Minnesota Vikings: Matt Cassel

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- When he became the Minnesota Vikings' head coach in January, Mike Zimmer got a message from one of his coaching mentors, Bill Parcells, with three points about the hardships of the job Zimmer was about to start. The second point on that list was this: "Four or five things happen in pro football every day that you wish wouldn't happen. If you can't handle those, you need to get another job."

If there's been an overriding theme of Zimmer's first half-season as the Vikings' head coach, that might be it. He saw Adrian Peterson get arrested before the second game of the season, lost Matt Cassel, Kyle Rudolph and Brandon Fusco in the third, was forced to sit Teddy Bridgewater in the fifth and had dealt with two other players in legal trouble by Week 6. He coached with kidney stones in Buffalo on Oct. 19, and saw the Vikings fall to 2-5 on a last-second touchdown. And yet, the team heads into its bye week at 4-5 after victories over a pair of last-place teams roused a flickering playoff hope.

The Vikings probably aren't ready to make a postseason push this year, but there are signs of progress, particularly with a defense that leads the league in sacks and is ranked ninth in pass defense after an offseason overhaul. On Monday, during his final news conference before the bye week, Zimmer said, "I do believe we're building what I envisioned this football team to look like."

[+] EnlargeMike Zimmer
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallMike Zimmer is in his first season as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings after six seasons as the defensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals.
After that news conference, Zimmer sat down in his office with ESPN for a longer interview about his first half-season as the Vikings' head coach and what he expects to happen next. We'll post parts of that interview throughout the rest of this week. Here's the first section of our interview:

In the time you've been the head coach, I'm sure a lot of things probably didn't go the way you drew it up, but has the job itself been about what you expected? Has any part of it surprised you?

Mike Zimmer: Some of the scenarios surprised me a little bit -- the coach (special teams coordinator Mike Priefer) being suspended, and Adrian, and the quarterback getting hurt. You understand the injury part of things, but some of the other things surprise me. Honestly, dealing with the media has been more than I thought it would be. The coaching part has not been overwhelming or anything like that. The schedules were no fun to do, but I think we kind of smoothed those things out. I thought training camp went smooth. I guess, in more ways than one, I've felt pretty comfortable."

When those things come up that do surprise you, what do you draw on to manage them?

Zimmer: A lot of things in the past, but sometimes I'll talk to [offensive coordinator] Norv [Turner] about some of the situations, because he's been through them a lot. I talk to [general manager] Rick [Spielman], obviously. But I guess I just kind of do what I think I need to do. Sometimes it's pulling players in here and talking to them about performances. Sometimes it's getting after them. It's just coaching that point."

You've talked about creating a culture here, or setting expectations. What have you found is the most effective way to do that? Is it harder to do when you're managing a whole team and not just a defense?

Zimmer: Sometimes I get frustrated because I want us to do things better than what we're doing. I try to be consistent with everything I'm trying to do. I think some of it is, just the way I talk to the team, the things I preach to them every day or in the meetings. It hasn't been harder to do it with the team, as opposed to just the defense, but I know as coaches, we talked a lot about -- because I'll get frustrated sometimes, and they'll say, 'Hey, you're trying to create a new culture, you're trying to do all those things.' I said, 'I know, but I expect it to go faster.' And then I think back to Cincinnati -- it was different defensively, but it was kind of the same. We were trying to create a mindset and a toughness and a physicality, and playing smart, and playing a team concept. I guess, sometimes it just doesn't happen quite as fast as I want it to. I have to realize, it's not done in a week. It takes time. But that's the thing I like a little bit about where we're at. You've got guys like [Anthony] Barr and Teddy Bridgewater. Barr is a young guy that's a really good football player, and as a rookie, he doesn't say very much because he kind of understands his place. Teddy's a little bit the same way. But three years from now, when those guys are in their third year and they're really good football players and they're the leaders of this football team, if we keep bringing up the right kind of guys and teaching them exactly how we want it, that could be pretty exciting to see. Not that I want to wait three years, but I can see Teddy and Anthony Barr being the cornerstones of this franchise in three years.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Barr
AP Photo/Jim MoneLinebacker Anthony Barr (55) has the potential to be a cornerstone of the Vikings franchise.
What is it about that process of creating expectations that takes longer than it seems like it should? Is it just the nature of having 53 guys trying to get on the same page?

Zimmer: Honestly, I don't feel like I've had a problem with these guys following me. It's just doing things the way I want them done all the time. I think that's what makes good teams. I was listening to B-Rob [Brian Robison] the other day -- he was talking to somebody about how the defensive line is expected to know what the defensive backs are doing. That's kind of the culture I'm trying to get through. I think if everybody knows what everybody's doing, you all play better. I guess that's what it's really all about: getting everybody on the team on the same page.

