Wednesday, August 27, 2014

NFC North Preview

The 2014 NFL regular season is approaching quickly and the question us Minnesota fans are asking is, "Where do the Vikings stand?"

It's a fair question as the Vikings have some question marks on the field, though the rest of the division is similar. The NFC North seems to be fairly wide open, with the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, and Green Bay Packers all finishing with nearly identical records in 2013, though the Packers were the only team of the three to make the playoffs. Minnesota was in the cellar of the NFC North with a 5-10-1 record and a scary 0-7-1 on the road. It wasn't a great season for any of the NFC North teams, so what can we expect this season?

Though appearing to be a wide open division, the Packers look to be the favorite. As three-time defending division champions, Green Bay will look to defend their crown after an 8-7-1 season, and have plenty of weapons to accomplish it. Despite being a pass first team, the absence of Aaron Rodgers last season saw the emergence of a rookie superstar in the backfield. Running back Eddie Lacy topped 1,400 yards last season on his way to becoming Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Aaron Rodgers returns healthy, which believe it or not could actually make Green Bay a Super Bowl threat. Rodgers has Lacy behind him to go along with Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb at receiver for a potent offense. The Packers defense is going to be shaken up a bit which could also mean trouble for opposing teams.

The move of Julius Peppers from defensive end to linebacker is interesting and could be a huge help for the Pack. 2014 first round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix should be an impact player in his rookie season at safety, also aiding a stingy defense.

The biggest challenge for the Pack may be Chicago. An 8-8 record is nothing to brag about, but the Bears finished second in the league in points scored, and that was with starting quarterback Jay Cutler injured. The problem for the Bears was they had the worst run defense in the NFL last season, though the additions of Jared Allen from the Vikings and Kyle Fuller from this year's draft could certainly help.

Expect the Bears to have one of the best offenses in the league again this season, as Jay Cutler is healthy and all of his weapons are back too. With one of the best running backs in the league behind him in Matt Forte, the running game is taken care of. But down field Cutler has a dynamic duo in Pro Bowl receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. If their players stay healthy, I think at worst the Bears are a wild card team, but certainly have a chance at dethroning Green Bay as divisional champions.

A possible dark horse flying under the radar is Detroit. They have the tools to be an elite offensive power in the division, though quarterback Matt Stafford can't find his niche. Stafford's play can look brilliant at times, but he also can look like a lost rookie. Finding consistency will be the key to Stafford's success. Behind Stafford is running back Reggie Bush, who seemed to find his place in Detroit last season.  And you can't forget about the receivers. Calvin Johnson has prove himself as one of the best receivers in the game, and now has Golden Tate to take some of the load off his back.

The Lions finished pretty much middle of the pack in the NFL in both offensive and defensive statistics in 2013, so they could just as easily fall down the ladder as they could climb it. If their offense can find some consistency, they could be in the hunt for the NFC North.

Minnesota is the team most people are probably counting out, but they could find themselves in the mix. Last season's quarterback situation was a disaster that has finally been figured out. Veteran Matt Cassel will take the snaps to begin the season, which seems like the best option. Although rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has looked great in preseason, Cassel has the experience and though not an elite quarterback, has enough talent to get the job done.

The best running back in football today, and one of the greats of all time, belongs to the Vikings. Adrian Peterson can be expected to have another incredible season, but at a certain point Minnesota needs to stop relying on him for all their offense. With Cassel behind center and an emerging star at receiver in Cordarrelle Patterson to go along with veteran Greg Jennings, the Vikings should see improvements.

Their defense is the question mark, where they were the worst in the NFL last season. Jared Allen is gone to Chicago, but 2014 first round pick Anthony Barr as looked capable in preseason. Harrison Smith being healthy is also huge for the Vikings' defense.

The NFC North will likely see Detroit and Minnesota try and battle their way into the discussion for the top two spots in the division, but Chicago and Green Bay appear on paper to be too strong and it may be a two-horse race for the crown. With only a week until the start of the regular season, get ready for a wild ride in the NFL this season.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Vikings defensive line going through some renovations

The Minnesota Vikings had one of the worst defenses in the NFL during the 2013 season. They finished in the bottom two of the league in points against and yards against. Though there is reason to be optimistic. With new defensive coordinator George Edwards coming in to shake things up, and the players returning, there’s no reason the Vikings defense shouldn’t make big strides this season.

The loss of Jared Allen at defensive end hurts, but Minnesota should still be okay with what they have.
Brian Robison and Everson Griffin return on defensive end with 64 tackles and 14.5 sacks between the two in 2013. It seems likely that these will be the guys playing the majority of snaps on the ends. From there, it looks like there might be a variety of players splitting time among each other.

