NFL Nation: Devin Aromashodu

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- I dropped by the Minnesota Vikings' practice facility Thursday and heard something I wasn't expecting: Tailback Adrian Peterson lobbying the Vikings to throw the ball downfield more often.

Peterson has always been a single-minded devotee of the power run game, but even he realizes the Vikings have little chance to run effectively Sunday if they let the San Francisco 49ers' stout defense sit on the line of scrimmage. The 49ers have stymied the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions' rushing attacks even while aligned with deep safeties and no more than seven men on the line of scrimmage. Imagine what they could do against the Vikings when stacking against the run and, presumably, disregarding the threat of a downfield pass.

Based on how the Vikings have played their first two games, the 49ers have no reason to push their safeties deep as they did against the Packers and Lions. They might as well put as many defenders as necessary at the line of scrimmage to shut down Peterson, who has struggled in two previous appearances against the 49ers. Only three other teams have held him to a lower average yards per game (44.0) in his career, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"These guys are good," Peterson said. "We're looking forward to the challenge. I don't think they've faced a run-attack offense like we have, so I think that can switch things up. … I'm sure they'll come in focused on trying to stop the run. That's where we've got to be productive offensively, keep those guys honest and complete some balls down the field, and then still run the ball."

Peterson added: "That's something we want to do: get the passing game going a little more with those deep balls and spread those defensive backs out some. I feel we'll be able to do that this week."

The Vikings are fairly undermanned when it comes to downfield threats, especially as Jerome Simpson serves the third and final game of his NFL suspension. To be fair, though, they've barely tried to test the defenses they've faced.

Only three of quarterback Christian Ponder's 62 passes have traveled more than 20 yards in the air, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Two fell incomplete, and the third was a 24-yard pass to receiver Devin Aromashodu during the desperate final seconds of regulation in their eventual Week 1 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave told reporters that "we definitely want to have more chunks going forward" and blamed himself for not providing Ponder better play-calling options in that regard. It would make sense for the Vikings to push the ball downfield more often, but we'll kindly say that the matchups don't appear to be in their favor this week.
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
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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.

Say farewell to the 2012 preseason

August, 30, 2012
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I didn't have all four NFC North preseason games playing simultaneously in front of me Thursday night. But I'll be darned if the very first thing that happened Thursday night wasn't Green Bay Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji's ankle injury on the first play from scrimmage at Lambeau Field.

The injury is not believed to be serious, but it underscored the worst fears of the most meaningless night of live-action games on the NFL calendar. A review of the highs and lows from Thursday night is below. And good riddance to you, Mr. Preseason you. ...

Chicago Bears 28, Cleveland Browns 20

Final preseason record: 3-1
Of interest: The Raji injury made the Bears look awfully smart for sitting all 22 starters for this game. And in some cases, second-team players rested as well. … Third-string quarterback Josh McCown started and looked sharp enough to quell any questions about whether the Bears should hold a roster spot for him, at least in my opinion. He played the entire game, completing 20 of 29 passes. ... In a Super Bowl-or-bust year, why take a roster risk at quarterback? … Tailback Lorenzo Booker (81 yards on 15 carries) was having a more productive night than the player he's competing with for the No. 3 running back job, Armando Allen, before he departed because of a head injury and Allen ripped off a 49-yard run. … Receiver Dane Sanzenbacher put a nice exclamation point on his bid for a roster spot with a 30-yard touchdown reception.

Detroit Lions 38, Buffalo Bills 32
Final preseason record: 2-2
Of interest: The Lions played many of their starters for the first series and were up 28-10 at halftime of this affair. That included a crisp seven-play drive by the first-team offense, ending in Matthew Stafford's 24-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson. Stafford finished the preseason with 26 completions in 37 attempts for 360 yards, three touchdowns, one interception and a 116.9 passer rating. … Johnson had nine receptions for 178 yards and two scores in the preseason. … Tailback Mikel Leshoure gave the Lions something to look forward to when his two-game suspension ends, rushing for 43 yards, catching a 33-yard pass and scoring on a 2-yard run. … Quarterback Kellen Moore, fighting for a roster spot, rebounded from a number of early drops to complete 17 of 30 passes and also score the game-winner on a 1-yard run.

Green Bay Packers 24, Kansas City Chiefs 3
Final preseason record: 2-2
Of interest: Coach Mike McCarthy said after the game that he did not have "a high level of concern" for Raji's ankle injury. … Thank you, Graham Harrell, for ending the drama -- real or imagined -- around the Packers' decision to name you their No. 2 quarterback. In about two full quarters of play, Harrell compiled a perfect 158.3 passer rating: 13 completions in 15 attempts for 223 yards and two touchdowns. His 27-yard pass to tight end Jermichael Finley was crisp, his 54-yard completion to Tori Gurley had plenty of arm and overall everyone should feel much better about the Packers' depth behind starter Aaron Rodgers. … Running back Alex Green displayed his open-field running skills by turning a short pass into a 17-yard scoring play. … Cedric Benson's first-play fumble, recovered by the Packers, will make a few people nervous.

