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Pair Of Rookies, Ponder Push Vikings To Victory Over Bills

Posted by Mike Wobschall on August 17, 2012 – 10:53 pm

Vikings GM Rick Spielman and Head Coach Leslie Frazier are in the midst of reforming the Vikings roster into a young group of individuals who will play together for a long time. Such a strategy cuts both ways – a young team is prone to mistakes born from inexperience, and a young team is capable of jumping up suddenly and displaying what can happen when things begin to click.

If Friday night’s preseason game at Mall of America Field is an indication of what’s to come from this young Vikings team, the 2012 season and many campaigns after that should be full of excitement. Paced early by second-year QB Christian Ponder and third-year RB Toby Gerhart, late by rookie LB Audie Cole and all throughout the game by rookie K Blair Walsh, the Vikings logged a lopsided 36-14 victory over the AFC East’s Buffalo Bills.

The action started with Ponder and Co. taking first possession. And they didn’t mess around. Ponder found WR Percy Harvin for a 21-yard gain on the second play from scrimmage and then two plays later he found speedster Jerome Simpson for a 33-yard burst on a play that saw Simpson showcase his athleticism by hurdling a would-be tackler to extend the play. Gerhart ripped off a 16-yard a few moments later and before you knew it, Ponder floated a pass to FB Jerome Felton for a TD and early lead.

Walsh salvaged the next drive with a 22-yard FG to give the Vikings a 10-0 lead in the 2nd quarter. That concluded the action for Ponder and Gerhart. Ponder finished going 10 of 13 for 136 yards with 1 TD and 0 INTs, hitting 8 different receivers on the night. Gerhart’s line was 6 carries for 30 yards, bringing his preseason total to 11 carries for 61 yards.

As for Walsh, he missed his next attempt. It was a 49-yarder and sailed wide right. But that was his lone blemish on the evening. Walsh came on to hit FGs from 45 and 47 yards in the 2nd quarter and then he was good from 40 yards in the 3rd quarter and 30 yards in the 4th quarter. Walsh was also solid on his kickoffs during the game, with Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer asking Walsh to execute a variety of different approaches on those kickoffs. In total, Walsh was 5 of 6 on FG tries and 3 of 3 on PATs.

Walsh’s 4th-quarter FG from 30 yards pushed the Vikings lead to 22-14 midway through the final period. But any thoughts Buffalo had of mounting a late-game rally to steal a victory were quickly eliminated by another Vikings rookie. In back-to-back plays late in the 4th quarter, LB Audie Cole sealed the Vikings victory and took a huge step in sealing a roster spot for himself.

Cole intercepted a pass and returned it for a TD – twice – in the game’s final moments, giving the Vikings their winning 36-14 cushion. The first INT came on a 2nd and 10 play from the Buffalo 11-yardline. Former Vikings QB Tyler Thigpen dropped back and quickly threw a pass intended for WR Naaman Roosevelt, but Cole jumped the route to grab the INT and sprinted toward the goal line. On the ensuing Bills drive, Brad Smith replaced Thigpen at QB and Cole intercepted his first pass, another quick throw intended for Roosevelt. This time Cole sprinted to the end zone uncontested and was greeted by a throng of teammates in the back of the end zone.

The daily double INT-for-TD from Cole capped an exciting night at Mall of America Field that saw the Vikings play in front of their fans for the first time since last season and also log their first win of the preseason. The Vikings are now 1-1 this preseason, and next week they’ll remain at home to host the AFC West’s San Diego Chargers.


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Audie Cole Steals The (4th Quarter) Show

Posted by Mike Wobschall on August 17, 2012 – 10:23 pm

Seventh-round picks often times live a life of anonymity when they first enter the NFL. That type of existence ended suddenly for Vikings rookie LB Audie Cole on Friday night at Mall of America Field. Intercepting a pass and returning it for a TD – twice – will do that for a guy.

