NFC West: Minnesota Vikings
Here are three things to watch for from the Rams' end:
1. How's Hill?: Rams quarterback Shaun Hill started the preseason opener against New Orleans but hasn't started a regular-season game since 2010, or a season-opener since he was with the San Francisco 49ers in 2009. Despite whatever rustiness he'll have to deal with, Hill will not be set up for failure in this offense. The Rams were always going to be a run-first offense and that won't change with Hill in charge. What Hill will be asked to do is take advantage of the opportunities that the run game might open for the pass, pushing the ball down the field on play-action. While he's not known for his arm strength, Hill does have the ability to get the ball down the field. More importantly, the Rams need Hill to manage the game and take care of the ball. If he can do those two things, the Rams should have enough success running and on defense to be in position to open the season with a victory.
2. On the corner: The Rams have one of the youngest secondaries in the league and it's actually possible the starting group will be even younger than originally projected when kickoff arrives Sunday. That's especially true at cornerback, where third-year player Janoris Jenkins is penciled in at one spot. But the Rams could turn to rookies at the spot opposite Jenkins and in the nickel as Trumaine Johnson sits with a knee injury. Lamarcus Joyner is set as the team's primary nickel corner, the role the team drafted him to play back in May. Sixth-round rookie E.J. Gaines and second-year corner Brandon McGee are the top options for the job, with McGee listed as Johnson's backup on the unofficial depth chart. Gaines showed well in the preseason and McGee battled an ankle injury, which could make Gaines the better and more logical fit. But it's asking a lot of any rookie, especially a sixth-rounder, to deal with the likes of Vikings receivers Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson in his first NFL game.
3. Containing Peterson: This almost goes without saying anytime the Vikings are the opponent, but as running back Adrian Peterson goes, so goes Minnesota. Peterson apparently still harbors some ill feelings toward the Rams from a 2012 meeting between the teams when Peterson didn't like the amount of trash talk the Rams offered early in that game. Peterson went on to rush for 212 yards and a touchdown and went so far as to predict a touchdown run on his first carry in Sunday's game. Whether or not Peterson is able to call his shot remains to be seen, but the Rams have no pretension of believing they can shut down Peterson. Instead, they'll look to slow him down enough to make him earn every yard. If he gets to 100 yards or so, the Rams will be fine with it as long as it comes on 23-plus carries.
In St. Louis, the Rams have already changed quarterbacks because of the season-ending knee injury to starter Sam Bradford. In Minnesota, many expect it to be a matter of time before the Vikings make the change to rookie Teddy Bridgewater for reasons beyond health.
Both teams reside in tough divisions where wins will be difficult to come by. Both are in serious need of a Week 1 victory.
ESPN Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Vikings reporter Ben Goessling discuss this week’s matchup.
Nick Wagoner: There might be some in the Rams' locker room still having nightmares about Adrian Peterson's last visit to the Edward Jones Dome. Clearly, it all starts with him, but how has he looked in camp and in what ways should we expect to see him used differently in the Vikings' new offense?
Ben Goessling: He's going to be a much bigger part of the passing game than he's been in recent years, or possibly any point in his career. We didn't see Peterson in a preseason game, but the Vikings have been happy with his progress during training camp, saying he looks like a natural pass-catcher and has shown a good understanding of what will be asked of him. If he's going to be on the field in passing situations, of course, he'll be asked to be a bigger factor in pass protection, which hasn't been one of his strong suits. But the Vikings are excited about the chance to get him the ball in space more often and match him up on defensive backs who might have a harder time bringing him down than linemen and linebackers. They are also hoping the change in strategy leads to fewer hits on Peterson and will help prolong his productivity past the age of 29.
Speaking of players who might be causing nightmares for opponents, what kind of a challenge is Matt Kalil in for with Robert Quinn? He handled him well the last time they met, but how has Quinn progressed in the past two years, and how has he looked under Gregg Williams?
Wagoner: Kalil is in for one of the most difficult challenges he’ll face in this league. Quinn had 19 sacks and seven forced fumbles last year, but there are those at Rams Park who believe he’s only scratched the surface of his potential. Quinn has freakish athleticism, which allows him to bend and contort his body in ways most tackles never see while maintaining his speed. He is able to win around the edge more often than not, but he’s also developed better hand usage and counters over the past couple of years under the guidance of defensive line coach Mike Waufle. With Williams leading the defense, the Rams want to be more aggressive in all areas, which means he can dial up blitzes, but Williams has never had a front four like this one. That should allow him to get plenty of heat on the quarterback without having to call those blitzes as much. It should make the Rams more multiple and allow Williams to do some unique things with Quinn and his line mates.
