NFC North: John Skelton

All-NFC North midseason team

November, 7, 2012
NFC Midseason Teams: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

We've posted an All-NFC North team after every season since we started this blog five seasons ago. (Links: 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008.)

Below, you'll find our first attempt at a midseason division team. As always, its composition is a blend of advice I've received from football professionals, my own eyes and consultations with some media services I respect. (For those interested, here is Pro Football Focus' All-NFC North team from last week.)

As we've learned in past years, there isn't always a direct correlation between individual frequency and team success. If there were, the Minnesota Vikings -- who sit in third place here in Week 10 -- wouldn't have a division-high eight players on this team.

Many of the choices are obvious and/or self-explanatory. Here are some thoughts on the more difficult decisions:
  • Green Bay Packers receiver James Jones has caught a career-high eight touchdown receptions, tying him for first among all NFL pass-catchers. But who would you remove from the three receivers I included to make room for Jones on this team? The Vikings' Percy Harvin leads the NFL with 62 receptions. The Chicago Bears' Brandon Marshall ranks second with 797 receiving yards and fourth with 59 receptions. And the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson ranks third with 767 yards and 10th with 48 receptions. Yeah, I know.
  • I realize that Bears defensive end Julius Peppers has more sacks (five) in eight games than the Vikings' Brian Robison has in nine (4.5). But I also think Robison has made an impact in many other ways, most notably by batting down six passes at the line of scrimmage. He's also forced a fumble, by the Arizona Cardinals' John Skelton, on one of his sacks. Finally, Robison has been around the ball much more, contributing on 26 tackles to Peppers' 14. Close call here, but that's why I picked Robison.
  • I struggled at tight end between the Lions' Brandon Pettigrew and the Vikings' Kyle Rudolph. Pettigrew had some early struggles with drops, and Rudolph caught five touchdowns in the Vikings' first six games. But Rudolph has disappeared over the past three games, while Pettigrew has continued to play a role in the Lions' offense. He has 39 receptions, tied for the fourth-most in the NFL for tight ends. Coaches have also lauded his run blocking.
  • If the left guard position were judged on versatility, the Packers' T.J. Lang would have won out over the Lions' Rob Sims. Lang is now the Packers' right tackle after Bryan Bulaga's injury. But Sims has been much steadier this season at left guard. PFF hasn't debited him with a sack allowed, while Lang has been beat for four.
  • There's no doubt that Bulaga struggled in Week 3 at the Seattle Seahawks. Football people, however, think that has been his only bad game and that he has been the Packers' best lineman in the rest of their games.
  • I picked what I thought was the NFC North's three best linebackers, regardless of what position they play. That's why the Lions' DeAndre Levy is listed as a middle linebacker even though he plays on the outside in Detroit. By most accounts, Levy is having his best NFL season. Clay Matthews (nine sacks) and Lance Briggs (two interceptions, two touchdowns, two forced fumbles, six passes defensed) were obvious choices.
  • There are four really good place-kickers in the NFC North, though the Packers' Mason Crosby is in a bit of a slump. But how do you pick against a place-kicker who has converted 19 of 20 attempts -- including a league-high five from at least 50 yards -- while also securing an NFL-high 31 touchbacks on kickoffs? The Vikings' Blair Walsh has had a stunning first 10 games of his professional career.

