NFC North: Mike Zimmer

videoORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Mike Zimmer became the Minnesota Vikings' head coach in no small part because of games like these. His predecessor, Leslie Frazier, presided over a team that blew five last-minute leads in 2013, effectively handing over their chance to win a mediocre division in a series of miscommunications, coverage breakdowns and missed chances to salt away games. Zimmer and Frazier will share a field next Sunday in Tampa, and the closing touchdown drive the Vikings allowed in a 17-16 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday shares some DNA with the ones that helped send Frazier back to being a defensive coordinator.

But the Vikings' problems were spliced in between a set of commanding plays from an aggressive defense, and they put a sour finish on a performance that looked nothing like the tepid defensive efforts the Vikings had last season. The Vikings put the Bills on the brink several times on Sunday, and came tantalizingly close to taking the game for themselves.

That they didn't ultimately shows how much of a work in progress they remain.

"You check off every thing you wanted to do, you do it -- other than maybe stopping the run as well as we would like," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "But the game wasn't over. There was time on the clock, and they were able to make some key throws there at the end."

The Vikings' performance, which featured six sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception, will ultimately be remembered for the throws Bills quarterback Kyle Orton made, especially in situations where the Vikings had the Bills dead to rights. Greenway was targeted on one of those throws -- a fourth-and-20 strike to tight end Scott Chandler, who got just behind the linebacker after it appeared Greenway was still communicating defensive adjustments to teammates when the ball was snapped.

"You can't have it," Greenway said. "It's a situation where you've got to get off the field. I thought I was in a good spot. Perfect throw-and-catch. That's what sucks about this game; you play good for a long time, and you end up losing."

Three plays later, cornerback Josh Robinson was matched against wide receiver Sammy Watkins on third-and-12; Robinson had inside leverage on Watkins in man coverage, but Watkins beat a quick jam from Robinson and got inside on a slant route for 18 yards. Then, on second-and-20 after an intentional grounding penalty that forced 10 seconds off the clock, Orton hit Chris Hogan on a jump ball over Xavier Rhodes. Two plays later, the Bills were in the end zone, on a touchdown pass to Watkins that Orton squeezed past Rhodes with one second left.

"I've just got to make the play on the ball," Rhodes said. "No matter if it was good coverage, I've got to make the play."

Coming into Sunday's game, the Vikings were tied for the second-worst conversion rate in the league on third downs of 10 yards or longer, giving up first downs on nine of their 27 attempts. They'd forced a fumble on a third-and-10 in the first quarter, and sacked Orton on a third-and-10 and third-and-17 in the fourth quarter. But then came the fourth-down completion to Chandler, the third-down slant to Watkins and the second down jump ball to Hogan, and the Vikings' progress was tough to remember.

"We probably need to be better in some of those long-yardage situations than we have been," Zimmer said. "That's kind of been the Achilles heel. But, if you go back and look at the things we're working on: playing the run. Other than the one long run [by C.J. Spiller], I thought we played the run well. The third-down conversions have been better. Defensively, I think we continue to work towards where we have to get to. Our guys have to continue to have confidence in themselves that they can make these plays at the end of the ball game."
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Minnesota Vikings' 17-16 loss to the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday:

Zimmer: Not coaching was never a thought: Coach Mike Zimmer had a "minor procedure" to deal with kidney stones on Friday but told Fox's broadcast crew in a production meeting that he'll need more work done to remove them on Tuesday. He coached in some pain on Sunday, but Zimmer said there was never any doubt he'd be able to coach on Sunday. "I'll be all right," Zimmer said.

Greenway
Greenway on fourth down: "You can't have it" -- The mood was somber in the Vikings' locker room after a loss in which the team gave up a game-winning touchdown with one second left. It was a defeat eerily similar to the five games where the Vikings blew last-minute leads last season, and the Bills extended this drive on a couple of key plays: a fourth-and-20 where Kyle Orton found tight end Scott Chandler just behind Chad Greenway, and a third-and-12 that got the Bills to the Vikings' 20. "You check off every thing you want to do, you do it -- other than maybe stopping the run," Greenway said. "The game wasn't over, and they were able to make some big throws at the end. The [fourth-and-20], you can't have it. It's a situation where you've got to get off the field. I thought I was in a good spot. Perfect throw and catch. That's what sucks about this game: You play good for a long time, and you end up losing."