Houston Texans 28, Minnesota Vikings 23
Final preseason record: 1-3
Of interest: The Vikings sat almost all of their starters, and the biggest point to take from this game is the continued inconsistency of backup quarterback Joe Webb. The Vikings managed only three points with him on the field. Third-stringer Sage Rosenfels missed receiver Devin Aromashodu on one deep pass but hit him on another for a 59-yard touchdown. … Rookie receiver Jarius Wright was having a huge night (six receptions for 122 yards) before departing with a foot injury. Among his catches was a 59-yard touchdown from McLeod Bethel-Thompson. … Running backs Matt Asiata (43 yards on seven carries) and Jordan Todman (76-yard touchdown run) competed hard for the No. 3 running back job.
Wide receivers Vincent Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Reggie Wayne, Robert Meachem, Eddie Royal, Laurent Robinson, Josh Morgan, Eric Weems and Harry Douglas have found new homes after hitting the NFL's free-agent market.

Franchise tags essentially removed from consideration Dwayne Bowe, Wes Welker and DeSean Jackson.

Others, such as Marques Colston, re-signed before free agency.

Teams still searching for help at the position -- that would be pretty much everyone but Seattle in the NFC West -- are left with a picked-over group of free agents.

Jerome Simpson, Burress, Brandon Lloyd, Legedu Naanee, Devin Aromashodu, Roy Williams, Mario Manningham and Early Doucet are the only ones remaining to have played at least half of their team's offensive snaps during the 2011 season.

As the chart shows, Burress was particularly effective in the red zone for the New York Jets. He converted first downs 38 times in 45 receptions for the third-highest percentage among wide receivers with at least 40 receptions, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Burress is also up there in age. He's among 12 available wideouts already in their 30s: Hines Ward (36), Burress (34), T.J. Houshmandzadeh (34), Kevin Curtis (33), Patrick Crayton (32), Deion Branch (32), Rashied Davis (32), Donte Stallworth (31), Jerheme Urban (31), Bryant Johnson (31), Lloyd (30) and Williams (30).

Of them, Lloyd has visited the San Francisco 49ers.

Nine more are 29 years old: Greg Camarillo, Keary Colbert, Mark Clayton, Jerricho Cotchery, Roscoe Parrish, Michael Clayton, Courtney Roby, Michael Spurlock and Braylon Edwards.

Still interested?

OK, let's check out 18 others, all younger than 29: David Anderson, Legedu Naanee, Devin Aroshamodu, Donnie Avery, Anthony Gonzalez, Maurice Stovall, Derek Hagan, Mike Sims-Walker, Ted Ginn Jr., Andre Caldwell, Steve Smith, Doucet, Brett Swain, Chaz Schilens, Simpson, Manningham, Devin Thomas and Kevin Ogletree.

Schilens visited Arizona and San Francisco. Manningham visited the 49ers and the St. Louis Rams.

I've also broken down the available wideouts by drafted round:
  • First: Williams, Burress, Ginn, Stallworth, both Claytons, Johnson, Gonzalez and Edwards
  • Second: Avery, Thomas, Simpson, Smith, Parrish, Branch, Colbert
  • Third: Roby, Doucet, Hagan, Stovall, Manningham, Caldwell, Curtis, Sims-Walker, Ward
  • Fourth: Cotchery, Lloyd
  • Fifth: Legedu Naanee
  • Sixth: none
  • Seventh: Houshmandzadeh, Crayton, Schilens, Aromashodu, Anderson, Swain
  • Undrafted: Davis, Urban, Camarillo, Spurlock, Ogletree

Only a handful of the available receivers project as starters. None would qualify as an outright game-breaker.

The Rams in particular need playmakers, but in looking at what is available, how many would qualify as dramatically better than what they already have? Austin Pettis, Brandon Gibson, Danario Alexander, Dominique Curry, Greg Salas and restricted free agent Danny Amendola are their current wideouts.

NFC North free-agency primer

March, 8, 2012
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AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Chicago Bears

Key free agents: Tight end Kellen Davis, running back Matt Forte (franchise), cornerback Corey Graham, quarterback Caleb Hanie, defensive end Israel Idonije, cornerback Tim Jennings, quarterback Josh McCown, safety Brandon Meriweather and receiver Roy Williams.

Where they stand: The Bears will have the most salary-cap space among NFC North teams, upwards of $30 million, and have plenty of potential uses for it. Quarterback Jay Cutler needs more targets in the downfield passing game, whether it's at the receiver or tight end position. And new general manager Phil Emery must start restocking a defense led by four players more than 30 years old: Linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, defensive end Julius Peppers and cornerback Charles Tillman.

What to expect: It's widely believed the Bears will be in the running for free-agent receiver Vincent Jackson. But Jackson's price tag could be steep and no one knows if Emery will prove to be a big spender. It seems likely he will re-sign Davis, and Emery should also save some of his cap space to extend Forte's contract. Secondary receiver targets could include Marques Colston. Bears fans are hoping the team will pursue defensive end Mario Williams, but it's hard to imagine the Bears budgeting for Williams two years after breaking their bank on Peppers.

Detroit Lions

Key free agents: Defensive end Cliff Avril (franchise), left tackle Jeff Backus, safety Chris Harris, quarterback Shaun Hill, linebacker DeAndre Levy (restricted), running back Maurice Morris, running back Kevin Smith, quarterback Drew Stanton, linebacker Stephen Tulloch and cornerback Eric Wright.

Where they stand: The Lions are tight against the salary cap after franchising Avril and aren't likely to be big spenders on the free-agent market. They could relieve the situation by reaching long-term agreements with Avril and/or receiver Calvin Johnson, who has a $22 million cap figure for 2012. Tulloch made a big impact last season after signing a one-year deal, but so far the Lions' attention has turned elsewhere.