Linval Joseph comes to Minnesota from the New York Giants. The 6’4”, 323 lb. defensive tackle brings monstrous size to the line and some good experience. Joseph had 33 tackles in 2013 to go along with a fumble recovery and three sacks. He was a starter for the Giants in the past three seasons, so expect to see him on the line when the season opener at Detroit comes around.

On the other side, it looks like Sharrif Floyd and Fred Evans will likely split time at defensive tackle. In 2013, Floyd and Evans combined for two forced fumbles, 25 tackles, and 2.5 sacks. Neither would be a clear favorite to start, but both are capable of getting the job done. Some of the new guys in the room will give these five a run for their money, though.

Corey Wootton comes to the Vikings as a free agent from the Chicago Bears. At 6’6”, he’s got tremendous height for a defensive end and boasts some impressive stats. Last season, Wootton had 28 tackles, three sacks, two fumble recoveries, and five blocked passes. For a team that gave up the second most pass yards in the NFL last season, he could definitely be an asset.

The rest of the depth chart is quite uncertain at this point. Defensive end Tom Johnson from the New Orleans Saints brings four years of NFL experience to the table, and recorded two sacks last season. He could challenge for reps, though as an end, he has some pretty good players ahead of him. 2014 draft picks Scott Crichton and Shamar Stephen both bring some size to the roster, but their youth may limit their reps during their rookie season.

Edwards believes there will be improvements in the Vikings defensive line now that he is at the helm, and that’s exactly what they need.

 "There was a lot of holes there when we first came in here.” said Edwards. “We’ve added some new players to that position. One thing you always like to see is guys working together and trying to help each other, and you see that group right now coaching each other when we’re not around, helping each other, trying to talk about pointers, trying to talk about the message that we’re trying to get accomplished, what we’re trying to do schematically, defensively the fundamentals and techniques of it."
The Minnesota Vikings are hoping they can improve their defense that was their Achilles heel in 2013. The Vikings defense allowed the most points against on average per game and was 31st in the league in total yards against and passing yards against. Like many of the positions, linebackers are far from set in stone for the Vikings.

Through training camp there has been a lot of mixing and matching, trying to see what can work with this defense. Veteran Chad Greenway is a lock to start this season, and it looks like Gerald Hodges will be there too. However, outside of Greenway, the Vikings don’t have any linebackers who have experience being an every week starter in the NFL.

Though Minnesota’s defense likely won’t see an overnight turnover in production, new defensive coordinator George Edwards could help make some changes in order to improve from last season. Edwards comes to the Vikings after being the linebacker coach with Miami in 2013.

“We’re rotating a lot of different guys in a lot of different areas,” Edwards said. “We still haven’t said that this guy is at this position or this guy’s the MIKE or this guy’s playing the SAM outside linebacker. So right now, this will be a process as we keep going through camp. We like the competition. We like the guys that we’ve got. And we know it will work itself out in the end.”

Audi Cole returns this season after starting five games last season and recording 45 tackles in 13 games, including 27 solo tackles. Cole could certainly be in the mix, but he’ll have some competition to earn a starting spot. Michael Mauti and Larry Dean also return from the 2013 Vikings squad, though neither started any games and had a combined 24 tackles last season. Mauti has been known to be injury prone, having three ACL operations in college, so he may be a longshot to be a starter.

The newcomers to this Vikings defense have perhaps the best chance at playing alongside Greenway in 2014. Minnesota brought back former Viking Jasper Brinkley as a free agent after playing for the Arizona Cardinals in 2013. Though Brinkley only started three games in Arizona, he started 15 games with the Vikings in 2012 and could again be a dependable linebacker in Minnesota. Brinkley wasn’t the only free agent linebacker brought in this past offseason, though.

Dom DeCicco comes to the Vikings after playing with the Chicago Bears from 2011-2012. In 20 games with the Bears, DeCicco recorded 12 tackles but never started a game. At 6’4”, 230 lbs. he has plenty of size, but it seems he may just be there for added depth.

Then there’s Mike Zimmer. No, not the coach, the linebacker. Zimmer failed to make Jacksonville’s roster out of training camp last season, but at 23 years old, he could find the time needed to develop in Minnesota. It could be hard, however, as the Vikings’ first pick of the 2014 NFL Draft will likely make his way to a starting position at some point in 2014.

The Vikings took Anthony Barr out of UCLA with the ninth pick of this year’s NFL Draft. Barr was a projected top ten pick, and Minnesota made it happen when they selected him instead of the anticipated and expected quarterback pick. At 6’5”, 255 lbs., Barr has tremendous size and his strengths are his speed and pass rushing. Though he may go through an adjustment period getting up to speed of the NFL game, there are some fairly big expectations on Barr to be a force for the Vikings defense, and he should be a starter at some point this coming season.