Ducasse felt "sharp pain" in knee: Guard Vlad Ducasse, who was already filling in for injured starter Brandon Fusco, left the game with a knee injury late in the first quarter, on the same play that also saw center John Sullivan leave with a concussion. Ducasse wasn't sure how he hurt his knee; "I just went to get up off the ground, and there was a sharp pain in my knee." Ducasse did not return, and Mike Harris played the rest of the game at right guard.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. – Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was not with the team at its Friday practice, as he underwent what team spokesman Bob Hagan termed a “minor procedure.” Zimmer will be back with the team on Saturday, and plans to coach on Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, Hagan said.

Offensive coordinator Norv Turner was scheduled to address reporters after the Vikings’ Friday practice. The Vikings did not announce any further details about Zimmer's procedure.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- In a week where we've spent plenty of time talking about an unexpected concern for the Minnesota Vikings -- their pass protection -- it only seems fair to take a look at a pleasant surprise: the performance of their young cornerbacks.

Robinson
Rhodes
Secondary depth looked like an issue for the Vikings as recently as training camp, when Josh Robinson was dealing with a hamstring injury and struggling to prove he'd progressed from a disastrous second season. But Robinson has performed well as an outside cornerback in nickel situations -- albeit in fewer snaps than Xavier Rhodes or Captain Munnerlyn -- and Rhodes has been a solid cover corner in his second year, as well.

According to Pro Football Focus, quarterbacks have a passer rating of just 53.3 when throwing at Robinson (the seventh lowest in the NFL), and a mark of 71.0 when targeting Rhodes (19th lowest among cornerbacks). Passers have had more success against Munnerlyn, completing 16 of 22 passes targeted at him for 199 yards and three touchdowns.

"They are getting better with their techniques," coach Mike Zimmer said of Rhodes and Robinson. "They’ve got a tough job when you’re out there one-one-one with good receivers all the time it’s not an easy job because those guys are terrific athletes and we ask them to do an awful lot. So far they’ve been good at what they’ve been doing."

The Vikings have five interceptions this season, which puts them 15th in the NFL (though Harrison Smith, who has three already this year, is on track to become the first player since Cedric Griffin in 2009 with more than three interceptions). Still, Zimmer said there's much more that matters to him at cornerback than just interceptions, and on that front, his two young corners are getting better.

"Everybody wants to get interceptions; I got that, but there’s something to be said about your guy not catching the ball and them having to go somewhere else," Zimmer said. "To me, that’s a big value if my guy isn’t catching the ball, because I can worry about other things. Maybe I’m the only one that thinks that way but I do."
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings' defensive performance in a 17-3 loss to the Detroit Lions Sunday must be graded on a curve, considering the Lions were without wide receiver Calvin Johnson and running back Reggie Bush, which led them to simplify their offense into a short passing game and power running game designed to keep the chains moving and force the Vikings' offense to play from behind.

But 10 days after a 42-10 shellacking at Lambeau Field, the Vikings had reason to be happy with a number of things they did on defense. After surrendering another early touchdown, they held the Lions to 10 points and 175 yards the rest of the day, limiting the Lions to just one third-down conversion for the game.

It wasn't enough to win on a day where the Vikings managed just three points and the Lions started their average drive at their own 36-yard line, but coach Mike Zimmer was right to point out some positives about the defensive performance on Monday, especially after drilling players to stay disciplined against the run.

"Defensively, I think what we went back and emphasized extremely hard, I thought we did a really good job in," Zimmer said.

