Sunday, September 29, 2013
Vikings at home in London, and with Cassel
By Ben Goessling
LONDON -- For as much as the Minnesota Vikings talked about the inconvenience of giving up a home game to play in Wembley Stadium -- and as sour as they were about a 4,000-mile flight across the Atlantic after back-to-back last-minute collapses -- it was startling just how comfortable the Vikings looked on Sunday evening in London.
They got much of the support from the Brits in attendance, who joined with some 3,000 fans who bought tickets from the Vikings to drown out a hearty Steelers contingent that arrived with Terrible Towels in tow. The Vikings surged through a tunnel display built specifically for this game, with Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" blasting like it always does at Mall of America Field. And for the first time this season, they adhered to the formula that worked so well for them during last season's surprising playoff run, with Adrian Peterson romping for 140 yards and the defensive line surging to protect an early lead, sacking Ben Roethlisberger four times and covering up for some of the considerable holes in the Vikings' secondary.
Though caveats must be issued for a performance that came against a dreadful Pittsburgh Steelers team, which nearly became the third team in as many weeks to score a last-minute TD against Minnesota, the Vikings looked for stretches like the team that went 10-6 last season. What was most striking was how seamlessly Matt Cassel fit into all that.
Cassel didn't officially find out he was starting against Pittsburgh until Friday, when Christian Ponder was ruled out with a broken rib, but it had looked increasingly obvious throughout the week that he would get the start against the Steelers. And in reality, things might have been building toward this for longer than that.
The Vikings signed Cassel to a two-year, $7.4 million deal in March to give themselves a veteran backup should anything happen to Ponder, but the move also provided some insurance if the third-year quarterback continued to be as ineffective as he was in the middle eight games of last season. Ponder threw five interceptions in the first three games -- poison to a team that didn't win a game where it lost the turnover battle last year -- and again looked too tentative to drive the ball into tight coverage and give his receivers a chance to make something happen.
Cassel did that on Sunday. Jerome Simpson's 51-yard catch in the second quarter began with a 17-yard strike from Cassel into the middle of the Steelers' defense on second-and-11, which allowed Simpson to catch the ball between two layers of the Steelers' defense and race upfield. Cassel made a quick, decisive throw on a hitch route to Greg Jennings in the first quarter, and Jennings did what he'd done so many times in Green Bay, turning away from a Steelers defender and stretching a 5-yard throw into a 70-yard touchdown. Cassel's 16-yard strike to Jennings for another touchdown came after he pumped twice, stood in the pocket and threw a dart to the receiver in front of Cortez Allen.
Adrian Peterson was one of the Vikings players who talked about Matt Cassel's confidence in the huddle.
And then there's this: According to ESPN Stats & Information, Cassel went 7-for-10 against eight-man fronts, throwing for 77 yards and a touchdown. Ponder has a 58.1 career completion percentage against those fronts, and has never hit more than six throws in a game. The Steelers put eight men in the box more than any other team the Vikings have faced this season, and Cassel did what Ponder has often struggled to do: He took advantage of the matchups Peterson affords the Vikings' quarterback, and helped the Vikings generate an offense that looked surprisingly balanced.
Coach Leslie Frazier did his best to defuse a quarterback controversy before the Vikings' bye week, first saying, "If you're asking, our quarterback is Christian Ponder," before adding the coaching staff would "talk about a lot of things" during the bye and saying if he made a declaration now, he'd be betraying his normal, measured evaluation process in favor of a snap judgment born out of relief over a badly needed win.
"I don't know what I would base it on [now] other than what I've seen with the naked eye," Frazier said. "I'd have to look at the tape, look at our football team and then come back and evaluate what we need to do to come back a better team. That's what I base it on. I think it would be premature for me to say anything other than what I'm saying now."
The coach will have to consider how many players -- from Jennings to Simpson to Peterson -- talked about what a confident, commanding presence Cassel had in the huddle. He will have to weigh the fact that the Vikings' top two receivers had 216 yards and two TDs on Sunday after no Vikings receiver had scored all season. And he will have to weigh what it would mean to take the starting job away from a third-year quarterback the Vikings drafted 12th overall in 2011, believing they could rebuild their franchise around Ponder after their two-year run with Brett Favre ended in shambles.
Ponder seemed to grasp what Cassel's night could mean for him, saying "I have to pick up my play. That decision's out of my hands," and adding Cassel "played a tremendous game." And Simpson thought the performance could make Ponder "even hungrier to come back and be a better quarterback.
"He'll learn from it, and he sees somebody else coming into his position. I think it'll put even more fire up under him."
As well as Cassel played on Sunday night, though, it might not matter. The Vikings need wins, both to rescue their season and possibly to save Frazier's job, and while they've had other issues play into their three losses this season, Sunday was the first time they could legitimately talk about their quarterback play as something other than a liability.
Cassel has certainly had his issues -- he was benched and lost his own job last November in Kansas City -- but at least on Sunday, he was exactly what the Vikings needed. That might be enough to keep him in the middle of their plans for a while.