 “We just want to see who will come to the top, competition-wise, and win out the position. Going into camp, that’s what you want as a coach. You want things to be unsettled so guys go out there and work hard every day.”

Jennings looking forward to success with new offense

Last summer there was some anticipation built up to see what long time Green Bay Packer Greg Jennings could bring to the Minnesota Vikings lineup. The 30 year old wide receiver was a thorn in the side of Vikings fans for years when he was playing for the rival Packers from 2006-2012. Though when Jennings came to Minnesota, he didn’t quite give Vikings fans the results they were hoping for.

Struggling to find a go to guy at the quarterback position, Jennings couldn’t find the chemistry he was hoping he could when on the field. In 15 starts during the 2013 season, Jennings collected 68 receptions for a season total of 804 yards and four touchdowns. Not bad numbers by any means, but not great either despite the fact that he led Vikings receivers. With the quarterback situation looking to be more stable in 2014, Jennings hopes the offense can make improvements this season.

“It’s our main job to put stress on the defense instead of letting them put the stress on us.” said Jennings.
Now about to start his second season in Minnesota, Jennings is excited about the new coaching staff, which carries a different attitude.

“What Mike Zimmer brings is a winning mindset.” said Jennings. “And it’s not just a mindset, it’s put into action. Everyone is held accountable and with that attitude we’ll be successful.”

But it’s not just Zimmer who can help Jennings rebound this season, there’s also new offensive coordinator Norv Turner who brings in a fresh, new start to an offense that struggled at times throughout the 2013 season. As a receiver who has surpassed the 1,000 yard barrier during three separate seasons, the shakeup in the offense this season may be just what he needs to have a great season.

“We’ll be successful.” said Jennings. “How many games we’ll win, we don’t know. But we’ll all be accountable and have some success.”

That success has already been shown in training camp with rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater connecting with Jennings on the field. As a veteran of the NFL, Jennings playing mentor to young receivers such as Coradelle Patterson also plays a role in the success the offense will have.

“If I’m having success, it’s going to open up the door for success for other guys,” Jennings said. “If Cordarrelle’s having success, it’s going to open up the door for a lot of other guys, as well.”

Jennings also knows that while he is still valuable to the Vikings, showing the way for emerging stars is also important, and eventually the torch will have to be passed.

“For me, it was making sure that he understands that he has to be a professional. He has to be a pro’s pro when he steps foot [on the field].”

Monday, July 28, 2014

Longshot? Vikings long snapper is at training camp for 11th time

In all team sports there are superstars who dazzle the crowd and light up the scoreboard. In football, the attention is often directed towards the quarterbacks, running backs, and receivers who put points on the board. But every team needs role players, guys who are unsung heroes who contribute in their own way to help the team win, but ultimately fly under the radar. Cullen Loeffler is one of those players.

Loeffler is a long snapper, hiking the ball to the placeholder for kicker Blair Walsh to split the uprights on field goal attempts. While settling for field goals is often seen as a failed offensive drive up the field, they can also help a team win games and can be crucial. Though his job may seem miniscule to many, Loeffler’s job can have a major impact on the outcome of a game.

 “I started doing it my sophomore year in college when he had some special teams issues.” said Loeffler. “Fortunately I was able to transition into it and have been doing it since.”

Undrafted out of the University of Texas, Loeffler debuted for the Vikings in 2004 and has been with the team ever since. Heading into his eleventh season with Minnesota, he’s made a pretty good career for himself at a position that is often overlooked, and seems to be content here in Minnesota.

“The weather has been great these ten years.” he said. “Being able to have two a days this time of year in under 100 degree heat is pretty nice.”

In his ten seasons with the Vikings, Loeffler has played in 155 games, the most for a long snapper in Vikings history. Loeffler has also been the long snapper for ten of the 11 longest field goals in Vikings history, while the five games he missed in 2011 with an injury are the only games he’s missed in his decade long career.
It’s an interesting position that requires a different kind of training. While position players work on their agility, speed, and their hands, Loeffler’s job is specifically to work on his ball snapping.

“It’s a lot different from regular snapping with the timing you need.” Loeffler said. “It has to be a good snap for everything to go right.”

Though an undervalued position in the game, Loeffler has proven that every position plays an important role for a team. The 33 year old from Texas is in the last year of his three year contract, meaning his career may be closing in on its end, but as an undrafted long snapper to play over a decade in the NFL, he’s made every snap count.

Harrison Smith: The real deal?

After a toe injury sidelined Vikings safety Harrison Smith for eight games last season, no. 22 in purple and gold is looking to come back and have an impact on the Minnesota secondary. But the question on Smith as he enters his third NFL season is this: is he the real deal?

