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.
Once quarterback Matt Cassel was placed on injured reserve three games into the year, the Vikings season was mainly about the growth of rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and how he adjusted to the NFL.
He jumped into the mix faster than anticipated with Cassel’s foot injury, but Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer is saying that Bridgewater’s on-the-job training will benefit the quarterback, the offense and the organization down the road.
“I really think you learn best from playing,” Zimmer said. “That’s what I believe, and I’m glad that he’s playing. …What I was nervous about at the beginning of the year was I didn’t want to get him beat up, I didn’t want to get him gun-shy, I didn’t want to get him a bunch of bad outings where he didn’t have the confidence and that attitude that he was going to do the things that he’s doing.”
Another concern Zimmer had with Bridgewater making his first start four games into his career was his health. The Vikings have gradually lost three starting offensive linemen and shuffled around at every position except left tackle Matt Kalil, who has been inconsistent, and center John Sullivan.
Bridgewater is tied with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the eighth most sacks taken in the NFL this season with 32. Zimmer believes the protection has improved as of late with Bridgewater sacked a combined six times against a good Jets and Lions defensive line.
“I’m glad that we’re keeping him upright,” Zimmer said. “You can think back, and I know it’s just my belief, you think back on some of the quarterbacks that have had to play as rookies or been playing as rookies and got the heck beat out of them and they haven’t made it. So that was the most important thing to me to start this season is that we take care of him and when it’s time, it’s time.”
It’s evident Bridgewater has made gradual strides over the course of this season, with many learning experiences along the way in 10 career starts. The latest occurred in a 16-14 loss to the Lions at Ford Field on Sunday, when the Vikings offense couldn’t score in the second half and missed out on two opportunities in the final four minutes to take the lead.
“I think in the long run his playing and going through all these experiences and getting a chance to play against Green Bay, Chicago and Detroit will be a big factor for us in the future because he’s been through these things now,” Zimmer said. “It’s not new. If he wasn’t playing, that fourth quarter[against the Lions], the things that happened in the ballgame, maybe next year we’re in the same boat and he’s learning from it then as opposed to learning from it now.”
Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil had one the worst games in his career the first time he faced Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah this season. His performance improved dramatically the second time around in the 16-14 loss at Ford Field on Sunday.
Ansah was held sackless for the first time in three games. Kalil held his own with the Vikings offense neutralizing the Lions pass rush by rolling rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater out of the pocket and incorporating quick passes.
Ansah had a career high 2.5 sacks on Kalil at TCF Bank Stadium in the first contest. He had just a tackle to his name in the stats sheet.
“That was his only stat, so I think I came out of there pretty well,” Kalil said. “He’s a pretty raw player, and he hasn’t even tapped his potential, so I’ll be seeing a lot of him. To play well against him, coming out on top like that, felt pretty good.”
The Vikings reduced their sack total in half in their second, and final, matchup against the Lions. They allowed four sacks with three backup offensive linemen at left guard, Vladimir Ducasse, right guard, Joe Berger, and right tackle, Mike Harris.
“They do a lot of stuff and sometimes they’ll stress the pocket,” Kalil said. “[Ndamukong] Suh was on his game too making some plays, but it’s just different things to help keep those guys off balance.”
Outside linebacker Chad Greenway is a finalist for the inaugural NFL Sportsmanship Award.
Each NFL team nominated one of its players for consideration for the award and a panel of former players from the NFL Legends Community, including Warrick Dunn and Curtis Martin, pared down the field from 32 players to eight. The winner will be determined by a vote from current players.
Competing with Greenway for the new award are Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, Patriots receiver Matthew Slater, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith and Broncos defense end Demarcus Ware.
The winner will be announced during the NFL Honors awards ceremony the night before the Super Bowl, and he will receive a $25,000 donation from the NFL Foundation to the charity of his choice.
Thoughts while counting snaps from Sunday’s 16-14 loss to the Lions at Ford Field …
OFFENSIVE SNAPS: 69.
QUARTERBACK: Teddy Bridgewater 69, Christian Ponder DNP.
Thoughts: Norv Turner’s game plan and Bridgewater’s execution was perfect for a loud road venue against a vicious pass rush that the Vikings’ rag-tag offensive line had no chance of matching up with physically. The heavy dose of five-wide sets out of the shotgun spread the Lions out and enabled Bridgewater to fire quick slants and screens to nullify the pass rush. Turner also threw in the right amount of plays in which he moved the pocket and rolled Bridgewater away from the blind side. Things were going brilliantly when the Vikings led 14-0 on two long scoring drives before the Lions registered a first down. But then the inevitable rookie moment arrived when Bridgewater let the Lions back into the game by handing them 10 points on interceptions on back-to-back passes. But, overall, as a learning experience, this was a good game for Bridgewater’s development.
