NFC North: Stephen Burton

Greg Jennings learns the art of blocking

December, 19, 2013
12/19/13
10:00
AM ET
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Greg Jennings' transition from the Green Bay Packers to the Minnesota Vikings was always going to have some fits and starts, well beyond the border-hopping rivalry stuff that fans soak up (and Jennings fed with several rounds of well-publicized comments earlier this year). He went from playing with two quarterbacks -- Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers -- for all but one game of his time with the Packers, to having three in his first six games with the Vikings. On top of that, Jennings had to learn how to exist in an offensive system that revolved not around an MVP quarterback, but an MVP running back.

That meant fewer opportunities as the Vikings went through their quarterback changes. And it meant Jennings taking a more serious approach to the art of downfield blocking.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Peterson and Greg Jennings
Tom Dahlin/Getty ImagesMoving from a team where the quarterback was the star to one where the running back is meant that Greg Jennings (15) had to work on his blocking.
"I kind of saw that the role, my mindset had to change, making sure that I was doing my job and not becoming a distraction at all," Jennings said. "Embracing the run game even more, making sure that I did my part from that aspect of what we were trying to on the offensive side of the ball. ... It didn’t get to me. I just had to shift my mindset to more of a run-blocker because that’s where we were having success at. That’s what was going to get our offense rolling."

For much of Jennings' time in Green Bay, the Packers were either so committed to the pass or so inept at the run that he wasn't asked to do much other than get open and catch passes. The most Jennings had to run-block was in his first season with Rodgers -- in 2008, when he was blocking on 33.8 percent of his offensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. His run-blocking dropped in each of the next three seasons (32.3 percent in 2009, 30.9 percent in 2010, 26.7 percent in 2011) before jumping back up to 29.1 percent in 2012. But this season, Jennings is back to blocking almost as frequently as he's ever done.

The Vikings have asked him to do it on 33.4 percent of his snaps this season, and in wide-receivers coach George Stewart, Jennings has a former offensive-line coach who stresses proper blocking technique. During his disappointing 2012 season, wide receiver Jerome Simpson won praise from the coaching staff for the way he worked to improve as a blocker, and that might have helped him earn a new contract from the Vikings this season. It also might have helped converted quarterback Joe Webb make the team out of training camp; Webb has blocked on 42.1 percent of his offensive snaps, filling the role Stephen Burton had occupied for the Vikings last season.

Jennings' productivity has increased since Matt Cassel took over as quarterback, and the Vikings are paying him primarily to do what he always did in Green Bay. But run-blocking is always going to be a reality in an offense with Adrian Peterson, and it's been one of several adjustments for Jennings in his first year in Minnesota.

He had a career-high 11 catches last week in a win over the Eagles, and has 59 catches for 733 yards this season. But Jennings will need a big finish to the season to avoid his lowest full-season yardage total since his rookie year, and his four touchdowns also match his fewest since his rookie year.

"It’s a challenge," he said of working with so many quarterbacks. "That’s why you get a lot of receivers, and a lot of people tag us as divas. Because a lot of times the work that we put in, not to get a result, it can be frustrating for anyone. For a team that’s lost as many games as we’ve lost, we put in a lot of work in practice not to get the production and have the success that we feel we deserve or that we’re putting in on Wednesday, Thursdays and Fridays, it can be frustrating. But you have to keep rolling with the punches, and right now we’re having some success and that’s where we are."

What to watch for: Vikings-Titans

August, 29, 2013
8/29/13
5:05
PM ET
The Minnesota Vikings close out the preseason at home on Thursday, playing host to the Tennessee Titans. The Vikings are expected to sit most of their starters, but a number of players will still have something to prove in advance of final roster cuts this weekend. Here are some things to watch:

Matt Cassel: The quarterback hasn't been terribly impressive this preseason, doing his best work in the Vikings' exhibition opener against Houston. Since that game, where Cassel went 12-for-19 for 212 yards, a touchdown and an interception, he has completed just 7 of 18 passes for a total of 57 yards and has been sacked twice. With Christian Ponder likely to sit out, Cassel should get plenty of time to end his preseason on a good note and remind the Vikings why they are paying him $3.7 million this season to back up Ponder.