Free Head Exam: Minnesota Vikings

October, 22, 2012
After the Minnesota Vikings' 21-14 victory over the Arizona Cardinals, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Free Head Exam
    Rookie safety Harrison Smith got plenty of post-game attention for his game-changing 31-yard interception return for a touchdown early in the third quarter. The Vikings put Smith in a position to track quarterback John Skelton from the middle of the field, and he smartly anticipated the throw to receiver Early Doucet. As we've said several times already this season, Smith makes the plays you would hope an NFL-caliber safety would make. I guess it just reinforces how long it has been since the Vikings got good safety play. "It's a breath of fresh air," coach Leslie Frazier said, "some of the things he's doing and has been doing throughout the season."
  2. This fact bears repeating: The Vikings sacked Skelton seven times without blitzing once. Not a single time. Never in 69 snaps, according to ESPN Stats & Information. (Some of you thought the Vikings blitzed on a fourth-quarter play that ended with Kevin Williams' sack, but replays show the Vikings jumped out of a blitz just before the snap and sent only four rushers.) Five of the seven sacks came in the second half after the Vikings established a 21-7 lead, just as defensive end Jared Allen predicted they would if and when they grabbed a lead. But it's quite an accomplishment nonetheless for defensive coordinator Alan Williams, and one that future opponents will no doubt take note of. If the defense had a weak spot Sunday, it was its inability to tackle tailback LaRod Stephens Howling, who rushed for 104 yards on 20 carries. "The little guy ran well," Williams said.
  3. The Vikings felt good about their matchup with the Cardinals' run defense, but tailback Adrian Peterson nevertheless looked spry and rejuvenated after taking two days off from practice to rest his sprained ankle. He ripped off 153 yards on 23 carries, his highest yardage total since Week 7 of last season (175 yards against the Green Bay Packers). It's amazing to realize Peterson's season total of 652 yards is just seven yards behind Arian Foster's league lead given his ankle injury and ongoing recovery from knee surgery in December. Now the question is how Peterson will handle the quick physical turnaround that he and the rest of his teammates must make this week. Thursday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is fast approaching. The Vikings will essentially have one practice, on Tuesday, to prepare for the game.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
Where has this Antoine Winfield come from? I realize Winfield has struggled with injuries in recent years, missing six games in 2009 and 11 in 2011. But even after he reported to training camp healthy, it was hard to have high expectations for him. He had just turned 35, after all, and the Vikings seemed to be developing a part-time role for him as a nickel cornerback. But in terms of tackling and run support, at least, Winfield is playing as well as he ever has in a Vikings uniform. He entered Sunday's game leading the Vikings with seven tackles behind the line of scrimmage, a huge number for a cornerback, and Sunday he made a key tackle of Skelton on a fourth-down bootleg -- technically it counted as a sack -- in the third quarter. "Just came up and made a play," Winfield said. He's been doing that a lot this year. I can't say I expected it, and I wonder if the Vikings did, either.

MINNEAPOLIS -- A few thoughts after the Vikings' 21-14 win at the Metrodome on Sunday:

What it means: The Vikings are 5-2 after overcoming a shaky and worrisome 58-yard performance from quarterback Christian Ponder. The Vikings managed only 60 yards of offense in the second half, but their defense (seven sacks) did more than enough to secure this victory.

PetersonWatch: Tailback Adrian Peterson displayed as much explosiveness as we've seen since his return from knee surgery. He totaled 153 yards on 23 carries, including runs of 27, 22 and 17 yards. On the 27-yarder, Peterson dragged two Cardinals defenders the final 10 yards. His 13-yard scoring run in the first quarter snapped a career-long streak of five consecutive games without a touchdown, and frankly, it's not clear why the Vikings didn't feature him in the second half more often as Ponder's struggles continued.

PonderWatch: Ponder threw two bad interceptions and completed only 8 of 17 passes even as the Vikings maintained the most conservative approach imaginable. He threw high and behind tight end Kyle Rudolph in the first quarter, setting up the Cardinals' only touchdown, and floated an ill-advised pass just before halftime that was also intercepted. That's six interceptions, and a total of seven turnovers, for Ponder in his past three games after going without an interception in the Vikings' first four games. The Vikings are 2-1 in those games, but it's worrisome that he's missing on some basic throws. A season-high crowd of 61,068 was testy, giving Ponder a Bronx cheer when he threw a ball out of bounds in the third quarter and then booing a bit later when the Vikings shifted into an open backfield.

