EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Coach Leslie Frazier and the Minnesota Vikings knew they would have their off week to recover from playing in London on Sunday as teams get the chance to returning from the international series games and have a bye week afterward to recover emotionally and physically.
Frazier didn’t know his team would be sitting at 1-3 following Sunday’s win against the Pittsburgh Steelers in London. Most NFL teams prefer later byes such as last season when Minnesota’s break came in Week 11. Frazier certainly had higher hopes for his team through the first quarter of the season.
There was some late hesitation on how to approach the bye week, Frazier said. But he stuck with his original plan to give players the entire week off after returning from London on Monday, and return next week with a refreshed outlook.
“I think it’s important that our players get a chance to get away, take their minds off things a little bit and also physically get re-engaged from a physical standpoint as well,” Frazier said Tuesday, as players scattered to enjoy the off week. “So I think it’s the right decision. We’ll come back on Monday and get started on our next opponent. We’ll introduce them to a short degree and then come back in earnest on Wednesday and start preparing. But the time away, along with the London trip and what we’ve experienced these first four weeks, we felt it was the right decision. Time will tell.”
The Vikings have some injury considerations they hope to have resolved with the week off, particularly cornerback Chris Cook, safety Jamarca Sanford and quarterback Christian Ponder.
Four games in, Frazier isn’t worrying about the timing of the bye and is concentrating on assessing his team’s performance and making the necessary changes before returning to play in Week 6 at home against the Carolina Panthers.
“This is where we are, so we’re going to take advantage of this bye week and try to use it the right way,” Frazier said. “As coaches, we’re going to do a self-analysis of these first four weeks, try to learn about our football team and where we are, review our personnel and try to come out of this a better football team than we were going into the bye. This is our chance for us to look back at these first four weeks as a staff and try to improve.”
Frazier and his coaches will be looking at performance that has been strong at times, but has struggled in too many key areas and important times:
PASS OFFENSE: D
What went right: Frankly, not much. Minnesota has had more big plays in the passing game through four weeks than would have been expected. Jerome Simpson has provided many of those big plays, looking nothing like the injured, ineffective receiver he was most of last season. His revival has highlighted an overall solid performance from the revamped receiving corps. Simpson has team-highs with 19 catches for 342 yards and his 18.0 yards-per-catch average is tied for fourth in the NFL.
Greg Jennings didn’t do much in his first few games, but came through big last week with quarterback Matt Cassel, scoring two touchdowns including a short catch that Jennings took 70 yards for a touchdown. Jennings, because of last week’s big plays, has equaled Simpson’s 18.0-yard average per catch. He has 14 catches for 252 yards. Rookie Cordarrelle Patterson hasn’t shown any delay in his development, coming up with a few big plays in his limited chances. He has six catches for 82 yards.
What went wrong: Other than a quarterback controversy? The coaches aren’t opening up the possibility of a controversy, but performance and the fans show a different side. Christian Ponder is the chosen starter and Minnesota has stuck with him despite more inconsistencies and a strong game from Cassel last week. The Vikings are tied for fourth in the league with 10 turnovers, five interceptions and five lost fumbles.
Ponder, in his third year as the starter now, just isn’t showing signs of developing into a franchise quarterback and doesn’t appear to have improved in reading defenses or making quick, good decisions. Ponder started the Vikings’ first three games — all losses — and had seven turnovers. He’s 31st in the league in quarterback rating (65.9 rating), 21st in completion percentage (59 percent), 27th in yards (691 yards), tied for 29th in touchdown passes (two touchdowns) and tied for 25th in interceptions (five interceptions). Ponder’s best asset has been his legs, running 15 times for 76 yards and two touchdowns.
All Cassel did was come in relief of Ponder last week and lead the Vikings to their first win. He got the receivers involved — Jennings’ two touchdowns were the first by a Minnesota receiver this season — and was decisive and got the ball out quickly. Frazier has maintained Ponder is still the team’s No. 1 quarterback, but his fractured rib could mean Cassel draws another start when Minnesota plays next week.
Tight end Kyle Rudolph is coming off a Pro Bowl MVP performance and he’s been largely absent in the passing game. He has 12 catches for 103 yards. Known for his good hands, he even has dropped a few passes this season. After scoring nine touchdowns last year, he has one this year.