Cornerback battle: Several position battles still have to be settled on the Vikings' roster, but the competition for the team's final cornerback spot is one of the more prominent ones. Bobby Felder, who spent last season on the practice squad, has had some impressive moments this preseason and might have a shot to unseat Marcus Sherels for a spot on the roster. Felder is bigger and more physical than Sherels, who served as the Vikings' fifth corner last season, and he's been productive enough as a punt returner that it looks like he could unseat Sherels there, too. If Josh Robinson falters in the slot, the Vikings would likely go to whomever wins this spot, so it could be important for them to get it right. Thursday will give them one final look at both players, and unless they wind up keeping six cornerbacks, Thursday's game could play a pivotal role in helping the Vikings decide whether Felder or Sherels stays.

The thin D-line: With Kevin Williams and Sharrif Floyd still sitting out because of knee injuries, and Christian Ballard still away from the team because of personal issues, the Vikings will have plenty of work for their backup defensive tackles on Thursday night. Players such as Anthony McCloud, Chase Baker and Everett Dawkins should play extensively, and if it looks like Ballard's absence will extend into the season, the Vikings might have a roster spot for one of them. None of the players have distinguished themselves during the preseason, but a longer stretch of playing time could lend some more clarity to the situation.

Desmond Bishop: He played 33 snaps on Sunday night in San Francisco, and Bishop should have plenty of time again on Thursday night to prove he should start at weak-side linebacker over Marvin Mitchell. He still had some lapses in pass coverage against the 49ers, but made nine tackles and looked more assertive against the run than he did in the previous game against the Bills, which was Bishop's first in more than a year after a torn hamstring ended his 2012 season after one game.

Final receiver spot: Here's another area where Thursday's game could have plenty to say about who sticks on the roster. Stephen Burton has had an impressive camp, and caught three passes for 67 yards in the Vikings' first preseason game, but Ponder's interception on Sunday night in San Francisco could be attributed at least partially to Burton, who stopped his route and gave Nnamdi Asomugha a clear path to the ball. (Asomugha tipped the ball, and C.J. Spillman made the pick.) In that same game, Joe Webb caught a 3-yard touchdown pass from Ponder, showing what kind of a red-zone threat he could be. It seems unlikely the Vikings would keep six receivers, unless they only went with two quarterbacks, so they might have to decide between two players who spent all of last season on their roster. Another factor here could be the Vikings' impression of Webb as a run blocker; Burton has fared well there in the past, and in the Vikings' offense, a receiver's ability to block downfield for Adrian Peterson will always be important.

Observation deck: Vikings-49ers

August, 26, 2013
8/26/13
12:15
AM ET

If Christian Ponder's preseason is done, at least he saved his best work for his closing act.

Ponder went 7-of-9 for 48 yards on his final drive during the Minnesota Vikings' 34-14 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night, directing a 12-play, 78-yard drive that ended with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Joe Webb on a fade route. It was as assertive and accurate as Ponder has looked all preseason, and though most of his completions were underneath the 49ers' coverage, he converted two third downs (one on a 7-yard scramble, the other on his touchdown to Webb), and the scoring pass was Ponder's second of the night. It helped him finish with his best stat line of the preseason -- 17-of-23 for 116 yards, two touchdowns and an interception -- but it also dressed things up after another ragged start for Ponder.

On the Vikings' first play, he threw too far out in front of Greg Jennings, who was in single coverage against a safety, on a deep ball off play action. He threw incomplete to John Carlson on second down, and fumbled on third down after Ahmad Brooks beat Phil Loadholt and sacked Ponder. It took the Vikings four series to get a first down, and on their first sustained drive of the night, Ponder floated a couple of high passes -- one caught by Jennings, the other caught by Stephen Burton out of bounds -- instead of driving the ball downfield.

He finished the night with an average of 5 yards per pass, not unlike much of the work he did last season, and while the night again came with a significant caveat -- Adrian Peterson was on the field for just two plays -- Ponder had opportunities to connect on a few big throws that he didn't hit. He'll likely sit out the Vikings' final preseason game Thursday night, which means fans will head into the regular season relying more on faith than concrete evidence that Ponder is progressing.