Defensive gains: The Vikings had a hard time tackling Cardinals running back LaRod Stephens-Howling, who finished with 149 combined rushing and receiving yards. But safety Harrison Smith's 31-yard interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter staked them to a 21-7 lead, allowing the pass rush to let loose. Defensive end Brian Robison finished with three sacks (and a forced fumble) and defensive end Jared Allen had two against immobile quarterback John Skelton. Meanwhile, cornerback Antoine Winfield upended Skelton on a failed bootleg play on fourth down to end a third-quarter scoring threat.

Injury report: Vikings tight end John Carlson was taken into the locker room for evaluation of a possible concussion and did not return.

What's next: The Vikings need to rest quickly. They'll host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday for their second game in five days.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- It's right there on paper. Add it up, and the Arizona Cardinals have allowed 22 sacks in their past three games. Their offensive tackles, especially, have had a rough start to this season. And on Sunday, they'll face one of the NFL's premier pass-rushers in Jared Allen while protecting relatively immobile quarterback John Skelton.

So we're set for a jailbreak at the Metrodome, right?

[+] EnlargeJared Allen
Brace Hemmelgarn/US PresswireDefensive end Jared Allen says the Vikings need to be successful on early downs if they hope to exploit Arizona's pass protection.
Allen was prepared for that storyline when he met with reporters at the Minnesota Vikings' practice facility this week. Since the start of the 2011 season, after all, he has an NFL-high 26 sacks. And in a victory last season against the Cardinals, Allen and teammate Brian Robison combined for four sacks of quarterback Kevin Kolb.

But to everyone who suggests a mismatch on paper, Allen said: "You can't just go into this saying you're licking your chops" and noted most of the Cardinals' pass-protection issues have come when they've fallen behind or otherwise been pushed into passing downs.

"You have to be good on first and second downs," Allen said. "When you watch the film, you see the reasons teams have been successful against the Cardinals is they've forced them to go down the field [passing]. They forced their offense to spread out and create some matchup problems. We have to be very good on first and second down. We have to smash the run, and when we get a chance to get their quarterback, we have to."

In their disaster two weeks ago against the St. Louis Rams, for example, the Cardinals allowed five of their nine sacks in the final 21 minutes of the game. Regardless of when the sacks have occurred, however, the total numbers are startling.

According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Cardinals right tackle Bobby Massie has given up an NFL-high 10 sacks. Left tackle D'Anthony Batiste ranks second with nine sacks allowed, and no other NFL tackle has allowed more than five. Combined, Massie and Batiste have allowed a stunning 54 quarterback hurries in six games. PFF hasn't credited another tackle with more than 13 hurries this season. Batiste has also been whistled for six penalties this season, five for holding and one false start.

Allen and Robison haven't piled up the sack numbers as they did last season. Allen has recorded four while dealing with neck and groin injuries, while Robison has one. Allen insists he won't press to add to that total, but it's easy to imagine him having plenty of opportunities.

"I get excited for every game," he said. "But this is a situation where you can't dictate it. If you start worrying about one thing, the focus shifts. Every time you go out and you try to force a pass-rush situation or you try to do this or that, A), you affect the integrity of the defense, so now I'm letting down 10 other guys. And B), you don't accomplish what you need to accomplish.

"The game is a rhythm. Things are going to come. If we can be good on first or second down, or even first down, then you can pin your ears back and get after it. If you can do that over and over again, you get rhythm."
On paper, at least, the Arizona Cardinals' quarterback shift sounds favorable for the Minnesota Vikings. Backup John Skelton is expected to start Sunday at the Metrodome, providing the Vikings with a stronger-armed but far less mobile adversary than the injured Kevin Kolb.

The Cardinals have allowed an NFL-high 28 sacks, including 23 in their past three games alone, and Kolb was injured last Sunday while running for his life in a loss to the Buffalo Bills. The Vikings' two losses this season have each come against teams whose quarterbacks broke the pocket against them.

Indianapolis Colts rookie Andrew Luck gained 21 key yards on four scrambles and avoided several near-sacks in Week 2. Meanwhile, Washington Redskins rookie Robert Griffin III scrambled for a game-clinching 76-yard touchdown and a total of 138 yards last Sunday at FedEx Stadium.