What to expect: The Lions' best-case scenario is to keep their 2011 core together without mortgaging their future relative to the salary cap. That would mean getting Tulloch re-signed to preserve the linebacker group they upgraded last season by signing him and veteran Justin Durant, moves that allowed Levy to play on the outside. Hill seems likely to re-sign as Matthew Stafford's backup, while Stanton might test the free-agent waters to see if he has a chance to do better than third on a team's depth chart.

Green Bay Packers

Key free agents: Cornerback Jarrett Bush, quarterback Matt Flynn, running back Ryan Grant and center Scott Wells.

Where they stand: The Packers took care of a big challenge by signing tight end Jermichael Finley to a two-year contract last month. They will let Flynn depart for a possible starting job elsewhere and it appears Grant will test the free-agent market. Discussions with Wells haven't led to an agreement, but the Packers often go to the final moments before reaching a deal. There are no obvious internal replacements for Wells, making his return a priority.

What to expect: The Packers will have some flexibility with the salary cap, but general manager Ted Thompson's aversion to veteran free agency is well known. It's been three years since he signed a veteran unrestricted free agent in the offseason. The Packers have needs at defensive line, outside linebacker and possibly at center if Wells leaves. But let's put it this way: Thompson's strong preference is to find depth and future replacements in the draft, not on other teams' rosters.

Minnesota Vikings

Key free agents: Safety Husain Abdullah, receiver Devin Aromashodu, receiver Greg Camarillo, defensive lineman Fred Evans, defensive lineman Letroy Guion, linebacker E.J. Henderson, linebacker Erin Henderson, safety Tyrell Johnson, quarterback Sage Rosenfels, cornerback Benny Sapp and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe.

Where they stand: The Vikings seem poised for a major roster overhaul in their first offseason since Rick Spielman was promoted to general manager. Players like Shiancoe, E.J. Henderson, Camarillo and Johnson all seem poised to move on. There aren't many positions on the team that appear secure.

What to expect: If the Vikings don't plan to draft USC left tackle Matt Kalil at No. 3 overall next month, the first clue will be if they pursue a free-agent left tackle. That seems unlikely. But they'll need to combine their draft with at least a few veteran free agents if they intend to compete for a playoff spot in 2012. Cornerback could be a point of focus, where Brandon Carr and Cortland Finnegan are among those available. Another could be receiver. The Vikings had major interest in Jackson two years ago.
We're going to get some mileage out of the research I did, and had forwarded to me, for our 2011 All-NFC North team. The first installment is left over from the debate that ultimately led me to choose Green Bay Packers receiver Jordy Nelson over the Minnesota Vikings' Percy Harvin.

[+] EnlargePercy  Harvin
Icon SMIPercy Harvin can do plenty of things on the field, as long as the Vikings have him on the field.
I checked out their playing time as part of comparing their production. As it turned out, Nelson and Harvin were on the field for almost exactly the same amount of time. Nelson played 609 snaps and Harvin 605. (All numbers in this post exclude penalties, which means they vary slightly from the figures we've used during the season.) The percentages of their team's total snaps were close as well: 58.9 for Nelson and 58.4 for Harvin.

That makes sense for Nelson, who was part of the NFL's deepest receiving corps. But I have a hard time understanding how Harvin -- by far the Vikings' best receiver in 2011 and one of their few playmakers -- was on the sideline for more than 40 percent of a mostly punchless team's snaps.

Across the NFL, 54 receivers played a higher percentage of their team's snaps than Harvin did. That includes teammate Devin Aromashodu, who eventually stepped into the starting lineup after Bernard Berrian's departure and Michael Jenkins' injury. Aromashodu caught 26 passes while playing on 674 snaps, 69 more than Harvin. (Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe led Vikings pass-catchers by playing 76.1 percent of the team's snaps.)

I think we all assumed that Harvin would be the Vikings' No. 1 receiver, and it was immediately surprising when he played about half of the snaps in the Vikings' first two games. At the time, coach Leslie Frazier said: "We have certain packages where we want to feature him, and not necessarily overuse him, but use him to help our football team."

Many of us dropped the issue given Harvin's season-long productivity, but in the end the Vikings finished the season with the NFL's fifth-fewest passing yards while their best receiver was on the sideline for 41.6 percent of their plays. That's hard to defend.

On the other hand, it's possible the Vikings believed Harvin would be more effective with managed snaps. He did, after all, catch a career-high 87 passes while rushing for 345 yards out of the backfield. The Vikings also had him as their primary kickoff returner on 30 of the kickoffs they faced.

Frazier denied during the season that his playing-time plan for Harvin was related to his migraine history, but it's worth noting that Harvin had no reported issues this season. Did the limited contact contribute to that? Assuming Frazier was being truthful, the two events were coincidental.

Regardless, in the big picture Harvin is too young to be on a pitch count. He won't turn 24 until May. It's true that he was managing a rib injury late in the season, but that doesn't account for 431 plays on the sideline. There is every reason to believe that Harvin could and should play at least as much as the No. 1 or No. 2 receivers on other teams.

For context, here are the NFC North receivers who played a higher percentage of snaps than Harvin in 2011:
Consider that Jennings played more snaps in 12 1/2 games before suffering a knee injury than Harvin did in 16. In the end, Harvin had the best year of his career when playing limited snaps. The Vikings must spend part of this offseason deciding if that was the reason, or if they artificially capped his production by overcompensating on his playing time.
As you have probably heard, receiver Bernard Berrian will join cornerback Antoine Winfield on the inactive list for the Minnesota Vikings' game against the Arizona Cardinals this afternoon. But unlike Winfield, who has a neck injury and didn't practice all week, Berrian was not listed on the injury report and is not known to have any ailment that would have impacted his availability for this game.