Here's a rundown of the rest of the night:
  • It wasn't a good night for the Vikings' secondary. Chris Cook left the game with a groin injury (no small thing, considering all the trouble Cook has had staying on the field) and Josh Robinson spent much of the night dealing with the attention 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick paid to him. Kaepernick targeted Robinson four times on a 84-yard touchdown drive, hitting rookie Quinton Patton for a 19-yard gain in the slot against Robinson and connecting with Patton on a 5-yard touchdown after two completions to Marlon Moore against Robinson. If Cook is out for any length of time, the Vikings' big gamble in the secondary could become even riskier with Robinson and rookie Xavier Rhodes starting.
  • Defensive tackle Kevin Williams left the game with a knee injury after a chop block in the second quarter and will have a MRI on Monday. Early indications are that the injury isn't serious, but defensive end Jared Allen was ticked about the low hit; interviewed on TV he called it a dirty play. Sharrif Floyd also is out for the rest of the preseason after a chop block caused him to have a minor knee operation, and Christian Ballard is still away from the team because of personal issues. The Vikings' lack of depth at defensive tackle, at the moment, looks a bit unnerving.
  • The Vikings' offensive line had another uncharacteristically bad night. Loadholt offered little resistance to Brooks on Ponder's fumble, and was later flagged for holding. And left tackle Matt Kalil had a pair of unnecessary-roughness penalties, earning one after he joined a shoving match between Brandon Fusco and a 49ers player. Coach Leslie Frazier had to sit Kalil down for a play to cool him off, and after Kalil sustained a knee injury in a poor performance in the Vikings' second preseason game, tonight wasn't a good follow-up.
  • On Ponder's interception, Burton stopped early on a crossing route and was a step shy of catching the pass. Burton's had a strong preseason, but Ponder's interception might have been a completion had Burton finished his route.
  • Webb, the former quarterback who is competing with Burton for one of the final receiver spots, provided another reminder of why he might fit in as a pass-catcher. He did a nice job on his touchdown, going up for a jump ball and pulling down Ponder's pass in the corner of the end zone. With his size, strength and leaping ability, Webb could be a nice weapon in the red zone.
  • As promised, Desmond Bishop got plenty of work, playing with the Vikings' first-team defense in the first half and remaining in the game with the No. 2 defense in the second half. He gave up a catch to Moore when Kaepernick stepped out of the pocket and drew Bishop toward the line of scrimmage, but Bishop stopped Kendall Hunter for a loss and made a nice open-field tackle of D.J. Harper in the fourth quarter. Though he's still struggling somewhat in pass coverage, Bishop can help the Vikings' run defense, and he looked more assertive Sunday than he did against Buffalo.
  • Before he left with his injury, Cook made an impressive tackle of Chad Hall, coming across the field to drag down the receiver after a four-yard screen pass.
  • Chad Greenway sold the 49ers on the idea that he was rushing before dropping back into coverage on his second-quarter interception of Colt McCoy. The turnover set up the Vikings' first touchdown, when Ponder hit Zach Line -- who turned a screen pass into a 61-yard touchdown in the Vikings' first preseason game -- for a 1-yard score.
The dynamic duo of Dan Wiederer and Mark Craig discussed an issue in this video that I had marked down on my list for this week: Whether the Minnesota Vikings will be able to find a roster spot for receiver project Joe Webb. Even after Webb caught two passes in Friday night's preseason opener, resolution on that question is far from clear.

I won't claim that the Vikings have the NFL's deepest group of receivers, but if we were stacking them in order at the moment, it would be difficult to place Webb higher than No. 6 on a team that might only keep five.

Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson and Jarius Wright are all locks for the roster. It's difficult to imagine the Vikings releasing Jerome Simpson after they gave him a $500,000 signing bonus and another $250,000 workout bonus in the offseason. That's four receivers, and on Friday night at least, third-year player Stephen Burton outperformed Webb.

Burton turned an intermediate catch into a 56-yard play while also providing a key block on fullback Zach Line's 61-yard touchdown reception. Burton was a raw receiver when the Vikings drafted him in 2011, but he has a two-year lead over Webb on the development scale.

Webb has three more weeks of practice and preseason games to state his case, but if there are no dramatic changes between now and the final cutdown day, the Vikings will have to determine whether his capacity for development merits a roster re-balancing that would in essence take a spot away from another position.

