NFL Nation: Matt Cassel

Vikings vs. Saints preview

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19
8:00
AM ET

It has been a turbulent start to the 2014 season, to say the least, for both the Minnesota Vikings (1-1) and New Orleans Saints (0-2) as they head toward their Week 3 matchup in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Minnesota’s issues run much deeper than football. Star running back Adrian Peterson has been indicted on a felony child-abuse charge in Texas; on Wednesday, the Vikings put Peterson on their exempt list, barring him from games and practices.

The Vikings deactivated Peterson for their Week 2 game, a 30-7 loss at home to the New England Patriots.

The Saints, meanwhile, are hoping to use their home opener to rally back from two stunning, last-second losses at Atlanta and Cleveland.

ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett and ESPN Vikings reporter Ben Goessling discuss this week's matchup:

Triplett: How much did the Vikings miss Peterson on the field last Sunday? And how do they try to fill that void this week?

Goessling: Against a Patriots team that appeared vulnerable against the run, they missed Peterson considerably. He didn't have a great first game of the season in St. Louis, but a large part of what Peterson brings to the offense, even when he's not being terribly productive, is the number of looks he opens up for others simply by the attention he commands from defenses.

Matt Asiata caught a touchdown pass last week and is a decent between-the-tackles runner. They also like rookie Jerick McKinnon, though they haven't gotten him involved in the offense yet. But no matter what the Vikings do, they're not going to be able to replace Peterson. They have some good weapons in their passing game, and they'll have to make them work. Without Peterson, though, the Vikings' offense looks a lot less intimidating.

The Saints will be without running back Mark Ingram. How will that change their offense this weekend?

Triplett: It's basically the exact opposite of what you just described. Ingram has been off to a fantastic start -- probably playing the best of his career. But he's also more replaceable than Peterson because the Saints have such good depth at running back. Veteran Pierre Thomas and second-year pro Khiry Robinson are both off to good starts this season as well. And they're more than capable of increasing their workload.

Most important, the entire Saints run game has been thriving since late last season, which has helped all three of their backs. The Saints are tied for fifth in the NFL with 156.5 rushing yards per game, and they’re ranked second with 5.7 yards per carry. Normally those numbers translate to victories.

What other parts of Minnesota's offense will the Saints need to prepare for? It looks like Cordarrelle Patterson has given the Vikings a new dimension. And can Matt Cassel match points with Drew Brees if needed?

Goessling: You're right about Patterson adding some new wrinkles to the Vikings' offense. He has taken the baton from Percy Harvin, in the sense that the Vikings can use him out of the backfield, get the ball to him on screens and employ him as a kick returner. The one area where Patterson still needs to improve, actually, is as a receiver. He struggled mightily last week while trying to get separation from press coverage, and while his route-running has improved, he's still learning how to be a reliable option for Cassel.

As for Cassel's ability to match points with Brees ... boy, I don't know. The Vikings had trouble protecting him last week, and he threw a couple of bad interceptions when he wasn't able to look off defenders. If it turned into that kind of game, I'd be a little worried about the Vikings' ability to keep up.

One of the ways the Saints' offense could get rolling, obviously, is Jimmy Graham. Is there any recipe to slowing him down right now? What would your advice be to the Vikings about how to cover him?

Triplett: Well, don't ask the Browns. They tried a little bit of everything last week, including Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden and corner Buster Skrine at times. And Graham just exploited the size mismatch.

When teams have had success against Graham, they had to devote more than one resource. The Patriots pressed him with corner Aqib Talib and played zone behind him; the Seahawks bracketed him, often using Earl Thomas as a spy; and the Eagles chipped him with defensive ends off the line. The problem, though, is that exposes teams to all of the Saints' other weapons, including their much-improved run game and dynamic new receiver Brandin Cooks. It's a pick-your-poison offense that's almost immune to double-teams.

So where is the Vikings' defense most vulnerable?

Goessling: Especially against a team that can spread them out like the Saints can, I'd have to say it's the secondary. Xavier Rhodes is the top cornerback, but he was playing with a groin injury last week, gave up four catches and got flagged three times. Captain Munnerlyn gave up a touchdown, and the secondary depth is a concern. As you mentioned, the process of stopping Graham is a group effort, and the Saints have so many options that the Vikings could have trouble keeping up, especially if they have as much trouble getting to Brees as they did to Tom Brady last week.

Speaking of defensive vulnerabilities, the Saints' defense looks to have taken a significant step back in the first two weeks of the season. First, where has the pass rush gone, and second, do you see a quick fix for the defensive issues?

Triplett: I definitely expect vast improvement by the Saints' defense. The talent is there, from pass-rushers Cameron Jordan, Junior Galette and Akiem Hicks to middle linebacker Curtis Lofton to No. 1 cornerback Keenan Lewis and safeties Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro. All have actually played well this season. But the Saints were done in by things such as missed tackles in Week 1 and blown assignments and penalties in Week 2. All extremely frustrating -- but correctable -- issues.

The biggest concern is the depth at cornerback. The Saints might have to make a change at the No. 2 cornerback spot, where teams have been picking on Patrick Robinson. A more consistent pass rush would certainly help in that department as well.

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings' time without Adrian Peterson officially began last week, but it wasn't until early Wednesday morning that the team made a move to suggest it would be without the 2012 NFL MVP for the foreseeable future.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Peterson
AP Photo/Sang TanMatt Cassel is not likely to see opposing defenses selling out to stop the run game without Adrian Peterson, but he's been in similar situations before.
Vikings players head into Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints knowing it could be weeks, if not months, before Peterson is back on the field. The practical effects of that move might weigh heaviest on the man now charged with running the Vikings' offense on the field, knowing he won't have Peterson to occupy defenses' attention.

