Monday, August 20, 2012

Vikings' Training Camp: Week 3 Recap

The Vikings broke training camp this week, and it has yet to be confirmed how many players received speeding tickets while departing Mankato like a bat out of Gage Hall. (Since the St. Peter tornado in 1998, players cited for breaking the sound barrier out of town has declined, theoretically, because there is still today less foilage along Highway 169 for State Patrol prowlers to hide behind.)

The fun isn't over yet, though, as "camp" has relocated from the campus of Minnesota State University to the installation of Winter Park in Eden Prairie. It's now time to get serious if team personnel was not so already. There's just two preseason games left before the start of the season -- technically but the one for the starters -- and decisions aplenty are in need of being made in the time between now and August 31 when the rosters need to be finalized.

The big story at camp this week was Adrian Peterson's active participation in team drills. He might as well have been wearing a quarterback "reddie," as the rest of the team was ordered by the coaches not to even look in his direction let alone touch him. Peterson did not care at all for the kid-gloves treatment, but what're you going to do? There's already talk circulating that Peterson could see action in next Friday night's preseason game against San Diego. Of course, there was that sort of talk about Adrian "getting some snaps" in last Friday's game versus Buffalo as well. No beating around the bush, the Vikings would have to be smoking crack through a Whizzinator to give him any preseason action. I say that realizing that he needs to get hit sooner rather than later. But considering that there are many already questioning whether Peterson is "rushing back" from a serious injury, if Peterson was re-injured in a meaningless preseason game it would be a public relations nightmare for the organization.

Everson Griffin was returned to his natural position of defensive end after he was tried at linebacker but was too often confused for Jasper Brinkley there. It was a long enough shot that Griffin would successfully make the transition to linebacker that it ought to be questioned whether the attempt should have been made at all. There's nothing wrong with having depth at any position, and if defensive coordinator Alan Williams wants to employ a "hockey rotation" with his defensive line (I'll believe it when I see it), then Griffin should have remained where he was at.
Michael Jenkins agreed to take a pay cut which should secure a spot on the roster for him. A veteran receiver not exactly fitting the part of a team "building with youth," Jenkins was considered on the proverbial bubble to make the roster. But following the significant injury to rookie Greg Childs, and with Cannabis Simpson suspended for the first three games of the regular season, the Vikings look remarkably thin at the wide receiver position.   

With that said, Vikings' wide receiver coach George Stewart feels confident that they "are going to have five quality receivers on the field against [opening opponent] Jacksonville." I guess it all depends on his definition of "quality."  QB Christian Ponder became animated on the final day of camp after four receivers dropped passes during individual drills. But with Stewart perhaps tipping his hand that the team intends to keep five wide receivers (which most likely amounts to six with Simpson suspension's in play), it appears that either Emmanuel Arceneaux or Devin Aromashodu will be making the roster — assuming that Harvin, Simpson, Wright, Burton and Jenkins have all secured a place on the final roster, which I believe they have. Other receivers currently on the training camp roster are realistically but candidates for the practice squad.

This past week, the highly-respected Pro Football Focus released its prognosis for the Vikings 2012 season.  Among other interesting data compiled, PFF notes that on average Christian Ponder hung onto the football longer than only three other quarterbacks. It also appears ever the proponent of DC Alan Williams's "hockey rotation" along the D-line — noting that in the past four years no defensive linemen have been on the field more at their respective positions than Jared Allen and Kevin Williams.

The Game

First home game of the year... victory ... some things looking better than others... question marks being answered?  Preseason football at its finest. 

The big story was that the starters saw more action and there were no significant injuries. Ponder was efficient, the run-defense much better from the previous week and rookie placekicker Blair Walsh demonstrated that he should have no problem kicking in the Dome.

~Audie Cole made history with back-to-back pick-6's in the fourth quarter to put the game away (not that Tyler Thigpen and/or Brad Smith had a chance of leading a comeback anyway). Having played on the kickoff unit between interceptions, you could see the Dome roof undulate as Cole sucked oxygen. He's clearly in the best shape of any player on the team now.

~A lot has been made about Cannabis Simpson's hurdling of a Buffalo D-back on his way to a 33-yard gain on a quick slant. I'm kind of bored already with the whole jumping-over-everybody routine. You have to wonder whether Simpson does the same thing in the privacy of his own home — jumping over the dog, the dinner table, doing a somersault onto the toilet?  For a guy that likes weed he sure seems awfully peppy.

~Jasper Brinkley, Mistral Raymond and Harrison Smith all played the entire first-half, on account that Frazier thought they needed the additional work. Along those lines, Frazier labeled Brinkley and fellow linebacker Erin Henderson as "quasi-starters" after the game. In the case of Brinkley that goes without saying.  Henderson has had an unremarkable camp so far, but nonetheless, he couldn't have been too pleased having heard this characterization from the head coach. During the offseason, Henderson felt disrespected when the Vikings didn't offer him a lucrative contract extension -- the Vikings as well as 31 other teams, that is -- and took to Twitter to voice his discontent. He eventually signed a one-year deal worth $2 million. So, its very much a prove it year for Henderson, and it appears that Frazier might be trying to motivate him.