Here are some other observations of the Vikings' defense after a film review of the Lions' 17-3 win:
  • Joesph
    After playing his worst game of the season against the Packers, nose tackle Linval Joseph might have been at his best Sunday against Detroit, collapsing the middle of the Lions' offensive line for much of the day and getting good push on a quarterback hit and a sack he shared with Brian Robison. Joseph admitted he was playing out of his gap a few times in Green Bay, but he got back to what he does best on Sunday: swallowing up blockers and holding firm in the middle of the line.
  • It was an easier day for the Vikings' cornerbacks because of how rarely Matthew Stafford went downfield (he was 1-for-10 on throws at least 10 yards downfield, according to ESPN Stats and Information), but Josh Robinson bounced back from a bad night in Green Bay and continued to show improvement at corner. He had good inside leverage on one of the few times he was tested downfield, on a sideline throw to Corey Fuller late in the second quarter, and gave Stafford no place to fit the ball (though Fuller motioned that Robinson grabbed his jersey after the play).
  • Zimmer brought extra pressure on just 14 of Stafford's 41 dropbacks, and the Vikings did a good job getting to Stafford with just four pass rushers; three of their four sacks came with standard pressure. Tom Johnson had another strong day in the Vikings' nickel package, bull rushing Dominic Raiola on a third-quarter sack of Stafford, drilling the quarterback on a pressure in the second quarter and nearly taking him down again on one of the stunts he ran with a defensive end (Everson Griffen in this case).
  • The Vikings' first defensive drive set the tone for the day, and we need to spend a little time on what went wrong. Zimmer wasn't happy with the Vikings' pursuit of Theo Riddick's 41-yard screen -- "We didn't get off blocks; we had one guy loaf," he said -- and Joique Bell shed a pair of arm tackles from Anthony Barr and Jasper Brinkley on a 10-yard run on the Lions' third play of the game. Stafford's touchdown to Riddick came when Gerald Hodges (who had another good day in run support) appeared to lose him in coverage; Hodges and Barr also both jumped tight end Brandon Pettigrew on the screen, leaving room for Riddick on the right side.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings got some experience -- albeit in a much more controlled set of circumstances -- at helping Teddy Bridgewater overcome a rough stretch of play in training camp. Bridgewater had a stretch of interceptions early in training camp, coupled with a preseason debut where he looked jittery against the Oakland Raiders' pass rush, but after a week of coaches restoring his confidence and telling him not to overthink things, Bridgewater rebounded to lead a two-minute drill for a win in the Vikings' second preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals.

[+] EnlargeTeddy Bridgewater
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsFacing steady heat from the Lions just added to Teddy Bridgewater's struggles on Sunday.
The stakes are higher now for the Vikings' next correction period with Bridgewater, and the support structure around the rookie quarterback has taken a beating in recent weeks. Bridgewater is playing without running back Adrian Peterson, and the Vikings have allowed 14 sacks in the past two games. Their receivers have dropped 13 passes -- the second most in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- and tight end Kyle Rudolph probably won't be back from sports hernia surgery for several more weeks.

Despite all that, the Vikings have begun the process of moving forward from Bridgewater's first poor performance in a regular-season game, and they're doing so with a healthy dose of perspective about how common days like Sunday are for a rookie quarterback.

"I believe, with all my heart, that Teddy Bridgewater is going to be the franchise quarterback here for a long, long time," coach Mike Zimmer said. "I believe that the team believes that, too. Guys in the organization, the players, everybody believes this guy will be the future -- and a bright future for this organization. We have to make sure we continue to help him to be successful -- playing, coaching, whatever it is. The first interception that he had, he thought the safety was going to grab the guy that was running across, and he didn't. The other two were tipped balls. I shouldn't say they weren't his fault, but there were two. I'm glad he's got his low spot out of the way and he's ready to go back to work."

If there's one thing that could help Bridgewater quickly, it'd be keeping him upright. Bridgewater was pressured on 17 of his 47 dropbacks on Sunday, according to ESPN Stats and Information, getting sacked eight times and hit another three.

There wasn't one overriding issue contributing to the pressure, Zimmer said. "One time we held the ball too long, one time we got the protection the wrong way, a couple times we got beat, one time a guy tripped on another guy and fell backwards," he said. "One time we got stuck on a [stunt]. Some of it was guys not getting open."

But there's little doubt that protection around Bridgewater has to be better, and Zimmer admitted he thought a veteran offensive line would be one of the strengths of the team. Asked if he would consider changes to the line, the coach said, "We're evaluating all of that, and I'm not opposed to it.

"I feel like we have the ability and the talent to become better than what we have. That's what I feel. Whether it's viable options or the guys we have in there, we have the ability to do it. Are we getting it done? No. The guys overall are not bad football players. They're just not playing real good right now."
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MINNEAPOLIS -- It began as a day full of promise, a sun-splashed October afternoon that saw Teddy Bridgewater returning from a sprained ankle to play his second home game in front of a fan base thankful to see him. His mother, Rose Murphy, handed out pink ribbons outside TCF Bank Stadium and was honored before the game for her successful fight against breast cancer when Bridgewater was in high school, and Bridgewater had every reason to think that he, too, would hear plenty of cheers in his second NFL start.