Matt Cassel has been in this situation before, winning a pair of games when Peterson was out with a foot injury in December. But the Vikings could be without Peterson for a longer period of time this year. Unlike last year, when Cassel had emerged the winner of the Vikings' bizarre quarterback carousel and was playing for a team with no playoff prospects and little to lose, he's trying to keep the job he won over rookie Teddy Bridgewater in training camp.

Cassel threw four interceptions in the Vikings' 30-7 loss to the New England Patriots last Sunday, though coach Mike Zimmer said Cassel had played well from training camp through the Vikings' season-opening win over the St. Louis Rams, adding, "I'm not going to let one bad afternoon define it."

What I'll be curious to see, however, is how long Cassel can keep the Vikings' offense productive, and the team can keep its record competitive. Otherwise, the Vikings could have reason to turn over the job to Bridgewater at some point this season and give him a chance to develop on the field.

In the meantime, Cassel will have to work without one of the underrated luxuries of quarterbacking next to Peterson. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Vikings quarterbacks have seen eight-man fronts on 122 dropbacks since the start of the 2012 season, the second-most in the NFL during that time. Some of those looks have been a tacit sign that defenses didn't have to worry about getting beat by the Vikings' passing game, but many have been a reflection of how much attention Peterson commands. Neither Cassel nor Christian Ponder were able to make the most of the single-coverage looks they saw last year, but Cassel had drilled both of his throws against eight-man fronts this year for a total of 31 yards.

In any case, Cassel is not likely to see defenses selling out against Matt Asiata or Jerick McKinnon in the same way, and the Vikings won't be able to rely on the big gains they came to count on from Peterson in their offense.

"I think when you have a back who is capable of making big plays and has a history of making plays -- 10, 15-yard runs -- those plays can supplant some plays you're not getting in another area," offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. "I think when you're coaching a player like that you kind of count on that you're going to get those kind of plays. I think Matt and Jerick both had big runs, but I don't think you can say, 'Hey, in this game we are going to get three or four runs over 15 yards,' like you would with Adrian. You just have to adjust your plan."

The defining moment of Cassel's career came in 2008, when he stepped in for an injured Tom Brady and led the New England Patriots to an 11-5 record in the wake of Drady's deflating injury. He drew parallels to that experience Thursday, but the difference this time is, he's not working with the remainder of a team that went 18-1 the year before. These Vikings are young, they've lost their best player and they'll need Cassel to play well.

"We do have a young, impressionable team. I think that the main thing is trying to block out the noise on the outside because there is a lot of it going on right now," Cassel said. "The Saints aren't going to feel sorry for us when we go down there on Sunday. Part of doing this job is overcoming some adversity, and we've faced some adversity, obviously, early this year."

The Film Don't Lie: Vikings

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
4:00
PM ET
A weekly look at what the Vikings must fix:

Minnesota allowed six sacks Sunday afternoon in a game where the New England Patriots moved Chandler Jones from a 3-4 outside linebacker position to a 4-3 defensive end spot, putting him in position to work against left tackle Matt Kalil for a large portion of the game. Kalil gave up two sacks -- one to Jones on a speed rush, and one to linebacker Dont'a Hightower on a blitz.

Even though the Vikings will face a New Orleans Saints team that has just two sacks this season, they'll be returning to a dome, where noise figures to be a factor in the Saints' home opener. If the Vikings want to avoid a second consecutive loss and get their offense in order after a 30-7 defeat on Sunday, they'll have to do a better job protecting Matt Cassel.

One thing to keep in mind is how much more help the Vikings were able to give Kalil in Week 1 than they did in Week 2 through the use of either tight end Rhett Ellison or Kyle Rudolph in a blocking role. Part of that, of course, was due to the score of the game against the Patriots and the fact the Vikings had to spend much more time in three-receiver sets as they tried to rally than they did in Week 1. But if the Vikings find themselves in that situation again, they have to be able to trust their left tackle to handle his man. It's worth noting, too, that Kalil and Charlie Johnson gave up a combined three quarterback hits and six hurries, according to ProFootballFocus.com.

With Adrian Peterson back this week, the Saints undoubtedly will have more to think about in stopping the Vikings' offense, but if the pass protection isn't better, there's only so much even Peterson can alleviate.
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings were driving late in the first half of Sunday's game against the New England Patriots with an opportunity to score before halftime and pull within a touchdown or a field goal. Matt Cassel dropped back on third-and-16 and found Cordarrelle Patterson inside the Patriots' 10, running a corner route between their cornerback and safety.

It was a perfect call to beat the Patriots' coverage, and a connection with Patterson would have put the Vikings on the doorstep of a touchdown with 30 seconds and a timeout remaining. But Cassel's throw led Patterson too close to the sideline and the receiver wasn't able to get both of his feet in bounds. Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones blocked the Vikings' ensuing field goal attempt and returned it 58 yards for a touchdown to put the Patriots up 24-7.

"I had to put it outside away from the safety," Cassel said. "It was a split safety, and over the corner's head. I threw it where I wanted to, and unfortunately we weren't able to complete it in bounds."

[+] EnlargeMatt Cassel
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesMatt Cassel's four interceptions were too much to overcome.
Throws like those can extend drives and prevent the 10- or 14-point swing that effectively took the Vikings out of Sunday's game. They can help Cassel bounce back from the interceptions he threw on Sunday, and in the long run, they can help reinforce his hold on the starting quarterback job. But if Cassel can't make them, he might not be able to shake the notion that he has the job only until Teddy Bridgewater is ready.