You talked about "Zimmer being Zimmer" (on Oct. 13) after you talked about increasing fines for players being late (after a loss to Detroit). Did you learn something from that experience about how much further your words travel as a head coach, and how many more people are listening?

Zimmer: (Laughs) I don't know. I just keep being me. I just keep trying to be me. I don't want to portray anything that's phony or anything else. The one thing I do notice is that, because I'm doing so many press conferences, it's like, a lot more people listen to what I say than really I listen to what I say, if that makes sense. I try to be respectful, and there's always things you're going to hold back, but I'm pretty straight-on. That's just how I'm wired, I guess.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Life is a lot different for Matt Cassel these days than it was about two months ago. Instead of taking starter's snaps in the Minnesota Vikings' practices and preparing for their upcoming opponent, he's doing special projects for coach Mike Zimmer and helping Teddy Bridgewater get ready to play. His physical tasks have shifted from withstanding hits from oncoming linebackers to the twin aims of doing upper body work and trying to manage everyday tasks on a nifty knee scooter that allows him to keep weight off his broken left foot without using crutches.

Matt Cassel
Ed Zurga/Associated PressWhile Matt Cassel's return to playing football will take a few more months, the Vikings QB tries to exercise patience as he rehabs a broken foot.
The devices are handy, Cassel said, except for one problem: "They don't go up stairs."

And by the time Cassel returns from his injury in 2015, he'll likely be confronted with the reality that the Vikings' quarterback job now belongs to Bridgewater on a permanent basis. Yet, a quarterback whose career arc includes a number of hairpin turns is trying to keep his injury in perspective.

"Any time you get something taken away -- and especially at your job -- it's always difficult," Cassel said. "But at the same time, I'm staying involved. I'm coming in every single day. I've been in meetings every day. That part's kept my morale high. I've had a little extra time with the family, and that's been great, but you definitely miss the competitive process of being out there every single day."

Cassel, who broke his foot on Sept. 21 against the New Orleans Saints, said he'll be able to start walking in about two weeks and throwing soon after that. The timetable for him to make a full recovery was about 12 weeks, and he said there are no concerns about lingering problems with his foot -- he didn't have a Lisfranc injury, he said, and he won't have any permanent hardware in his foot, once the wires that are currently holding his bones in place are removed.

"I've actually got them coming out of my foot, so for Halloween, I think it'd be a pretty good look," Cassel said. "Two of the bones had pretty good breaks in them, so they put three (wires) in there. They're actually coming out the bottom of my foot, so my daughters are having a lot of fun with that."

The broken foot is the first season-ending injury Cassel's had, and he's trying to stay as connected to the team as he can. Working with Bridgewater -- with whom Cassel already had a good relationship -- has helped that process; Cassel said he's continued to make Bridgewater aware of matchups he should keep in mind on Sundays, and added he watches games on TV with a keen interest in making sure Bridgewater goes to the right place with the ball.

"I think Teddy's done a tremendous job in a difficult situation," Cassel said. "Last week was an outstanding performance by him, especially those big plays he made down the stretch. That's something I think you're going to see a lot out of Teddy. He's still growing. He's 21 years old. He's a rookie. He's been shoved in the lineup, and he's done a great job."

Cassel said he's having both Bridgewater and Christian Ponder over for tacos on Thursday night, when Louisville takes on Florida State. Is that to calm any rising tensions between the quarterbacks as their alma maters face off?

"I just want to make sure it happens in front of me," Cassel joked. As connected as he's tried to stay to the Vikings' other quarterbacks, it only makes sense."It was definitely crushing at first, especially after all the hard work that went into this offseason -- winning the job, and then having it all taken away from you with an injury," Cassel said. "But you deal with it. How can you contribute, make these guys better and still have a role on the team?"
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Greg Jennings has now made two trips back to Lambeau Field with the Minnesota Vikings. The first one came in a tie last November, in which Jennings caught just two passes from Christian Ponder for 29 yards. The second one was probably even more frustrating.

Jennings
Jennings was targeted with five passes from Ponder, who this year was making a spot start for the injured Teddy Bridgewater, but Ponder could only connect with the receiver on two, for a total of 31 yards. And now, Jennings has a 0-2-1 record against his former team, thanks to a 42-10 loss on Thursday night.

"Disappointing. Very, very disappointing. Very, very, very disappointing," he said. "They have a good team over there. A lot of great players and they outperformed us, they outplayed us."