That’s what Cole did late in the Vikings second preseason game of the 2012 season, right in front of thousands of Vikings fans who decided to stick around for the late stages of the exhibition game, a contest the Vikings won by count of 36-14. Even more remarkably, Cole’s two touchdowns came on back-to-back plays, increasing the Vikings lead from 22-14 to 36-14 instantaneously.

Cole’s first INT came on a 2nd and 10 play from the Buffalo 11-yardline. Former Vikings QB Tyler Thigpen dropped back and quickly threw a pass intended for WR Naaman Roosevelt, but Cole jumped the route to grab the INT and sprinted toward the goal line. Cole was tackled as he extended the ball toward the goal line, and officials ruled the play a TD. After a replay review, the call was upheld. On the ensuing Bills drive, Brad Smith replaced Thigpen at QB and Cole intercepted his first pass, another quick throw intended for Roosevelt. This time Cole sprinted to the end zone uncontested and was greeted by a throng of teammates in the back of the end zone.

“To see Audie do what he did, that’s a big deal,” Vikings Head Coach Leslie Frazier said. “You could see the jubilation from his teammates. Everybody on the team was in the end zone with him on that second one. It’s pretty impressive. We’re excited for him.”

Frazier also astutely pointed out that Cole has a knack for the big play, referencing the sack Cole registered last week against the San Francisco 49ers in his NFL debut.

The general takeaway from Friday night’s game will be how sharp the Vikings first-team offense looked, with QB Christian Ponder going 10 of 13 for 136 yards with a TD and RB Toby Gerhart rushing for 30 yards on 6 carries. But for the late part of the 4th quarter, anyway, it was Cole who stole the show.


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Ponder, 1st-Team Offense Sharp vs. Bills

Posted by Mike Wobschall on August 17, 2012 – 7:54 pm

Once the regular season begins, Vikings coaches will want to see the Vikings 1st-team offense this sharp for four quarters. On Friday night against the Buffalo Bills at Mall of America Field, though, a quarter and a half was enough.

After putting up 6 points in two drives a week ago against the San Francisco 49ers, starting QB Christian Ponder and Co. found the end zone once and settled for a FG another time against the Bills. Ponder was sharp in the outing, completing 10 of 13 passes for 136 yards with 1 TD and 0 INTs. The TD toss went to FB Jerome Felton on a 1st and goal from the 1-yardline. The scoring play to Felton capped an 8-play, 59-yard drive, the first of the game, and included a 21-yard gain to Percy Harvin and a 33-yard burst to WR Jerome Simpson in which Simpson hurdled a would-be tackler to extend the play.

The highlight-caliber play by Simpson energized the crowd and set up RB Toby Gerhart for a 16-yard rush two plays later that ultimately set up the Ponder-to-Felton score. Gerhart finished the night with 30 yards on 6 carries, bringing his two-game preseason total to an impressive 11 caries for 61 yards.

On the next drive, Ponder rallied the offense for 12 plays to get down to the Buffalo 4-yardline, but the drive stalled there after a pair of incompletions in the end zone (passes intended for TE Kyle Rudolph and Simpson). K Blair Walsh, who had another impressive night, came on to salvage the drive and give the Vikings a 10-0 lead late in the 1st quarter. Through halftime, Walsh was 2 of 3 on FGs, hitting from 45 and 47 yards and missing from 49; he also had a touchback and was 1 of 1 on PAT tries.

In all, it was a very good outing for the Vikings starters and an improvement on what was also a solid outing a week ago against the 49ers. The 1st-team offense has 4 preseason drives and has scored on each of them (1 TD, 3 FGs).


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5 Positives To Watch For Tonight

Posted by Mike Wobschall on August 17, 2012 – 2:14 pm

The Vikings will open up the home part of their preseason schedule tonight by hosting the AFC East’s Buffalo Bills, with kickoff at Mall of America Field slated for 7:00 p.m. CT. If you aren’t able to watch the game on TV, be sure to go to the vikings.com home page to find alternative ways of catching the action. You can subscribe to Preseason Live and watch all preseason action for a small fee, and/or you can join us in the live game chat that will be held right here on vikings.com during the game.

