Access Vikings

Matt Vensel is in his first year at the Star Tribune after covering the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun for six years. He is a Pittsburgh native and a Penn State grad. Follow him at @mattvensel.


Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.


Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.


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Vikings 4 Downs: Vikings offensive line, McKinnon's emergence, O/U Bridgewater TDs and more

Posted by: Master Tesfatsion Updated October 23rd at 12:51pm 280186782

Even with defensive end Michael Johnson and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the Bucs only have nine sacks this season. Both have missed at least a game due to injuries, and it appears Johnson is still dealing with a nagging high ankle sprain. As we’ve seen the last two weeks though, right defensive ends have had big games against the Vikings due to left tackle Matt Kalil.

As bad as the Bucs are, this will be another good test for the Vikings offensive line to get back on track against some talented defensive linemen. There’s probably more concern if center John Sullivan can’t play considering McCoy’s presence. Either way, I’d set the over/under at 3.5 sacks. …And I’d still probably take the over.

It was the second consecutive week we’ve seen Jerick McKinnon receive more snaps than Matt Asiata. McKinnon had 38 snaps, rushing for 103 yards on 19 carries, while Asiata had 26 on offense and 24 yards on six carries. At this point, I think McKinnon is the lead back given how he’s produced over the last few weeks in that role. He was the first running back to rush for over 100 yards against the Bills, who had the top ranked run defense at the time.

I think the gap will fluctuate depending on the situation, however. Asiata will likely remain as the short yardage back, and we could see more formations where both Asiata and McKinnon are in the game. I think it’s a safe bet that McKinnon will continue to receive most of the carries for the foreseeable future, and he should have another big game against a bad Bucs defense if the offensive line blocks well again.

I think it’ll be right at two touchdowns, so we’ll break even on this wager. This offense needs to have a big day against the Bucs defense, including rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. There won’t be any excuses accepted otherwise. This should be the same performance we saw from Bridgewater against the Falcons. He’s young and growing as a rookie, but he faced two really good defenses over the last two weeks. It was a learning experience, now it’s time for the rookie to take what he’s learned and go off on a bad team.

Whenever tight end Kyle Rudolph recovers from sports hernia surgery, I think he’s a good candidate to surge in the second half. The Vikings have missed his presence, even with all the drops he had through the first three games. He’s a good blocker and good option on passing downs. As we saw during the preseason, Bridgewater loves throwing to tight ends and will benefit when Rudolph returns.

Defensively, this one is tough. The unit actually isn’t playing that bad, so picking guys like linebacker Anthony Barr, defensive end Everson Griffen or safety Harrison Smith would be too easy. Instead, I’ll pick defensive end Brian Robison. With the way Griffen has performed during the first half of the season, I think offenses will target him as the focal point on the Vikings defensive line. That should give Robison more one-on-one opportunities on pass downs. He had a sack on the first drive against the Bills that was negated by Barr’s personal foul penalty, but I’d expect Robison to get in the backfield a few more times this season.

McKinnon showed improvement in pass protection

Posted by: Matt Vensel Updated October 23rd at 6:19am 280084652

When you have a conversation with Jerick McKinnon about how he feels he is playing, the topic of pass protection inevitably comes up. Since the day he was drafted, McKinnon has been acutely aware of how pass protection, or a lack thereof, would affect how often he is put out on the field.

Having played in a triple-option offense at George Southern, lining up at quarterback for much of that time, the rookie running back admitted right away that he didn’t do much pass blocking and that it was something he would need to continually work on to be trusted as a third-down back here.

Of course, the loss of Adrian Peterson meant that the Vikings would need him to be more than that.

And while McKinnon has impressed as a runner, averaging 5.1 yards per carry, and as a receiver, with 16 catches through seven games, pass protection has been an area in which he has struggled.

McKinnon was used as a pass blocker on 24 snaps this season, according to Pro Football Focus. They say he was beaten for a pair of sacks and allowed five other pressures. After crunching those numbers, Pro Football Focus concluded that McKinnon has been the league’s leakiest back in pass protection. The two sacks and seven pressures allowed both rank as the most among his peers.

The majority of those pressures came in the loss to the Lions, but McKinnon took a step in the right direction against the Bills, when he didn’t allow a single pressure in his five snaps as a pass blocker.

McKinnon’s improved performance in that area caught the eye of Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer.

“Jerick has played well. I thought he did better in pass protection last week,” Zimmer said today.

Rudolph conditioning; Sullivan out, Ducasse limited

Posted by: Master Tesfatsion Updated October 22nd at 3:51pm 280084402

Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph was present at practice for the first time since he had sports hernia surgery.

Rudolph stretched at the start of practice but did not participate. Instead, he was conditioning on the side with linebacker Gerald Hodges (hamstring), who also did not participate.

Rudolph has missed the last four weeks recovering from the surgery he needed after Week 3 against the Saints. He was scheduled to return in six weeks, and it appears Rudolph could be on track to in that time frame barring any setbacks.

Center John Sullivan (concussion) did not participated while guard Vladimir Ducasse (knee) was limited. Both were on the field during stretch, but Sullivan went back inside during the start of individual drills. Ducasse remained on the field for practice, but Joe Berger and Mike Harris received first team reps at center and right guard.