Cassel will start for the Vikings in New Orleans next week after going 19 of 36 for 202 yards, a touchdown and four interceptions on Sunday, and in reality, the Vikings' decisions at quarterback should -- and probably do -- revolve more around determining the right course of action for Bridgewater than any short-term ramifications. But the Vikings' attempt to get to 2-0 turned sour on a poor performance from Cassel, and with it, the quarterback missed a chance to assert himself, against his former team and without Adrian Peterson by his side to command some of the defense's attention.

"I'm not going to make excuses and say that just because Adrian Peterson wasn't playing today is the reason why we faltered," Cassel said. "There are a number of different reasons, and I will take full responsibility. I've got to take better care of the ball and not give short fields against a good team, and maybe the circumstances will be different."

Chief among Cassel's concerns might be his struggles on shots down the field, which are a key component of offensive coordinator Norv Turner's scheme and led to three of his interceptions on Sunday. He was 0-of-8 on throws that traveled more than 10 yards in the air, according to ESPN Stats and Information, and is just 1-of-11 with three interceptions on throws that covered 10 or more air yards this season. Cassel is the first quarterback since 2006 to start in both Week 1 and 2 without completing more than one pass 10 or more yards downfield, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

There were more parties responsible for the Vikings' offensive shortcomings on Sunday than just Cassel. Tight end Kyle Rudolph dropped three passes, wide receiver Greg Jennings had a drop, and the Vikings gave up six sacks.

"Matt's been in this league 10 years," Rudolph said. "He's a professional; he's ready to get back to work. You know, it's not all on Matt by any means. We put ourselves in a lot of really tough situations."

Many teams do, and the good ones have quarterbacks who can get them out of those situations. Most of Cassel's opportunities to do that on Sunday fell by the wayside.

"Today was one game in a 16-game season," Cassel said. "Of course, at times would I have liked to change some outcomes and circumstances? Of course. I think any quarterback in the league would tell you that at times."

Patriots vs. Vikings preview

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11
8:00
AM ET
Update: The Vikings have deactivated Adrian Peterson for Sunday’s game following Friday's indictment by a Montgomery County, Texas, grand jury on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child.

The Minnesota Vikings are coming off their biggest road win in five seasons, while the New England Patriots are trying to avoid an 0-2 start after a 13-point defeat on the road last week. Just like everyone predicted, right?

In a matchup that pits Patriots coach Bill Belichick against a couple of his old foes from the AFC -- Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner -- the Vikings will try to build on their surprising start in their home opener at TCF Bank Stadium on Sunday. Zimmer's game plan in Cincinnati last year forced Patriots quarterback Tom Brady into his worst game of the season, and Zimmer will hope to recreate the performance with a Vikings defense that isn't as experienced as what he had with the Bengals.

ESPN Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discuss this week's matchup.

Ben Goessling: Mike, the Vikings sacked Rams quarterbacks five times Sunday. After a pretty poor week for the Patriots' offensive line against the Dolphins -- a team whose defensive coordinator is a disciple of Vikings coach Mike Zimmer -- do you think protecting Brady is going to be a lingering issue this week?

Mike Reiss: Yes, Ben, there is no doubt about that. One thing I believe should help the Patriots is that while the Vikings' defensive line is solid, I don't believe it is at the same level as Miami's. Specifically, the Patriots won't be seeing the same type of speed rush from Cameron Wake off the defensive left side, which they just couldn't handle. There's only a few like Wake in the NFL. The Patriots are still figuring out their best combination up front, and that will be one of the most closely watched storylines from a New England perspective. One thing I'm sure Patriots followers would be interested to hear is how Matt Cassel, the New England backup from 2005-08, is performing.

Goessling: So far, Cassel has been solid, though he didn't have to take many chances in the Vikings' win against the Rams last week. He only attempted three passes of more than 10 yards, and he was able to hit a number of screen passes to running backs, receivers and even tight end Rhett Ellison. But Cassel hit Greg Jennings on a nice post play and threw a couple of touchdown passes off play-action. The hope is Cassel can be solid enough to keep the Vikings relevant and give them more time to develop Teddy Bridgewater; ultimately, he is the future of this team, but for now, Cassel is buying the Vikings time before they turn things over to Bridgewater. And if they're able to win enough games with Cassel, who knows? He could turn out to be the starter all season.

Belichick will get to face one of his old foes from the AFC in Turner on Sunday; how have the Patriots typically matched up against Turner teams, and how do you expect their defense will handle the Vikings on Sunday, after the Vikings showed off a number of weapons last week against the Rams?

Reiss: When the Patriots have faced a Turner-coordinated offense, Belichick has touched on the vertical nature of the passing game. He also said earlier this week that, "You have to be able to stop the running game and stop '12 personnel' [1 back, 2 tight ends]." The Patriots' biggest issues in the opener were poor fits in the run game (191 yards allowed). I wouldn't be surprised if we see Darrelle Revis shadow Cordarrelle Patterson after Revis almost exclusively played the left side in the opener.

In last year's draft, the Patriots traded the No. 29 pick to Minnesota for Patterson and received second-, third-, fourth- and seventh-round picks in return. The Patriots turned those picks into linebacker Jamie Collins, cornerback Logan Ryan, receiver Josh Boyce and used the seventh to trade for running back LeGarrette Blount (now in Pittsburgh). One year later, how do you assess that deal from a Minnesota perspective?

Goessling: I can't imagine the Vikings have any regrets about it. As much as they could have used some of those picks to address their defensive depth issues, they've got a budding star in Patterson. He's not only filled the role vacated by Percy Harvin in the Vikings' offense, he's done it without any of the questions surrounding Harvin's durability and temperament. Patterson isn't quite as strong or shifty, but he's taller, a more natural outside receiver and his ability to hit holes is as good as you'll find anywhere. He's already become a focal point in the Vikings' offense, and I imagine that will only continue. The Vikings use him in enough different ways that I think it would be hard to completely shut him down with Revis, though I'm sure Belichick will come up with something to try and fence him in.