What the Vikings could change: The biggest change will be their decision at quarterback. Cassel deserves another start after the way he came in last week and took control of the offense, which put up season-highs in points and yards. The Vikings are fifth in the league in scoring this season, thanks in part to an takeaway-prone defense, so the biggest issues haven’t been offensively. But Cassel provided a true spark last week. The team wants to evaluate, once and for all, what it has in Ponder, but if there is any hope to recover from losing the season’s first three games, Cassel might be the guy that needs to do it.
While the receivers had fared well, Patterson needs to be more involved. Minnesota can use him in many of the similar ways it used Percy Harvin, manufacturing ways to get the ball in his hands by throwing bubble screens, maybe quick slants, end-arounds, running the ball out of the backfield and sending him deep down the field to offer another threat. The Vikings also need to get more out of Rudolph, particularly in the red zone.
RUN OFFENSE: B
What went right: Big plays have still been a calling card for running back Adrian Peterson. He had two touchdowns of 60 yards or more in the first four games. Otherwise, it had been a tough go for Peterson until last week. This season has truly demonstrated Peterson’s “famine-famine-feast” mentality and the need to keep giving the ball to the MVP back.
Minnesota did get Pro Bowl fullback Jerome Felton back from suspension last week and had its best day of the year running the ball. Peterson had a 60-yard touchdown run and finished with 140 yards rushing vs. the Steelers. Peterson might be far off the pace for his goal of 2,500 rushing yards, but he now ranks second in the league with 421 yards, 47 behind Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy. Peterson also has 11 catches and six total touchdowns.
What went wrong: Until last week, the yards and holes Peterson enjoyed last season in his MVP campaign just weren’t there. Peterson also said he wasn’t patient enough and tried to break many runs for big gains instead of taking what the defense had given him. He took his first carry of the year for 78 yards, but had averaged 2.99 yards per carry on his next 68 runs. Last year he averaged 6.0 yards per carry. Defenses continued to focus on stopping Peterson and the passing offense couldn’t take advantage. Teams swarmed Peterson seemingly as soon as he took the handoff. With Felton and improved offensive line, play, things improved last week and he is up to 4.6 yards per carry this year.
What the Vikings could change: Getting Felton back was the big change. Undrafted rookie fullback Zach Line just wasn’t the same blocker as Felton and tight end Rhett Ellison was limited with an injury. There aren’t many more changes Minnesota could make. The Vikings likely won’t make changes along the offense line, instead hoping the group that has been together for 20 regular-season starts improves. An improved passing game could free up the rushing attack a bit.
PASS DEFENSE: F
What went right: Turnovers is the one area in which the Vikings’ defense can hang their hat through the first quarter of the season. Only three teams have allowed more yards and points per game than Minnesota this season. The Vikings have allowed 430.8 total yards per game.
Minnesota has seven interceptions this season, the third-highest total in the league. Safety Harrison Smith and linebackers Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson each have two interceptions. Defensive tackle Kevin Williams has the other and the Vikings have done a good job tipping passes at the line of scrimmage. Two of the interceptions have come on tipped passes. In all, Minnesota is third in the league with 12 takeaways on defense and Smith is turning into a legitimate star at safety.
What went wrong: Pretty much anything imaginable, other than the creating turnovers. The Vikings are last in the league giving up 326.0 passing yards per game. Cornerback Chris Cook suffered yet another injury and second-year cornerback Josh Robinson, has struggled mightily in his first season as a starter. According to Pro Football Focus rankings, Robinson has been one of the worst cornerbacks in the entire league in pass coverage.
Safety Jamarca Sanford missed last week’s game with an injury and had his troubles before the injury after a promising 2012 season. Minnesota’s depth in the secondary seems to be an issue every season with key players seemingly always being injured. It’s no different this year.
The pass rush has also been inconsistent before last week’s five-sack game against Pittsburgh. The struggling secondary needs the defensive line to apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks to be successful. Jared Allen has 3 1/2 sacks after getting 2 1/2 in last week’s game. Brian Robison and Everson Griffen each have one sack.
