns ranked No. 2.

• Vikings MLB Erin Henderson, who had two sacks and an interception in the loss to the Browns, vs. Steelers rookie RB Le'Veon Bell, who is expected to make his NFL debut and start against the Vikings -- Henderson and the Vikings have struggled against the run, but the Steelers have been awful running the ball, ranking 31st with an average of just 51.7 yards per game. Everyone knows the Steelers would love to run the ball to take the heat off of Ben Roethlisberger. Bell, a second-round draft pick who sprained his foot early in the preseason, could be the spark the Steelers need. The run defense starts with the interior defensive line, but Henderson and outside backers Chad Greenway and the strong-side combo of Marvin Mitchell and Desmond Bishop must finish the plays with solid tackles.