While we’re on the topic of defense, I’ve long admired the work of new Vikings coach Mike Zimmer. What is he bringing to the table on that side of the ball, and what are some strengths and weaknesses the Rams' offense will contend with on Sunday?
Goessling: Zimmer is bringing a more aggressive defense to the Vikings than anything we’ve seen in the past seven years under the team’s old Cover 2 scheme. The Vikings won’t be blitzing on every down, by any means -- Zimmer actually hasn’t been that heavy of a blitzer as a defensive coordinator -- but when they do, they’ll bring pressure from a number of different spots. They’ll move rookie linebacker Anthony Barr around and occasionally send defensive backs after the quarterback. Zimmer’s scheme is predicated on every player knowing how his assignment affects the rest of the defense -- he had a film room built with stadium seating so the entire unit could watch film together -- and his defenses typically don’t make many mistakes. How all that will work for the Vikings in Year 1, though, I’m not sure. They’re still young in the secondary, where they’re counting on Xavier Rhodes taking the next step as a cover corner in his second year, and any time they’re facing multiple-receiver sets, their cornerback depth will be tested.
Will Shaun Hill be able to stress the Vikings' defense on Sunday, though? What do you expect from the veteran in his first shot at replacing Bradford?
Wagoner: I think Hill is a solid, steady hand, but he’s obviously limited in what he can do when it comes to stressing a defense. The good news is the Rams won’t be asking him to do too much outside of his comfort zone. This was always going to be a run-first offense, even with Bradford, and nothing has changed in that regard. Jeff Fisher insists the Rams won’t scale back the offense for Hill, though that remains to be seen. Instead, they’ll ask him to manage the game, not turn the ball over and take advantage of opportunities in play-action. Hill doesn’t have the strongest arm, so it will be interesting to see if he can push the ball down the field when the Rams do ask him to throw. And the last time Hill played, he had Calvin Johnson to go up and get it. He doesn’t have anything remotely close to Johnson here.
Neither of these teams is exactly working with Peyton Manning under center. Matt Cassel is getting the call for the Vikings. What does he bring to the table, and do you believe going with him over Bridgewater is the right move? How long before Bridgewater takes over?
Goessling: I think it was the right move, for now. There’s a lot of confidence in Cassel from the Vikings’ offensive starters, many of whom are veterans who want to win now, and having Cassel allows the Vikings to be patient with Bridgewater. Zimmer talked about that Wednesday morning, saying the Vikings have effectively had Cassel installed as their starter since the start of training camp, and that they won’t change their minds after the first interception. I do think we’ll see Bridgewater at some point this season, but that’s based on a belief the Vikings won’t be in the thick of the playoff race at the end of the year. If they are, it probably would be because Cassel helped get them there. In any case, I think he’ll have the job as long as he’s effective. There’s no need to rush Bridgewater.
The Vikings and Rams both took multidimensional receivers in the 2013 draft in Tavon Austin and Cordarrelle Patterson. The Vikings have big plans for Patterson in Year 2, with Norv Turner taking over as the offensive coordinator. How do the Rams plan to use Austin, and will his role on special teams decrease at all if he’s a bigger part of the offense?
Wagoner: Well, I think it’s safe to say Austin doesn’t project to produce as much as Patterson entering their second seasons, and that’s enough to anger some Rams fans who felt the team gave up a lot to get Austin when it could have stayed where it was and drafted Patterson. But Austin still figures to play a prominent role in the offense. The Rams moved him around a lot during the preseason and training camp, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him lining up outside, in the slot and even in the backfield. He did all of those things last year, but the Rams could stand to mix up those looks even further this year. He’s going to play plenty and will continue to be the team’s primary punt returner, though it appears he’s ceded the kick return job for now. The Rams and Austin showed some flashes of his potential late in the year before his season ended early because of an ankle injury. They’re hoping they can build on that this year, though it remains to be seen that they can.
Cardinals running back Beanie Wells appears alongside Vikings receiver Percy Harvin as candidates for the NFL's rookie of the week. Jairus Byrd (Bills), Shonn Greene (Jets) and Jacob Lacey (Colts) are also candidates.