As for tonight’s game, kickoff is fast-approaching. While you’re waiting for the game to begin, though, here are 5 positives to watch for tonight as the Vikings and Bills battle at Mall of America Field…

Finish Drives With Touchdowns
The Vikings 1st-team offense did a nice job of moving the ball against the vaunted San Francisco 49ers defense last week, but a pair of drives stalled and had to be salvaged by K Blair Walsh with FGs. It was great to see Walsh come on and finish the job, but it’d be even greater to see Christian Ponder and Co. finish drives tonight on their own with TDs. When the Vikings get into scoring range, keep your eye on TE Kyle Rudolph. He’s one of the Vikings best offensive weapons, and he becomes especially lethal in crucial situations such as 3rd downs, in the red zone and near the goal line.

Remain Gap Sound On Defense
The Vikings have long been one of the NFL’s premier run defenses, but they didn’t look the part last week against the 49ers. That has to change this week against Buffalo. Lots of talk this offseason was about the Vikings improving against the pass, but any improvements the secondary has made the past several months will be negated if the defense can’t first stop the run. Watch for the Vikings 1st-team defense to perform much better tonight than they did a week ago at Candlestick Park.

Big Return On Special Teams
Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer has seen his groups have a solid offseason program and training camp for the most part. Now it’s time to take the step from being solid to being spectacular. Expect Walsh to be as good or better than he was last week and expect P Chris Kluwe to take a major step forward this week as the Vikings play in the controlled environment of Mall of America Field. Beyond that, though, I’m looking for a big return, either on kickoff or punt (both would be nice, though). It’s appeared during training camp practices that the kickoff return and punt return blocking units have done a nice job, so now it’s time for one of the Vikings returners to stick their foot in the ground and rip off a big return.

Debut Of CB Josh Robinson
There has been lots of talk about Josh Robinson’s speed (he was the fastest player at the Combine this year), but now it’s time for the talk to give way to the action. Robinson was held out of last week’s preseason game, but he should be on the field tonight and see an expansive role. I expect he’ll see quite a few snaps on defense and I also expect he’ll be involved in the return game. Robinson has big-time upside and it’d be great to get a look at it tonight.

Harrison Smith A Starter?
I won’t be surprised if rookie Harrison Smith lines up as a starter tonight at safety. He’s had a good training camp and played very well last week against San Francisco. He did not start last week, though, and since last week he’s seen even more time with the 1st-team defense. This leads me to believe that he’ll be a starter in tonight’s game – just a guess. If he does start, I expect Smith to be a standout. He strikes me as a player who gets better as the game goes along because he’s a cerebral player who picks up on patterns and tells in the offense’s attack. Smith is not the kind of ballhawk who will grab a bunch of INTs, but he is the kind of player who is not afraid to mix it up in the run game or punish a receiver coming across the middle.


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Safety First Continued: Hard-Hitting Returning Starter

Posted by Mike Wobschall on August 16, 2012 – 5:50 pm

Mistral Raymond: He’s Got The Look
Harrison Smith: Progression Continues
Jamarca Sanford: Hard-Hitting Returning Starter

Our daily look at the competition for starting safety positions continues today with analysis of Jamarca Sanford.

Jamarca Sanford is one of the Vikings best  special teams players, and now he has a chance to emerge as a playmaker on the Vikings defense, too.

No player in the vaunted Southeastern Conference (SEC) accumulated more tackles than Sanford during his four seasons at Ole Miss. The Vikings noticed Sanford’s penchant for finding the ball-carrier and selected him with a seventh-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. Sanford immediately became a standout special teams contributor and is now working to become a playmaker on the Vikings defense as well.

Sanford is actually a returning starter in the Vikings defense, as he started 15 games at safety a year ago. But improvement is the name of the game for the Vikings secondary in 2012, and Sanford is determined to be a part of the equation.

