The Sports Xchange, Published December 03 2013
With Ponder's concussion, QB situation fluid once againAfter six consecutive starts and one week without facing questions about who will start at quarterback, Christian Ponder's short and long-term status with the Vikings is once again up in the air.
A concussion suffered with 1 minute, 18 seconds left in the first half of Sunday's 23-20 overtime win over the Bears at Mall of America Field was Ponder's third injury of the season and the second one to knock him out of a game.
But even if Ponder passes the NFL-mandated protocol for returning from a concussion this week, coach Leslie Frazier is looking at changing quarterbacks for non-injury reasons for the fourth time in 13 games.
"Matt did a good job in relief," Frazier said. "We'll monitor Christian's health throughout the week and we'll sit down and talk as a staff to see what's the best direction to go."
The best direction to go is obvious, and it's away from Ponder. Although Ponder left with a 7-6 lead, it wasn't because of anything he did particularly. He had three completions in eight attempts for 40 yards and a 54.2 passer rating. In six first-half possessions, the Vikings punted five times.
With Cassel in the game, the passing game came alive and was a complement to a running game that featured a franchise-record 35 carries for 211 yards for Adrian Peterson.
When the pass defense gave up two long third-quarter touchdowns to fall behind 20-10, it was Cassel who calmly directed two fourth-quarter scoring drives to tie the game with a 30-yard field goal with 20 seconds left in regulation. Cassel then worked in conjunction with Peterson in the overtime, completing three passes to Greg Jennings for 38 yards.
"I can't speak enough in high regards to what (Casse) did," said Jennings, who had six catches for 76 yards and a touchdown with Cassel and one catch for two yards with Ponder. "We sort of see the same things and you know he's been in the game a long time, so he's seen a lot of defenses and understands what they're going to throw at him. I think we share that same mindset when it comes to that, but it's one of those things where he kind of just finds the guys."
Cassel is 1-1 as a starter this season. He beat the Steelers in London in Week 4, but then lost his job after losing at home to Carolina 35-10 the following week.
Josh Freeman started the next game against the Giants in New York on Monday Night Football. It came after just the recently-signed Freeman had practiced only four times with the first team.
Freeman flopped miserably and Frazier went back to Ponder. But now, with Ponder ineffective and Freeman obviously unable to get up to speed quick enough, Cassel is the no-brainer pick to start at quarterback on Sunday in Baltimore.
Cassel, as usual, chooses to deflect questions that could further add to what's been a season-long quarterback controversy.
"You know what, I don't make those decisions," he said. "I might not always agree with it, but at the same time, my job is to go out there and be prepared and be accountable to those guys in that locker room."
• 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.'"
• 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.
• 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).
• 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.
• WR Greg Jennings clearly has a better connection with backup quarterback Matt Cassel than starter - or potentially former 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.