It's no secret that Jennings hasn't produced on the field with Ponder, whom the receiver said had "all the tools" to be a successful NFL quarterback, since he signed his five-year, $45 million deal with Minnesota last March. His best numbers last season came with Matt Cassel, and he's been at his most productive this year with Bridgewater, who should return to the starting lineup next week. But Jennings betrayed a bit of frustration with the passing game in his postgame comments on Thursday.

"I can only do my part. That's the one thing that always sucks about playing receiver; you can't throw yourself the ball," Jennings said. "You can't do things for yourself. You have to play the scheme and hope you can make an impact some way. It's just disappointing, it is disappointing. Just like every guy in this locker room, I want to beat this team. Is there a little bit more that kind of tries to creep up in there? A little bit more weight and it all comes in, putting everything into this one? Absolutely. But the end result is to still win the ball game, and we didn't do that.

"I just find that place and I try to continue to encourage guys and stay positive. If I allow myself to get frustrated and that shows, we can't have that. It's not about me, it's not about one individual, it's about the team. Would I love more opportunities? Absolutely. Would I love to be targeted 20 times a game? Yes. But that's not realistic. We'll see. Some games aren't your games. We'll see how the season continues to grow and play out."
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In three years as a starter at Louisville, Teddy Bridgewater wasn't asked to run much. His best season in college saw him run for just 78 yards, as he used his mobility more to keep plays alive and find open receivers while he was rolling out.

But the Minnesota Vikings saw in Bridgewater's first game how effective he can be on the run when he has to do it. Bridgewater carried six times for 27 yards against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, forced into running from pressure on several occasions and taking advantage of openings in the defense on others. He gained 7 yards on a designed run on third-and-6 while the Vikings were in the red zone and ended the day as the Vikings' second-leading rusher.

If the Vikings' running game is going to struggle as much as it did on Sunday, when Matt Asiata gained just 35 yards on 12 carries, Bridgewater's running ability can add something to the Vikings' offense, both to keep defenses honest and to pick up some extra yards when the team needs them.

"It does add a lot," coach Mike Zimmer said. "You tend to worry about him running so usually it slows the rush down a little bit typically. It keeps some of the coverages that you might normally get because you’re nervous about the guy running. You have to be careful when you blitz because if there is one place that you’re missing in the blitz and he gets out then it has a chance to be a big, big play with him running too. It adds another dimension, yes."

Offensive coordinator Norv Turner's offense has mostly relied on pocket passers, and it's not as though Bridgewater is about to turn into Robert Griffin III or Colin Kaepernick from a running standpoint. But if he's forced to run from pass-rushers -- as he was last week -- Bridgewater seems to know when he can make a play with his feet.

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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Neither right guard Brandon Fusco -- who will have surgery on a torn pectoral muscle -- nor quarterback Matt Cassel was a candidate for the Minnesota Vikings' designation to return from injured reserve, coach Mike Zimmer said Wednesday morning, meaning neither player's prognosis gave him any chance of playing again this season.

Rudolph
Tight end Kyle Rudolph, who had surgery on Tuesday for a sports hernia, might not get the designation to return from injured reserve, either, but that's because the Vikings are optimistic Rudolph could return soon enough not to need it.

A league source said earlier this week that Rudolph is expected to miss six weeks after surgery; if he were to be placed on injured reserve with a designation to return, he could only return to practice after six weeks and wouldn't be able to play for eight weeks.

"It's a possibility [he could get the designation], but until we get more information, probably not," Zimmer said. "We're anticipating it's not going to be that long."

If the Vikings choose that route with Rudolph, it would mean they'd effectively have to work with 52 players until the tight end returns, but if they used it on him now, he wouldn't be able to return to game action until the Vikings' Nov. 23 matchup with the Green Bay Packers. As depleted as their offense currently looks, it might be worth the risk to try to get Rudolph back sooner.

In the meantime, Zimmer said, Rhett Ellison will likely take Rudolph's spot as the Vikings' top tight end. The team also had high hopes for Chase Ford, who was signed off the Vikings' practice squad, before he broke his foot in training camp.
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As Teddy Bridgewater takes over the Minnesota Vikings' starting quarterback job this week from an injured Matt Cassel, he'll be fitting against a number of currents that have converged to make life difficult for Vikings QBs: The team's offensive line has struggled in pass protection, the Vikings are without Adrian Peterson as he goes through his child abuse case and Kyle Rudolph will be out six weeks after surgery for a sports hernia.

