NFC North: 2013 Week 6 CAR at MIN

Vikings need clarity at QB position

October, 13, 2013
Matt CasselAP Photo/Jim MoneMatt Cassell threw a pair of interceptions against the Panthers, leaving the Vikings with more questions at QB.
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings had just lost for the fourth time in five games this season, suffering their most lopsided Metrodome defeat in nearly three years. The reactions from veterans in the locker room ranged from Chad Greenway's frustration over where the season is headed (the linebacker compared it to the start of the team's 3-13 2011 campaign), to Adrian Peterson's resolve to get things turned around.

But tight end Kyle Rudolph's comment might have done the best job of summarizing the mess the Vikings find themselves in with a 1-4 record.

The Vikings began the week signing former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman. They ended it with a 35-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers in which Matt Cassel -- who had taken the starting job from Christian Ponder two weeks earlier -- passed for 241 yards but threw a pair of interceptions. Asked if he felt another quarterback shake-up was necessary, Rudolph said, "I don’t see why. I think Josh needs to take some time to get comfortable here, learn the offense.

"That’s coach Frazier, that’s [offensive coordinator] Bill [Musgrave]'s decision. That’s not ours and we feel like every goal that we set in August is still attainable. Last year we started out hot. We were 4-2, and we were 6-6 after 12 games. In my opinion, if we can get to 6-6, we’ll be sitting where we were last year."

This year's team would have to win five of its next seven games to reach 6-6, and then go on a four-game run. The Vikings are 1-4 in a muddled NFC, but now are the only team in the NFC North with a losing record. They are 0-2 in the division, 0-3 in the conference. If they were to make a playoff run, it would require a long stretch of solid football the Vikings seem incapable of producing.

There is also one other big difference here: The Vikings were in their second year evaluating Ponder as their starting quarterback. They were behind him for all 16 games, even through a woeful eight-game stretch during the middle of the season. This year's team has used two starting quarterbacks in five games, and could put a third on the field next Monday night against the New York Giants. The Vikings now have 11 games left to evaluate two quarterbacks who might not be on their roster next season (Freeman and Cassel, who can opt out of his two-year deal), and a third (Ponder) whose contract contains an option for the 2015 season.

If finding a workable solution at quarterback was among the more prominent goals of the Vikings' 2013 season, there now can be little doubt it is the most important. And that might mean selling a vision for the future to some players whose focus has been on the present.

In a perfect world, the Vikings would get good enough quarterback play to win games and ride behind whomever is playing well. That's essentially the message they've given Ponder; the quarterback said on Sunday afternoon that Frazier and general manager Rick Spielman have told him "it's up to whoever is playing" to seize the job. Spielman is a big believer in competition, and it's possible an open audition for the job could help the Vikings in the present while clarifying their future.

But what happens if the team starts Freeman against the Giants -- with an abridged version of their offense -- and he struggles? Can the Vikings keep holding a casting call at quarterback at 1-5? If their playoff hopes are flickering now, a loss next week effectively would extinguish them while moving the Vikings closer to the top of a draft that's projected to be deep on quarterbacks. At that point, it would be paramount for them to figure out whether they have a bona fide starter on their roster, or whether they need to start building behind another rookie. They might need to hand the reins to Freeman for a long stretch of games, no matter the results, or give Ponder one more chance to re-assert himself. A week-to-week plan at the position, though, wouldn't make sense if the Vikings aren't playing for high stakes on a week-to-week basis.

At this point, the team's highest stakes in 2013 might already revolve around the quarterback position. They haven't had the same quarterback lead them in passing for more than two consecutive seasons since Daunte Culpepper from 2000-04, and before that, no quarterback had done it for four straight seasons since Tommy Kramer from 1979-82. This has been a team devoid of franchise-type quarterback play for decades, and the Vikings are in that position at a time where having an answer at the position never has been more important.

If the Vikings devote the rest of their season to evaluating Freeman, or giving Ponder one last shot, regardless of the results, that might not be the worst use of their time. They badly need a sense of direction at the position that lasts longer than a few weeks at a time, and even if that means sticking with one quarterback through a handful of losses, the Vikings will at least have enough information to make some big decisions.

That could provide more value than anything else in a season that doesn't seem like it's going to amount to a postseason run.

Another QB burns Vikings' secondary

October, 13, 2013
videoMINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings' secondary began Sunday with Chris Cook and Jamarca Sanford back on the field, and reason to believe they could turn things around against Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who had been struggling all season.

They ended it with a scheduled MRI for their best defensive back (Harrison Smith), their first-round pick at corner (Xavier Rhodes) and a fresh set of questions about the men who were left on the field during a 35-10 loss.