The area of Sanford’s game the team is looking to improve is his ability in coverage.

“As I mentioned before with Jamarca, we have to be able to see him make some plays on the ball down the field,” Vikings Head Coach Leslie Frazier said. “That is something we want to see him improve on and he will get enough turns here in camp and in the preseason to see if that is happening.”

Frazier also said Sanford’s teammates feed off of his passion for the game.

“He is one of those guys who plays at a high level all the time,” Frazier said. “You can always hear him chirping and talking, and the players kind of feed off of that. We all like that energy that he brings.”


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Vikings Adopt NFL’s New Policy; Decision Puts Team In Better Position To Have Home Games Locally Televised

Posted by Mike Wobschall on August 16, 2012 – 11:29 am

This offseason, NFL owners voted on a new policy that ultimately gives each team the option to lower its percentage of tickets that must be sold in order to prevent a home game from being blacked out on local television. For the first time, NFL teams are allowed flexibility to select a percentage anywhere between the typical 100% down to 85% of capacity. By lowering the ticket manifest, teams are not lowering the number of seats they can sell or the number of fans who can attend home games; rather, the decision only lowers the tickets that must be sold to allow a game to be on local TV.

In an effort to ensure as many fans as possible can experience Vikings football, the team will take advantage of the league’s new policy. The Vikings will reduce the Mall of America ticket manifest to 90% capacity, a reduction of approximately 6,000 seats.

This decision is in line with many of the Vikings decisions that are in the best interests of our fans. By reducing the ticket manifest, the Vikings are in a better position to achieve the team’s goal of reaching as many Vikings fans as possible and have all 2012 home games locally televised.

“It’s important for the Vikings to take advantage of a new policy that benefits our fans and helps us achieve our goal of having our games televised throughout Minnesota,” said Vikings Vice President of Sales and Marketing and Chief Marketing Officer Steve LaCroix. “Our focus remains on selling every seat in Mall of America Field, and we will continue to work hard to achieve that. This flexibility, however, puts us in a better position to have our home games locally televised.”


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Vikings Join “Text 2 Give” Campaign To Support Flood Victims

Posted by Mike Wobschall on August 16, 2012 – 9:26 am

In an effort to raise awareness and provide support to summer flood victims in northeastern Minnesota, the Vikings are partnering with several Northland communities, as well as the United Way of Greater Duluth, on a “Text 2 Give” campaign.

Starting today, Vikings fans have the opportunity to help fellow Minnesotans with a $5 donation by texting “FLOOD12” to 20222. Proceeds from the campaign will go to the Twin Ports Region Long-Term Flood Relief Fund, a regional fund designed to help those affected by the Northland flash floods last June.

In addition to the “Text 2 Give” campaign, the Vikings will also make a $10,000 donation to the fund during Friday night’s Vikings-Bills preseason game. Team owners Zygi and Mark Wilf will present a check to mayors Don Ness (Duluth), Bruce Ahlgren (Cloquet), Jason Goodwin (Barnum), and Ted Shaw (Moose Lake).

“Thousands of Minnesotans were impacted by the massive flooding this summer,” said Mark Wilf. “It is critical for us as an organization to use our platform to raise awareness about this disaster and support these families.”

About the Twin Ports Region Long-Term Flood Relief Fund:
The Twin Ports Region Long-Term Flood Relief Fund is assisting Minnesotans affected in the following areas: Superior/Douglas County, Duluth/St. Louis County, Carlton County (including Fond du Lac Reservation), Aitkin County, Pine County and Lake County. Every dollar donated to the fund is designated to victims across the region; administrative fees are being covered by local governments, United Ways, foundations and other agencies. While the initial goal of the fund was to raise $1 million, the fund will need to raise several million dollars to meet the needs of all those affected.

For more information, visit www.2012floodrelief.org.

The “Text 2 Give” campaign is sponsored by Barr. 