And then there's one more factor to consider: Vikings receivers haven't been able to hang onto the ball.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Vikings have dropped eight passes this season, or nine percent of the throws targeted toward them. That drop rate is the highest in the NFL, nearly 1.5 percentage points higher than the second-worst mark (the Miami Dolphins at 7.6 percent). Rudolph so far has been the main culprit -- his three drops have him tied for the second-most in the league -- but the culprits have included the normally sure-handed Greg Jennings (2 drops), wide receiver Jarius Wright (2 drops) and running back Matt Asiata (1 drop).

Any time we're discussing drops among receivers, a quarterback's ball placement must be considered, and the Vikings haven't been perfect there; on the team's first drive of the game last Sunday, for example, Cassel threw a pass behind Rudolph that went through the tight end's hands as he turned for it. But while the occasional dropped pass will happen, the Vikings can't afford to let the problem fester -- not when they had the sixth-lowest drop rate in the league last season and not when they've got a rookie quarterback counting on some help from his supporting cast.

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NEW ORLEANS -- Among the chief reasons the Minnesota Vikings were drawn to Teddy Bridgewater in the 2014 NFL draft was his ability to handle pressure. Bridgewater stood out in the Vikings' extensive study of their quarterback options because of how well he fared against the blitz; his 53.5 completion percentage when blitzed at Louisville last season was the best of any QB in the draft class, and the third-best of any FBS quarterback last year, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Bridgewater
The first test of whether Bridgewater could beat pressure in the NFL came on Sunday, and it was bound to be a stern one: the New Orleans Saints have blitzed quarterbacks more frequently than all but three teams in the league this season, and by the time Bridgewater entered Sunday's game in the raucous Superdome, the Saints had a 10-point lead and some freedom to go after the rookie.

When New Orleans brought extra pressure, though, Bridgewater was on point. He went 6-for-9 against the blitz, throwing for 70 yards, and scrambling once for another 15. He finished the day with a QBR of 68.5 when he was blitzed, after Matt Cassel went 2 of 4 for 36 yards on five dropbacks against extra pressure.

Bridgewater's numbers were dressed up by the 41-yard swing pass he completed to Matt Asiata, but he did a good job of avoiding sacks, getting the ball out quickly and keeping it away from defenders. He spent an average of just 2.18 seconds in the pocket and unloaded in a neat 2.33 seconds when blitzed, according to ESPN Stats & Information. For comparison's sake, those times were almost the same as Peyton Manning's (2.19 and 2.44) on his 11 attempts against the blitz, though Manning was able to push the ball downfield more effectively against extra pressure (he averaged 10 air yards per attempt, to Bridgewater's 6.44). At the moment, though, the fact Bridgewater was able to avoid turnovers, stay on his feet and keep the Vikings out of adverse down-and-distance situations provides a good foundation for how he'll handle pressure.

He'll see a team this week in the Atlanta Falcons that typically doesn't bring as much heat, before facing another heavy blitzing team in the Green Bay Packers. If Bridgewater is consistently able to handle blitzes, though, he'll have figured out one of the important developmental steps for any young quarterback.
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During the first two weeks of the season, the Minnesota Vikings' deep passing game was non-existent, thanks to a Week 1 victory that gave Matt Cassel little reason to go down the field and a Week 2 loss that afforded him little time to stretch the field. Cassel had completed just one pass that traveled more than 10 yards in the air before he broke his foot in the second quarter of Sunday's loss to the New Orleans Saints. It didn't take Teddy Bridgewater long to add some spark to the Vikings' downfield passing game.

Bridgewater completed four of his five passes that traveled at least 10 yards in the air, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and gained 69 yards on those throws. He connected with Greg Jennings on a 30-yard corner route -- on a play where Cordarrelle Patterson was also wide open in the vicinity of the throw -- and finished the day with a QBR of 99.8 on throws that traveled at least 10 yards.

The Vikings have more work in front of them if they want to get their downfield passing game to a consistent point, but seeing Bridgewater assertively stretching the field had to be an encouraging sign for coaches on Sunday.

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NEW ORLEANS -- If it's too soon to say the Minnesota Vikings' days of relying on a commanding running game are over, it's at least time to wonder how much they'll have to do before they can move the ball effectively on the ground again.

The Vikings have run for just 113 yards in two games without Adrian Peterson, who will be barred from all football activities until his child abuse case in Texas is resolved. In a 20-9 loss Sunday to the New Orleans Saints, quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater and Matt Cassel accounted for 32 of the team's 59 rushing yards. They opened their first drive with two running backs and two tight ends on the field, and showed a heavy run look with three tight ends on their second offensive play. The team made greater use of fullback Jerome Felton as a lead blocker, returning him to the role that got Felton to the Pro Bowl in 2013. But there was still no room to be found against the Saints.