The chart below provides a detailed report of how the Vikings used their receivers Friday night.
Reviewing Friday's action at the Metrodome:

Houston Texans 27, Minnesota Vikings 13



Preseason record: 0-1

Of interest: Similar to fellow rookie Ziggy Ansah in Detroit, Vikings receiver Cordarrelle Patterson made an immediate splash. He returned the opening kickoff 50 yards and would have scored had kicker Randy Bullock not tripped him up. Patterson went on to catch a team-high four passes for 54 yards as the Vikings targeted him eight times on 27 snaps (a bit more than half of the game). Patterson's open-field aggressiveness was notable for his power as much as his speed. … Quarterback Christian Ponder and most of the first-team offense played only one series, which was a bit odd given the way it went. Ponder threw two passes, one of them a 15-yard strike to receiver Jerome Simpson and the other a mistimed crossing route that went off Simpson's hands and was intercepted. The pass looked off, but it's possible Simpson wasn't in the right place. Regardless, it was surprising to see Ponder get only two snaps. You either play or you don't, right? … Backup Matt Cassel had nice numbers (12-of-19 for 212 yards), but he looked unsettled behind the Vikings' second-team offensive line and had his yardage total padded by two nice open-field plays by receivers. Stephen Burton's pivot turned an intermediate reception into a 56-yard gain, and rookie fullback Zach Line broke two tackles to turn a short pass into a 61-yard touchdown play. … Rookie defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd showed up with a nice tackle behind the line but departed with a minor knee injury after playing 15 snaps. … Receiver Joe Webb had two catches and was targeted three times in 23 snaps.

Local coverage: Dan Wiederer of the Star Tribune: "A reminder: No one was all that worried about Friday’s final result. The preseason opener, after all, is most valuable for assessing the bottom half of the roster and the lesser-known commodities. Which is why Adrian Peterson, Jared Allen, Chad Greenway, Kevin Williams and Brian Robison were among the starters not in pads when the night began." … There is no quarterback controversy in Minnesota -- yet. That was Bob Sansevere's takeaway from the game in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. … Burton continued to burnish his case for a roster spot, according to Ben Goessling of the Pioneer Press. … Coach Leslie Frazier on Floyd's injury, via 1500ESPN.com: "He should be fine. We could have put him back in the game, but decided [with] where we were at this time of the year we didn't [need to]."

Up next: Friday at Buffalo Bills

NFC North links: Remembering Lombardi

June, 11, 2013
6/11/13
8:49
AM ET
Chicago Bears

Defensive end Shea McClellin has been dealing with plantar fasciitis this offseason. However, he is not expected to be limited when the team continues workouts on Tuesday.

Steve Rosenbloom of the Chicago Tribune: "How difficult had [Jay] Cutler become? For those of you scoring at home, Cutler has warred to some degree with the ousted Ron Turner, the ousted Mike Martz and the ousted [Mike] Tice. Raise your hand if you think Cutler’s coach-killing doomsday clock just moved one more closer to the end. There are two common denominators here: One, Turner, Martz and Tice have not been snapped up as OC’s in the NFL, and two, Cutler. Just because the offensive coordinators haven’t been hired for that role by other teams doesn’t mean Cutler isn’t impossible to work with."

Detroit Lions

Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press previews the Lions' minicamp.

Cortland Finnegan was on the Lions' radar in 2012, but the two sides were unable to work out a deal.

Green Bay Packers

Hall of Fame running back Paul Hornung remembers Vince Lombardi on what would have been the coach's 100th birthday.

A passion for the game helps Ryan Pickett continue to thrive in Dom Capers’ 3-4 defensive scheme.

Minnesota Vikings

Former Vikings wide receiver Percy Harvin is focusing on the future and leaving the drama back in Minnesota.

Wide receiver Stephen Burton is out to prove he can contribute to the team's offense.
The Minnesota Vikings resumed practice Monday following their bye. Receiver Percy Harvin did not, raising significant doubt about whether he'll be available for the start of a critical three-game stretch against NFC North opponents.

Harvin
Harvin's left ankle, originally sprained Nov. 4, is still "sore and pretty tender," coach Leslie Frazier told reporters Monday. Frazier said Harvin hasn't suffered a setback but "just hasn't made enough progress to put him out there yet."

It's possible that Harvin could be on the field Wednesday, but obviously he hasn't healed as fast as the Vikings hoped. Frazier originally suggested Harvin would return after the bye.

Receiver Michael Jenkins also missed practice because of a foot injury, leaving the Vikings with four healthy receivers: Jerome Simpson, Devin Aromashodu, Stephen Burton and rookie Jarius Wright.

The Vikings are in NFC playoff contention with a 6-4 record, but the most difficult portion of their schedule is about to begin. Their next thee games will be at the Chicago Bears, at the Green Bay Packers and then at home against the Bears again.