~The Dome crowd on Friday night became embroiled in controversy making as they did all other fans having attended preseason games across the league this weekend look and sound like the background of an episode of  Antique Roadshow. Even while players like A.J. Love and Nick Reed were frolicking around on the field during garbage time, Mardi Gras was alive in the stadium seats. A wave erupted complete with the throwing of game programs in the air. Oh, yikes!  It is possible that Chuck Knoblauch was in attendance and consequently reduced to a whimpering and quivering marsupial balled-up in a fetal position at the sight of things being thrown inside of the Dome, but in all probability, everyone made it out of the stadium all right without any immediate concerns for finding an organ donor. The media trying to sensationalize what was the equivalent of a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese's is indication enough that the profession is bored even with itself.

~During Friday night's game, both tight end Kyle Rudolph and cornerback Chris Cook were taken out of the game because of "concussion symptoms."  Rudolph's "injury" is alleged to have occurred on the first play of the second quarter. On that play, Rudolph made his only catch of the night on a short pass over the middle for a gain of seven yards. The tackle looked innocuous enough and Rudolph went to the sideline on his own volition. Later in the game, Rudolph was shown on the sideline talking to teammates and in control of his faculties. Following the game, he indicated to reporters that he felt fine and passed all required concussion tests.
Unlike Rudolph, Cook received medical attention on the field after he went down to a knee while coming off the field. At the time, it was inconceivable what could possibly be wrong with him being how the replay clearly showed that he hadn't even been touched while going to the ground after stripping Buffalo receiver Stevie Johnson of the football. If anything at all it it looked as though he may have gotten the wind knocked out of him. After seeing the replay twice, it was astounding to hear that Cook was undergoing an evaluation for a concussion. In fact, not only was Cook shown exuberantly sprinting onto the field to congratulate Audie Cole following his second pick-six, in an moment earlier in the quarter while Cook was seen chatting it up with Antoine Winfield on the bench, the camera caught the very moment when his attention was suddenly diverted by the sight and sound of the Vikings' cheerleaders capering past the bench area. Yeah, I'm pretty sure CC is all right.  

But even though Leslie Frazier acknowledged that Rudolph and Cook have hitherto passed all required concussion tests, both players remain "under observation" until the league clears them to participate in practice. It has not been confirmed whether the game-appointed league official responsible for monitoring head injuries adjured that Rudolph and Cook be taken out of the game, but based on the circumstances it does appear likely.

Although all this sounds routine and hardly worth mentioning (particularly in the preseason), the situation is actually an indicator of what might be a controversy lurking during the regular season:  What if Rudolph and Cook had been held out of a regular season game under the same circumstances?  What if by order of the league a crucial player is removed from a close game because of "concussion-like symptoms," his team loses and it is later determined that there was nothing wrong with the player?  What if a player the caliber of a Calvin Johnson, Aaron Rodgers, Troy Polamalu or Ray Rice after merely getting the wind knocked out of him are held out of a half or a series in a game that is to decide a postseason birth because of concussion concerns? 

Because of how Cleveland misdiagnosed an obviously concussed Colt McCoy in last year's final game, the league intends to be very involved this upcoming season in evaluating players for concussion-related symptoms during the games. We already know the ending to this movie:  to make its case that it is doing everything it can to protect players from head injuries, the league will indubitably err on the side of caution every time even the remotest possibility exists that a player may have been concussed:
"Yes, Mr. League Official, he's alert, coherent and unimpaired. Matter of fact, he completed the New York Times crossword puzzle during that last series."  

"Well, I don't know, he still looks a little groggy from way up here in the booth. You better keep him out of the game pending further evaluation."  
Of course, all this will inevitably lead to the league holding players out of games for injuries not related at all to concussion symptoms, as well as for other "precautionary measures":  A player comes off the field with an ankle injury -- he better be checked to see whether he has a concussion as well ... A player's helmet comes off during the play -- now he has to go to the sideline to be tested for a concussion ... A player has been found to be related to someone having once had a concussion -- he needs to be held out of all team activities until genetics is officially ruled out as a possible cause of concussions ... steam is coming off the bald head of a player having just come to the sideline and removed his helmet on a cold, below-zero night at Lambeau Field -- does it need to be said?

Soon enough, like Jimmy Stewart's character in the movie Rear Window, all league officials appointed to monitor concussion symptoms during the games will be staring through binoculars down at the sidelines looking for anything that might imply a player might be susceptible to concussions. If the league official doesn't like the way a player is slurping on his Gatorade or stretching his hammies during pre-game, he'll radio down to the field and have a emissary go over and tap the player on the shoulder. Nothing even will need to be said; the player will just know that he has been diagnosed with a concussion while, for example, giving a pre-game interview with Suzy Kolber and needs to leave the playing field immediately.

~The starters will get their most preseason action next Friday against San Diego.  The first cuts come three days later, and final cuts four days after that. It will be interesting to see how well the starters play against a formidable Chargers team.  The game will be played again at the Dome (aka "Mall of America Field/ Stadium"). For all of you planning on attending it, please consider taking out an insurance policy protecting both yourself and your loved ones from flung game programs and airborne paper planes. Such insurance policies aren't going to be cheap but they're well worth it since the Dome is Ground Zero for such atrocities.  Let's be safe, people.  