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Safety First Continued: Harrison Smith Continues Progression

Posted by Mike Wobschall on August 15, 2012 – 5:56 pm

Mistral Raymond: He’s Got The Look
Harrison Smith: Progression Continues

Our daily look at three players vying for starting safety positions continues today with analysis of Harrison Smith.

The Vikings came into the 2012 NFL Draft with one first-round pick, but after some wheeling and dealing they emerged from the first-round with a pair of selections. The second first-round pick was S Harrison Smith, an instinctive tackling machine out of Notre Dame who will improve the Vikings safety position.

Smith is a mild-mannered individual around Winter Park and in the locker room, but he’s entirely different on the field. Vikings Head Coach Leslie Frazier saw that edge from Smith during the offseason program, and he liked it.

“I saw a play where he really got angry,” Frazier said. “He got pretty fired up and you kind of need that out of your defensive backs. You need them to have a little something about them. It was good to see.”

Alan Williams, the Vikings new defensive coordinator, agreed that Smith has an edge to him and also commented that the rookie is an intelligent player

“I love that, Williams said. “You want your safeties to be quarterbacks and smart, but you want some nastiness to them too. And he has that.”

As a first-round pick, the expectation is for Smith to begin the season as a starter at safety. Smith could be the opening-day starter at one safety spot, but one sure thing is he won’t be handed that responsibility. Williams wants Smith to ascend to the top of the depth chart on the strength of his on-field performance rather than the label of a first-round pick.

“When guys come in and they’re new, especially rookies, I like to have them earn their spot,” Williams said. “Even though Harrison (Smith) is doing well and some of the other guys are doing well, it’s important that guys earn the spot, that I don’t make the decision, the decision is made based on what we see on tape. When he earns a spot, that’s when he’ll play.”

Judging by Smith’s performance so far, that won’t be long from now. He played well in the Vikings preseason debut against San Francisco last week, and that might lead to increased playing time in this Friday’s preseason game against the Buffalo Bills.

“He played well,” Williams said. “The game wasn’t too big for him. He looked like he belonged out there. Again, we want to see that same thing (Friday night). Can he get lined up? Can he communicate to the defense? Can he operate within the defense and can he do that on a consistent basis? When a play comes at him can he make the play?”

If Smith’s performance on Friday night causes the Vikings coaching staff to answer those questions in the affirmative, then Smith will be in a position to help the Vikings defense answer their biggest question – can the pass defense improve from last year?

After ranking 26th in overall passing defense and 32nd in passing touchdowns allowed in 2012, it can’t get much worse. But with Smith in the fold, the Vikings passing defense figures to be much, much better.


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CB Robinson To Get Extended Look On Friday

Posted by Mike Wobschall on August 15, 2012 – 1:40 pm

Josh Robinson looked good playing at the University of Central Florida, where he was a two-time All Conference USA first teamer with 10 INTs and 36 passes broken up in three seasons. Robinson looked good at the 2012 Scouting Combine, where he was the fastest player time in the 40-yard dash. And Robinson looked good during the Vikings rookie minicamp, Organized Team Activities and mandatory minicamp this spring at Winter Park.

But Robinson didn’t get any looks last Friday in the Vikings preseason opener against the San Francisco 49ers. As a precaution, the team held him out of action because of a hamstring injury that hampered him earlier in camp.

This Friday should be a different story, however. Robinson is slated to see plenty of action against the Buffalo Bills.

“I don’t know if he’ll get first team reps, but we’ll try to get him a number of snaps so we can evaluate him and so he’ll be able to evaluate himself and find out what the pro game is all about,” Vikings Head Coach Leslie Frazier said. “And he wants to win a starting spot, so we want to see him go out there and work and get some snaps against some good receivers and be able to gauge where he is at the end of this ball game. We’re looking forward to watching him play.”

Fans should be looking forward to watching him play, too. Robinson is speedy and quick. He can play defense and special teams. Whether he intercepts a pass or fields a kickoff or punt, Robinson has the explosiveness to be a playmaker for the Vikings.