Lions to start S Ricardo Silva

September, 30, 2012
9/30/12
11:48
AM ET
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Soon I'll be headed to Lambeau Field to position myself in front of the television in time for the start of Sunday's NFC North battle between the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings. Until then, be advised there was one surprise in the Sunday morning roster maneuvering.

The Lions will start safety Ricardo Silva one day after promoting him from the practice squad. He'll replace Amari Spievey, who apparently had earned his starting job back but is inactive Sunday because of a groin injury. The Lions' other question of Sunday morning, running back Mikel Leshoure, is active and will start.

The Vikings, meanwhile, made room on their game-day roster for receiver Jerome Simpson by deactivating receiver Stephen Burton, who had appeared in the Vikings' first three games. Jamarca Sanford will start for injured safety Mistral Raymond, as expected.

Wrap-up: Colts 23, Vikings 20

September, 16, 2012
9/16/12
4:36
PM ET
Wrapping up Sunday's events at Lucas Oil Stadium:

What it means: The Vikings fell to 1-1 after Adam Vinatieri's 53-yard field goal with 12 seconds left wiped out a fourth-quarter comeback from an otherwise lackluster showing. As a franchise, the Vikings still have not won in Indianapolis and are now 0-11 there all-time.

What I liked: For the second consecutive week, quarterback Christian Ponder revived the Vikings' chances with an aggressive fourth quarter. Sunday, he threw two touchdown passes in less than five minutes of the fourth quarter to erase a 20-6 deficit. Granted, his 7-yard scoring pass to Stephen Burton was tipped twice before it was caught. But through two games, Ponder has demonstrated encouraging efficiency in pressure situations.

What I didn't like, Part I: The Vikings' defense didn't give up a ton of yardage to the Colts (278), but rare was the stop in important situations. Quarterback Andrew Luck completed his first two passes of the Colts' final drive for 20 yards apiece to get in position for Vinatieri's field goal. Overall, Luck completed 20 of 31 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns.

What I didn't like, Part II: Ponder completed 77.1 percent of his passes, largely because the Vikings' offense was excessively short-range for most of the game. Receiver Percy Harvin, who caught 12 passes for 104 yards, was worked so hard he cramped up several times in the fourth quarter. Tight end Kyle Rudolph wasn't a factor until late in the game, and it's clear the Vikings lack a downfield threat from both a personnel and philosophical perspective right now.

What I didn't like, Part III: Everson Griffen's 22-yard sack of Luck in the fourth quarter was a rare instance of someone making a play. For the most part, the Vikings' defense and special teams made it more difficult on themselves. Safety Andrew Sendejo extended a drive with a late hit on punter Pat McAfee, and defensive end Jared Allen extended the same possession a few moments later by hitting Luck after he had taken several steps out of bounds. Finally, Griffen essentially put the Colts in field goal range with a false-start penalty with 18 seconds remaining. Without those 5 yards, Vinatieri is looking at a 58-yard attempt.

What's next: The Vikings return to the Metrodome next Sunday to host the San Francisco 49ers.
We spent so much time this offseason discussing Percy Harvin's playing time as the Minnesota Vikings' erstwhile No. 1 receiver that I feel compelled to bring you a relatively important development from Sunday's season-opening victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Harvin played nearly 80 percent of the Vikings' snaps (47 of 59), according to tracking at Pro Football Focus (PFF). That's a significant uptick from his 2011 deployment, when he played 58.4 percent of their snaps even while producing a career season in a newly versatile role as a receiver/running back.

[+] EnlargePercy Harvin
Andy King/Getty ImagesPercy Harvin caught six passes for 84 yards and rushed five times for 20 yards on Sunday.
Admittedly, the Vikings are depleted from a personnel sense given Jerome Simpson's three-game NFL suspension and the loss of rookie Greg Childs (knees). Fellow rookie Jarius Wright was deactivated for the game because of an ankle injury, so the Vikings essentially used only three receivers with second-year player Stephen Burton mixed in occasionally.

According to PFF, here's how the Vikings dispersed playing time among their top pass catchers during their 59 offensive plays:

Tight end Kyle Rudolph: 59
Harvin: 47
Receiver Michael Jenkins: 47
Receiver Devin Aromashodu: 25
Tight end John Carlson: 18

Harvin, for one, responded with 192 combined net yards (84 receiving, 20 rushing and 88 on three kickoff returns). That qualified as a franchise record for a season opener, according to the team.