It ended as a rude indoctrination, a reminder of how steep a learning curve there is on the way to success as an NFL quarterback. For as poised as Teddy Bridgewater had looked in his first seven quarters as a NFL quarterback, for as well as he'd performed when he was pressured, Bridgewater met the great equalizer that's controlled quarterbacks 10 years his senior: a team that can get pressure with just four pass-rushers.

The Detroit Lions did that on Sunday, harrying the Vikings' offensive line with speed rushes and stunts that gave Bridgewater little time to set his feet. They got five of their eight sacks with four or fewer pass-rushers, according to ESPN Stats & Information, bringing standard pressure on 70.2 percent of Bridgewater's dropbacks. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin dialed up a few well-timed blitzes to finish off what coach Jim Caldwell called a "smothering" defensive performance in the Lions' 17-3 win over the Vikings.

Bridgewater threw for just 188 yards on 37 attempts on Sunday, his longest gain of the day a short pass that Matt Asiata took for 18 yards. Bridgewater was intercepted three times (though two of the passes were tipped), and hit a total of 12 times. If Bridgewater looked like a veteran in control of his offense two weeks ago against Atlanta, on Sunday he looked like a rookie for whom things were happening awfully fast.

"One week you can go out and have over 500 yards of total offense, and the next week you can have 200 yards," Bridgewater said. "That says a lot about this league, how difficult it is each week. Nothing is given; you have to earn it all. Today we just didn't do that."

The consistent pressure on Bridgewater certainly didn't help. The Vikings' offensive line had allowed quarterbacks to be pressured on 30.9 percent of their dropbacks before Sunday -- the sixth-highest rate in the league -- and the group had few answers for the Lions' relentless front.

"Look, they've got great personnel, but that's no excuse," center John Sullivan said. "We've got to block those guys. That's what it comes down to."

Still, Bridgewater agreed with coach Mike Zimmer's opinion that the quarterback could have gotten the ball out quicker at times; Bridgewater said he needed to be faster at ruling out covered receivers in his progressions and put some of the sacks on himself, saying he needed to play faster.

He also was fooled on his first career interception, when safety Glover Quin stepped in front of Bridgewater's throw to Cordarrelle Patterson in the end zone. Bridgewater said he believed Quin would follow Greg Jennings' inside route, but the safety kept himself in position to jump a post route to Patterson, taking away the Vikings' chance to tie the game early.

"I have to see the safety," Bridgewater said. "I was expecting him to run with Greg, but he ran to the outside receiver and made a great play."

There will be better days ahead for Bridgewater, as he adapts to the speed of the pro game, but the Vikings dropped two games behind the Lions in the NFC North on Sunday in part because of how effectively they frustrated the rookie QB. Bridgewater wasn't the first quarterback to have that kind of a day against the Lions this season, but Sunday served as a reminder to Vikings fans that he's not immune to them.

"I expect a lot of myself," Bridgewater said. "It's just one of those days where we needed to show up and we didn't."
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MINNEAPOLIS – Quarterbacks are taught to always keep their eyes downfield. Feel the pressure, but elude it and make the play.

Then these same quarterbacks run into the Detroit Lions defense, and something changes.

[+] EnlargeNick Fairley
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltNick Fairley and his cohorts on the Lions' defensive line made life tough for rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
“Recently, we have seen quarterbacks not even looking downfield,” linebacker DeAndre Levy said. “They are kind of taking their eyes off the receivers and looking at the rush. Whenever you can get in a quarterback’s head like that, it helps everybody.”

That type of pressure ended with eight sacks Sunday in a 17-3 victory over Minnesota – the most by a Lions team since Nov. 23, 1997 against Indianapolis. It led to 12 quarterback hits and a Minnesota offensive line that couldn’t protect its rookie quarterback and led Vikings coach Mike Zimmer to lament, “We physically got beat.”

It’s a pressure that allows Detroit’s linebackers and secondary to break on routes and to defend passes, such as the six they defended and three they intercepted Sunday, including two by Tahir Whitehead.

It’s a pressure that helps the Lions deal with a day when two offensive stars – Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush – were out and they missed two more field goals. No matter -- the Lions are 4-2 because of a defensive line that, when it plays well, can dominate.

“No one can stop us if we do our technique and assignments correct,” defensive tackle Nick Fairley said. “No one can score on us, no one can run the ball, no one can pass the ball. It’s up to us.

“We make teams, basically as a defense, we try to make it go on our terms.”