"We need to work on a lot of things and get better," said running back Matt Asiata, who carried 12 times for 35 yards. "We can't look at [Peterson's] situation and make excuses. We lost the game. I mean, we got into the red zones a few times and just didn't capitalize. You put yourself in a great situation to score and we didn't do it."

If tight end Kyle Rudolph or right guard Brandon Fusco are out for any length of time with groin and pectoral injuries, respectively, the Vikings will have even greater reason for concern with their running game. Both players are important cogs in the Vikings' blocking scheme, and Rudolph's absence would also remove one of the Vikings' more reliable passing options from the offense.

Considering how much trouble the Vikings have had throwing the ball downfield this season -- and how much desire they'll likely have to keep pressure off rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater -- they can't put themselves in the situation they did Sunday, when eight of their 14 third downs saw them at least six yards from the first-down marker.

Part of the blame for so many third-and-longs falls on an ineffective running game, and it seems far-fetched to expect a quick return from Peterson will fix that. ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported Sunday the Vikings do not foresee Peterson in their future plans, since he'd likely face NFL discipline even if he is able to enter a guilty plea and resolve his case in court quickly. Without him, the Vikings will have to figure out another solution, especially when they now count a rookie quarterback among the stakeholders in an effective ground game.

"It's disappointing, obviously, that we don't have [Peterson]," Felton said. "I mean, he's the best player in the world -- I think he's the best player in the league. It's disappointing, but I won't call it a distraction. I mean, we played hard and well enough to win. We just made too many mistakes out there."
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings' time without Adrian Peterson officially began last week, but it wasn't until early Wednesday morning that the team made a move to suggest it would be without the 2012 NFL MVP for the foreseeable future.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Peterson
AP Photo/Sang TanMatt Cassel is not likely to see opposing defenses selling out to stop the run game without Adrian Peterson, but he's been in similar situations before.
Vikings players head into Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints knowing it could be weeks, if not months, before Peterson is back on the field. The practical effects of that move might weigh heaviest on the man now charged with running the Vikings' offense on the field, knowing he won't have Peterson to occupy defenses' attention.

Matt Cassel has been in this situation before, winning a pair of games when Peterson was out with a foot injury in December. But the Vikings could be without Peterson for a longer period of time this year. Unlike last year, when Cassel had emerged the winner of the Vikings' bizarre quarterback carousel and was playing for a team with no playoff prospects and little to lose, he's trying to keep the job he won over rookie Teddy Bridgewater in training camp.

Cassel threw four interceptions in the Vikings' 30-7 loss to the New England Patriots last Sunday, though coach Mike Zimmer said Cassel had played well from training camp through the Vikings' season-opening win over the St. Louis Rams, adding, "I'm not going to let one bad afternoon define it."

What I'll be curious to see, however, is how long Cassel can keep the Vikings' offense productive, and the team can keep its record competitive. Otherwise, the Vikings could have reason to turn over the job to Bridgewater at some point this season and give him a chance to develop on the field.

In the meantime, Cassel will have to work without one of the underrated luxuries of quarterbacking next to Peterson. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Vikings quarterbacks have seen eight-man fronts on 122 dropbacks since the start of the 2012 season, the second-most in the NFL during that time. Some of those looks have been a tacit sign that defenses didn't have to worry about getting beat by the Vikings' passing game, but many have been a reflection of how much attention Peterson commands. Neither Cassel nor Christian Ponder were able to make the most of the single-coverage looks they saw last year, but Cassel had drilled both of his throws against eight-man fronts this year for a total of 31 yards.

In any case, Cassel is not likely to see defenses selling out against Matt Asiata or Jerick McKinnon in the same way, and the Vikings won't be able to rely on the big gains they came to count on from Peterson in their offense.

"I think when you have a back who is capable of making big plays and has a history of making plays -- 10, 15-yard runs -- those plays can supplant some plays you're not getting in another area," offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. "I think when you're coaching a player like that you kind of count on that you're going to get those kind of plays. I think Matt and Jerick both had big runs, but I don't think you can say, 'Hey, in this game we are going to get three or four runs over 15 yards,' like you would with Adrian. You just have to adjust your plan."

The defining moment of Cassel's career came in 2008, when he stepped in for an injured Tom Brady and led the New England Patriots to an 11-5 record in the wake of Drady's deflating injury. He drew parallels to that experience Thursday, but the difference this time is, he's not working with the remainder of a team that went 18-1 the year before. These Vikings are young, they've lost their best player and they'll need Cassel to play well.