Speaking of defensive game plans, the Bengals' defense under Zimmer had a good one to frustrate Brady last season, and Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyne (a Zimmer disciple) had success against the Patriots last week, of course. We've talked a little bit about the pass rush already, but what else did Zimmer dial up in that game to force Brady into one of his worst days of the season, and do you think he can do it again this weekend?

Reiss: The main things I remember about Zimmer's plan last season was the ability to hurry Brady with the standard four rushers early (Geno Atkins was a beast inside), and then bringing out the different blitz packages on third down and more obvious passing situations. One thing, in particular, is the double A-gap blitz right up the middle. Even if you don't bring those extra two rushers on a blitz, by showing the look, it forces the offensive line to communicate and make sure they are all seeing the same thing in terms of who is coming, who isn't and who to block. The Patriots' offensive line crumbled in the third quarter against the Dolphins last week, and I'd imagine the Vikings watched that tape and are salivating at the possibilities of frustrating Brady. At the same time, I think the Patriots are better than they showed, and we could see some personnel changes in the middle with rookie center Bryan Stork in the mix.

Defensively for the Vikings, tell us more about where and how they put stress on the opposition.

Goessling: You touched on it a little bit: The big key to it is still the creativity Zimmer shows in his blitz packages. He doesn't bring extra pressure all that often, in the grand scheme of things (he only blitzed eight times last week), but he'll show enough blitz looks, and send pass-rushers from enough different spots, that he keeps you on your toes. You'll often see him show a seven- or eight-man front, only to have several players drop back into coverage. The problem is guessing which players it will be; the Vikings have some flexibility with their personnel, like linebacker Anthony Barr, defensive end Everson Griffen and safety Harrison Smith. The Vikings' secondary depth still concerns me, and we'll see whether Brady can exploit it this week, but this Vikings' defense won't be as big of a pushover as last season's unit was.

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- They will forever be linked by a serendipitous twist, the worst injury of Tom Brady's career giving way to the best opportunity of Matt Cassel's. But six years after their time together in New England ended, the two quarterbacks still share a lot more than that.

Brady and Cassel remain good friends off the field. They play golf, see each other's families, work out together during the offseason in Southern California and still talk every other week during the season.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady and Matt Cassel
AP Photo/Kathy WillensMatt Cassel said he learned a lot from Tom Brady from their days as teammates with the Patriots.
Cassel hadn't started a game since high school before a hit from Kansas City Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard tore Brady's ACL during the 2008 season opener, and a solid season in Brady's absence made Cassel a rich man the next spring, when the Chiefs traded for him and gave him a six-year, $62 million contract.

But the two quarterbacks never faced each other during Cassel's time in Kansas City, and this Sunday, with the Patriots coming to Minnesota for the Vikings' home opener, Brady and Cassel will be competitors on the field for the first time.

"We probably won’t talk this week, I’m guessing," Cassel said. "At the same time, he’s a great friend. He was a great mentor to me when I was there. Like I said, I’m really grateful that I had that opportunity to work with him and learn from him."

When the Patriots spent a seventh-round pick on Cassel in 2005, he came to a team that had just won its third Super Bowl in five years.

"He was very talkative as a rookie," Brady said. "I had to make sure he didn't overstep his bounds from time to time. But that's part of his personality -- he's very energetic, he's very intense. He's always been that way, since the day I met him."

Brady's advice, Cassel said, taught him how he needed to handle himself in the NFL.

"I remember when I was a young quarterback and we’re out at practice and I forgot a motion, and I still hit the pass, but he got after me pretty good about forgetting the motion," Cassel said. "The whole point to why he did it, he said, ‘Look, you can’t be a guy and seen as a leader if you’re making mistakes, simple mistakes, on the field. You can’t be a guy that goes up and tries to get after somebody else if you’re making those mistakes.’ And I thought it was a great point and I’ve carried that with me wherever I’ve gone.

"I think I give all the credit to that, the fact that I was, as a young player, able to come in and learn from one of the best, if not the best over his career. Really, each and every day, watch the process that he went through, how he broke down defense, ask questions. And then for him to be so good to me to actually answer those questions and not blow me off like, ‘Hey, get out of here,' it was huge for my development as a player.”

Cassel has said what Brady did for him influenced how he works with Vikings rookie Teddy Bridgewater, and Cassel said Wednesday that he still follows the Patriots closely. Even though the friendship might be put on hold this week, the respect between Cassel and Brady hasn't gone anywhere.

"He's had to fight his whole career," Brady said about Cassel. "Things were never easy for him: they weren't easy in high school, they weren't easy in college, and certainly, when he got to the professional level, they weren't easy. He's had a lot of adversity, and he's dealt with it. I think that's made him a strong person, a strong player and really a great teammate. That's why he's the starting quarterback of a very good NFL team right now. I'm proud of him."
MINNEAPOLIS -- An examination of what the Minnesota Vikings must do after their win over the St. Louis Rams:

If there was one major issue emerging from the Vikings' 34-6 victory on Sunday, it was the team's share of penalties on a day when referee Ed Hochuli's crew tossed plenty of flags. The Vikings were penalized seven times for 60 yards, but the Rams gave away more than twice as many yards, committing 13 penalties for 121 yards in the loss.

Griffen
The Rams' carelessness ultimately helped Minnesota win the game, but Vikings players and coach Mike Zimmer cited their own penalties as one of the major issues in need of fixing this week.

"In the first half, I felt we kind of self-destructed a little bit," Zimmer said. "We had too many penalties."