Some Does and Bucks from the game:  

The Does

Offensive lineI am perhaps being a little picky with this one, as the starting offensive unit did score on all three of its possessions (one TD, two FG's). But the first drive in particular the O-line had some difficulty keeping a talented Buffalo front four out of their backfield, giving up a couple of sacks. On the third play of the Vikings opening drive, Buffalo DT Marcal Dareus blew-up the pocket by knocking center John Sullivan right back into Christian Ponder. Ponder was flushed which resulted in the 330-pound Dareus landing right on top of him. That's not what you want to see happen to your starting QB during a preseason game. The Vikings were able to overcome the sacks allowed by responding with big plays of their own, but this isn't a luxury they're always going to have at their disposal. Playing in a division of pass-rushing provocateurs like they do, it's imperative to Ponder's development that the Vikings' offensive line gel ASAP.
Chris Carr 
Carr looks like a liability in coverage.  He's been picked on by opposing offenses two games in a row now, and at times he looks like he's playing a different coverage from the rest of the secondary. It will be interesting to see how many CB's the Vikings keep on their 53-man roster. With the team pinning high hopes onto rookie Josh Robinson contributing immediately, and with Zack Bowman, Brandon Burton and Marcus Sherels all having youth and/or return ability going for them, Carr -- who signed but a one-year contract this offseason -- might be the odd man out since he hasn't made a case as of yet how his veteran experience might equate to a more productive secondary this year.

Devin Aromashodu
Aromashodu still doesn't have a preseason catch, and it isn't because of a lack of targets — he had a game high six against Buffalo. In fairness, most passes thrown his way have been courtesy of the long ball and he did manage to haul one in amid tight coverage but he was ruled out of bounds. When a player is on the bubble he needs to seize the opportunities that are given and go out and make a play. Aromashodu appears more committed to shooting the referees with gestures of indignation for not calling pass interference than going all out to come down with the catch. 

Jennifer Sanfilippo-Smith 
She had no part in the game itself, but her asinine comment at 9:16 PM following the aforecited article regarding the festive atmosphere at the Dome Friday night has more than earned a spot on this list:  "Its pre season [sic] boys. We party hard and are complete die hard fans in Bills town. But we are also smart enough to recognize the stakes and importance of each game. And save our excessive celebrations for the appropriate times."  Bills town? Your profile, Jennifer, states that you reside in El Paso, Texas! That's like saying Honaunau-Napoopoo, Hawaii is the nerve center for Skol Nation. And considering the Bills haven't made the playoffs since falling to the Music City Miracle in 1999, your "excessive celebrations" can hardly find an "appropriate time" soon enough.  

The Bucks

Christian Ponder
Ponder was 10-of-13 passing for 136 yards and a touchdown and added six yards on three scrambles. Ponder racked up his numbers in just three drives, and completed passes to eight different receivers. Ponder's decision-making appears improved. He's 14-of-22 for 216 yards and a score thus far this preseason. Ponder missed Kyle Rudolph in the corner of the endzone, but he had a man in his face. That was about the only missed opportunity in the game. In fact, he even made a perfectly under-thrown deep ball to Michael Jenkins down the right sideline for a 35-yard gain. It cannot be stressed enough how ridiculously good one must be to actually get something positive out of underthrowing Michael Jenkins.
Josh Robinson
Robinson had two pass break-ups to go along with two tackles -- it was a case where quality certainly exceeded quantity. The broadcast commentators ridiculed Robinson for not picking off the first of his PBU's, and the Vikings definitely cannot afford any more dropped INT's this year. But watching the replay, one can appreciate what a great play it was for Robinson to even get a hand on it. Robinson was covering the flat in a Cover-2 scheme when he noticed WR Derek Hagan, who technically wasn't even occupying his zone, working his way back towards a soft spot in the coverage. Robinson read the QB and reacted by back-tracking while the ball was in the air, spun around while leaping at least a good three feet and deflected it away from the receiver. Robinson's play forced a Buffalo punt. Then, with time winding down in the second quarter, Robinson made a crucial stop of RB Tashard Choice forcing the Bills into a fourth-down play they would fail to convert. Not at all bad for playing in his first professional game.  

Toby Gerhart
Simply put, knowing that his inevitable role is as Adrian Peterson's back-up, it's easy to undervalue Gerhart as a runner. But take a close look at what you get: a physical specimen at over 230-pounds who accelerates quickly, hits the hole decisively, is faster than he's given credit for and will not go down on first contact. The more you watch Gerhart, the more you appreciate him. He carried the ball six times for 30 yards against the Bills, including a 16-yard surge on 3rd-and-18 which led to the Vikings first TD of the preseason. Gerhart could be a starting running back for many teams, and he's the reason why there's no need to be rushing Adrian Peterson back into action.

Tweets of the week:

Jake Reed:  Can you suit up?
Christian Ballard:  With seafood only.
Erin Henderson:  When was that again?
Kyle Rudolph:  Thank you and welcome home!