Those terms have stifled almost every opponent this season. No team has gained more than 350 yards on the Lions. Three teams have been held to less than 225 yards, including the Vikings, who gained 212 yards Sunday.

This starts with the defensive front. The pressure they provide flusters opposing quarterbacks and takes the pressure off the secondary – an issue that plagued the Lions last season.

“It helps us tremendously because we know if we cover early on in a down and just a little later, you know we’re going to get a coverage sack,” Whitehead said. “If we don’t get a coverage sack, we’re going to apply pressure and the ball is going to flow and maybe you get a pick.”

Consider what Bridgewater said Sunday, that “everything happens so fast for me.” He’s a rookie, so part of that is expected. When you’re facing the Lions, everything lately appears at warp speed. Aaron Rodgers, widely considered one of the best quarterbacks in the league, entered Sunday with his season-low in completion percentage (59.3) and QBR (47.7) against Detroit. So did Eli Manning.

Detroit’s defensive line won those two games. In them, they felt close to being able to do what they accomplished Sunday: Control another team. It’s a performance Lions coach Jim Caldwell called “smothering.”

“It’s important for them to be really strong at what they do,” Caldwell said. “Our defensive line creates so many problems because of the fact that they don’t allow you to run the ball consistently against us and then also they can put pressure on the passer.”

That was what Lions general manager Martin Mayhew envisioned when he drafted three of the four defensive line starters in the first round in 2010 (Ndamukong Suh), 2011 (Fairley) and 2013 (Ezekiel Ansah).

“Every game should be like this for this D-line we have now, you know what I’m saying,” Fairley said. “From the guys that are setting the edges and the guys in the middle, we have a D-line that can get after quarterback and any O-line.”

In almost every game this season, they have.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Minnesota Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway returned to the practice field for the first time since he broke three ribs in the team's Sept. 21 game against the New Orleans Saints, and coach Mike Zimmer said the Vikings would make a decision on Saturday about whether Greenway could play on Sunday against the Detroit Lions.

Greenway
The Vikings officially listed Greenway as doubtful for Sunday's game. If Greenway did return from a two-game absence on Sunday, it would be in a situational role, not as an every-down player, Zimmer said.

That would likely put Gerald Hodges in line to start a third consecutive game at weakside linebacker. Greenway said his ribs are continuing to feel better, and Zimmer said this week that Greenway's broken hand isn't a major concern at this point, but for a player who rarely, if ever, comes off the field when he's healthy, it will probably take a little more time to return to such a major role.

"The pain is in the breathing," Greenway said. "I just haven't done anything to push myself for a couple weeks, so that was the worst (part). I've been feeling really good, and better and better every day."

Safety Harrison Smith was able to do more in practice on Friday than he was Thursday, and still is in line to play on Sunday after spraining his ankle on Oct. 2 against Green Bay. The Vikings officially listed Smith as questionable.

"I'm a little bit surprised (at how quick I've recovered)," Smith said. "You always think you're going to heal fast as an athlete -- you think you're going to wake up tomorrow, and it's going to be fine. That's kind of what you expect, even though it's kind of insane. That's just how we think. Right now, it's stable. As long as it's stable and I can play, that's the goal."

Receiver Cordarrelle Patterson (hip) and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd (elbow) participated in full on Friday. Both are probable for Sunday's game. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (ankle), linebacker Michael Mauti (foot), running back Jerick McKinnon (ankle) and running back Matt Asiata (groin) are also probable.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Before the Minnesota Vikings' game on Thursday night against the Green Bay Packers, coach Mike Zimmer had pointed out some of the inconsistencies he saw in the Vikings' pass rush and the problems that arose when players focused too much on their individual matchups and not enough on an overall scheme that should choke off places for a quarterback to turn if everyone does their job correctly.

When Zimmer turned on the tape of the Vikings' 42-10 loss to the Packers, he saw the issue metastasize to their run defense as well. The Vikings allowed the Packers to run for 156 yards, with Eddie Lacy gaining 105 on 13 carries. Zimmer, defensive end Brian Robison and defensive tackle Linval Joseph all said the Packers' success would have been mitigated if the Vikings had done a better job of staying in their gaps instead of leaving lanes open when they tried to overpursue ballcarriers.

[+] EnlargeEddie Lacy
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsThe Packers' Eddie Lacy had a lot of success against the Vikings on Thursday.
"The bottom line is do your job and the plays will come to you. If anyone knows how frustrating it is not having stats, it’s me. But I have to do my job and the plays will come," Robison said. "You go out there and do your job, you might not get the sacks or the interceptions or tackles for loss, but you’ll give our team the best chance to win the ballgame -- and that’s really all that matters in this league.”

