NFC North: Buffalo Bills
All five members of the group started every game, paving the way for Adrian Peterson's 2,097-yard season and protecting Christian Ponder reasonably well; the quarterback was sacked on 6.2 percent of his dropbacks, which matched the NFL average.
And after the Vikings made Phil Loadholt one of the league's highest paid tackles in March, they also ensured the entire group would return intact for 2013.
That's not to say the group has been without its issues this preseason. In fact, one of the more surprising things about the Vikings' 20-16 loss to the Buffalo Bills in last Friday's preseason game was the number of uncharacteristic lapses they saw from their starting linemen.
Things began on the Vikings' first play from scrimmage, when Buffalo's Jerry Hughes raced unblocked past Pro Bowl left tackle Matt Kalil to sack Ponder. The quarterback was sacked a second time in just over a quarter of work, and had to chase a loose ball when John Sullivan snapped it earlier than Ponder was expecting. For all the talk about the Bills' exotic blitzes -- which certainly had an effect on the game -- and the absence of Peterson, who probably gives defenses more to think about than any other player on the Vikings' roster, some of Friday's mistakes were routine errors.
"There were some things that we'll have to get better at, especially when we're going to be on the road like we are in our opening game of the season (at Detroit) from a communication standpoint," Frazier said. "That was probably the one area where I felt like we could have done a lot better communicating some of the things that we saw, and making sure that we execute some of the things that we have to get done, whether it be snapping the football back to the quarterback or identifying who the "Mike" linebacker is in certain fronts. Those are things we will get better at, and it should be better this next week."
One of the most common -- and most prevalent -- criticisms of Ponder is that he bails on the pocket too early, costing himself chances to throw the ball downfield when he feels pressure. Some of that is on the quarterback, but his line can certainly make life easier for the third-year quarterback as he tries to assert himself. The Vikings' first-teamers will get their most extensive work of the season on Sunday night in San Francisco, and against a defense as stout as the 49ers' has been, Minnesota's offensive line will get a chance to clean things up.
You would assume the agreement will take the Patriots out of the running for free agent Pisa Tinoisamoa, who visited the team Tuesday. The Bears are among the teams who remain in pursuit of Tinoisamoa, a list that also includes Buffalo.
You can never predict these things for sure, but it's reasonable to expect Tinoisamoa to pick between the Bears and Bills soon. We'll keep you updated.
Rounding up a few items of note on Wednesday in the NFC North:
- Minnesota re-signed defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy, whom they originally added late last season during the Williams Wall/StarCaps saga. Once again, Kennedy will give the Vikings veteran insurance if the four-game suspensions of Pat Williams and Kevin Williams -- currently tied up in a Minnesota courtroom -- are ultimately upheld.
- Free-agent linebacker Angelo Crowell visited Detroit. Crowell missed all of last season after undergoing a procedure in September to improve a kneecap condition known as chondromalacia, but is expected to make a full recovery in time for training camp. Crowell visited Tampa Bay earlier this week, according to NFL.com. His older brother is former Lions receiver Germane Crowell, who played in Detroit from 1998-2002.
- Chicago released guard Terrence Metcalf, which was no surprise following the free-agent signing of Frank Omiyale. Metcalf lost his starting job last season to Josh Beekman after suffering a knee injury and then serving a four-game NFL suspension.
My AFC East colleague Tim Graham caught up recently with former Green Bay defensive coordinator Bob Sanders, who is now Buffalo's defensive line coach. The Packers fired Sanders and most of his staff after last season's 6-10 record and are shifting to a 3-4 scheme with new coordinator Dom Capers.
You wouldn't expect the soft-spoken Sanders to say anything negative about his former employers, and Sanders was pretty conciliatory during his interview. Here are the Packers-related highlights:
On whether he has anything to prove
Bob Sanders: "I've been coaching a long time. We played some good defense in Green Bay. Certainly, it didn't end the way you'd want it to end because our goal is the Lombardi Trophy, and certainly it didn't end like that.
"My goal each and every day is just be the best person that I can be and best coach I can be and best teacher I can be and try to help the Buffalo Bills be as good as they an be, each and every guy. I've been at it a long time, and hopefully what I do is not who I am, but who I am affects what I do.
"So certainly I don't feel like I have anything to prove other than I want to be loyal to Dick [Jauron, the Bills' head coach] and to Perry [Fewell, defensive coordinator] and to the Buffalo Bills and reach our maximum potential and hopefully win that Lombardi Trophy. I don't really spend a lot of time trying to prove something to somebody because I have enough to say grace over."
His thoughts about the Packers going to 3-4
Bob Sanders: "I don't really have any to be honest with you. I don't work there anymore, so I really don't have any opinion. My focus has been on the Buffalo Bills. I have enough to say grace over to learn what I'm supposed to and being the best I can be here."
Have you ever been a 3-4 coach?
Bob Sanders: "As a base, no. We'd stem into it. We had some blitzes out of it and some rushes out of it. It was more of a variation for us. Sounds like they may be going to that as a base. Most of those 3-4 teams have a 4-3 as a variation."
On Monday night, a national audience saw what people in Buffalo and Minnesota have known for a while: Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield is one of the most underrated players in the NFL.
|Crystal LoGiudice/US Presswire|
|Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield, seen here making one of his eight tackles against the Saints, is one of the league's most underrated players.|
Winfield has never made a Pro Bowl, primarily because of low interception totals during a 10-year career with the Bills and Vikings. But he displayed the full array of his skills in Minnesota's 30-27 victory over New Orleans, helping to shut down the Saints' running attack while also making two of the game's biggest plays.
Although he is 5-foot-9 (on his toes) and 180 pounds, Winfield plays run defense like a linebacker. High school coaches could make a teaching video with his tackling form, which Winfield credits to a lifetime of playing defensive back. Monday night, that form paid off with three tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
He stopped Saints tailback Deuce McAllister for a 1-yard loss in the second quarter and twice dropped Reggie Bush for negative yardage in the fourth. Winfield also prevented what probably would have been a touchdown by knifing through a wall of offensive linemen to bring down Aaron Steckar on a screen pass.
Of course, those plays merely complemented the two game-changers he turned in: Returning a blocked field goal for a touchdown in the first quarter and setting up another score by swiping the ball from Saints quarterback Drew Brees on a second-quarter sack.
The former was a case of standing in a lucky spot. But the latter represented the second time this season Winfield has blitzed and stripped the quarterback of the ball on the way to the ground. The first time, Sept. 21 against Carolina, he hopped up and dashed 19 yards for a touchdown. Monday night, Winfield made it to the Saints' 9-yard line before being tackled.
Not coincidentally, those are the two games the Vikings have won this season. Perhaps they finally will catapult Winfield to post-season honors regardless of his interception totals. (He has one so far in 2008 and has never intercepted more than four passes in a season.)
It's not as if Winfield's resume is blank. As a senior at Ohio State in 1998, he won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back. The Bills took him in the first round of the 1999 draft, and he signed a six-year, $34.8 million contract with the Vikings in 2004.
He has steadily improved his pass coverage, and this season opponents have targeted teammate Cedric Griffin rather than challenge him. Yes, it appears that in the 10th year of his career, Antoine Winfield might finally be getting his due.