It's about time Harvin started matching the pace Wells has set this season.
What? Harvin has been the more impressive rookie?
Yes, he has, and NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert told me it would be this way.
I humbly raise the subject after sources in the Heinz Field press box told me Seifert was yukking it up at my expense while Harvin was amassing 214 net yards against the Steelers. Seifert subsequently took it to me pretty good when we exchanged text messages Monday.
What was I thinking?
The debate took place months before Brett Favre joined the Vikings and transformed their offense. The fact that Wells missed much of training camp after suffering an ankle injury also changed the dynamics.
I thought the Vikings would have a hard time getting the ball to Harvin. They're finding him 3 or 4 times per game on offense and Favre has something to do with that, but Seifert was right when he projected big things from Harvin in the return game.
Wells is starting to make an impact. He's not going to rush for 1,200 yards, which I considered possible if he started all season, but his production is on the rise. If the Cardinals win the NFC West again and make another playoff run, I expect Wells to be a key component of their success.
MINNEAPOLIS -- The 49ers forgot about the fifth item in Mike Singletary's formula for success: Finish.
Allowing Brett Favre's winning touchdown pass with 2 seconds remaining spoiled an otherwise outstanding and potentially defining performance by the 49ers.
The crushing nature of the defeat will test this team's resolve.
But after watching the 49ers take the Vikings' best punch and deliver a few of their own, there can be little doubt about this team's ability to bounce back.
Let there also be no more questioning the 49ers' credentials or whether Shaun Hill is the answer at quarterback. Hill again led the 49ers down the field 80 yards for the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.
The 49ers can build on this performance even though they lost. Vernon Davis enjoyed a breakout performance, Glen Coffee ran tough while protecting the ball and the team kept its composure despite a difficult start against a good team on the road.
The schedule gives the 49ers a bit of a break. They can improve to 3-1 by beating the 0-3 Rams at Candlestick Park in Week 4. They would be 3-0 in the division and still a favorite within the division. In the meantime, they've got some recovering to do. This one hurt, and if Frank Gore's injury is serious, the consequences could linger.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Seahawks CEO Tod Leiweke relayed second hand a story about the lengths to which the Vikings supposedly went to prevent T.J. Houshmandzadeh from returning to Seattle during free agency.
Leiweke: "This is a guy that could have gone anywhere. In fact, left our building and went to Minnesota. The story is true that he took his watch off, gave it to (coach Jim) Mora and said, 'I'll be back to get this.' But an honorable guy, in that he had promised Minnesota he would go there. The word we heard is that he was actually in their building, he wanted to come back to our place, we sent a car for him and someone in their building sent someone out to get in the car to head to the airport, but it wasn’t T.J. So, the driver realized he had the wrong guy in the car and by the time we had another car there, he had missed the flight."
Houshmandzadeh still wound up signing with the Seahawks, while the relationship between the Seahawks and Vikings -- defined by the struggle over Steve Hutchinson -- remained warm as ever. 710ESPN Seattle has the audio.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
T.J. Houshmandzadeh announced his decision to sign with Seattle on ESPN before the Seahawks felt comfortable confirming an agreement.
The team later scheduled a news conference for 11 a.m. PT -- I'll be heading up to Seahawks headquarters within the hour -- but Houshmandzadeh has already explained his thinking on Dan Patrick's radio show this morning.
Among the highlights:
- Houshmandzadeh plans to undergo an MRI on an unnamed body part. He presumably passed a physical examination with the Seahawks, so this should not be cause for alarm.
- Houshmandzadeh might have considered the Vikings more strongly if Minnesota had a better quarterback situation.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
NFL players routinely fly from their work cities to hometowns and other far-flung destinations during regular-season work weeks.
The subject comes to mind while free-agent receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh chooses between offers from the Seahawks, Vikings and Bengals. Houshmandzadeh lives in the Los Angeles area. He travels to and from Los Angeles regularly, as does his family.
Geography could come into play if the Seahawks, Vikings and Bengals have made similar offers. The chart, put together with an assist from Web Flyer, breaks down mileage differentials between Los Angeles International Airport and airports in the competing NFL cities.
Players are generally off Tuesdays during the season. Some coaches give them off Mondays as well, generally following victories. Players healthy enough to avoid the training room can sometimes get away beginning Sunday night. As long as they're back in time for work Wednesday, teams have little say in the matter.