The Vikings had a 13-0 lead at halftime, after Josh Robinson's second-quarter interception helped set up a Matt Cassel touchdown pass to Greg Jennings, but in general, Zimmer thought his players were a little too amped up in the first two quarters of the season. He told them at halftime to calm down, and though it's worth noting the Rams declined three penalties in the second half, a holding call on Phil Loadholt was the only Vikings penalty the Rams accepted.

Zimmer has said several times he coaches Vikings defenders to avoid penalties, in light of the league's increased focus on contact with receivers. The Vikings had two illegal contact calls (on Jasper Brinkley and Jabari Price) declined, as well as a pass interference penalty on Robert Blanton, but in different circumstances, those penalties could have had costlier consequences. The penalties alone on Sunday were enough to keep defensive end Everson Griffen from calling the Vikings' defensive effort a dominating performance.

“It wasn’t dominating. We can play a lot better -- penalties, penalties can kill a team," Griffen said. "But we allowed ourselves to stay in the moment and execute our assignments, [and] still win the game.”

Rapid Reaction: Minnesota Vikings

September, 7, 2014
Sep 7
4:03
PM ET

ST. LOUIS -- A few thoughts on the Minnesota Vikings' 34-6 win over the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome:

What it means: The Vikings, who didn't get a win on the road in 2013, started the Mike Zimmer era with a convincing -- although not altogether clean -- victory on the road. Their defense looked markedly improved from the porous unit that allowed more points than any team in the league last season, holding the Rams to just 318 yards -- many of which came after the game had been decided -- and intercepting two passes. The Vikings were penalized seven times for 60 yards on a day filled with flags from Ed Hochuli's crew, and only went 3-for-11 on third downs, but especially for the defense, it was an impressive start to the 2014 season.

Stock watch: Cornerback Josh Robinson's standing didn't seem like it could be much lower in the middle of the preseason, when Zimmer referred to the corner as "that other guy" while he was out nursing a hamstring injury. But the Vikings have praised Robinson's improvement in recent weeks, and Robinson's impressive sideline interception -- in which he undercut a Shaun Hill pass and tapped his toes just before heading out of bounds -- was perhaps the best play on a ball we've seen by a Vikings corner in several years. He also made a nice tackle on Brian Quick's third-down reception in the first quarter, keeping the Rams a yard short of a first down before Greg Zuerlein missed a 50-yard field goal. The Vikings lost Xavier Rhodes to a groin injury, and will have to monitor the second-year player's health, but they'll at least have reason to be encouraged about Robinson's development.

Vikings win sack battle: Heading into the game, there was plenty of concern about how the Vikings' offensive line would hold up against the Rams' front four, which had 53 sacks last season. The group put some pressure on Matt Cassel, especially with the help of a couple of well-timed blitzes, but it was the Vikings' pass pressure that caused the most trouble. Minnesota recorded five sacks on Rams quarterbacks, and a vicious hit from Anthony Barr caused Austin Davis to rush the throw that Harrison Smith intercepted and returned 81 yards for his third career touchdown.

Game ball: It has to go to Cordarrelle Patterson, who became the first Vikings wide receiver to rush for 100 yards, burning the Rams on a couple of jet sweeps in the first half and lining up in the backfield for a 67-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter. Patterson finished the day with 102 yards on three carries, outgaining Adrian Peterson by 27 yards on the ground.

What's next: The Vikings (1-0) will play host to the New England Patriots (0-1) in their home opener next Sunday at TCF Bank Stadium.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The first carry of Adrian Peterson's 2013 season saw him break free for a 78-yard touchdown. The first of the 2014 season will come in the building where he recorded the longest run of his career the last time he visited.

The Minnesota Vikings' previous trip to St. Louis came in Week 15 of the 2012 season, in a game the Vikings had to win to keep themselves in the playoff race. Peterson was in the middle of a transcendent stretch, having logged at least 100 yards in his previous seven games and gaining 210 two weeks before in Green Bay. The Rams game, though, turned out to be Peterson's best of the season; he ran for 212 yards on 24 carries, with 82 of them coming on a touchdown run that helped him get the last word over a defense Peterson said had him in a foul mood that day.

[+] EnlargeMinnesota's Adrian Peterson
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesAdrian Peterson had 212 yards, including an 82-yard touchdown run, during his last visit to St. Louis.
"What I do remember about that game is that it's first time in eight years, I've ever talked off to players," Peterson said in a conference call with St. Louis reporters on Wednesday. "Those guys had me so hot; like, I haven't ever been that mad playing football. Those guys were just running to the ball -- I love it, too -- but (they) were just yapping at the mouth. I'm talking about from the defensive front to the second level to the secondary. Those guys were just yapping and they were doing pretty good initially, kind of getting a couple tackles for loss, a couple of three-and-outs. And then when I gunned at them one time, it got real quiet. I'm not going to give you my hint. I hope they come in talking a lot of noise this time, too. I'm excited to play these guys."

Sunday's game should be a good opening test for Peterson against an aggressive Rams defense that was ninth in the league against the run last season while posting 53 sacks. The Rams took down opposing quarterbacks on 10.2 percent of their dropbacks, which was tied for the second-highest rate in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and pressure from the St. Louis front four could make Peterson a safety valve for Matt Cassel, through his new role in the passing game and delayed handoffs designed to take advantage of aggressive fronts.

"I think they do a tremendous job up front creating pressure, making you get the ball out quick, make quick decisions at the quarterback position," Cassel said. "I think it's going to be a big task for us this week to take care of that front and be able to let me get the ball out and I think that these guys will be up for the challenge."

Peterson didn't play at all in the preseason, and has seemed eager to get his first game action in the Vikings' new offense after a long stretch of non-contact work. "He welcomes contact even when he's running and doing those thing," Cassel said. "You can see that he doesn't shy away from it and it's almost the defender's responsibility to get out of the way. I think that that's how he's got to practice and that's how he plays no matter what the situation and that's good because once he gets to the season I think that's why he's ready to go."

