NFC North: John Harbaugh
Cole looking set at MLB: If the fact the Vikings moved Erin Henderson back to weak-side linebacker didn't clear it up, the fact the Vikings plan to make Audie Cole, and not Henderson, their middle linebacker in the nickel package should suggest the plan to make Cole the middle linebacker isn't a passing fancy. Coach Leslie Frazier said Henderson took to his old outside linebacker spot "like riding a bike," and as well as Cole has played in pass coverage the past two weeks, there's probably no reason to switch anything up there. Henderson admitted the move hurt his pride, but he seems to be accepting it for now. Given what Frazier said this week about Henderson not being the Vikings' preferred plan at middle linebacker, it's safe to assume he could stay outside if Cole keeps showing he can handle the middle.
Special teams could be pivotal: The Ravens and Vikings both have dynamic return men who could affect Sunday's game; Baltimore kick returner Jacoby Jones has a 26.5-yard return average this season, and punt returner Tandon Doss is averaging 15.6 yards per return, with an 82-yard touchdown to his credit. The Vikings, of course, have three TDs between kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson (two) and punt returner Marcus Sherels (one). "Their kickoff return guy, Jones, he's impressive," Frazier said. "Of course, our guy is special as well. Whether it be a turnover or kick return or punt return, it could turn this game for sure."
Preparing for Pitta: Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta is hopeful he'll make his season debut on Sunday after dislocating his hip in July, and if he does, the Vikings will have another element of the Ravens' offense to think about. They've been burned by several tight ends this year, giving up at least 60 yards to an opposing tight end in six games, but Cole's presence could help there. If Pitta plays -- which coach John Harbaugh wouldn't divulge on Friday -- the Vikings will be in for a test. "He’s a pretty tough matchup for linebackers and sometimes even safeties," Frazier said. "He’s almost a wide receiver in a lot of ways and it seems like he’s one of those guys that their quarterback looks for often. So he presents some challenges for your defense for sure."
Wet weather possible: Aside from rain in Week 2 in Chicago, the Vikings haven't had to deal with much inclement weather the past few seasons. That could change on Sunday, with the game-time forecast calling for a mix of rain and snow. And as we mentioned earlier this week, the Vikings are just 1-6-1 since 2006 when game-time temperatures are 40 or below, according to ESPN Stats & Information. "The guys will figure it out. We'll go play, regardless of the elements," Frazier said. "Depending on how bad the conditions are, it'll determine how much you're throwing the ball and how much you're running the ball. We'll see when we get out there in pregame."
Cassel vs. Ravens: Even though he'd spent his entire career in the AFC before this season, Matt Cassel had only started one game against the Ravens -- and he probably doesn't have many good memories about it. He completed nine of his 15 passes for 92 yards and two interceptions last year, being knocked out with a head injury and missing the Kansas City Chiefs' next game after they lost 9-6 to the Ravens at Arrowhead Stadium. The Ravens' defense looks quite a bit different than the one Cassel faced last year, but he'll look to solve Baltimore's scheme on Sunday.
Issue: The team has been gutted by free-agent departures and is awaiting word on a decision from free agent safety Ed Reed. As a result, this team belongs to quarterback Joe Flacco like never before.
Coach John Harbaugh: "Joe’s going to do a great job of just continuing to get better in everything that he does and rallying the guys around him. He’s going to take those young guys under his wing and he’s going to push those guys forward. He’s going to be a big part of building our offense. We're going to build it around Joe, but you also build it around your offensive line. You've got to have a great offensive line. You've got to have playmakers outside who can make plays for Joe and you’ve got to have a great running back, so it's still a team game."
Issue: The team is in a contract stalemate with offensive lineman Andre Smith, leaving the Bengals in a precarious spot with an important player.
Coach Marvin Lewis: "I'm not in charge of contracts. I don't think it's unsettling for me. It'll happen when it happens. If not, we'll move on and get another guy. I think Andre would have preferred to have this done by now, most importantly."
Issue: The Browns have yet to follow through on plans to add a competitor for the starting quarterback job currently held by Brandon Weeden.
Coach Rob Chudzinski: "I see it as creating competition. That can be from a number of different places that you create competition. We have some guys there and we're going to coach them all and coach them all hard. We're going to give them all opportunities to show what they can do. … Competition comes from within, too. As coaches, we have to bring that out in them. I have no doubt we'll be able to bring that out."
Issue: Safety Troy Polamalu missed nine games because of a calf injury last season, a year after the team encouraged him to participate in all of its offseason program.