OFFENSIVE LINE: LT Matt Kalil 69, LG Vladimir Ducasse 69, C John Sullivan 69, RG Joe Berger, RT Mike Harris 69, Austin Wentworth 2, T Carter Bykowski INA, G David Yankey INA, G Charlie Johnson INA.
Thoughts: Turner did an outstanding job protecting a beat-up line that, even when healthy, can’t match up to the best D-line in football. There were leaks in the line and Bridgewater was sacked four times. But the line held together well enough to win the game with how well the defensive was playing. When the Vikings hold Detroit to 33 points in two games and go 0-2, it’s a pretty good indication of where the offseason priorities will be this year.
RECEIVERS, TIGHT ENDS: WR Greg Jennings 65, WR Charles Johnson 64, TE Kyle Rudolph 61, WR Jarius Wright 44, TE Rhett Ellison 24, WR Cordarrelle Patterson 8, TE Chase Ford 2.
Thoughts: The Vikings’ offensive roster seems discombobulated with a rookie guard (David Yankee) being essentially red-shirted, a backup fullback always being inactive behind a fullback who rarely sees the field, a receiver (Patterson) who has played only 11 offensive snaps the past three weeks and a tight end (Ford) who has played only two snaps in the past two weeks. Patterson was a surprise factor in a late fourth-quarter possession, catching back-to-back passes after a long kickoff return. That was nice to see. Bridgewater also threw to him on a fourth-down incompletion that was tightly defended.
RUNNING BACKS: RB Matt Asiata 45, RB Ben Tate 13, RB Joe Banyard 11, FB Jerome Felton 3, Line INA.
Thoughts: Asiata gained only 36 yards on 11 carries, but he wasn’t tackled for a loss, which is essential to maintaining a semblance of balance against the Lions, which the Vikings did for three quarters. Tate got three fourth-quarter carries and lost yardage on two of them. One of them was a first-and-goal from the 7. One has to question why Asiata didn’t get that carry, since his strength gets stronger the closer he gets to the goal line. Felton playing only three snaps and continuing a trend of not playing much really raises the question of why the Vikings have two fullbacks, one of which (Line) has been inactive for 10 games, on the practice squad for three and not with the team for one.
DEFENSIVE SNAPS: 51.
LINEBACKERS: Gerald Hodges 51, Chad Greenway 51, Jasper Brinkley 17, Anthony Barr INA.
Thoughts: Playing every snap for the third straight week, Greenway had five tackles. If the game-book stats hold up, which they rarely do for tackles, Greenway’s team lead shrank by one. Safety Harrison Smith had six tackles, moving past the injured Robert Blanton into second with 107. Greenway has 110. Hodges played every snap for the second straight week as he filled in for the injured Barr. Also of note: Rookie Brandon Watts was active for the first time this season. That leaves Yankey as the only player to be inactive for every game day this season.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: FS Harrison Smith 51, CB Captain Munnerlyn 51, CB Xavier Rhodes 48, SS Andrew Sendejo 43, CB Josh Robinson 35, S Antone Exum 8, CB Shaun Prater 1, SS Robert Blanton INA.
Thoughts: Rhodes played well in his debut as a corner assigned to cover one particular receiver out wide on both the left and right sides of the defense. Really well considering it was Calvin Johnson. Munnerlyn no doubt played a role in holding the Lions without a first down until midway through the second quarter. But the veteran corner didn’t appear on the stat sheet. Prater came in one one particularly interesting third-and-long defensive call. The alignment and extra DBs took away QB Matthew Stafford’s deep to intermediate options and led to a receiver being tackled short of the first down. Blanton missed his first game of the season. He had played all but four snaps all season.
DEFENSIVE LINE: DE Everson Griffen 46, DE Brian Robison 46, NT Linval Joseph 40, NT Shamar Stephen 29, DT Tom Johnson, DE Corey Wootton 12, DE Justin Trattou 6, DT Sharrif Floyd INA.
Thoughts: Griffen continues to play a lot of snaps at a high level. Johnson got a start in place of Floyd, who was finally held out because of the lingering knee bruise he’s had. Trattou played only six snaps but had one of the team’s four quarterback hurries.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Most snaps: 16, Trattou.
MOST SNAPS: 74. Kalil, Ducasse, Sullivan, Berger, Harris (69 offense, 5 special teams).
Every weekday, our Vikings reporters walk you through what’s happening with the team that day.
WHAT YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED
— The Vikings couldn’t hold on yesterday in a late loss to the first-place Lions.
— QB Teddy Bridgewater learned the slim margin between victory and defeat.
— K Blair Walsh missed all three field goal attempts, but he remains confident.
— CB Xavier Rhodes did a good job against Lions star WR Calvin Johnson.