"We do have a young, impressionable team. I think that the main thing is trying to block out the noise on the outside because there is a lot of it going on right now," Cassel said. "The Saints aren't going to feel sorry for us when we go down there on Sunday. Part of doing this job is overcoming some adversity, and we've faced some adversity, obviously, early this year."
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When the Vikings return to practice on Wednesday to get ready for the New Orleans Saints, their work sessions will once again have a familiar sound: Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer barking orders and offering the occasional dollop of praise to his charges.

Priefer returned to work on Monday after the Vikings shortened his suspension from three games to two for making a homophobic remark during the 2012 season. The coach went through sensitivity training during the first week of the season, and the Vikings determined he'd completed the training satisfactorily enough to bring him back a week earlier.

"I think it’s good," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. "I’m proud that Mike did the things that he had to do. I’m proud that we didn’t ruin a guy’s career because he made a mistake. I’m glad that we were able to stand by him. I appreciate all his hard work and the things that he has done during these two weeks, we’re glad to have him back."

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The Film Don't Lie: Vikings

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
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A weekly look at what the Vikings must fix:

Minnesota allowed six sacks Sunday afternoon in a game where the New England Patriots moved Chandler Jones from a 3-4 outside linebacker position to a 4-3 defensive end spot, putting him in position to work against left tackle Matt Kalil for a large portion of the game. Kalil gave up two sacks -- one to Jones on a speed rush, and one to linebacker Dont'a Hightower on a blitz.

Even though the Vikings will face a New Orleans Saints team that has just two sacks this season, they'll be returning to a dome, where noise figures to be a factor in the Saints' home opener. If the Vikings want to avoid a second consecutive loss and get their offense in order after a 30-7 defeat on Sunday, they'll have to do a better job protecting Matt Cassel.

One thing to keep in mind is how much more help the Vikings were able to give Kalil in Week 1 than they did in Week 2 through the use of either tight end Rhett Ellison or Kyle Rudolph in a blocking role. Part of that, of course, was due to the score of the game against the Patriots and the fact the Vikings had to spend much more time in three-receiver sets as they tried to rally than they did in Week 1. But if the Vikings find themselves in that situation again, they have to be able to trust their left tackle to handle his man. It's worth noting, too, that Kalil and Charlie Johnson gave up a combined three quarterback hits and six hurries, according to ProFootballFocus.com.

With Adrian Peterson back this week, the Saints undoubtedly will have more to think about in stopping the Vikings' offense, but if the pass protection isn't better, there's only so much even Peterson can alleviate.

"Matt’s still working on some things," coach Mike Zimmer said. "We talked a little bit this morning, him and I about some stuff. He’s going to have to continue to get better. We have got to get him better. We expect him to get better."
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings were driving late in the first half of Sunday's game against the New England Patriots with an opportunity to score before halftime and pull within a touchdown or a field goal. Matt Cassel dropped back on third-and-16 and found Cordarrelle Patterson inside the Patriots' 10, running a corner route between their cornerback and safety.

It was a perfect call to beat the Patriots' coverage, and a connection with Patterson would have put the Vikings on the doorstep of a touchdown with 30 seconds and a timeout remaining. But Cassel's throw led Patterson too close to the sideline and the receiver wasn't able to get both of his feet in bounds. Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones blocked the Vikings' ensuing field goal attempt and returned it 58 yards for a touchdown to put the Patriots up 24-7.

"I had to put it outside away from the safety," Cassel said. "It was a split safety, and over the corner's head. I threw it where I wanted to, and unfortunately we weren't able to complete it in bounds."

[+] EnlargeMatt Cassel
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesMatt Cassel's four interceptions were too much to overcome.
Throws like those can extend drives and prevent the 10- or 14-point swing that effectively took the Vikings out of Sunday's game. They can help Cassel bounce back from the interceptions he threw on Sunday, and in the long run, they can help reinforce his hold on the starting quarterback job. But if Cassel can't make them, he might not be able to shake the notion that he has the job only until Teddy Bridgewater is ready.

Cassel will start for the Vikings in New Orleans next week after going 19 of 36 for 202 yards, a touchdown and four interceptions on Sunday, and in reality, the Vikings' decisions at quarterback should -- and probably do -- revolve more around determining the right course of action for Bridgewater than any short-term ramifications. But the Vikings' attempt to get to 2-0 turned sour on a poor performance from Cassel, and with it, the quarterback missed a chance to assert himself, against his former team and without Adrian Peterson by his side to command some of the defense's attention.