He'll have a little extra edge playing against a Rams defense that brought out the best in him last time.

"They have some guys that can get to the ball, to the passer and they run to the ball well," Peterson said. "I know Coach Zimmer would love that type of defense. I'm excited to play those guys."
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- At this time last year, Christian Ponder's preseason was over. He was firmly entrenched as the Vikings' starting quarterback headed into the beginning of the regular season, and as such, he was preparing to sit out the team's final exhibition game against the Tennessee Titans.

Of course, it's all turned around this year. Ponder is the third-string quarterback, behind the veteran the Vikings initially signed to back him up and the player they drafted in the first round as their new QB of the future. He hasn't played in the Vikings' last two preseason games, and though coach Mike Zimmer has hinted the Vikings will keep three quarterbacks, Ponder would be on the roster as an afterthought, not a centerpiece.

Ponder
Ponder
This Thursday, as the Vikings wrap up their preseason schedule against Tennessee, the stage figures to be Ponder's. He'll likely see a healthy share of the playing time against the Titans, and if he does so, he'd effectively get his first significant chunk of work since last Dec. 1, when a concussion knocked him out of a game against the Chicago Bears and Matt Cassel claimed a starting job he still hasn't given back.

Thursday could be the last significant playing time Ponder sees in a Vikings uniform, though he says he's not asking for a trade to speed up his exit from Minnesota.

"That's up to our GM," he said. "I'm not going in and saying anything to him right now in terms of that. Whatever happens is going to happen. If I go to the GM and ask for a trade, that doesn't mean the other team wants me. It's really up to everyone else."

Even if he's in Minnesota all season, Ponder will be a free agent at the end of the year, and will in all likelihood be looking for work elsewhere. He said he's not treating Thursday as an audition for other teams, even though it could be his final chance to put something on video before he hits free agency.

The Vikings have said they've seen improvement in Ponder's play, though it remains to be seen whether any of that will come to light in a game after Thursday night. If the Titans game is indeed Ponder's only concentrated chunk of playing time this season, it'll serve as a bizarre footnote to a dizzying turn of events for the quarterback in Minnesota.

"It's definitely a little different," he said. "This week, the first-team offense will be running scout team and everything, and taking it easy. It's completely different. Honestly, I'm excited to just get out there and play. Getting more reps in practice makes this week fun, and I'm looking forward to getting some action in the game. I'm learning so much from watching Matt and Teddy [Bridgewater], and listening to [quarterbacks coach] Scott [Turner] and [offensive coordinator] Norv [Turner]. I really feel like I have a great understanding of what we're doing, and my confidence is high right now."
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Three months before the Minnesota Vikings drafted Teddy Bridgewater, they had constructed a climate in which Bridgewater -- or any young quarterback -- should be able to develop without the pressure of immediate expectations.

The Vikings committed more cash to veteran Matt Cassel when he opted out of his 2014 deal, giving him a two-year, $10 million contract that effectively set him up as the bridge to the team's next young QB. They had hired offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who had Troy Aikman, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers in the nascent stages of their careers. They even had Christian Ponder, the former first-round pick who could serve -- at least for a year -- as an emergency option in case Cassel got injured and the Vikings weren't ready to put a rookie on the field.

[+] EnlargeMatt Cassel, Teddy Bridgewater
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltBy starting Matt Cassel over Teddy Bridgewater, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has given his rookie more time to develop.
All of the levers were in place to ensure a healthy environment for Bridgewater to develop. The only question: Would the Vikings pull the right ones?

Based on how new coach Mike Zimmer and Turner handled the first three months of Bridgewater's career in Minnesota, the answer appears to be yes. Zimmer named Cassel the starting quarterback Monday for the beginning of the regular season, rewarding the veteran for playing well enough to keep the job after he'd called Cassel the team's No. 1 QB on the first day of training camp.

Zimmer said at the time the designation didn't mean anything, but in a subtle way, it did: It set up a system in which Bridgewater would have to outplay Cassel to get the job, removed whatever temptation there might have been to play the rookie right away and sent a message to an offense filled with veterans -- 29-year-old running back Adrian Peterson among them -- that immediate success wouldn't take a backseat to development.

"The team has a lot of confidence in him," Zimmer said of Cassel. "They feel good about his veteran leadership and presence. I had to think about the whole football team; it wasn’t just about the quarterbacks. I’ve said this before: It’s not always the best player at that position -- and I’m not saying Matt’s not -- but any position, it’s how everything works together and at this stage in where we are at right now, I feel like that’s the best thing to do."

How this coaching staff handles Bridgewater will play a major role in Zimmer's longevity with the Vikings probably more than how the team fares this season. The decision Zimmer announced on Monday -- and the one his actions had been pointing toward for weeks -- worked on two fronts: It curried favor with players weary of quarterback instability after last season, and it provided more time for Bridgewater to learn in a forgiving environment.

Cassel will be asked to solve a tough St. Louis Rams defense on the road in Week 1, and could possibly have to trade scoring drives with Tom Brady and Brees the next two weeks. That's a daunting task for a rookie, and by assigning it to Cassel, the Vikings can retain some control over the setting in which Bridgewater eventually debuts.

They've been in a position to do that all along, with a sturdy (but not irreplaceable) veteran and an offensive coordinator who has done this before. All the Vikings needed was a rookie coach who would be pragmatic enough to manage it correctly, and it appears that's what Zimmer has done.
KANSAS CITY -- As he was flanked by reporters in the visitors' locker room at Arrowhead Stadium on Saturday night, peppered with questions about his time in Kansas City, Matt Cassel seemed less interested in rehashing what went wrong than nearly anyone else in the room.