Coach Mike Tomlin [In response to a question on whether the team wants Polamalu to change his offseason regimen]: "I want him to be ready, and I think he wants to be ready, like everyone. I'm not going to make more out of that than what it is."
Sometimes, however, comedy can overshadow accomplishments. Via the mailbag, Ted of Iowa voiced an important counterweight to the latest arrows we've all slung the Bears' way:
Every time I disagree with Jerry Angelo's moves (a lot), I end up reminding myself that he built a Super Bowl champ in Tampa, built a Super Bowl team in 2006 and built an NFC championship team in 2011. Somehow, it's hard to argue with the results. There is a method to his madness.
Indeed, Angelo has played a role in building three different teams that went to the Super Bowl.
He was a regional scout for the New York Giants from 1982-86; the Giants won the Super Bowl after the 1986 and 1990 seasons. He spent the next 14 seasons as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' director of player personnel, leaving two years before the Bucs won Super Bowl XXXVII, and you're all acquainted with the Bears' success in his Chicago tenure.
If the goal of any front office is to build a consistent winner that contends for championships, then Angelo has, by definition, been a part of multiple successful front offices. He should be proud of his career. I suppose any general manager can trip and bumble into a couple of good seasons, but Angelo's résumé extends beyond that level.
Still, I think it's possible to credit Angelo for a long career of success while also pointing out there have been far too many avoidable organizational blunders under his watch.
You can go all the way back to 2002, when a paperwork error left the Bears unable to collect compensation for the potential loss of two restricted free agents, receiver D'Wayne Bates and linebacker Warrick Holdman. The most recent incident occurred Monday morning, when a conversation between coach Lovie Smith and running back Chester Taylor ended with Taylor believing he had been released. Angelo's lieutenant, Tim Ruskell, later called Taylor's agent to tell him the move hadn't occurred and Taylor was due back for practice.
You could argue that Taylor isn't likely to make the final 53-man roster and thus render the episode largely meaningless. But I don't think it's ever a good outcome if you've give players, other NFL teams or even fans a reason to question what you say. Whether the fault lies here with Taylor or not, the Bears simply don't get the benefit of the doubt anymore.
Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh has suggested publicly that the Bears intentionally duped the Ravens during a draft-day trade. But I think it's quite possible Harbaugh gave the Bears too much credit. I find Angelo's public explanation -- there was an internal miscommunication on who should report the trade to the league -- entirely believable.
No general manager is perfect. Usually, however, their mistakes are errors of judgment or poor personnel evaluation. Angelo has had a few of those, but most of the Bears' blunders under his watch have been inexplicably and inexcusably careless. He has almost always fielded competitive teams, but it's only fair to wonder about cumulative effects and to worry that the next error will be truly harmful rather than just embarrassing.
As a practical matter, however, it's moot. At the end of the day, the Bears, Ravens and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell agreed on one thing: No league rules were broken in the matter. Even if the Bears did exactly what Harbaugh believes they did -- backing out of a trade to swap first-round picks when they realized it wasn't necessary to draft the player they wanted -- no discipline will be forthcoming.
The ultimate question, as we discussed in Tuesday's SportsNation chat, is whether the Bears' current front office will encounter difficulty finding trade partners in future drafts.
It's not ideal to have a respected coach on record saying what Harbaugh said. Namely: "They can get mad at me if they want, but I'm not buying the mistake thing. It wasn't a mistake. They knew what they were doing." While the Ravens probably won't be first in line to make the next deal with the Bears, most teams will do what's best for them at the moment. If they believe they can help themselves by swapping picks with the Bears, they'll do it with little or no regard for the Ravens' side of how this event went down.
I admire and appreciate Harbaugh's raw honesty, but I don't see any lasting repercussions here.
You can see the final Challenge Tracker numbers in the chart at the bottom of this post, according to official NFL figures. A few thoughts:
- Packers coach Mike McCarthy led all NFL coaches with 14 challenges this season. The second closest was Baltimore’s John Harbaugh (11). Every circumstance is different, but I think McCarthy proved to have a more liberal approach than most other NFL coaches. He got away with throwing an illegal third challenge flag Nov. 15 against Dallas and admitted at midseason that “sometimes emotion gets involved in your decisions.”
- Only six teams’ coaches threw the flag less than Detroit’s Jim Schwartz, who challenged six plays. I don’t know that I have a single explanation for that approach, but I thought it was interesting that Schwartz chastised himself this week for losing his cool too often on the sideline. “I lose my mind a lot of times during practice and during meetings and things like that,” he said. “During the game I’d rather not that be the case.” Did that limit his opportunities to think through the process of challenging calls? It probably didn’t help.