Zimmer made that point to the Vikings, players said, over a pair of animated speeches at halftime and after the game on Thursday night. He addressed them again when they watched film of the game on Friday morning, and recalled a similar issue during his first season as the Cowboys' defensive coordinator when he was speaking with reporters on Friday.

"There’s nothing more disheartening as a coach for you to get manhandled up front, to be in the wrong gaps, to have people running the ball at you," he said. "It’s just disheartening. It goes back, I think, to when I was in Dallas my first year as a coordinator. We were like 30th or something in the league in the rush defense. And I said, ‘never again.’ So I guess that’s where that all stems from."

Robison said he saw players start to get disheartened after Julius Peppers' 49-yard interception return touchdown put the Packers ahead 21-0. "You could see it on guys' faces. You could see it on the sidelines," he said. "Everybody was quiet. There was no longer that chatter that we normally have on the sidelines and that’s just not the way you win ballgames and it’s definitely not the way that you try to make the best of the situation and try to make a comeback win. If guys aren’t in tune to it, then we might as well shut it down at halftime.”

The Vikings won't come back to work until Tuesday, when they start preparations for a Detroit Lions team that's been among the league's least effective in the run game this season. But if the Vikings aren't able to play a more structured defensive game, the same issues could crop up there, too.

"We’re not consistent, and not playing consistent gets you six, seven, eight wins, which gets you nothing in this league," Robison said. "So we have to do a better job of making sure that every person is doing their job every single play and trying to strive for perfection, and if we’re not doing that, we’re cutting ourselves short."
Christian PonderJeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsChristian Ponder struggled against the Packers -- completing just half his passes and throwing two picks in the loss.

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Since it was installed in January, the Minnesota Vikings' new coaching staff has taken numerous opportunities to point out that Christian Ponder was better than he was made out to be. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner said it when he was first introduced in February, and again at the Vikings' mandatory minicamp in June.

When Ponder was booed during his appearance in the Vikings' second preseason game, coach Mike Zimmer said Ponder had "improved a lot since we got him," and Turner scolded fans for castigating a player who was "going to be valuable to our team."

Ponder finally got his chance to prove his coaches right Thursday night, to show how he'd grown as a quarterback in Turner's offense, in front of a national television audience. What transpired instead was the kind of game Vikings fans have seen all too often from Ponder. After a 42-10 loss to the Green Bay Packers, it's fair to wonder when -- or if -- Ponder will get another chance to change the narrative.

"I don't know when it's going to happen next. That's what stinks about not playing well tonight," Ponder said. "Who knows? But I've got to do a better job of trying to prepare myself, and be ready for the next opportunity."

Rookie Teddy Bridgewater is likely to return for the Vikings' next game against the Detroit Lions on Oct. 12, and he'll have the job for the rest of the season as long as he's healthy. In his first start against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 4, Bridgewater already showed many of the things -- an ability to keep his eyes downfield while stepping up in the pocket, decisiveness in the face of pressure and an ability to avoid turnovers -- that Ponder failed to display in three seasons as the Vikings' starting quarterback. Those same shortcomings were on display Thursday night in a game the Vikings trailed 28-0 at halftime and 42-0 after three quarters.

Ponder looked skittish in the pocket, though the Packers' blitz packages gave his offensive line plenty of trouble. He missed an open Jarius Wright on a deep ball in the first quarter after he had ample time to throw, and he threw a first-down screen too high for Jerick McKinnon on the Vikings' next drive. He was sacked six times and threw two interceptions -- one that Julius Peppers returned for a touchdown after Packers defensive end Luther Robinson tipped the ball and one that linebacker Jamari Lattimore picked off after Ponder double-clutched and threw behind McKinnon.

"I shouldn't have thrown it. I should have ate that ball, or been more accurate with it," Ponder said of the second interception. "It was an option route. I just wasn't sure what was going to happen."

And four days after Bridgewater had revived the Vikings' deep passing game, it regressed under Ponder. He hit just 11 of his 23 throws that traveled more than 5 yards downfield, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, and both of his interceptions came on those throws. Last Sunday, Bridgewater went 9-for-14 for 176 yards on such throws.