"We're always trying to find ways to get him the ball, and we'll continue to do that and give it to him in different ways," coach Leslie Frazier said. "He's such a factor with the ball in his hands, even if you have to do it on those smoke screens that we ran in this game. Whatever you have to do to get the ball in his hands to give him a chance to make plays, we've all seen the results of it."

I suppose there could be some concern about wearing Harvin down over the long term. But as we discussed in the offseason, Harvin is too young in football terms to be on a pitch count. He turned 24 in May and should be in his athletic and conditioning prime. The Vikings simply aren't deep enough to compete with one of their best players resting on two out of every five plays, as Harvin did last season. I'm sure he wouldn't want it any other way.

Minnesota Vikings cut-down analysis

August, 31, 2012
8/31/12
11:28
PM ET
Most significant move: Following the lead of other teams around the NFL, the Vikings decided to go young at quarterback. The plan all along was to have Christian Ponder as the starter, but the surprise was letting veteran backup Sage Rosenfels go, leaving Joe Webb and McLeod Bethel-Thompson on the roster. Webb is making the transition from wide receiver to quarterback. Thompson is only 23 and hasn’t thrown a pass in the regular season. Webb has three starts and 152 pass attempts during his NFL career. The Bears and Colts found out last year it can be tough to go young at quarterback. The Bears lost Jay Cutler and their season was over. The Colts were without Peyton Manning and the season was lost with Curtis Painter.

Onward and upward: Starting wide receiver Jerome Simpson went on the three-game suspension list, so Leslie Frazier has to make sure he doesn’t have to look for receiver help during his absence. Veteran possession receiver Michael Jenkins was retained after a contract reduction and should fill the void. Keeping Devin Aromashodu gives Ponder a solid option in the slot. Percy Harvin is the team’s No. 1 receiver, but is sure to draw double coverage. The concern is what happens if there is an injury. Jarius Wright, the team’s fourth-round pick, is raw. Stephen Burton, a seventh-round pick from last year, is the fifth option.

What's next: Protecting Ponder is the key to the season. Right guard Geoff Schwartz has fought off a lot of injuries during camp. The backup corps of Brandon Fusco, Joe Berger and Patrick Brown isn’t the most distinguished. The significant improvement is having rookie Matt Kalil at left tackle and moving Charlie Johnson from left tackle to left guard. John Sullivan, a journeyman, needs to have a career year to make it all work. The Vikings also need a big year from right tackle Phil Loadholt.
In which we look ahead to the remainder of Week 3 in the NFC North's preseason schedule:

Chicago Bears
Opponent: New York Giants
Location: MetLife Stadium
Day/Time: Friday/8 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: After an intense week of discussion about linebacker Brian Urlacher's future, there is more reason than ever to scrutinize Nick Roach's play at middle linebacker. Whereas we once considered it a lock that Urlacher will be ready to start the season, there now seems at least a chance that Roach will open the year at middle linebacker. It's not his best position. … Punter Adam Podlesh has a hip flexor, so rookie Ryan Quigley will handle all of the punting duties Friday night. His performance will determine whether the Bears need to consider other options if Podlesh isn't ready to start the season. … The game will be televised nationally on CBS.
Focal point: What else, if not for the Bears' offensive line? The Giants aren't expected to play All-Pro defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul because of back spasms, but they should still give the Bears' line its best test yet. The Bears would like to make a final decision on their starting left tackle, where J'Marcus Webb is trying to hold off Chris Williams, as well as at left guard. Chris Spencer and Chilo Rachal are competing for that job.

Minnesota Vikings
Opponent:
San Diego Chargers
Location:
Metrodome
Day/Time:
Friday/8 p.m. ET
Personnel notes:
Tailback Adrian Peterson won't play but will participate fully in pregame warmups, according to ESPN's Chris Mortensen. … Cornerback Chris Cook (concussion) and nose tackle Letroy Guion (knee) aren't expected to play. … The Vikings will continue to search for possibilities to replace receiver Jerome Simpson during his three-game suspension. Look for second-year player Stephen Burton, along with veterans Michael Jenkins and Devin Aromashodu, to all get long looks. … Rookie cornerback Josh Robinson has impressed the Vikings in training camp and could get a chance to work with the first team Friday night. … Quarterback Charlie Whitehurst will start for the Chargers, who don't want to risk starter Philip Rivers behind an injury-riddled offensive line. Tight end Antonio Gates will also sit out.
Focal point:
This might be middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley's final chance to secure the starting job. The Vikings haven't been thrilled with his tentative preseason performances, coming after a hip injury cost him the 2011 season. Another poor outing could put the team on a search for replacements.