— DE Brian Robison injured his ankle but he hopes to practice this week.
— Little-used WR Cordarrelle Patterson got opportunities late in the loss.
TWEET OF THE (YESTER)DAY
Haven’t seen a Viking cornerback in shutdown mode like Xavier Rhodes today on Calvin Johnson since Carl Lee back in the day! #KeepFighting
— Greg Coleman (@gregcoleman8) December 15, 2014
BEHIND ENEMY LINES
— Lions G Rob Sims said his team got lucky against the Vikings.
— The real season now starts for the playoff-minded Lions.
— A showdown with the Packers looms for the Lions in two weeks.
— The Lions will go as far as their defense can take them.
TODAY’S VIKINGS SCHEDULE
Vikings players will report to Winter Park this morning for meetings and film review. The locker room will be open to media at 12:30 p.m. and coach Mike Zimmer’s press conference is at 2 p.m.
SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT
The Vikings’ last four losses have been by a combined 14 points, and three of them were decided by three points or less. Yesterday’s two-point loss had players lamenting another incomplete finish, but the Vikings have won some close games the past couple of months, too. Three of their last four victories were decided by six points or less, including a pair of walk-off wins in overtime.
|Tennessee||12/18/14 7:25 PM|
|Philadelphia||12/20/14 3:30 PM|
|San Diego||12/20/14 7:25 PM|
|Minnesota||12/21/14 12:00 PM|
|Baltimore||12/21/14 12:00 PM|
|Detroit||12/21/14 12:00 PM|
|Cleveland||12/21/14 12:00 PM|
|Atlanta||12/21/14 12:00 PM|
|Green Bay||12/21/14 12:00 PM|
|Kansas City||12/21/14 12:00 PM|
|New England||12/21/14 12:00 PM|
|NY Giants||12/21/14 3:05 PM|
|Buffalo||12/21/14 3:25 PM|
|Indianapolis||12/21/14 3:25 PM|
|Seattle||12/21/14 7:30 PM|
|Denver||12/22/14 7:30 PM|
|Delaware State||3:00 PM|
|James Madison||6:00 PM|
|SIU Edwardsville||6:00 PM|
|St Francis-PA||6:00 PM|
|North Florida||6:00 PM|
|Arkansas State||6:00 PM|
|NC A&T||6:00 PM|
|Robert Morris||6:00 PM|
|Char Southern||6:00 PM|
|Kennesaw St||6:00 PM|
|TX A&M-CC||7:00 PM|
|Ark-Pine Bluff||7:00 PM|
|UT Martin||7:00 PM|
|Abilene Christian||7:00 PM|
|USC Upstate||7:00 PM|
|Alcorn State||7:00 PM|
|Central Mich||7:00 PM|
|Georgia State||7:00 PM|
|TX-Pan American||7:00 PM|
|Texas State||7:00 PM|
|Stephen F Austin|
|SC State||7:00 PM|
|Missouri State||7:00 PM|
|Chicago State||7:00 PM|
|Morehead State||7:00 PM|
|Northern Colorado||7:00 PM|
|New Mexico St||8:00 PM|
|San Diego St||8:00 PM|
|Eastern Mich||8:00 PM|
|Loyola Marymount||8:00 PM|
|Incarnate Word||8:00 PM|
|Central Arkansas||9:00 PM|
|Grambling St||10:00 PM|
|Nevada||12/20/14 10:00 AM|
|Utah State||12/20/14 1:20 PM|
|(23) Utah||12/20/14 2:30 PM|
|Western Mich||12/20/14 4:45 PM|
|South Alabama||12/20/14 8:15 PM|
|BYU||12/22/14 1:00 PM|
|Marshall||12/23/14 5:00 PM|
|Navy||12/23/14 8:30 PM|
|San Diego St|
|Central Mich||12/24/14 11:00 AM|
|Fresno State||12/24/14 7:00 PM|
|(21) Miss State||66||FINAL|
|(7) Stanford||5:00 PM|
|Florida A&M||5:30 PM|
|Savannah State||5:30 PM|
|Northern Colorado||6:00 PM|
|Youngstown St||6:00 PM|
|(1) South Carolina||6:00 PM|
|Fla Gulf Coast||6:00 PM|
|Texas Southern||6:00 PM|
|NC A&T||6:00 PM|
|NC Central||6:00 PM|
|Alabama State||6:00 PM|
|Morehead St||6:00 PM|
|Arkansas State||6:00 PM|
|American Univ||6:00 PM|
|UNC Greensboro||6:00 PM|
|Prairie View||6:30 PM|
|Sam Houston St|
|McNeese State||7:00 PM|
|Eastern Kentucky||7:00 PM|
|North Texas||9:00 PM|