"I'm not going to make excuses and say that just because Adrian Peterson wasn't playing today is the reason why we faltered," Cassel said. "There are a number of different reasons, and I will take full responsibility. I've got to take better care of the ball and not give short fields against a good team, and maybe the circumstances will be different."

Chief among Cassel's concerns might be his struggles on shots down the field, which are a key component of offensive coordinator Norv Turner's scheme and led to three of his interceptions on Sunday. He was 0-of-8 on throws that traveled more than 10 yards in the air, according to ESPN Stats and Information, and is just 1-of-11 with three interceptions on throws that covered 10 or more air yards this season. Cassel is the first quarterback since 2006 to start in both Week 1 and 2 without completing more than one pass 10 or more yards downfield, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

There were more parties responsible for the Vikings' offensive shortcomings on Sunday than just Cassel. Tight end Kyle Rudolph dropped three passes, wide receiver Greg Jennings had a drop, and the Vikings gave up six sacks.

"Matt's been in this league 10 years," Rudolph said. "He's a professional; he's ready to get back to work. You know, it's not all on Matt by any means. We put ourselves in a lot of really tough situations."

Many teams do, and the good ones have quarterbacks who can get them out of those situations. Most of Cassel's opportunities to do that on Sunday fell by the wayside.

"Today was one game in a 16-game season," Cassel said. "Of course, at times would I have liked to change some outcomes and circumstances? Of course. I think any quarterback in the league would tell you that at times."

Patriots vs. Vikings preview

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11
8:00
AM ET
Update: The Vikings have deactivated Adrian Peterson for Sunday’s game following Friday's indictment by a Montgomery County, Texas, grand jury on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child.

The Minnesota Vikings are coming off their biggest road win in five seasons, while the New England Patriots are trying to avoid an 0-2 start after a 13-point defeat on the road last week. Just like everyone predicted, right?

In a matchup that pits Patriots coach Bill Belichick against a couple of his old foes from the AFC -- Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner -- the Vikings will try to build on their surprising start in their home opener at TCF Bank Stadium on Sunday. Zimmer's game plan in Cincinnati last year forced Patriots quarterback Tom Brady into his worst game of the season, and Zimmer will hope to recreate the performance with a Vikings defense that isn't as experienced as what he had with the Bengals.

ESPN Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discuss this week's matchup.

Ben Goessling: Mike, the Vikings sacked Rams quarterbacks five times Sunday. After a pretty poor week for the Patriots' offensive line against the Dolphins -- a team whose defensive coordinator is a disciple of Vikings coach Mike Zimmer -- do you think protecting Brady is going to be a lingering issue this week?

Mike Reiss: Yes, Ben, there is no doubt about that. One thing I believe should help the Patriots is that while the Vikings' defensive line is solid, I don't believe it is at the same level as Miami's. Specifically, the Patriots won't be seeing the same type of speed rush from Cameron Wake off the defensive left side, which they just couldn't handle. There's only a few like Wake in the NFL. The Patriots are still figuring out their best combination up front, and that will be one of the most closely watched storylines from a New England perspective. One thing I'm sure Patriots followers would be interested to hear is how Matt Cassel, the New England backup from 2005-08, is performing.

Goessling: So far, Cassel has been solid, though he didn't have to take many chances in the Vikings' win against the Rams last week. He only attempted three passes of more than 10 yards, and he was able to hit a number of screen passes to running backs, receivers and even tight end Rhett Ellison. But Cassel hit Greg Jennings on a nice post play and threw a couple of touchdown passes off play-action. The hope is Cassel can be solid enough to keep the Vikings relevant and give them more time to develop Teddy Bridgewater; ultimately, he is the future of this team, but for now, Cassel is buying the Vikings time before they turn things over to Bridgewater. And if they're able to win enough games with Cassel, who knows? He could turn out to be the starter all season.

Belichick will get to face one of his old foes from the AFC in Turner on Sunday; how have the Patriots typically matched up against Turner teams, and how do you expect their defense will handle the Vikings on Sunday, after the Vikings showed off a number of weapons last week against the Rams?

Reiss: When the Patriots have faced a Turner-coordinated offense, Belichick has touched on the vertical nature of the passing game. He also said earlier this week that, "You have to be able to stop the running game and stop '12 personnel' [1 back, 2 tight ends]." The Patriots' biggest issues in the opener were poor fits in the run game (191 yards allowed). I wouldn't be surprised if we see Darrelle Revis shadow Cordarrelle Patterson after Revis almost exclusively played the left side in the opener.