To Chiefs fans, Cassel's time in Kansas City represents a failed experiment, which began with the team trading for the quarterback and signing him to a six-year deal in 2009 and ended, at least symbolically, with fans cheering Cassel's concussion in a home game. That experience seasoned the Vikings-Chiefs preseason game with a heavy dose of the Cassel-gets-redemption storyline, as he returned to Kansas City once again poised to claim a NFL starting quarterback job.

Matt Cassel
Ed Zurga/Associated PressMatt Cassel's return to Kansas City was a good one, as he gained further control of Minnesota's starting quarterback race.
The 32-year-old quarterback wasn't officially awarded the job on Saturday night -- though the Vikings operated as though he'd be their starter on Sept. 7 -- and even if he had, he probably wouldn't have found much reason to boast about it. He said again on Saturday night he had "no ill will" toward the Chiefs, who cut him after the 2012 season, pointing out that all three of his children were born in Kansas City and mentioning the close friends he still had in town. Still, his long touchdown to Cordarrelle Patterson in the first quarter had to carry some extra meaning, didn't it?

"It was a great way to start the game, there's no doubt about it," Cassel said. "To come in here and get going, we were backed up on our own three, and then to be able to get going like that and hit a long play, it was great."

That's about the most Cassel will let on about what the game meant to him, and there's not much reason he should be anything but diplomatic about his exit from Kansas City. He didn't perform well enough to play out a contract that would have paid him more than $62 million, and he rightly pointed out things would have been different if he and the Chiefs had won a few more games.

"I've been in it long enough to know that if you don't win, normally, they make changes," he said. "They did, and I was really happy to see they had a lot of success."

Cassel has been able to move on, too, and it seems he'll at least begin the season with the starting job. Officially, the Vikings' quarterback competition is ongoing, but when Cassel throws 17 passes, Teddy Bridgewater throws seven in just over a quarter of work, and Christian Ponder again doesn't play, the pecking order seems clear. Cassel's performance on Saturday night might have actually been his worst of the preseason; he hit the long touchdown to Patterson -- on a play the receiver said has typically gone to Greg Jennings in practice -- lofted a pretty sideline throw to Jennings and could have had better numbers if not for a couple drops, but he forced a deep throw to Jerome Simpson for an interception and could have been picked off on an out route to Jennings.

He's got the arm to play in offensive coordinator Norv Turner's scheme, as he's demonstrated by a number of downfield throws this preseason, but he'll also get burned by taking some chances at times. He's only had two seasons -- his breakout year of 2008 and his Pro Bowl season of 2010 -- where he's averaged less than an interception per game. Still, Cassel has done a solid job of running the Vikings' offense in the preseason without Adrian Peterson, and it'd be a surprise not to see him start when the Vikings return to Missouri on Sept. 7 against the Rams.

If his continued work as the Vikings' starting quarterback on the other side of the state -- and in his former home stadium -- gave him a sense of payback on Saturday, Cassel wasn't showing it. Perhaps his experience the last time he was in this position helped him to appreciate it more than to flaunt it.

"I love Kansas City," Cassel said. "At the same time, football sometimes just doesn't always work out the way you want it to. There's a multitude of reasons behind that, and I wish we could have changed a lot of that -- mainly the outcome of just winning more ballgames."
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings were in the market for a veteran backup quarterback a year ago, believing they needed a steady alternative to Christian Ponder after their first playoff appearance in three years was short-circuited by a disastrous outing from Joe Webb. The Cleveland Browns were looking for the same thing, as new offensive coordinator Norv Turner sought stability behind young starter Brandon Weeden.

Both teams set their sights on former Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel, who had needed just four years to go from the ranks of promising young starters to the discard pile. Cassel was seen at that point as an insurance policy who could lend some stability in a pinch -- and was paid as such -- but both Vikings general manager Rick Spielman and Browns offensive coordinator Norv Turner hung onto the thought that in the right system, the 31-year-old was still capable of more.

[+] EnlargeMatt Cassel
Drew Hallowell/Philadelphia Eagles/Getty ImagesMatt Cassel seems likely to open the regular season as Minnesota's starting quarterback.
"He'd had some struggles in Kansas City, but he went to the Pro Bowl one year with them," Spielman said. "He came through that whole system with Tom Brady (in New England). That kind of set him apart -- not only the abilities he had, but the experience and the knowledge."

Seventeen months later, as Cassel returns to Kansas City for the Vikings' preseason game this weekend, he has taken a circuitous -- and sometimes bizarre -- route back to the fraternity of NFL starting quarterbacks. It involved a season where Cassel led the Vikings to their first victory of the year, was named the starting quarterback for the next game -- and was deactivated a week later once the Vikings decided to start Josh Freeman two weeks after signing him. The stench of the quarterback situation clung so closely to coach Leslie Frazier that the Vikings fired him after a 5-10-1 season, hiring Mike Zimmer to replace him in January. And after the Cleveland Browns dumped coach Rob Chudzinski and his staff after just one season, Turner -- the offensive coordinator who wanted Cassel in Cleveland -- was hired to work with him in Minnesota.

That chain of events took Cassel from being an afterthought in October to the quarterback the Vikings determined they couldn't lose this spring. He will make his third start of the preseason on Saturday night in Kansas City, and though he hasn't been named the team's starter yet, all signs point to him being on the field for the regular-season opener Sept. 7 in St. Louis. He has developed a productive working relationship with rookie Teddy Bridgewater, intent on paying forward the favor Brady did for him as a young quarterback, and he has a two-year, $10 million contract after opting out of his original 2014 deal in February. As he heads back to Kansas City, Cassel does so in the middle of an impressive reboot of his career.