The team headquarters for the Seahawks, Vikings and Bengals are all situated within 15 to 20 minutes from major airports.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The Cardinals will need a 24-hour extension from the NFL for any chance at selling out their first home playoff game in 61 years. The Vikings are in even worse shape trying to sell out their first home playoff game since the 2000 season.
Both games could face television blackouts in their local markets. That hasn't happened for an NFL playoff game since the 2001 Dolphins failed to sell enough tickets to lift a blackout for a January 2002 playoff game against the Ravens.
In Minnesota, the Vikings have more than 11,000 tickets remaining despite winning five of their final six games. The Cardinals had about 6,500 tickets remaining Tuesday night.
The NFL requires teams to reach a sellout or near-sellout 72 hours before kickoff to avoid a local TV blackout. Teams routinely receive 24-hour extensions. For the Cardinals, that would mean selling enough tickets by 4:30 p.m. ET Thursday. The Vikings, with a Sunday playoff game against the Eagles, would have an extra day.
What is going on here? Large numbers of season-ticket holders did not exercise options to purchase playoff tickets. Economic factors are surely at work in some cases, but there are presumably more than 11,000 football fans in Minnesota and 6,500 football fans in Arizona with the financial means to spend $50 or $100 or $150 on game tickets.
We are also likely seeing skepticism from fans about the product on the field. That is certainly the case in Arizona, and not without justification. The Cardinals seem to stumble every time they appear on verge of a breakthrough. While the organization has become more credible, it has not yet won the benefit of the doubt. That's why I think winning this playoff game against the Falcons is so important for the Cardinals.
Beating the Falcons would validate the Cardinals' first winning record since 1998 while rendering irrelevant the way they finished the season after clinching the NFC West title. Teams gain credibility by winning when it matters -- in the playoffs. This is a rare and historic opportunity for the Cardinals to prove their skeptics wrong and give fans reason to make a fuller emotional investment in the franchise.
|Chris Morrison/US Presswire|
|Quarterback Kurt Warner and the rest of the Cardinals came out flat in a 35-14 home loss to the Vikings.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Appearing content with their recently won NFC West title, the Arizona Cardinals invited all manner of ridicule about their playoff worthiness during a 35-14 home defeat to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.
The playoff seeding they potentially squandered will not matter much if they lose in the first round.
Given that the Cardinals won't be facing another NFC West team in the playoffs, their postseason shelf life appears unlikely to extend past one week. Arizona is 5-0 against division opponents and 3-6 against varsity teams this season.
"There are no excuses," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "We are a good football team. We won our division. We know we are going to the playoffs. But we have to play better over these next two games in order to get prepared for that."
The Vikings had more at stake in this Week 15 game and it showed. The New England Patriots, still fighting for their AFC East lives, will have more at stake when the Cardinals visit Gillette Stadium in Week 16.
Winning the NFC West with three games to spare has put the Cardinals at additional risk. The team hasn't had much practice handling success. It's tough to pretend the stakes are high when the other team has much more to lose.
"Today we didn't approach that game like we had something to win and something to reach for, and it showed on the field," Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby said. "We played lackadaisical today, then in the second half we came out swinging like we had something to fight for. We showed spurts, but we can't start that flat ever again."
The Cardinals are not a particularly mature team. They have continued to rank among the most penalized teams in the league. They have not consistently risen to the level of their opposition. They do not finish plays or games consistently. And they are one-dimensional on offense to a fault.
They are also division champions for the first time in 33 years, which makes this season a success no matter what happens next.
"The thing we have to understand is this is a growing process," Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner said. "We're not a great football team and we have to get better to be one of those teams that can go in and dominate teams week in and week out. It's a process."
Ten more observations focusing mostly on the Cardinals:
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It's tough to take the Cardinals seriously beyond the NFC West when they fail to show up at home with a chance to become the NFC's third seed heading into the final two games.
This was an across-the-board meltdown for Arizona.
Kurt Warner was careless with the football early and defenseless against the Vikings' pass rush most of the day.
As a result, Arizona has gone from a likely 10-victory team to one that might need to beat Seattle in the regular-season finale for a shot at topping its 8-8 record from 2007.
Perhaps this outcome will serve as a wake-up call heading into a Week 16 game at New England. The Cardinals had better hope so.
Playing the Rams and Lions can do wonders for an NFL running back.
Three of the NFL's five leading rushers have played one of those teams.