In last year's draft, the Patriots traded the No. 29 pick to Minnesota for Patterson and received second-, third-, fourth- and seventh-round picks in return. The Patriots turned those picks into linebacker Jamie Collins, cornerback Logan Ryan, receiver Josh Boyce and used the seventh to trade for running back LeGarrette Blount (now in Pittsburgh). One year later, how do you assess that deal from a Minnesota perspective?

Goessling: I can't imagine the Vikings have any regrets about it. As much as they could have used some of those picks to address their defensive depth issues, they've got a budding star in Patterson. He's not only filled the role vacated by Percy Harvin in the Vikings' offense, he's done it without any of the questions surrounding Harvin's durability and temperament. Patterson isn't quite as strong or shifty, but he's taller, a more natural outside receiver and his ability to hit holes is as good as you'll find anywhere. He's already become a focal point in the Vikings' offense, and I imagine that will only continue. The Vikings use him in enough different ways that I think it would be hard to completely shut him down with Revis, though I'm sure Belichick will come up with something to try and fence him in.

Speaking of defensive game plans, the Bengals' defense under Zimmer had a good one to frustrate Brady last season, and Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyne (a Zimmer disciple) had success against the Patriots last week, of course. We've talked a little bit about the pass rush already, but what else did Zimmer dial up in that game to force Brady into one of his worst days of the season, and do you think he can do it again this weekend?

Reiss: The main things I remember about Zimmer's plan last season was the ability to hurry Brady with the standard four rushers early (Geno Atkins was a beast inside), and then bringing out the different blitz packages on third down and more obvious passing situations. One thing, in particular, is the double A-gap blitz right up the middle. Even if you don't bring those extra two rushers on a blitz, by showing the look, it forces the offensive line to communicate and make sure they are all seeing the same thing in terms of who is coming, who isn't and who to block. The Patriots' offensive line crumbled in the third quarter against the Dolphins last week, and I'd imagine the Vikings watched that tape and are salivating at the possibilities of frustrating Brady. At the same time, I think the Patriots are better than they showed, and we could see some personnel changes in the middle with rookie center Bryan Stork in the mix.

Defensively for the Vikings, tell us more about where and how they put stress on the opposition.

Goessling: You touched on it a little bit: The big key to it is still the creativity Zimmer shows in his blitz packages. He doesn't bring extra pressure all that often, in the grand scheme of things (he only blitzed eight times last week), but he'll show enough blitz looks, and send pass-rushers from enough different spots, that he keeps you on your toes. You'll often see him show a seven- or eight-man front, only to have several players drop back into coverage. The problem is guessing which players it will be; the Vikings have some flexibility with their personnel, like linebacker Anthony Barr, defensive end Everson Griffen and safety Harrison Smith. The Vikings' secondary depth still concerns me, and we'll see whether Brady can exploit it this week, but this Vikings' defense won't be as big of a pushover as last season's unit was.

Welcome to Around the Horns, our daily look at what's happening on the Vikings beat:

It's been several years since any of the principal figures in the Minnesota Vikings' passing game faced New England Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis. Quarterback Matt Cassel's only game against the three-time All-Pro came in 2008, when Cassel was making his first start for the Patriots, Revis was with the Jets and Brett Favre was starting the home opener for New York.

Wide receiver Greg Jennings' only matchup with the cornerback came in 2010, when the Green Bay Packers beat the Jets 9-0 in the Meadowlands, and only one member of the Vikings' offense -- running back Adrian Peterson -- started for the team in its last meeting with the Jets, in an Oct. 11, 2010 Monday night game that featured both a lightning delay and Randy Moss' first touchdown catch from Favre.

(Two mentions of Favre? On an ESPN blog? Whoda thunk it?)

Anyway, as the Vikings prepare to face the 29-year-old Revis on Sunday, they're still expecting to see one of the game's best cover corners. Revis gave up a touchdown pass in the Patriots' loss to the Miami Dolphins last week, but only allowed one other catch in five targets, according to Pro Football Focus, and remains one of the premier shutdown corners in the game.

"The thing that's always impressed me about him is, he's patient at the line," Jennings said. "He's never been a real jumpy corner, to where he goes for your first move. That eliminates a lot of getting beat, right there. A lot of corners aren't that patient.'

The Vikings move their receivers around enough that several players will likely get a chance to go up against Revis, who stayed on the left side of the field last Sunday. However much time they spend on "Revis Island," Cassel said the Vikings can't be afraid to go there.

"He’s a guy that covers down one-on-one tremendously well," Cassel said. "So you’ve always have to be conscious of where’s he at, but at the same time you can’t be afraid to take a shot if the read takes you there and that’s where you need to go with the ball. You have to be able to do that and challenge him at times as well.”

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