"He was behind receivers a few times. He was over receivers a few times. He didn't look comfortable in the pocket to me," Zimmer said.

It was Ponder's first meaningful action since last December, and it came after he'd gotten his first three days of significant practice snaps this season. But Ponder said he felt comfortable with the game plan, believed he had enough time to prepare and wasn't fazed by the speed of the game or the weather on a soggy night at Lambeau Field.

If Bridgewater starts the rest of the year and Ponder heads into free agency with Thursday's game as his final piece of work, he'll have trouble creating much of a market for himself. Zimmer is fond of saying faith is belief without proof; the belief the Vikings had professed in Ponder went unproven on Thursday.

"I'll take the heat," Ponder said. "Two turnovers, I'm missing throws. I've got to do a better job in the pocket, moving around and hitting guys. I'll take the blame."
Welcome to Around the Horns, our daily look at what's happening on the Vikings beat:

In the Minnesota Vikings' calculations about whether Teddy Bridgewater will play on a sprained left ankle Thursday night in Green Bay, there's this to consider: The game-time forecast calls for temperatures in the low 60s, with an 80 percent chance of rain. That means if the Vikings are going to play Bridgewater, they'll have to be reasonably confident he can play on a wet surface at Lambeau Field.

Bridgewater
The Vikings could get a chance to test that out during a light practice Wednesday, when it's supposed to be raining in the Twin Cities. Bridgewater was scheduled to do some running and flexibility exercises for his ankle Tuesday. Wednesday would be his chance to do some throwing and see if he's able to plant on his left foot when he delivers. He'd also get another chance to work in wet weather; Bridgewater played without his gloves during the Vikings' final preseason game on a rainy night in Nashville.

Talking about the game on Wednesday, Bridgewater certainly sounded like a man who planned on playing Thursday night. "It’ll be very exciting to be out there on Thursday," Bridgewater said. "You talk about Lambeau Field, the history and the tradition behind that stadium. It’s going to be a great feeling just being able to play in that facility with all of the history that’s behind it."

Then again, the last time the Vikings were preparing to play a night game in Green Bay, they led everybody to believe Christian Ponder was ready to start their 2013 NFL wild card game, only to start Joe Webb. It's worth keeping that in mind, too.

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The Film Don't Lie: Vikings

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
11:00
AM ET
A weekly look at what the Minnesota Vikings must fix:

We'll give the opening statement for this week's edition of The Film Don't Lie to Vikings coach Mike Zimmer. Coach, how did you feel about your third-down defense on Sunday?

"It’s terrible," Zimmer said on Monday. "We have a lot of work to do. I'm extremely disappointed in that. We will put a lot more time and effort into it than what we have. It's disappointing because that should be one of our strengths."

The Vikings have good reason to be disappointed after a game in which they allowed the Falcons to convert 10 of their 15 third-down attempts. That included a third-and-20, two third-and-10s and a third-and-7 on which Matt Ryan threw a 36-yard touchdown to Devin Hester. Missed sacks were at the heart of several Falcons conversions; the Vikings had an eight-man blitz fail to get home on a third-and-7 early in the game, dialed up a five-man blitz on Ryan's touchdown to Hester and saw Ryan elude Brian Robison's grasp on a third-and-10 in the third quarter. The Vikings' first -- and only -- sack of the game came on an Anthony Barr blitz in the fourth quarter, but missed chances to put the quarterback on the ground allowed Ryan to pick holes in Minnesota's coverage on several occasions.

The task won't get much easier on Thursday night against quarterback Aaron Rodgers and a Green Bay Packers offense with the league's ninth-best third-down conversion rate. But an offensive line that has already allowed 10 sacks might give the Vikings chances to get to Rodgers, who is one of the game's masters at extending plays. The Vikings haven't struggled to pressure quarterbacks this season -- they've gotten pressure on 26.1 percent of their opportunities, which is the 14th-best rate in the league this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- but wrapping up the quarterback on a few more third downs would help their defense to get off the field.
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For a Vikings team that's been staking plenty of its plans on Xavier Rhodes turning into a top-end cover cornerback, his performance Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons had to deliver a shot of encouragement. Rhodes had one of the best games of his career at TCF Bank Stadium, two weeks after one of his worst on the same field. He was targeted frequently by Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan but broke up four passes, handled the right side of the field well and thumped running back Steven Jackson for a 2-yard loss in the second half.