What the Vikings could change: Health would be a welcome change. Sanford had his struggles, but also showed last season he can be a competent starter at safety, and Minnesota doesn’t have much behind him. Mistral Raymond hasn’t taken advantage of his chances and Andrew Sendejo is best known for his special teams work. Cook’s ability has never been in question. His ability to stay on the field has. Cook and Sanford could be ready to return after the bye. The Vikings could also use rookie Xavier Rhodes more. Rhodes has been solid in his first four games, but the team is trying not to put too much on his shoulders. Marcus Sherels deserves more playing time when Cook returns too after his strong play the past two weeks. And, yes, there’s always the chance Minnesota decides it needs to work out something with free agent Antoine Winfield, depending on if Winfield wants a return.
RUN DEFENSE: C
What went right: Overall, the run defense ranks 13th in the league, giving up 104.8 yards per game. Yet, the run defense has progressively gotten better after being gashed early. The Vikings allowed 103 rushing yards to the Cleveland Browns in Week 3, but the leading rusher was rookie defensive back Josh Aubrey going 34 yards on a fake punt. Receiver Josh Gordon added 22 yards on an end around. Cleveland’s top running back had just 23 yards. Last week, Pittsburgh rookie Le’Veon Bell had two touchdowns, but just 57 yards on 16 carries.
Getting defensive tackle Kevin Williams back after he missed the first game with an injury was a big key. The tackling has gotten a bit better the past few weeks too, with Smith coming up in run support and Greenway and Henderson being better at linebacker than the first two weeks.
What went wrong: Detroit, with Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, exposed the run game in the first week of the season, rushing for 112 total yards with Kevin Williams out. The second week, Chicago’s Matt Forte had 20 carries for 88 yards, but receiver Alshon Jeffery added 38 yards on an end-around.
The holes, particularly in the middle of the defense, were big in the first week against Bush. Henderson, playing as the every-down middle linebacker for the first time in his career, struggled early.
What the Vikings could change: Improved play from the linebackers will be important. Desmond Bishop has been worked in slowly in his first few games with Minnesota and he could start to earn more of a role in the base defense, even as little as the Vikings are left to play base defense. Bishop did play more snaps than Marvin Mitchell as the weakside linebacker last week, though Mitchell still started. Bishop continues to show well when he’s been on the field. Minnesota needs to find a way to utilize him a bit more as the season progresses. Health is the key for Bishop and he’s proven he’s healthy. A veteran, he’s able to diagnose plays and seems to be a player who stands out more in games than in practices.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C
What went right: Blair Walsh is still a dynamo. He has remained perfect in his NFL career from 50 yards or more, connecting twice from deep this year and has only missed one field goal. He’s also tied for eighth in the league with eight touchbacks. Rookie punter Jeff Locke has been a bit inconsistent, but he does rank 10th in the NFL with a 41.7-yard net average.
Patterson has been everything Minnesota had hoped as a kickoff returner. He is second in the league with a 33.8-yard average on returns and has one touchdown, a 105-yarder. He has unique skills and a confidence to bring the ball out from deep. Maybe most impressively, coaches don’t mind him taking the ball out from even eight or nine yards deep in the end zone. Sherels, the punt returner, hasn’t had many chances with just four returns for eight yards in the four games.
What went wrong: The biggest special teams concern for Minnesota and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer has been the work on the coverage units. Devin Hester had kickoff returns for 249 yards iin the second week of the season. The coverge units have had their issues at times the past two seasons, but overall have done a decent job most of the time. Improvement should be expected going forward.
What the Vikings could change: The injuries to the secondary sometimes hamstrings Priefer and the coverage units. Ellison is also a special teams player and has missed the past two games. Minnesota has given rookie linebackers Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges the chance on special teams the past couple weeks and both could provide a spark with energy over the season’s final weeks.
The failures in the first quarter of the season come down to three aspects: turnovers, late-game offense and defense. Minnesota has been better in taking the ball away than in recent seasons, but have given the ball to opponents its own turnovers too many times. The takeaways have led to some short fields for the offense, but the defense has also been on its heels.
The offense has scored points, but more efficiency — and better overall play on third-downs — could go a long way to bailing out the defense. The defense collapsed in late two-minutes situations in the losses to Chicago and Cleveland. The Vikings had the lead in the final minute in both games before losing.
The decision at quarterback, even with improvement needed across the board, could define the final three-quarters of the season for Minnesota and maybe the security of the coaching staff.