"We ask a lot of our quarterbacks, and he's able to handle it, plus more," said quarterbacks coach Scott Turner, who was the receivers coach in Cleveland when the Browns were pursuing Cassel in 2013. "He's done a great job of learning the system and really just kind of owning it."

Cassel might have the starting job in his grasp at the moment, but his grip on it is tenuous at best, thanks to Bridgewater's presence. The Vikings didn't trade up to select Bridgewater in the first round in order to keep him on the bench forever, and if Cassel struggles, it could expedite the process of making Bridgewater the starter. Spielman, though, said Cassel, who is now 32, has a unique understanding of his role as a mentor.

"That's what makes Matt so special," Spielman said. "Some guys would probably not be as positive about that situation, but Matt understands where he's at in his career. Even when we signed Matt here, we laid everything out. I don't like to sit there and BS people; this is the circumstance they're coming in. Matt understood everything. There was no question he was going to come in here and compete, regardless, to be our No. 1 quarterback. We're very fortunate to have a Matt Cassel, not only from the ability to play, but also, if that role does reverse, the ability to be a mentor and bring that young one along. That's a hard combination to find."

Cassel is 17-for-22 with a touchdown pass in the preseason, and seems more confident in his role with the Vikings -- to the point where Zimmer has mentioned the need to remind Cassel that while his suggestions are welcome, they don't represent final decisions. In whatever role he's playing, though, the Vikings seem grateful to have him.

"Matt wants to start and play; so does Teddy, and so does Christian," Scott Turner said. "Matt's doing everything he can to prepare himself to be the best player he can possibly be, and that's as far as it goes. I think he understands that Teddy's here, and we think he's going to be a very good player in this league someday. He's not looking into the what-ifs down the road, and I think you've got to commend him for that."

Vikings Thursday practice report

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
3:40
PM ET
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Some observations from the Minnesota Vikings' practice Thursday afternoon:
  • Peterson
    Peterson
    The Vikings were still without running back Adrian Peterson, who missed practice again Thursday after being gone for personal reasons Wednesday. Peterson wasn't going to play in Saturday's game against the Kansas City Chiefs but is expected to travel to the game with the team. Defensive tackle Linval Joseph, who is still recovering from a bullet wound to his left calf, and linebacker Brandon Watts, who is out with a leg injury, weren't seen at practice. Cornerback Jabari Price and linebacker Gerald Hodges were on the field but were not participating.
  • Much of the Vikings' work again consisted of scout-team offensive snaps against the first-string defense, which meant another busy day for Christian Ponder. The third-string quarterback went 7-for-12, throwing one interception in 11-on-11 work. Matt Cassel hit 11 of his 15 throws and Teddy Bridgewater went 5-for-7. Cassel didn't divulge the Vikings' game plan for Saturday night but said he "expect(s) to play a lot" against the Chiefs.
  • Blair Walsh has hit 47 of 50 kicks in team periods since the Vikings started training camp, according to special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer, who said he wasn't concerned about a pair of Walsh misses from beyond 50 yards in the Vikings' first two preseason games. "I think he may have missed one from 50, or maybe none, in practice," Priefer said. "If it was one of those deals where he was shanking the ball, I'd be concerned. But he's hitting the ball well. There's a couple things he needs to do with his follow-through, to straighten that out. We've already gone back and looked at a couple game tapes from his rookie year and last year. It's one of those things he's just got to continue to focus on his follow-through and the other little small attributes that make him such a great kicker, compared to other kickers in this league."
  • Priefer said the Vikings used 42 different players on special teams in last Saturday's preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals as coaches try to evaluate whose special-teams contributions should help them win a roster spot. The Vikings will start to use more consistent special-teams units on Saturday against Kansas City as they prepare for the start of the regular season. They'll also try to get Cordarrelle Patterson a kickoff return or two, Priefer said.
  • The moment of the day in practice came when Chad Greenway dropped an interception and angrily kicked the ball into the trees just east of the Vikings' practice field. The ball got stuck in a tree, and several minutes later, Greenway walked into the woods with another football in his hand to perform the old throw-one-ball-into-the-tree-to-knock-the-other-one-down trick. "Didn't you guys do this as a kid?" Greenway said. Seconds later, he emerged with both footballs, proclaiming it'd only taken him one shot to dislodge the one he'd kicked into the tree.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- You know that discussion we were having about Christian Ponder's future? Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer effectively put an end to it.

Ponder
Ponder
When asked on Tuesday how many quarterbacks he would be comfortable keeping on the roster, Zimmer said, "I don't think we'll be two quarterbacks, if that's the question you're asking."

By saying the Vikings would be unlikely to drop to two QBs, Zimmer effectively confirmed Ponder will be on the team's opening-day roster. Things can always change, of course, but despite how little the Vikings have used Ponder in camp, they still see value in keeping a third quarterback for emergencies. As we discussed earlier, retaining Ponder would give the Vikings a veteran option in case Matt Cassel were injured or ineffective and the team wasn't ready to put Teddy Bridgewater on the field yet. There's a valid line of thinking that such an insurance policy is worth a roster spot, especially when the most important task the Vikings have in the next few years probably is managing Bridgewater's development correctly.

The trick, of course, is valuing that insurance policy in comparison to other roster construction options, and the Vikings apparently put a high enough premium on it to sacrifice some flexibility elsewhere. They've always had three QBs on their opening-day roster with Rick Spielman as the GM, even as some teams changed their philosophy once the league eliminated a rule in 2011 that effectively made a third quarterback a free roster spot on game days.

So there you have it; barring some kind of change, it appears the Vikings will have three QBs on the roster this season. And it's safe to assume, at least at this point, that the third one will be Ponder.

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