Smith came to Minnesota after being a standout for the Notre Dame Irish, captaining the team in 2011 and becoming the first player in program history to record over 200 tackles, finishing his NCAA career with 309. Becoming the third Notre Dame defensive back taken by the Vikings in the first round, Minnesota selected him 29th overall in the 2012 NFL Draft.

There’s no doubt that Smith is a great player, but can he be one of the best?

In his rookie season of 2012, the safety started in all 16 regular season games and recorded 129 tackles to finish second on the team. Smith also finished first on the team in interception return yards to go along with two interceptions returned for touchdowns, tying a franchise record for single season touchdowns on interception returns. On top of an outstanding season, Smith set a franchise record as the first safety to start in all 16 regular season games, surpassing the previous record of 14.

When Smith came back for the 2013 season, expectations were high. Though an injury shortened his season last year, it would be hard to argue he didn’t exceed expectations. In eight games in 2013, Smith posted numbers of 66 tackles, two interceptions, and recorded ten tackles in the season opener at Detroit.
Even though Smith has proven himself to be better than just an average safety in the NFL, he still wants to improve.

“You don’t want to be complacent.” said Smith. “You want to get better every day. Get better at something every day.”

The 6’2”, 214 pound safety has proven to be one of the best open field tacklers in the NFL the past two seasons but coming back this season healthy and ready for a full season with some experience under his belt could make him one of the best defensive backs in the league period.

“Now I have a better idea what I need to do to prepare and what I need to do to take care of my body.” Smith said.

Through his first two seasons playing 24 games, Smith has averaged 6.75 tackles per game and is averaging five solo tackles per game thus far in his career. Though Jamarca Sanford and Robert Blanton will battle for the other safety position, Smith is a lock to start this season for the Vikings. There’s no doubt that if Harrison Smith can stay healthy for all of the 2014 season, that he will indeed be the real deal.

Teddy Bridgewater: Future face of Vikings?

First round draft picks in the NFL draw a great deal of attention to their respective organizations every year. Teddy Bridgewater has done just that when the Minnesota Vikings selected him with the 32nd pick of the first round in the 2014 NFL Draft. Perhaps much of the attention Bridgewater has received is due to his position.

As a quarterback, Bridgewater is coming into an organization in Minnesota that struggled to find a go to guy to take the snaps in 2013. The 2012 Big East offensive player of the year and 2013 Sugar Bowl MVP during his college days at Louisville, Bridgewater carries the expectations of a big time player. Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel, and Josh Freeman all competed for the starting job last season, though none were overly impressive, leaving the door open for Bridgewater to earn some serious minutes.

“It’s not a secret.” Running back Adrian Peterson said. “The quarterback position really hasn’t played well, but that’s why you bring guys in.”

But there are no guarantees for Bridgewater. Matt Cassel is expected to start the season as the first quarterback on the depth chart, though the Vikings coaching staff has said nothing is set as of now.
“I haven’t been paying attention to that.” said Bridgewater. “I’ve just been learning the playbook and trying to familiarize myself with the playbook and try and continue to get better each day.”

Since training camp began last Thursday, Bridgewater has been excellent on the field and purely professional off the field. Though his goal is to become a starting quarterback in the NFL, the 21 year old from Miami is more concerned with first making himself a better player, and battling for a starting job second.
“I have to compete with myself first, that will make me a better player. Then I can compete with the guys in the room. That will make the team better.”

Pretty humble for a guy who was in the discussion to be a no. 1 pick in the NFL draft a little over a year ago.
After garnering the Sugar Bowl MVP during the 2012 season, Bridgewater threw for 3,970 yards in 2013 with a 71 percent completion rate and 31 touchdowns. Though the Vikings were a team in obvious need of a quarterback when the 2014 NFL Draft came in June, their first selection in the first round went to UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr. Later in the draft, Minnesota traded their 2nd and 4th round picks to the Seattle Seahawks for the 32nd pick of the first round to bring a new quarterback to the land of purple and gold.

To begin his NFL career in Minnesota, Bridgewater inked a four year contract worth $6.85 million that included a $3.3 million signing bonus. Over the course of last weekend, the young quarterback became more familiar with the coaching styles he will be playing under this season.

“It’s been intense. Coach Zimmer runs a fast, up tempo practice.” Bridgewater said. “Like Zimmer, Coach Turner is very hands on. He likes everything to be perfect, which is good.”

Though Cassel may look to be the no. 1 quarterback when the Vikings kick off the regular season in St. Louis in September, Bridgewater will be working hard to earn his place in the lineup.

“I’m going to look over the playbook, look over film, and work to correct my mistakes.” said Bridgewater.

“My biggest goal is to not make the same mistake twice.”