The Falcons' Michael Turner rushed for 220 yards against the Lions in the opener. The Seahawks' Julius Jones rushed for 140 of his team's 245 rushing yards against the Rams in Week 3. The 49ers' Frank Gore rushed for 130 yards against the Lions, also in Week 3.
Jones didn't even start the regular-season opener. He rushed for 45 yards in that Week 1 game against Buffalo. But with Maurice Morris suffering a knee injury, Jones has rushed for 127 and 140 yards in two subsequent games. Morris could return after Seattle's upcoming bye week, but it's tough to make a case for reducing Jones' carries.
Jones was adamant all offseason that he could be an elite every-down back. He claimed the Cowboys made a mistake in letting him go. His former Dallas teammate, Marion Barber, ranks sixth among NFL rushers, right behind Gore. Barber hadn't gotten into a rhythm before carrying 28 times for 142 yards against the Packers on Sunday night.
Gore has a chance to pad his rushing stats in Week 4 as long as the 49ers don't fall behind against the Saints. New Orleans is allowing 5.3 yards per carry and 133 yards rushing per game.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The Rams are averaging 9.7 points per game.
My first thought upon seeing that figure was that a decent NBA player would average as much. For some reason, A.C. Green came to mind. Sure enough, it's close.
Green averaged 9.6 points per game. Unlike the Rams, who have lost 16 of their last 19 games, Green also knew how to rebound.
On to the broader point: The Rams are one of nine teams featuring a head coach in his third season with his current team.
Five of the nine teams, including the Rams, are breaking in a new offensive coordinator this season. Those teams have a combined record of 3-11. Two are failing to score even 11 points per game. Buffalo, which promoted Turk Schonert from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator, is the only team of the nine averaging 20 points per game.
The Rams' most pronounced problems are probably on defense. They simply are not competitive. But the offense ranks 31st in yards per game. Other teams with third-year head coaches and first-year offensive coordinators are also lagging. Kansas City ranks 28th in yards per game. Detroit ranks 22nd in yards per game.
The Rams rank last in third-down conversion rate. The Lions rank 28th. The Chiefs and Rams rank near the bottom in points per game.
The chart ranks third-year head coaches by how many points per game their offenses have scored. Averages do not reflect points scored on returns. I've highlighted the five teams with new offensive coordinators. It's not a pretty picture.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Billy McMullen has spent his entire NFL career working in West Coast offenses, one reason the Seahawks apparently think he can help them in the short term.
McMullen, who agreed to terms with Seattle today, fills the roster spot vacated when Seattle waived receiver Jordan Kent. McMullen and Kent are both 6-foot-4 receivers. Unlike Kent, who has never caught a pass in an NFL game, McMullen has 45 career receptions in four NFL seasons.
McMullen spent three seasons with Andy Reid in Philadelphia, one season with Brad Childress in Minnesota and the most recent training camp with Jim Zorn in Washington. Reid began his NFL coaching career under Mike Holmgren in Green Bay. Childress worked for Reid in Philadelphia. Zorn spent seven seasons with Holmgren in Seattle before taking the Redskins job this year.
The other receivers Seattle brought in for tryouts could not compete with McMullen's experience. Samie Parker had more game experience, but he played in Kansas City. Mark Bradford spent time with Dallas. Mike Hass was with the Bears. Michael Gasperson was with the Eagles, but he played in only one game. Devale Ellis was with the Lions.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The end of the Cardinals' schedule appears rough. I could see an improved team that doesn't necessarily improve its record from 8-8. Coach Ken Whisenhunt raised that possibility this afternoon when reporters asked him about goals for the season. Yes, the record is important. As for specifics, Whisenhunt outlined a few goals: to become a better road team, to incur fewer penalties and to win more of the close games.
With that, let's run through the Cardinals' schedule and project each game on feel:
- Win at 49ers
- Win vs. Dolphins
- Lose at Redskins
- Lose at Jets
- Win vs. Bills
- Lose vs. Cowboys
- Lose at Panthers
- Win at Rams
- Win vs. 49ers
- Lose at Seahawks
- Win vs. Giants
- Lose at Eagles
- Win vs. Rams
- Win vs. Vikings
- Lose at Patriots
- Lose vs. Seahawks
We could go back and forth on a few of these games. The choices I made seemed reasonable. I generally would not pick Arizona to sweep the 49ers, but I do think the Cardinals have a potential advantage in the first game of the season.