Rhodes
According to Pro Football Focus, Rhodes was targeted 11 times Sunday but gave up just five catches for 66 yards, with none of the completions going for more than 20 yards. The Falcons eventually found more success targeting linebacker Anthony Barr on short passes (as several teams have) and attacking Captain Munnerlyn on the other side of the field, but Rhodes held up well when the Vikings needed it.

"I have a lot of confidence in Xavier," coach Mike Zimmer said. "I think he’s got a chance to continue to be a very good player. He’s like a lot of these guys we have on defense -- so young and learning so much of trying to figure out what we’re trying to do in situations and how we play the techniques and the different combinations. (Defensive backs coach) Jerry (Gray) is doing a great job with him, but I do think Xavier is continually getting better and he’s got a chance to be very, very good if he keeps working on the little things to make him really good."

Rhodes will be in for another test Thursday night when the Vikings travel to Green Bay to face the Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but if he's able to take away his side of the field as effectively as he did Sunday, he'll have a chance to throw off the Packers' rhythm on offense. Green Bay essentially decided not to throw to Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman's side of the field in its season-opening loss to Seattle, and while Rhodes hasn't come close to earning that kind of reputation, he could force the Packers to look elsewhere if he handles his assignments well Thursday night. What he did Sunday against the league's top passing offense was a good step.

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MINNEAPOLIS -- Watching the film of the Minnesota Vikings' defensive performance on Sunday in New Orleans, it's clear just how much the unit is a work in progress under coach Mike Zimmer. There are enough encouraging signs, and enough examples of the Vikings executing Zimmer's defense correctly, to think this can be a solid defensive unit in a year or two. But the Vikings broke just enough to let the Saints pull away on Sunday.

New Orleans gained 162 yards on its first two drives of the game, taking advantage of a Vikings defense that was mostly playing in a nickel package and couldn't keep Saints running backs from finding cutback lanes on several zone running plays. And while the Vikings held tight end Jimmy Graham to six catches for 54 yards, they also paid just enough attention to him to get beat over the middle on the first of Drew Brees' two touchdown passes.

But where last year's Vikings defense would have crumbled, this unit made enough plays to keep the team in the game. Second-year linebacker Gerald Hodges was a force in run support, both in the nickel package and when he replaced Chad Greenway later in the game, and it's not hard to see him as the Vikings' weakside linebacker of the future.

Rookie linebacker Anthony Barr also stood out, blowing up Saints fullback Austin Johnson before making a third-quarter tackle and blitzing Brees for his first NFL sack in the second quarter. But the Saints again targeted Barr effectively in pass coverage, beating him on crossing routes to Pierre Thomas and Brandin Cooks.

Zimmer will likely need another offseason cycle to get all the pieces he needs for his defense, and the Vikings' young players will have to keep developing. For now, there are signs of progress and incomplete results, especially against an offense as diverse and dangerous as the Saints' scheme.

Here are some other observations from a film review of Sunday's game:
  • The Vikings used everyone from cornerback Xavier Rhodes to defensive end Brian Robison to cover Graham, and he might have affected the Vikings most when others caught the ball. Safety Robert Blanton drifted over to help Rhodes on Graham in the second quarter, leaving a crossing route open for Cooks after Barr and Greenway reacted to a run fake. And on Brees' first TD to Josh Hill, Blanton was doubling Graham with Captain Munnerlyn, leaving Hill to run behind him down the middle of the field. Graham also drilled Blanton with a nasty stiff-arm on an 8-yard catch earlier in the game.
  • Harrison Smith might be the Vikings' best player right now, with Adrian Peterson off the field. His breakup of a deep throw to Cooks in the second quarter came after Cooks beat Josh Robinson down the sideline on the backside of the play, with Brees waiting just long enough to throw the ball that Smith could range over and knock the ball away. Smith nearly had an interception when he was lined up on Graham and made a third-and-1 tackle to force a punt in the first half after Munnerlyn (who had a good day in run support) forced Pierre Thomas wide.
  • Zimmer blitzed Brees on 13 of his 36 dropbacks, sending six- and seven-man pressures on several occasions. Brees mostly worked short against the blitz, going 7-for-12 for 90 yards and a score against pressure, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
  • After he'd given up just one completion all season, Robinson was back to being a target for Brees on Sunday before he left with a hamstring injury. Robinson got turned around in coverage on a 3rd-and-16 completion to Cooks and allowed three completions for 40 yards on three targets, according to Pro Football Focus.

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