“He can close and go from point A to point B as fast as anybody we have, or that I’ve seen,” Frazier said. “His closing speed is outstanding.

Of course, we all know he had the fastest time at the Combine, but it shows up on the football field. A lot of guys can run fast straight ahead but it doesn’t show up when you put pads on. But in his case, it shows up.”

From the looks of it so far, Robinson has all the physical traits to be a contributor for the Vikings. The question now, and the question that the Vikings will begin to answer on Friday night when Robinson makes his NFL debut, is about the non-physical part of the game.

“He has great closing speed,” Frazier explained, “but now it’s a matter of ‘can he handle some of the things that come at him, formations, routes, terminology?’ There are so many things that have to come in to play to be a big time corner in our league.

“It’ll be a big test for him. He’s anxious to get out there and perform and show everyone that he’s capable of playing at this level.”


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Safety First: Competition Continues In Vikings Secondary

Posted by Mike Wobschall on August 14, 2012 – 12:40 pm

Harrison Smith: Progression Continues
Mistral Raymond: He’s Got The Look

Improving the pass defense was a top priority for the Vikings this past offseason, and the effort to do so has continued during 2012 Verizon Vikings Training Camp and the preseason. Two starting positions at safety are open for competition, and the race to win those spots will continue this week as the Vikings prepare for preseason game #2 against the Buffalo Bills at Mall of America Field on Friday.

In the days leading up to Friday’s game, we’ll take a daily look at three players vying for starting safety positions – Mistral Raymond (today), Harrison Smith (Wednesday) and Jamarca Sanford (Thursday).

Keep in mind that there are others fighting for spots, too. Andrew Sendejo, for example, led the Vikings in tackles last week at San Francisco and is pushing for playing time on defense. Others in the mix include Robert Blanton, Eric Frampton and Reggie Jones.

We’ll begin this series with a look at Mistral Raymond…

He’s got the look
Entering his second season, Raymond has the look of star in the making. He has the frame (6-1, 202 pounds) and skill set to be a ball-hawking NFL safety. The Vikings acquired Raymond with a sixth-round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, but the hope is he’ll make a top-pick kind of impact on the Vikings defense.

Vikings Defensive Coordinator Alan Williams says physical ability and a willingness to mix it up on defense are not concerns. The thing keeping Raymond from emerging as a reliable contributor on defense is experience, something he’ll gain during his second NFL season this year.

“Yes, without a doubt,” Williams quickly responded when asked if Raymond was willing and able enough to play safety. “Willing, not a problem whatsoever, strong enough, not a problem. Experience is just going to be the thing that he needs to come along with.

“With him it’s just every situation is going to be new for him, that he hadn’t seen it, there will be some wrinkles from week-to-week and we just need to make sure that we get him enough reps in practice, and in ball games to get him up to speed so that every situation is just not new to him, that he has some experience with them.”

In college, Raymond was used both as a cornerback and safety. The Vikings are confident that Raymond’s experience playing cornerback in college will give him sound coverage skills as a safety in the NFL.

“He’s an athletic safety that still has cover skills that have not diminished since we put him at safety from the time that he was playing corner,” Williams said. “He is still learning on the go, though. He is a young safety.”

Raymond started five games last year as a rookie and flashed plenty of potential while also learning from mistakes. Entering his second season, Raymond knows his performance in training camp and practice are important, but he also knows the game experience from last year is invaluable.

“You go out in practice and give it everything you’ve got, but some of those game situations you just can’t simulate,” Raymond explained. “It’s big to get those live game reps. I think the more reps I got, the more comfortable I became and the more I started to see things. Hopefully that will translate to this season.”

The Vikings seem anxious to see what Raymond can add to the Vikings secondary.

“We’re looking to put him in as many situations as we can so that when it comes to play on Sundays, it’s not the first time that he has done it or seen it or been it,” Williams said. “He still has a ways to go, but we like his potential.”


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