Detroit Lions
Opponent: Oakland Raiders
Location: Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum
Day/Time: Saturday/7 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Tailback Mikel Leshoure is expected to make his NFL debut, nearly 17 months after he was drafted and nearly 20 months from his last live game. Leshoure last played for Illinois on Dec. 29, 2010. He missed last season because of a ruptured Achilles and a portion of training camp this summer because of a hamstring strain. The Lions want to get him some preseason work because he'll has been suspended for the first two weeks of the regular season. ... New special teams ace Kassim Osgood isn't expected to play. ... Rookie Kellen Moore's chances of making the team increased with the release of R.J. Archer, but he still must earn a roster spot even though he is one of only three quarterbacks on the roster. The Lions could keep only two on their final 53-man roster.
Focal point: It would be nice to see defensive tackle Nick Fairley have a signature, breakout game to reinforce projections that he will be a significant factor this season. But in reality, a game with impact would suffice.

Preseason: Up and down for Vikings

August, 11, 2012
8/11/12
8:07
AM ET
Reviewing Friday's action at Candlestick Park:

San Francisco 49ers 17, Minnesota Vikings 6

Preseason record: 0-1
Of interest: Quarterback Christian Ponder had a solid preseason debut, completing a 52-yard deep post to receiver Stephen Burton -- who started for an inactive Percy Harvin -- and moving the team in position for two field goals. Ponder completed 4-of-9 passes overall, but two clearly qualified as drops by Burton and receiver Jerome Simpson. His chemistry with tight end Kyle Rudolph was clear. … The defense played without defensive end Jared Allen, defensive tackle Kevin Williams and cornerback Antoine Winfield, all of whom were healthy scratches, and was gashed in the running game, giving up nearly 200 yards in the first half alone. Brandon Jacobs hit them for a 23-yard gain, Rock Cartwright had a 19-yarder and backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick ran 78 yards for a touchdown. Safety Mistral Raymond took a poor angle on Jacobs' run, and cornerback Chris Cook couldn't tackle Kaepernick near the end of his run. … Rookie placekicker Blair Walsh drilled attempts from 39 and 26 yards and also had two touchbacks. … Nose tackle Letroy Guion suffered a knee injury that likely will sideline him for a few weeks. … The scattered performance of backup quarterback Joe Webb was concerning. The Vikings have limited him to quarterback this summer, electing against using him at other positions, but thus far he appears to have taken a step back if anything.

Local coverage: The Vikings need to elevate rookie safety Harrison Smith to the first team, writes Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com.Jeremy Fowler of the St. Paul Pioneer Press: "The Vikings left Webb in for nearly half the game, likely hoping he'd end on a high note. But his last two possessions ended in incompletions on third down." … Ponder, via Dan Wiederer of the Star Tribune: "I thought it was a pretty good start. Obviously we’d rather come out with touchdowns rather than two field goals. But I thought we moved the ball pretty well against a good defense. A lot of positives. It also gives us a lot of film to look at come Sunday." … It's possible that tailback Adrian Peterson could be activated to the roster as early as Sunday, notes Pelissero.

Up next: Friday, Aug. 17 against the Buffalo Bills
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Hello there. I hope everyone had a great time in my absence last week. I know I enjoyed being absent, or something like that. But we've got a great week planned and I can't wait to get started.

It appears our top-notch ESPN.com editing staff kept you up-to-date during what was a relatively quiet week. Sunday's links post should get you caught up with most of the weekend coverage around the division, but I managed to scrounge up some additional stories for your Monday morning coffee.

On with it…
We're quickly learning that the signing of draft picks is all but a formality under the new collective bargaining agreement. Either that or agents haven't yet identified enough loopholes to draw out negotiations. Regardless, the NFC North is humming along in that regard.

The Detroit Lions have completed negotiations. The Chicago Bears have one player remaining as of early Friday morning. The Green Bay Packers have made progress, according to the Green Bay Press-Gazette. The Minnesota Vikings haven't had any reported signings, but their rookies also don't need to report to training camp until Sunday.

Here's the tally as of this moment:

Chicago Bears

Unsigned
Green Bay Packers

Signed
Unsigned
Minnesota Vikings

Unsigned

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NFC NORTH SCOREBOARD

Thursday, 11/27
Sunday, 11/30