- Chicago’s Lovie Smith got only two of his nine challenges overturned. That 22.2 percent rate was the fourth-worst mark in the NFL It’s never been one of Smith’s strong suits; his six-year rate is 32.7. Smith also created the biggest replay-related news story of the year when he challenged a play after first calling a timeout Dec. 13 against Green Bay. Officials upheld the original call, and the Bears lost two timeouts during the episode.
- Minnesota coach Brad Childress challenged fewer plays than in any of his previous three seasons but finished with his best conversion rate (55.6). He had previously challenged 12 plays in 2006 and 11 in 2007 and 2008. This season’s rate was the seventh-best in the NFL.
|Bruce Kluckhohn/US Presswire|
|Brett Favre and the Vikings escaped with a 33-31 win over the Ravens on Sunday.|
Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert
MINNEAPOLIS -- The clock showed two seconds remaining Sunday afternoon as Brad Childress leaned to his left. Childress looked at a grim-faced Adrian Peterson and spoke in confident tones.
“I just told him we’re going to win this football game right here,” Childress recounted. Television replays showed Peterson nodding his head, accepting if not agreeing with the prediction.
Pressed on what made him believe that Baltimore place-kicker Steven Hauschka would miss a 44-yard field goal as time expired, Childress smiled.
“What else am I going to say?” Childress said after Minnesota survived a wild fourth quarter to take a 33-31 victory. “What am I going to tell them? ‘They’re going to beat us right here?’ I’m not going to say that. I stay on the positive side all the time.”
There are times when you know and there are times when you hope. Childress clearly fell in the latter category after nothing more than chance prevented his team from losing its first game of the season. You can credit quarterback Brett Favre’s 58-yard pass to Sidney Rice, which set up Ryan Longwell’s 31-yard field goal with 1:56 remaining. You can acknowledge that Childress’ conservative approach forced the Ravens to exhaust their timeouts before taking over for their final possession.
But the truth was evident to anyone who sat through this one: The Ravens simply ran out of time. They exploded for 21 points over the final 10 minutes of the game after falling behind 27-10. If they had a few more seconds, I’m quite sure they would have reached the end zone rather than trotting Hauschka onto the field at the end.
His kick sailed wide left, sparking a wild celebration. But you didn’t find many people -- players, coaches or otherwise -- crowing about a victory that nearly slipped from their hands.
“This is a game where in every facet we were dominant before the fourth quarter,” defensive end Jared Allen said. “It wasn’t a meltdown, because we didn’t lose. But it was pretty damn close. ... Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.”
Remember, the Vikings led 27-10 with 10:03 remaining. Longwell’s 29-yard field goal made it 30-17 with 6:01 left. After that, everything happened so fast that Allen looked blank when asked to explain how the Vikings suddenly found themselves trailing 31-30.
“I’m not even going to try to comment until I watch the film,” Allen said. Sometimes players say that to avoid making critical statements. In this case, however, I don’t think Allen or anyone else really grasped why they got steamrolled in the latter stages of this game.
The Ravens did their damage -- 222 total yards and nine first downs -- despite possessing the ball for only 4 minutes, 25 seconds of the fourth quarter. Here’s how their three touchdown drives went down:
- Passes of 28 yards to Kelley Washington and 17 yards to Demetrius Williams set up a 32-yard score to Mark Clayton. Total time of possession: 1:33.
- A pass of 63 yards to tailback Ray Rice set up a 12-yard score to Derrick Mason. Total time of possession: 49 seconds.
- Chris Kluwe’s 39-yard punt, and Ed Reed’s 9-yard return, set up the Ravens at the Vikings’ 33-yard line. Rice goes untouched on a draw play for the go-ahead touchdown. Total time of possession: Nine seconds.
It’s only fair to mention the Vikings were playing without cornerback Antoine Winfield, who suffered a right foot injury in the first half and did not return. But Sunday’s collapse went way beyond questionable depth at cornerback. It sure seemed the Vikings relaxed against a team that’s too good to be relaxed upon. Once the genie was out of the bottle, the Vikings never stuffed it back in.
Perhaps that’s why a Metrodome crowd of 63,689 roundly booed when Childress played for a field goal after Rice’s catch set them up at the Ravens’ 18-yard line with 2:46 left. Did anyone think a two-point lead would hold?
“I felt like we needed to score a touchdown,” Favre said. “They were feeling it at that stage of the game. I think everyone in the building felt the same way. They had kind of hit their stride. ... We knew they needed to get to the 30, 35-yard line. ... I hate to say that I was not real confident, because I’m confident in our team, period. But I felt like maybe, for the first time this year, offensively they felt like they could probably do whatever.”