Berrian
Berrian
So that brings the obvious two-part question: Was Berrian benched for performance reasons? Or is he being disciplined for exchanging charged tweets with a fan who turned out to be a Minnesota state legislator and stadium supporter?

I'm sure coach Leslie Frazier will address the matter after the game. But for the franchise's sake, I really hope Frazier's motivations leaned toward the former. The latter would be a disproportionate and arbitrary punishment that in essence would mean the Vikings allowed their stadium politics to supersede their on-field priorities.

Berrian has two receptions this season despite playing 182 snaps, the highest total among Vikings receivers. That ratio alone gives Frazier a reasonable argument for pushing Berrian down the depth chart.

And as we discussed during the week, Berrian's assertion that he has been open for most of the past four years brought more attention to what he does, and what he doesn't do, when the ball is thrown his way. Getting open is the start of a receiver's job, not the end of it.

So at this point, I wouldn't have any problem if Frazier wanted to see what Devin Aromashodu might do with more repetitions, and if he wanted to get Greg Camarillo more of an opportunity. That decision would send an appropriate message: That Vikings players will be held accountable for their production.

But I think it would be a seething overreaction if Frazier essentially suspended Berrian for his actions on Twitter last Sunday night. Berrian's thoughts were debatable, but they were no different than what any number of frustrated players might say in a post-game interview. In fact, they were pretty mild compared to many other instances we've seen. Will we now start deactivating players whose postgame emotions get the best of them? I can't imagine the Vikings' social media policy is that strict.

I'm sure you'll note that the fan was not just any fan. It was John Kriesel, a Minnesota state representative and war hero who has co-authored the Vikings' stadium initiative. If it had been John Doe instead of John Kriesel, of course, this story never would have surfaced.

But Kriesel was using his personal account and wasn't tweeting as anything other than a Vikings fan. I'm more than ready to excuse Berrian for not recognizing who he was speaking to. Berrian has already apologized, something that would not have been required if it had been John Doe, and Kriesel has said he was not offended by the exchange.

Frazier has consistently expressed the importance of keeping Berrian on the field as a deep threat this season, and nothing he said this week suggested otherwise. If he privately made a football decision to the contrary, I'm fine with that. But if he would have played Berrian were it not for a mild exchange with a stadium supporter, than I hate the precedent.

A coach is expected to put his team in the best position to win, absent of any on-field factors. If Frazier thinks his team has a better chance to win with Berrian on the field, then Berrian should be playing Sunday. The Vikings' stadium drive shouldn't matter in that instance -- unless, of course, it's more important to the franchise than winning games. I hope that's not the case.
On Monday, we noted that Minnesota Vikings receiver Bernard Berrian took to Twitter in defense of his low production this season. When a follower told him he was "wide open at least 5 times," Berrian responded: "been like that the last 4 yrs."

[+] EnlargeBernard Berrian
Otto Greule Jr./Getty ImagesSince joining the Vikings in 2008, Bernard Berrian has caught roughly 50 percent of the passes thrown his way.
One of the fans who challenged Berrian on that point was a Minnesota state representative and a co-author of the team's stadium finance bill. That fact was dramatic but ultimately irrelevant. What concerned me was Berrian's implication that getting open is the extent of his job as a receiver, and beyond that, his production is in the hands of someone else -- presumably the quarterback or the play-caller.

So with help from several resources, I sought out some key facts that would help us understand whether Berrian is justified or if he needs to take more ownership for catching only two passes over the Vikings' first four games.

First, it should be noted that Berrian has been on the field more often than any Vikings wide receiver. According to Pro Football Focus, he has played on 182 of the Vikings' 248 snaps. Michael Jenkins is next with 175 plays, Percy Harvin has 141 and Devin Aromashodu has 36.

On those 182 plays, Berrian has been targeted on 13 passes. ESPN Stats & Information doesn't assign a target when one isn't clear, making its number different from press-box statistics that say Berrian has been targeted 15 targeted times. Regardless, Berrian has caught only two of the 13, or 15 percent.

The top NFL receivers typically catch between 60 and 70 percent of the passes thrown their way, according to a spreadsheet I viewed from ESPN Stats & Information. New England Patriots slot man, for example, Wes Welker has caught 70 percent this season. Houston Texans receiver Andre Johnson is at 71 percent. Steve Johnson of the Buffalo Bills is at 66 percent and the San Diego Chargers' Vincent Jackson is at 65 percent.

Admittedly, 13 targets on 182 plays is a very small number. There are 84 NFL players who have been targeted more than Berrian this season. But this is where his career history, at least with the Vikings, needs to be reviewed for context.

Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Information provided the following chart. It shows that in the four years Berrian was referring to, he's caught 52 percent of the passes thrown his way. Since the start of the 2010 season, that number is 45 percent.

There are many factors that go into how frequently a receiver should catch the passes thrown his way. Obviously, quarterback accuracy is one of them. So is the route a receiver is asked to run; a short route is more likely to be completed than one that takes a receiver 30 yards downfield.

But there are some factors that a receiver can control. Does he need the ball delivered precisely to his hands? How good is he at catching imperfect passes? Can he win a physical fight with the defender? To what extent can he twist his body or shield defenders or maintain control after a big hit?

All of these factors go into the pot when evaluating Berrian's past four years. He obviously hasn't gotten as many passes as he would have liked. But over that stretch, he's worked with four different veteran quarterbacks: Gus Frerotte, Tarvaris Jackson, Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb. Have they all inexplicably looked elsewhere when he Berrian was open, presuming he has been? Or did Berrian's extended history of catching about half of the passes thrown his way play a role in their (possibly subconscious) decision-making?

Berrian isn't totally at fault for his two-catch season. McNabb has under-and overthrown him on a number of occasions already. But I hope Berrian doesn't think that getting open is the sole factor in a quarterback throwing his way. That's only half of the battle, and perhaps Berrian hasn't won enough of the other half to justify additional attention. Just a thought.

Wrap-up: Chiefs 22, Vikings 17

October, 2, 2011
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A few thoughts on the Minnesota Vikings' 22-17 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs:

What it means: The Vikings are 0-4 for the first time since 2002. Situated in a division with the NFL’s two undefeated teams, the Vikings can essentially kiss the playoffs goodbye. That leaves only one bit of drama left in their season. Namely ...

PonderWatch: Coach Leslie Frazier said "I don’t think" the Vikings are in a position where changing quarterbacks is required. But what is the value of playing a 34-year-old quarterback on a one-year contract when you’re 0-4 and four games back in your division? Donovan McNabb completed 18 of 30 passes against the Chiefs, including a nicely-thrown 34-yard touchdown pass to receiver Devin Aromashodu in the second quarter. Sunday’s loss wasn’t all on him. But the competitive portion of 2011 is almost done for the Vikings. That pushes our attention to 2012, when their quarterback almost certainly will be Christian Ponder. The only reason to delay the inevitable is if the Vikings feel Ponder hasn’t developed enough to give him a chance. I would find that hard to believe.

Tackling woes: I had my eyes mostly focused at Cowboys Stadium, but one play I saw from the Vikings really stood out. Chiefs receiver Dwayne Bowe blew past cornerback Cedric Griffin, who had slipped, and hauled in a Matt Cassel pass. Safety Jamarca Sanford bounced off Bowe on a shoulder-tackle attempt, and Griffin couldn’t bring him down either. Bowe scored on a 52-yard touchdown when all he had done was take about six strides past the line of scrimmage. Way too easy.

What’s next: The Vikings will try to avoid an 0-5 start when they host the Arizona Cardinals.

Vikings slip off the tracks

September, 18, 2011
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TBDAP Photo/Andy KingThe Vikings run a low-risk attack featuring handoffs to Adrian Peterson, and few big plays.
MINNEAPOLIS -- The headline quote from the Minnesota Vikings' postgame locker room came from tailback Adrian Peterson.

"They wanted it more tonight," Peterson said after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers scored the final 14 points of a 24-20 victory before a stunned Metrodome crowd. The Bucs had stormed back from a 17-0 halftime deficit, blistering the Vikings for 273 yards and 16 first downs on only 30 plays over that time period.

The implication from Peterson, and a few other Vikings players, was that the team somehow didn't match the mythical energy the Buccaneers brought from the halftime locker room.

Said defensive end Jared Allen: "We must have rested on our laurels."

Receiver Percy Harvin: "We didn't play 60 minutes and our record shows it."

I understand why a player would instinctively reach for that explanation, but strongly disagree that it was behind the Vikings' second-half collapse. From my vantage point, at least, this game wasn't decided on effort. If we can say anything definitive about the 2011 Vikings, it's that they are constructed with absolutely no margin for error and few alternatives with which to juggle the momentum swings of a typical NFL game.

Through two weeks, at least, the Vikings (0-2) have been intent on controlling the ball on offense and limiting exposure for their defense. When that works, you're up 17-0 at halftime. But when the slightest issue goes awry, you're left incapable of covering for it elsewhere. To date, the Vikings haven't demonstrated a quick-strike mentality, or capability, on either side of the ball.

The Vikings are like an old-school locomotive amid a fleet of F-16's. Loaded full of coal, they can start smoothly and pick up steam on the track. Knock it ever so softly off its tracks, however, and its stuck in mud while the rest of the NFL zooms by.

"This," quarterback Donovan McNabb said, "is a game we should have won. No doubt about it."

For that to happen, however, the Vikings would have needed their low risk, low-reward approach to continue producing flawlessly. In rolling up their big first-half lead, the Vikings put together three long and time-consuming drives. Using Peterson and a passing game that almost exclusively relied on fake runs, they went 90 yards on 12 plays, 82 yards on 14 plays and 75 yards on eight plays.

McNabb threw for 153 yards in the first half, most of which came on low-risk bootlegs and screen plays. Relying on power running and a short passing game decreases your total number of possessions, placing a premium on scoring a touchdown after every drive.

The Vikings, however, had one possession stall at the Buccaneers' 4-yard line and another at their 11. A touchdown in either instance likely would have given them an insurmountable lead.

"The ability to score a touchdown in the second half really would have changed the course of the game," McNabb said.

As it turned out, however, the Bucs spread out their offense in the fourth quarter much like they did at the end of their Week 1 loss to the Detroit Lions. Over the final nine minutes and 41 seconds, they put together scoring drives of 80 and 61 yards. Receiver Aurelius Benn caught a 25-yard touchdown pass for one score, and LeGarrette Blount scored from four yards out for the winner with 31 seconds remaining.

Successful NFL teams have the capability to score an easy touchdown every now and then. The Vikings piled up 398 yards Sunday, but they never came close to scoring from outside the red zone. Peterson compiled 120 yards on 25 carries, but both of his scores came from inside the 10-yard line. The Vikings had hoped to jump to an early lead and then ride Peterson to victory, but there were too many times in the second half when just handing it to Peterson to grind out the clock wasn't good enough.

On a first-and-goal at the Bucs' 10-yard line in the fourth quarter, Peterson lost a yard. That put McNabb in an undesirable position to throw consecutive passes, both of which fell incomplete.

Later in the quarter, McNabb faced a third-and-6 from his 26-yard line. There was 4:25 left in the game, and a first down would have put the Buccaneers into timeout mode. The Vikings' play call there? A deep pass down the right sideline to reserve receiver Devin Aromashodu, who was blanketed by cornerback E.J. Biggers.

McNabb said afterward that the Vikings' performance on those key plays "is something that will be corrected." But as currently constituted, and with defenses intent on limiting Peterson's potential for a big play, the Vikings will have to be perfect to make it work. Their red-zone touchdown conversion rate was 50 percent Sunday. That's not bad. What the Vikings didn't have Sunday, nor in their Week 1 loss to the San Diego Chargers, is a player in their passing game who can get them an easy touchdown or make the critical third-and-6 catch with the game on the line.

[+] EnlargeJared Allen
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallDefensive end Jared Allen, 69, and the Vikings were unable to produce a game-changing play in the second-half against Tampa Bay.
Nor, to this point, have the Vikings had a defensive player step forward to make a game-changing play in the second half. Last week, they committed three encroachment penalties to sustain the Chargers' final possession. On the first of the Bucs' fourth-quarter scoring drives, the Vikings allowed quarterback Josh Freeman to convert two third-and-1 plays with 2-yard scrambles. On the next possession, Freeman sat in the pocket and completed seven of eight passes before Blount's game-winning romp.

We know that defensive tackle Kevin Williams was completing his two-game suspension. That left Allen, who had one sack and three quarterback hits earlier in the game, and linebacker Chad Greenway as the only potential playmakers on the field. Neither stepped up.

"I don't know what happened," Allen said. "I'm trying to find a positive word to use. I don't really have one. You look at it, and they had one big run [Blount's 27-yard score in the third quarter] and one big pass. But they kicked the crap out of us in the second half, and that sucks, because we were dominating the first half."

One big run and one big pass was all it really took to knock the Vikings of the tracks. They didn't stop playing hard. They didn't make a ton of mistakes. They just fell off the narrow wire they've given themselves to maneuver. I consider it a crisis of construction, not performance or attitude.

Scramble'11: Day 1 thoughts

July, 26, 2011
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I'm continuing to get my head around the Minnesota Vikings' reported pursuit of quarterback Donovan McNabb, which to this point qualifies as the biggest NFC North development on Day 1 of the 2011 free agent market. We've also discussed issues from Matthew Stafford's swagger to Aaron Rodgers' free agent wish list, and I'm sure there will be much more to come.

McNabb
McNabb
For now, let's review in rapid-fire fashion a number of other developments that merit comment but maybe not their own blog post:

Item: Former Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson agreed to terms with the Seattle Seahawks, where he will reunite with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell.
Comment: Someone in the Seahawks' building clearly wants someone else to win the starting job, be it Charlie Whitehurst or Matt Leinart. As much as I respect Jackson as a person, I don't see him as an NFL starter -- and neither do many other people in the league.

Item: The Vikings agreed to terms receiver Devin Aromashodu, formerly of the Chicago Bears, to a one-year contract.
Comment: Aromashodu isn't a possible replacement for Sidney Rice or even Bernard Berrian, should he be released. Aromashodu remains an intriguing big target who had a career game against the Vikings in 2009, catching seven passes for 150 yards and a game-winning touchdown. Opponents don't forget games like that.

Item: Free agent receiver Santana Moss agreed to terms with the Washington Redskins.
Comment: Send your condolences to Bears receiver Devin Hester, who publicly lobbied the team to sign Moss.

Item: The Bears have interest in free agent receiver Brad Smith, according to ESPNChicago.com's Michael C. Wright.
Comment: Smith offers a bigger look than the rest of the Bears' receivers and could also return kickoffs following the expected departure of Danieal Manning. Bring him on.

Item: The Bears want free agent linebacker Nick Roach to return as a backup, according to ESPNChicago.com's Jeff Dickerson.
Comment: That means the Bears still need a starter at strong-side linebacker. They are interested in Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Justin Durant, according to ESPNChicago.com.

Item: The Detroit Lions will release receiver Bryant Johnson, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
Comment: It wouldn't have made sense to bring Johnson to training camp after drafting Titus Young as the likely No. 3 receiver. That gives a player many of you have asked about, Derrick Williams, a fighting chance to make the team as a No. 4 receiver.

Item: The Vikings have told defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy he won't return in 2011, according to Kennedy's Twitter feed.
Comment: Cross off another candidate to start at defensive tackle if free agent Pat Williams signs elsewhere and during Kevin Williams' expected four-game suspension.

Item: The Bears are the only NFC North team to release a list of undrafted free agents they have signed.
Comment: All 26 names are published over at ESPNChicago.com for your enjoyment.

Item: And today will be better than yesterday.
Comment: That's my friend Buster Olney's signature blog sign-off. I like it.

Lovie wouldn't mind a bigger WR

March, 24, 2011
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We've spent the better part of two years discussing whether the Chicago Bears' receiving corps is sufficient or if it needs a talent influx. Most recently, we suggested the Bears aren't likely to prioritize a major acquisition via veteran free agency or the draft.

With that said, Bears coach Lovie Smith was as open as I've ever heard him about seeking a so-called "big" receiver to complement his current trio of Johnny Knox, Earl Bennett and Devin Hester. Asked about it this week at the NFL owners meeting, Smith said: "That's a fair question."

He added: "Most of our guys ... they are smaller receivers, so to have a little bit of a different flavor wouldn't be a bad idea. But as much as anything, you're trying to add a guy that can play ball. It doesn't fill your needs just adding a big guy. I thought our guys did a good job of blocking, and ... you could always make the case for having a bigger guy to block a little bit more. But it's more [being a good player] to me."

Many of you would be quick to point out the Bears have spent the past two years burying a receiver who seemingly fits the criteria. Devin Aromashodu is listed at 6-foot-2 and 201 pounds, but he doesn't appear to be a part of the Bears' future. They have signed 6-foot-4 Andy Fantuz from the CFL, but as it stands now, all of their proven receivers are shorter than 6 feet. Here are their heights as measured at the scouting combine the year they were drafted:

Johnny Knox: 5-11 1/4
Earl Bennett: 5-11 1/4
Devin Hester: 5-10 1/4

I agree with Smith in the sense that "taller" doesn't necessarily mean "better." But the so-called "go-up-and-get-it" play has become a significant part of the NFL, especially in the red zone. Having a player who can physically beat a cornerback to the ball at its highest point, or wrestle his way to a catch, is a valuable asset that can be effective as a threat even if it doesn't materialize often in reality.

Yes, the Bears can use tight end Greg Olsen in many of those situations. But the Bears don't have the kind of options the Minnesota Vikings have had with 6-foot-4 receiver Sidney Rice, or the Detroit Lions have with 6-foot-5 Calvin Johnson, or even the New York Jets with 6-foot-3 Braylon Edwards.

Rice and Edwards have expiring contracts. I'm not suggesting the Bears should pursue either one. But, if nothing else, I appreciate that Smith recognizes that type of player is missing from his roster.

How I See It: NFC North Stock Watch

October, 6, 2010
10/06/10
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Jim O'Connor/US PresswireJay Cutler had just 42 yards passing against the Giants.
1. Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears quarterback: Cutler lands quite literally in the "falling" category after taking nine sacks in the first half of last Sunday night's 17-3 loss to the New York Giants. But as we discussed Tuesday , the sack total is more the result of a perfect storm of factors than purely based on Cutler's performance. There is a sense that he could release the ball more quickly in some instances, but this is a systemic issue that requires multiple solutions.

2. Confidence in the Detroit Lions' defense: I wouldn't say this group has been overly hyped this year, but Lions coach Jim Schwartz certainly trusted it with 6 minutes, 23 seconds remaining Sunday at Lambeau Field. Instead of attempting a long field goal or playing for a first down from the Packers' 37-yard line, the Lions punted. The idea was to pin the Packers deep, get a stop and get the ball back in good field position to launch a game-winning drive. But the Lions never got the ball back because they couldn't stop one of the NFL's least-proficient running teams from milking the entire clock. At this point, the Lions' defense very much remains a work in progress.

3. Between-play creativity: The NFL has informed Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen that he can no longer go to the ground as part of his sack dance because it violates NFL rules. Allen reacted with appropriate humor, joking he would use a piece of cardboard to prevent contact with the ground. Allen has been using the same dance for a while, so it's clear that someone recently complained that the league wasn't enforcing its rules fairly. That someone has too much time on his/her hands. Let's find something important to legislate.

RISING

1. Brett Favre's heart rate: The Vikings quarterback has dreamed of playing with receiver Randy Moss for years and was deeply disappointed the Green Bay Packers didn't acquire him from the Oakland Raiders in 2007. He'll finally get his chance. The short-term possibilities are endless for this duo, both of whom will be highly motivated to make history. Ask yourself this question: When Moss burst onto the scene with a five-catch, 190-yard performance at Lambeau Field in October 1998, did you ever think he would one day team up with the opposing quarterback that night?

2. Ted Thompson's confidence: Hours after passing on the opportunity to trade for a legitimate starting tailback, the Green Bay Packers general manager had to endure the news that Moss was likely on the way to providing a jolt for a divisional rival. But as the Vikings were agreeing to give up a third-round draft pick for Moss, Thompson was refusing to do the same to acquire Buffalo Bills tailback Marshawn Lynch. I realize Thompson probably didn't know about the Moss discussions before making a decision on Lynch, but I also doubt it would have changed his mind. Ultimately, the Seattle Seahawks sent a fourth-rounder in 2011 and a conditional 2012 pick for Lynch. Independent of the Moss trade, Thompson must be awfully confident in his current backfield of Brandon Jackson, John Kuhn and Dimitri Nance to have passed up what would have been a quite reasonable deal for a 24-year-old starting-caliber runner.

3. Accountability in Chicago: It's impossible to ignore the facts. In four weeks, the Bears have benched their No. 1 cornerback (Zack Bowman), their leading Week 1 receiver (Devin Aromashodu) and one of their long-time mainstays along the defensive line (Tommie Harris). They released defensive end Mark Anderson, have instituted rotations at two offensive line positions and have made clear that, as the kids say these days, they ain't playin'. All 53 Bears players should be on notice. It will be interesting to see if this approach fuels motivated play or spirit-killing uncertainty.

Lovie Smith is 3-0 doing it his way

September, 30, 2010
9/30/10
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Lovie Smith Jerry Lai/US PresswireCoach Lovie Smith has led the Bears to a 3-0 start, and he's done it by staying true to his core philosophies, not changing them.
In the first three weeks of a win-or-else season, Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith has benched two opening-day starters. He has fined a prominent player $22,000 for missing meetings. We've seen him remove his No. 1 cornerback midway through a game. He has tried to replace one of his starting safeties, and he has overseen significant changes in his offensive and defensive schemes.

Those developments lead to a convenient explanation: With his job/career/reputation on the line, Smith has dropped all loyalties and will stop at nothing to produce a season good enough to ensure self-preservation. That was my thought Monday night after Smith made underperforming defensive tackle Tommie Harris a healthy scratch and brushed aside questions about doing the same for receiver Devin Aromashodu. During a 20-17 victory over the Green Bay Packers, Smith also replaced cornerback Zack Bowman with dime back Tim Jennings.

But how much of that answer is true? Has Smith really overhauled his approach on the way to a 3-0 start?

The reality is that, if anything, Smith has amplified his traditional and core beliefs this season. The biggest change is that Smith appears to be more forcefully demanding adherence.

Let's take a look at this issue from three perspectives -- personnel, offense and defense -- to see what we come up with.

Accountability with personnel

The Bears reacquired safety Chris Harris this spring to settle a position that has been troubled since Harris originally departed in 2007. But his injury-plagued training camp led to an admittedly horrible preseason, and by early September, rumors were already circulating that Smith was angling to push rookie Major Wright into Harris' spot. They rotated in the Sept. 12 game against the Detroit Lions, and Wright's likely ascension was halted only by a hamstring injury the following week.

[+] EnlargeTommie Harris
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhAfter Tommie Harris collected just one tackle in the first two games, he was deactivated in Week 3.
But that dynamic hardly contradicted Smith's history. As Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune points out, Smith has changed his starting safeties 43 times since taking the job in 2004. That averages out to about one change every two games. If anything, the pending Harris-Wright flip was notable for how quickly it was on track to occur.

The same goes for Tommie Harris, whose underperformance the Bears have been trying to address for three years. He has been deactivated for one game in each of the past two seasons, and this year, Smith forced him to abandon a partial practice plan aimed at preserving his knees. But after Harris managed one tackle in the first two games, Smith moved quickly to give two other players -- Matt Toeaina and Marcus Harrison -- an opportunity. The move came on the dramatic stage of "Monday Night Football," but it wasn't out of line with previous approaches. It was just a bit more aggressive.

Meanwhile, angst over Aromashodu's plight seems a bit inflated to me. It's true that he caught a team-high five passes in a Week 1 victory over the Lions, but he also dropped a touchdown pass and is hardly one of the Bears' most indispensable players. And the reality is Bowman's mediocre tackling skills weren't a good matchup for a Packers offense that shifted to a short passing game in the second quarter.

Aromashodu told reporters this week that players "walking on egg shells" won't be productive and added that coaches need to realize "you're not going to be perfect on every play." He has a point, but it's one Smith probably doesn't see much upside to. Smith has long been described as a player's coach, and while quick hooks don't go over well with the player involved, they can actually build credibility with the rest of the locker room because appropriate consequences are being applied.

That's how I would classify the decision to fine tight end Brandon Manumaleuna $22,000 over what appeared to be a misunderstanding of the Bears' regular-season meeting schedule. Similar fines occur more often than you might think, but they are usually kept private. Only an excellent job of reporting from ESPNChicago.com's Jeff Dickerson brought this one to light.

For his part, Smith told reporters this week that his philosophy has never wavered.

"We hold the players accountable on the football field," he said. "We look at what they do on the field, and we play the guys that give us the best opportunity to win. Go back over the video. That's what I've said from the start, that's what we're saying right now. Players realize that, too."

Offensive staying power

At first blush, you look at an offense coordinated by Mike Martz and quarterbacked by Jay Cutler -- the NFL's third highest-rated passer -- and marvel at the shift from Smith's affinity for the running game. Except, when you look at the numbers, you see it is actually Martz who has made a shift.

While their passing game has far outperformed their running game, it hasn't been for lack of trying. As the first chart shows, the Bears are throwing on 56.6 percent of their plays this season. That's actually a significant drop-off from last season under coordinator Ron Turner and not that much different than the two years prior to that.

It's true that the Bears were closer to a 50-50 split during their Super Bowl season of 2006, but I wonder if that ratio would have been different if they had a 2010 version of Cutler behind center.

(For the purposes of that chart, I put half of quarterback runs into the passing category in an unscientific attempt to include scrambles as passing plays.)

What's more, Martz has found a way to get the tight end involved in the passing game, another mainstay of Smith's previous teams. In fact, Greg Olsen has 10 receptions and two touchdowns already. At that pace, he'll finish with a respectable 50-catch, 10-touchdown season.

Back to the future on defense

Take a look at the second chart. After signing free-agent defensive end Julius Peppers and putting longtime Tampa-2 disciple Rod Marinelli in charge of game-day calls, the Bears have returned to the core tenet of that scheme. For the most part, they are depending on their defensive line to provide pass rush and using their other seven players in coverage.

According to ESPN's Stats & Information, the Bears are using an extra rusher on 24 percent of their defensive snaps, cutting their blitzes by about half of their frequency over the past two seasons. And while they have managed only one sack with their four-man rush, you can't argue with the results from a big-picture perspective. Quarterbacks have a 73.6 passer rating when the Bears don't blitz, the ninth lowest in the league, and have scored only one touchdown in those situations.

The Bears are 3-0 for many reasons. One of them, I think, has been Smith's adherence to his core values -- and not the discovery of a new approach.

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