The Vikings' anemic secondary looked like as big a problem as ever against Newton, who hit 20 of his 26 passes for 242 yards and three touchdowns on his way to a career-high 143.4 passer rating, and depending on how long Smith (who sustained a foot injury) and Rhodes (who hurt his ankle) are out, things could get even worse. The Vikings' next game is against the 0-6 New York Giants, but Eli Manning is averaging 286.8 yards per game, and the Vikings' two games after that are against Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo.

Minnesota's issues on Sunday, according to coach Leslie Frazier, weren't completely attributable to the secondary. The Vikings gave up 131 yards rushing on 39 carries, allowing the Panthers to hold the ball for 36:27 and taking away some of the Vikings' help in pass coverage.

"No doubt that makes a difference," Frazier said. "You start playing single-high [safety] when you're having coverage in the secondary. You expose those guys and it creates some dilemmas for your defense."

But a blown coverage was at the heart of Brandon LaFell's 79-yard touchdown in the first minute of the third quarter; the Vikings were in zone coverage on third-and-3 when Josh Robinson didn't get deep enough on LaFell, leaving him open when Rhodes ran upfield with Ted Ginn. Rhodes wound up following Ginn to Sanford, and no one was covering LaFell, which made it seem like Rhodes might have been playing man coverage when he should have been taking a deep zone away from the Panthers. But Robinson blamed himself for not dropping deep enough.

"I just have to be in better position, get on that route and take it away," Robinson said.

Said Frazier: "We were in zone coverage and someone has to carry that route up the field. In that zone coverage, we should not give up a long touchdown and somebody should be there to at least get a tackle."

And the Vikings were again unable to get off the field, allowing the Panthers to convert seven of their 12 third downs, as well as a pair of fourth downs -- including one where Steve Smith beat Robinson on a crossing route for a touchdown.

"That was tough coverage for the guy who was in coverage in man," Frazier said. "They executed better than we did in that situation and in two fourth-down situations."

Robinson had allowed 35 catches in 38 targets, according to Pro Football Focus, and came off the field in nickel coverage for a while on Sunday before Rhodes left. Frazier said the Vikings had planned to rotate Robinson and Marcus Sherels in the slot, though it's worth noting the Vikings didn't use Sherels until after Robinson gave up the touchdown to Smith.

"There are some things we want him to do better," Frazier said of Robinson. "We rotated Marcus in there with him some and we'll evaluate it this week and just see what's going on at that position."

Rapid Reaction: Minnesota Vikings

October, 13, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS -- A few thoughts on the Minnesota Vikings' 35-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers at Mall of America Field.

What it means: The Vikings are now 1-4, and after a tumultuous week that included a quarterback change and a tragic turn of events for Adrian Peterson, the team looked as lost and as listless as it has all season. Injuries didn't help -- the Vikings lost Desmond Bishop, Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith to knee, ankle and foot injuries, respectively -- but Matt Cassel squandered the goodwill he'd created two weeks ago in London and might have paved the way for Josh Freeman to take over at quarterback. That might be all Vikings fans have to look forward to at this point.

Stock watch: Falling -- Vikings' defense. It couldn't have been much lower, for a team that was 30th in the league heading into Sunday. But Minnesota let a 1-3 team control the game from the beginning, and spent nearly 36 minutes on the field. Josh Robinson got burned on a 79-yard touchdown just after halftime that looked like a coverage mix-up with Rhodes, and the Vikings briefly pulled him from their nickel package before Rhodes' injury forced them to put him back. The defensive line couldn't sustain pressure on Cam Newton, and as much intrigue as there is about the Vikings' QB situation at the moment, their defensive issues -- particularly the ones in the secondary -- might be a bigger concern.

Peterson quiet: The reigning NFL MVP was on the field just two days after his 2-year-old son died from injuries sustained in an alleged aggravated assault in South Dakota, but Peterson was held in check by the league's No. 3 defense. He had just 10 carries -- which tied for the fifth fewest of his career -- and ran for 62 yards, catching another three passes for 21 yards. Peterson had just four carries in the first quarter that went for minus-1 yards.

Cassel struggles: Two weeks after leading the Vikings to their only victory of the season, Cassel threw two interceptions in the loss to the Panthers, overshooting receivers on both picks, and couldn't lead the Vikings on a touchdown drive until he connected with Kyle Rudolph in the final two minutes. He completed 32 of 44 passes for 241 yards, but was forced to throw 25 times in the second half with the Vikings in a big hole. His turnovers were the major issue, and it will be interesting to see whether the Vikings try to get Freeman ready for next Monday's game against the New York Giants.

What's next: The Vikings (1-4) travel to New Jersey for a "Monday Night Football" matchup against the 0-6 New York Giants.