Defensive end Corey Wootton (low back) returned to practice but was one of five Vikings limited. Along with Wootton, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd (ankle), cornerback Jabari Price (hamstring) and safety Antone Exum Jr. (ankle) were limited.

The Vikings also removed linebacker Chad Greenway from the injury report. He returned to action against the Bills on Sunday, recovering from a rib/hand injury.

Lovie Smith to Tampa 2 doubters: They 'don't know what they're talking about'

Posted by: Mark Craig Updated October 22nd at 1:04pm 280080122

Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith doesn’t take kindly to hearing people bring up the popular belief that the Tampa 2-based defense is outdated and can’t win in today’s NFL, where quarterbacks are more accurate than ever.

“I’ve been doing this defense since 1996 and whoever says that doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” Smith said on a conference all earlier today. “So I’m not even going to try to get into defending it.

“When people say [that about] the Tampa 2, it’s more than the Tampa 2. You play Cover 2, but it’s just a small part of what we do. Every team in the league plays some form of Cover 2. When it’s described that way and how it can’t work, Cover 2 has been around since the beginning of time and it’s not going anywhere.”

The Bucs are 1-5 heading into Sunday’s game against the 2-5 Vikings. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, the former Vikings head coach and fellow Tampa 2 supporter, is struggling in the conversion to the Tampa 2. The Bucs rank last in yards allowed (422.8) and points allowed (34.0) per game.

Asked what led him to hiring Frazier, Smith said, “First off, we’re trying to win games. We’re trying to put together the best staff I possibly could. The year that I was off, I didn’t plan on having the opportunity to hire Leslie. But when he was available, I’ve known him a long time, I’ve competed against his teams for a long time. It was a natural fit. We both see things in a similar way. I couldn’t be happier to have him on my staff.

“For Leslie, I just thought he was a good football coach and would be great influencing out young men. And that’s how it’s been.”

Bucs DE Johnson's one word for Zimmer: 'Tough'

Posted by: Mark Craig Updated October 22nd at 1:09pm 280075332

Defensive end Michael Johnson left Cincinnati and signed with Tampa Bay within an hour of the start of free agency seven months ago. But he admits there was a part of him that wanted to follow his “father figure,” Mike Zimmer, from his defensive coordinator stint in Cincinnati to his first head coaching job in Minnesota.

“Of course,” Johnson said today. “I came into the league under Coach Zimmer. I learned a lot under him. He’s a great coach and a great, great guy. It was a pleasure playing under him.

“That Bengals team last year, there’s been a lot of different changes and people went in different directions. Zim talked about that, saying that’s what happens when teams develop and win. Everybody gets an opportunity to continue on. That’s what happened with me and that’s what happened with him. I’m glad he got his shot. I know he’s going to do great things up there.”

Johnson got a five-year, $43.8 million deal with $24 million guaranteed to join the Bucs. He was one of several shiny new pieces that were added to a team that was widely considered to be the winner of this year’s free agency period.

Unfortunately for Johnson and the Bucs, the bottom line on the field has been a 1-5 record heading into Sunday’s home game against the 2-5 Vikings.

Johnson said he’s used some of Zimmer’s words of wisdom to help him get through the rough start. Asked to describe Zimmer in one word, Johnson didn’t hesitate.

“Tough,” he said.

“The way he approached things. We had a bad year my second year. But he always said it doesn’t matter what was going on. He’d say, `Tough times don’t last, tough people do.’ That was his mentality. These first six games here have been tough times down here. So tough times don’t last but tough people do. I’ve taken that with me from Cincinnati. I try to apply that not only in football but life as well.”

The 6-7, 260-pound defensive end was a third-round pick of the Bengals in 2009. Later that season is when Zimmer’s wife Vikki died unexpectedly at age 50. Although it came during the season, Zimmer still coached and helped the Bengals beat the Ravens.

“He went through that tough situation up there and handled it better than I would ever imagine anybody handling it,” Johnson said. “Just watching him and how he always was professional and came into work every day, trying to get the best out of you every day, that really rubbed off on all of us.

“e’s a great coach and a great man. He’s like a father figure to a lot of us up there. And the guys on offense will tell you the same thing. They weren’t working directly with him, but everybody likes Zim. He was straight up. He can be hard on you, but he was like that with everybody. You respect that about him. Guys are always going to play hard for him because you don’t ever want to let him down. You don’t want to let Zim down.”

Johnson’s new defensive coordinator is Leslie Frazier, Zimmer’s predecessor in Minnesota. Asked to describe Frazier in one word, Johnson was stumped.

“I’m still getting to know Coach Frazier so I don’t know if I can just put a word out there just yet that would describe him,” Johnson said. “You’re talking about five years with Coach Zim to get one word. I’ve barely had five months with Coach Frazier.

“But he’s cool. Coach Frazier, he’s a Southern guy as well. He’s a little more laid back. But he’s also a realist. He’ll tell you how it is as well. And he’s very positive. Always positive and believes in guys. You can feel that. So in the same sense, with him the way he believes in us, it makes us want to go out there and not let him down also. It’s been kind of frustrating because I want to be better and I want us to be better because Leslie is a good dude, man. We owe him more than we’ve been about to give him so far. But we’re going to get it going. We have a new start coming off the bye this week.”

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