In hindsight, Favre said, “it’s easy to say we should have thrown it” on the third-down play before Longwell’s final kick. Childress, however, ordered three consecutive running plays, forcing the Ravens to take their final two timeouts. That left Baltimore with 1:56 to move into field goal range -- an eternity in terms of this game. Remember, Baltimore had completed three touchdown drives in less time in the fourth quarter alone.
In the end, Childress took the lesser of two evils. The Ravens likely were going to get the ball back one way or the other. So when I asked him about it afterward, Childress said that forcing the Ravens to take their timeouts was of prime importance.
“We knew we were going to get down inside of two [minutes],” Childress said. “That’s why [Ravens coach John Harbaugh] used his timeouts.”
Sorry to say, this victory won’t tone down harsh analysis of the Vikings’ 6-0 start. Three of their wins have come against Cleveland (1-5), Detroit (1-5) and St. Louis (0-6). Two other victories, Sunday and Sept. 26 against San Francisco, came only after a wild and unlikely turn of fourth-quarter events.
Allen called Sunday’s victory a “wake-up call,” if there is such a thing. But Allen vowed: “There’s enough character on this team that that’s not going to happen anymore.”
Afterward, Favre said he consoled linebacker Chad Greenway -- who seemed particularly upset after the game.
“They deserved to win and I think we deserved to win as well,” Favre said. “That’s the way you have to look at it. Who knows how you’re going to win them sometimes. It’s like the San Francisco game. ... All I know is we’re 6-0, I think. Pretty proud of that. There’s a long way to go but I think that’s a good start.”
Lucky or otherwise.
|Drew Hallowell/Getty Images|
|There will be plenty of similarities on display when Brad Childress' Vikings and Andy Reid's Eagles square off Sunday.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
When it came time to make his first big decision as Minnesota's new owner, Zygi Wilf looked east and hatched a plan. He would figure out a way to spell "Vikings" using "E-A-G-L-E-S."
In January 2006, Wilf made plans to hire Philadelphia's offensive coordinator as the Vikings' head coach and its linebackers coach as his new defensive coordinator. He wanted the Eagles' top personnel man as his general manager, and he was sold on the personnel and schematic approach -- draft a young quarterback to run the West Coast offense, upgrade the offensive line and blitz the bejeezus out of opponents -- that has made the Eagles a playoff team in seven of the past nine seasons.
"What we wanted was to be a first-class organization," Wilf said. "We wanted an organization that was patient and did things the right way with a goal of being a consistent winner that could challenge first for the division championship, and then for the Super Bowl, every season. We still have improvements to make, but that's always been what we have strived for."
As it turned out, Wilf hired Brad Childress as his head coach but couldn't lure talent evaluator Tom Heckert to be his general manager. The Eagles blocked Childress from hiring Steve Spagnuolo as his defensive coordinator, but a year later Childress tapped another former Philadelphia assistant -- Leslie Frazier -- for the job.
And in building the team that will host the Eagles on Sunday at the Metrodome, Childress has emulated his former employers on a number of levels. Among them:
- Signing a prominent free agent offensive lineman to a mega-deal with hopes he would add a level of nastiness to the offense. The Eagles did it in 2000 with right tackle Jon Runyan. The Vikings followed in 2006 by acquiring left guard Steve Hutchinson.
- Drafting a quarterback early in his tenure and put him on the developmental fast track. The Eagles had Donovan McNabb in the starting lineup by Week 10 of his rookie season. Tarvaris Jackson started the final two games as a rookie in 2006.
- Hiring all of his athletic trainers as well as his strength and conditioning staff from Philadelphia. Eagles coach Andy Reid blocked Childress from taking any position coaches to Minnesota, but several Vikings assistants nevertheless have Eagles ties. Running backs coach Eric Bieniemy played for them in 1999, Childress' first year as an assistant in Philadelphia. The Vikings' current quarterbacks coach, Kevin Rogers, was McNabb's position coach at Syracuse. And tight ends coach Jimmie Johnson was once an Eagles intern.
- Authorizing Frazier to mix creative blitz packages into the Vikings' cover-2 base defense. Frazier played in Chicago's "46" defense of the 1980s, but he learned the fundamentals of blitz schemes from Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson while serving as Philadelphia's defensive backs coach from 1999-02.
- Calling his own plays during the 2006 season, as Reid always did in Philadelphia. And coincidence or otherwise, Childress handed those duties to offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell not long after Reid gave that role to Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg.