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Three Takeaways From Vikings Preseason Debut

Posted by Mike Wobschall on August 11, 2012 – 3:10 am

The Vikings made their 2012 preseason debut on Friday night, dropping a 17-6 decision to the San Francisco 49ers at a blustery Candlestick Park. Rookie K Blair Walsh capped the game’s opening drive with a 39-yard FG that cut straight through the 20 mph gusts that swirled inside the stadium, but that was the only lead the Vikings would have for the evening.

San Francisco answered with a TD later in the 1st quarter to take a 7-3 and eventually took a 17=6 lead into the locker room at halftime. Neither team scored in the 2nd half.

For the Vikings, QB Christian Ponder was good-not-great, completing 4 of 9 passes for 80 yards. RB Toby Gerhart was solid and strong, rushing the ball 5 times and gaining 31 yards, with a long rush of 16 yards. The Vikings defense struggled stopping the 49ers ground game, allowing over 100 rushing yards in the 1st half and 260 in the game.

The thrill of victory and agony of defeat take a back seat in the preseason, though, as teams are looking to find “wins” within the exhibition games. There are position battles to be settled and roster spots to be won, and that is the focus for NFL teams and their followers during the preseason.

With that in mind, here are three takeaways on my mind as I sit on the team’s charter flight back to Minneapolis…

Blair Walsh impresses in first NFL game
I’ve been a big supporter of Blair Walsh’s since the Vikings selected him in the 6th round. His leg strength was never questioned, and I didn’t find his dip in accuracy during his senior season at Georgia as concerning as others did. The kid was an 88.8% kicker as a sophomore and junior, and most of his misses during his senior year came on FGs from 40 or 50+ yards.

Regardless, there were no concerns about Walsh’s accuracy on Friday night. He converted both of his FG attempts, the first from 39 yards and the second from 26. Keep in mind, the nasty wind gusts did nothing to help matters, either. In addition to his accuracy on FG tries, Walsh’s leg strength was on display during kickoffs. He logged one touchback on a kick that was blasted through the endzone, and then his other two kickoffs were 6 and 8 yards into the endzone. During the regular season, teams will not be taking those kicks out of the touchback area.

The benefit of Walsh’s touchbacks – opponents’ average drive start will be closer to their own 20 – will far outweigh any accuracy issues he has on FGs. As any defensive player or coordinator and they’ll tell you that pinning a team at or inside the 20 is a big-time advantage for the defense. With Walsh, the Vikings will be doing much more of that in 2012 than they have in recent seasons (Vikings ranked 31st in opponents’ average drive start in 2011).

Run defense missed Jared Allen, Kevin Williams and Antoine Winfield
The Vikings held out DE Jared Allen, DT Kevin Williams and CB Antoine Winfield on Friday night, giving the veterans a break from the action while also giving younger players more opportunity. And the absence of three quality run stoppers showed, with San Francisco gashing the Vikings defense on the ground seemingly at will in the 1st half.

One part of you gets frustrated when the opponent is able to run the ball so easily. But the other part of you knows that without Allen, Williams and Winfield in the mix, the defense is much more vulnerable. It would’ve been nice to see other players step up and stymie the 49ers ground game, but I’m not worried about the Vikings run defense just yet. If the Buffalo Bills and San Diego Chargers are able to do in the next two weeks what the 49ers did this week, then we’ll have some concerns.

Offensive line displays improvement
I was pleased with the performance of the Vikings first-team offensive line. RB Toby Gerhart averaged 6.2 yards per carry on 5 attempts and neither Ponder nor Joe Webb were sacked while the first-team offensive line was in the game. Several times Ponder was able to settle into a pocket after dropping back, and on his52-yard pass to WR Stephe Burton Ponder was afforded the time and space to step up into the pocket to deliver the throw.

First-round pick LT Matt Kalil looked solid in his debut. He will be the first to admit there’s room for improvement, but it was a good beginning for Ponder’s new blindside protector. C John Sullivan had no issues with snaps and RT Phil Loadholt was sound in his technique and discipline.


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Twitter-Sized Player Evaluations

Posted by Mike Wobschall on August 7, 2012 – 6:26 am

One of the main challenges to covering a NFL team during training camp is covering all the bases. With a 90-man roster and plenty of intriguing storylines to follow, it’s hard to cover everything. But there is a saving grace in all of this. Twitter.

Brevity is required when using Twitter because a message on the social media platform must be 140 or fewer characters. Some may look at that as a limitation. But we’re turning it into opportunity. The Twitter-sized player evaluations feature we debuted last week gives us a chance to provide some insight on several players, rather than an overwhelming amount of insight on just a few players.

On Monday before practice, we asked (on my Twitter handle – @wobby) which players you’d like to know about via Twitter evaluations. They are listed below with a 140 (or fewer)-character evaluation…

FB Matt Asiata - Skilled pass catcher out of the backfield. Needs to show ability on special teams during preseason.

WR Stephen Burton - May have some position flexibility to him (can play X and Z receiver) & has had very good camp. Good after the catch. Big preseason for him.

CB Chris Carr - Playing with first-team nickel. Smart, instinctive player. Was in punt return rotation on Monday.

LB Audie Cole - Big, physical & smart. Unsure if he’s best at middle or outside LB. Needs to contribute on special teams. Has a chance to be good NFL LB.

TE Rhett Ellison - Impressing with his hands and fluidity in passing game. Known as hard worker. Will be a good pro for a long time.

RG Brandon Fusco - Still the one to beat for starting RG spot. Smart, tough player. Going against Kevin Williams every day is good for him.

RB Toby Gerhart - Looks and plays the part of a starting-caliber NFL RB. Grinder who will wear defenses out. Good in passing game (protection and receiving).

LB Everson Griffen - Up and down – will make great plays or mistakes. Great instincts and athleticism. Transitioning well, could still play DL in situations.

DL Trevor Guyton - Great start to camp, leveling off a bit now. Hard to move on the inside. Has athleticism to play multiple positions. Stout against run.

DE Brian Robison - Great day of practice on Monday. Excellent inside pass rush moves. Can play DT in nickel package. Great enthusiasm and passion.

C John Sullivan - Excellent leader. Rarely makes mistake. Developing into Top 5 at his position in NFL.

K Blair Walsh - Has impressed with leg strength AND accuracy. Answered the bell in simulated game situations at end of practice. Touchbacks-a-plenty.

WR Bryan Walters – In the mix at WR, needs productive preseason. In punt return rotation & fields kicks gracefully. Sudden route runner with good separation.

WR Jarius Wright - Explosive short-area quickness. Solid hands. In return rotations. Good attitude, practices hard. Solid camp so far.


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Defense Dials It Up; Notes From Monday’s Practice

Posted by Mike Wobschall on August 6, 2012 – 5:19 pm

There is a natural ebb and flow to training camp practices – some days the offense is better, some days the defense stands out. The Vikings offense got off to a fast start at 2012 Verizon Vikings Training Camp and capped off a good first 10 days with a sound showing in Saturday night’s practice.

Come Monday, though, the defense jumped up. After a day off on Sunday, the Vikings returned to the practice fields for their customary morning walk-thru followed by an afternoon practice, working under hot and windy conditions that did nothing to help the offense’s cause.

DE Brian Robison was a standout performer for the defense, providing a steady pass rush off the edge in the base 4-3 defense and then sliding inside on occasion to play DT in the nickel package. Robison teamed up with a fellow lineman twice during a drill versus the offensive linemen to execute an effective stunt. On the first play, Robison lined up on the outside and stunted inside, with Kevin Williams looping outside. The maneuver was enough for Robison to slip inside past a pair of offensive linemen. On the second play, Robison used a similar stunt in tandem with fellow DE D’Aundre Reed to create a pressure.

During the team’s live goal line period, LB Chad Greenway and DT Letroy Guion teamed up to halt the first-team offense on the initial snap, and second-team middle LB Tyrone McKenzie also burst through the line later in the period to make a splash play. McKenzie was another player who stood out during Monday’s practice. He takes care of a leadership role on the Vikings second-team defense and also possesses the athleticism to be a productive linebacker in nickel packages.

LB Marvin Mitchell and S Mistral Raymond each tallied INTs at various points in the practice as well. Mitchell has run with McKenzie at times in the second-team nickel package while Raymond has spent most of his time with the first team and second team at safety.

A few other notes…

Childs has knee surgery Monday
The road to recovery for Greg Childs after he tore the patellar tendon in both knees Saturday night has begun. Vikings Head Coach Leslie Frazier said Childs was to undergo surgery on Monday.

“So, we don’t know what the long-term prognosis is, but we are all hoping for the best,” Frazier said. “But our players, it was hard for them, obviously it is hard for Greg and his family. We’re all pulling for him through this situation.”

Gerhart looks good
Toby Gerhart is the Vikings starting RB and Frazier says the third-year pro has looked good so far in camp. Gerhart will likely get the start in Friday’s preseason game at San Francisco, but don’t expect him to get too many carries.

“He’s been looking well,” Frazier said. “He’s practicing well, has great confidence in what we’re doing, what we’re asking of him. He doesn’t seem like a guy who is ready to settle for being a backup running back, which is a good thing.”

Who will handle return duties?
At this point in training camp, charting the guys who are included in the kickoff and punt return rotation is nearly a full-time job. On Monday, I saw WR Stephen Burton, CB Chris Carr, DB Reggie Jones, CB Josh Robinson, CB Marcus Sherels, WR Kerry Taylor, WR Bryan Walters and WR Jarius Wright all take turns in the punt return rotation.

“We are going to make sure that we use the right guys and the guys that we think have the best chance,” Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer said. “If a guy is on the bubble, will he make it (the roster) because he is a good punt returner or kickoff returner? That will be key Friday night (preseason game vs. San Francisco). Hopefully we can make them punt a few times and we’ll go out there and get some reps for our guys.”


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Final Roster Rundown: Running Backs And Specialists

Posted by Mike Wobschall on July 27, 2012 – 9:12 am

Friday marks the first practice of 2012 Verizon Vikings Training Camp and, appropriately, the final part of our Roster Rundown series. The series concludes with a look at the Vikings RBs and specialists…

Running Backs
Even with both Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart coming back from knee injuries, RB is a position of strength for the Vikings. There aren’t many teams with a better one-two punch than the Vikings. Gerhart has fully recovered from his knee injury, and he’ll shoulder the load for Peterson until he’s back at 100% health as well. Gerhart would be a starter for many NFL teams, so the job is in good hands while Peterson finishes up his recovery.

Depth at the position will be important for the Vikings in 2012 for reasons mentioned above, and Vikings Head Coach Leslie Frazier said the team is looking for a back with all-around skills to have as the third option. Guys competing for this role in camp will include undrafted college free agent Derrick Coleman, four-year veteran Lex Hilliard and youngster Jordan Todman. 

The Vikings designs at FB are uncertain at this point. Draft pick Rhett Ellison could play the part, but there are others who are actually listed as FBs on the roster as well (Ellison is listed as a TE). Ryan D’Imperio is a returning veteran with solid special teams ability as well, Matt Asiata was with the Vikings during last year’s camp and returns this year as well, and five-year veteran Jerome Felton will be around to increase the competition. Aside from how each of these players perform during practice and preseason games, the determining factor in this competition will be how the team plans to use the FB.

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Specialists
The Vikings go into 2012 Verizon Vikings Training Camp with starters in place at the specialists positions. Cullen Loeffler returns as the team’s long snapper, Chris Kluwe remains at punter, and Blair Walsh enters camp as the kicker. Together, Loeffler and Kluwe boast 17 years of NFL experience, so they are great mentors for Walsh as he embarks on his rookie season. It’s important for each of these players to perform well in their individual roles, but it’s also important for them to work well together. I have no doubt they’ll be able to do just that.


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Golfing For Charity

Posted by Mike Wobschall on June 13, 2012 – 10:18 am

Any reason to find your way onto a golf course is a good reason, as far as I’m concerned. But the Vikings organization actually has a legitimate reason to hit the links on Wednesday.

The Minnesota Vikings 2012 Golf Tournament, presented by Miller Lite, will be held on Wednesday at Rush Creek Golf Club in Maple Grove, MN. The sold-out tournament is not open to the public and will feature over 30 Vikings players, including QB Christian Ponder, RB Toby Gerhart and TE Kyle Rudolph. Also, several Vikings Alumni will be on-hand, including Randall McDaniel and Scott Studwell. Joining the action will be the entire 2012 Vikings coaching staff, Vikings executives, Viktor the Viking and the Minnesota Vikings Cheerleaders.

Proceeds of the event will benefit the Vikings Children’s Fund.

“Good chance for us to go out and do something in the community and raise some funds for some kids and people who are less fortunate than we are,” Vikings Head Coach Leslie Frazier said.

The tournament is scheduled for an early afternoon shotgun start and will be followed by an awards ceremony with comments from Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman and Frazier. KFAN Radio will broadcast from the tournament from noon to 6:30 p.m.

Since its inception in 1978, the Vikings Children’s Fund has raised nearly $10 million, with over $5 million supporting research at the University of Minnesota Department of Pediatrics.


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Submit Your WR Questions For Next Week’s Pick 6

Posted by Mike Wobschall on June 1, 2012 – 2:26 pm

Our brand-new Pick 6 (video mailbag) segment, which appears mid-week on vikings.com, is off and running. Each week we tackle a variety of questions submitted by fans, but next week we changing course.

Instead of tackling a variety of issues, we’re going to focus on one specific area of the team - the WRs. – and we’re going to have a special guest on hand to help answer those questions (hint: he works with the WRs every day).

So we need you to send in your WR questions. You can submit a question by emailing me (wobschallm@vikings.nfl.net) or leaving the question in the comments section below this entry. Remember to list your name and town with all questions.

If you haven’t yet done so, check out previous installments of Pick 6. This week’s edition took a look at RB Toby Gerhart, CB Antoine Winfield, standout players from OTAs, and more.


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What Happened At OTAs?

Posted by Mike Wobschall on June 1, 2012 – 6:46 am

The Vikings have completed their first three days of Organized Team Activities (OTAs) as they march through the offseason program in preparation for the 2012 season. It was a busy, productive and positive week overall for the team, as they put in great work on the field and closed the week with their annual playground build at a local school in Minneapolis.

In case you missed our wall-to-wall coverage of OTAs this week, here are a bunch of quick-hitters and links to get you caught up…

Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin raced up a hill a bunch of times and we have video of it.

QB Christian Ponder is a big self-critic and because of that has progressed well during the offseason.

WR Jerome Simpson told us he loves his new team, his new QB and his new position coach.

Cool video of OTA #1.

– RB Toby Gerhart, the guest on this week’s Wobcast, comes from an athletic family and is good-to-go for the 2012 season.

We talked about CB Antoine Winfield a lot in this week’s Pick 6 (video mailbag feature).

– And in this blog entry about OTA #1.

– The week concluded with a cool annual community event that makes a direct and profound impact.


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Antoine Winfield, WR Bryan Walters Impress During OTA #1; Other Observations

Posted by Mike Wobschall on May 29, 2012 – 1:39 pm

The Vikings held their first Organized Team Activity (OTA) of the 2012 offseason program on Tuesday, working for roughly 90 minutes on the outdoor practice fields at Winter Park under mostly cloudy skies and windy conditions. The energy level is ramped up around the facility as the team begins Phase 3 of the offseason program.

Now is not the time to put much stock into depth charts and tracking which players are working with the first-stringers and which players are working with the second-stringers. Coaches experiment with several different combinations for a variety of reasons at this point in the offseason, so we’ll let others worry about all of those projections.

There were plenty of other observations to make, however. Here are a few notes I scribbled out while watching Tuesday’s practice…

– One of the first players to stand out in my eyes was CB Antoine Winfield. It was great to see him back on the field after he played in just 5 games last season. Winfield showed no signs of being slowed now, though, as he looked spry during individual drills and very sound during team offense vs. team defense. Winfield had a bounce in his step around the facility before and after practice, and it’s clear he still has explosion in his legs while on the field.

– QB Christian Ponder was sharp early in practice, displaying accuracy and command during the individual and group installation periods. He spread the ball around to several receivers, encountered no QB-center exchange issues with C John Sullivan and even found WR Jerome Simpson on a deep pass. After working through some issues midway through practice, Ponder bounced back nicely at the end of the 7-on-7 drill to cap a solid first practice.

– Speaking of Simpson, it’s a treat to watch him chase down a deep pass. There are times when the QB takes a short drop and launches a pass downfield that looks to be grossly overthrown. But Simpson usually finds a way to track the ball down and make a play on it. You can see that Ponder already has trust in Simpson’s ability to make plays downfield, and that trust and play-making potential will only grow the more they practice together.

Click here to check out a photo gallery from OTA #1.

– A group of collegiate officials were at Tuesday’s practice and will be officiating OTAs for the Vikings.

– My sense is LB Erin Henderson is poised for a breakout season. He now has one year as a full-time starter under his belt and I think he’ll only improve with another offseason of work at Winter Park before his second year as a full-time starter. Henderson is a player who seems to be around the ball a lot, and I’m hopeful he’ll make the improvement from a player who is around the ball a lot, to a player who makes big plays around the ball frequently.

– The Vikings WR position will be a fun one to watch this offseason, training camp and preseason. There are currently 11 WRs on the roster, and I’m guessing there will be some tough cuts later this summer. Bryan Walters, acquired by the Vikings earlier this offseason, impressed me on Tuesday. At 6-0, 190-pounds, Walters is a diminutive receiver with sure hands and crisp route-running abilities. As well as he could perform at WR, I’m also curious to see if he’ll be in the punt return rotation because that would increase his stock. He’ll be a player to watch this summer as the team prepares for the 2012 season. Walters is a 2-year veteran out of Cornell.

– There has never been a doubt in my mind that RB Toby Gerhart could shoulder the load full-time for an NFL team, and after seeing him on Tuesday that continues to be the case. Whether he has to do just that with the Vikings remains to be seen, but if he is charged with that responsibility the Vikings will still be in good shape. Gerhart looks very fit, and I can say with certainty that I would not like to be the one trying to break down and tackle him as he runs downhill.

– Another spot that is sure to see good competition this offseason for a starting position is DT next to Kevin Williams. Williams has been missing a solid, consistent running mate since the other half of the Williams Wall – Pat Williams – was no longer with the team. Time will tell which players the coaches tab to compete for that spot, but I don’t think there will be a shortage of candidates. Vikings GM Rick Spielman and his scouting staff have done a nice job of acquiring players to try and fill that gap. Both Letroy Guion and Fred Evans were brought back and could be candidates. And from the looks of it, several others, including 7th-round pick Trevor Guyton (6-3, 280 pounds), Tydreke Powell (6-3, 325) and Terrell Resonno (6-3, 305) will be in the mix. I left DTs Chase Baker and Christian Ballard off that list only because I could see them playing at Kevin Williams’ spot in a reserve role, but the Vikings coaching staff could certainly ask either of them to step into the competition as well.

Quick Hitters
– WR Devin Aromashodu was hot during 7-on-7 drills and was a favorite target of young QB McLeod Bethel-Thompson.
– RB Jordan Todman, preparing for his 2nd season out of Connecticut and acquired by the Vikings late last year after spending much of his rookie season with San Diego, is impressively fast. He burst through a hole during team offense vs. team defense drills today and his explosion was remarkable.
– I saw LB Larry Dean around the ball a lot on Tuesday.
– Rookie LB Corey Paredes made one of the best defensive plays on Tuesday, nabbing a Joe Webb pass out of thin air and returning it for a TD.


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With Gerhart Stepping In, Vikings Offense Won’t Change

Posted by Mike Wobschall on December 30, 2011 – 7:16 am

Following the season-ending knee injury to Adrian Peterson last week in Washington, there will be a change this week at RB for the Vikings. That’s the bad news. The good news, though, is that the change will be restricted to the identity of the starting RB rather than a change in offensive style or philosophy.

The Vikings offense is one built around a strong running game and around the NFL’s best RB. And when you build a team with that makeup, it’s important to have a backup RB who can be trusted with shouldering the load. By selecting Toby Gerhart in the 2nd round of the 2010 NFL Draft, the Vikings secured insurance.

Peterson was sidelined earlier this season with an ankle injury, and Gerhart stepped into the lineup and filled in admirably. He averaged 75.0 rushing yards per game and 3.9 yards per carry with 1 rushing TD while also hauling in 13 receptions for 80 yards and 1 TD. Then when Peterson left last week’s game in the 3rd quarter, Gerhart came in and immediately ripped off a 67-yard rush, the longest of his career, and finished the game with 11 carries for 109 yards, the first 100-yard rushing game of his NFL career.

By no means will anyone argue that Gerhart – or any other NFL RB – can replace the play-making ability of Peterson, but there’s also no question that Gerhart has shown that he can step into the lineup and be the kind of productive runner this Vikings offense needs.

“One of the things about Adrian’s absence earlier in the season, we had a chance to get Toby some extended snaps and we really haven’t altered the offense by any means,” Vikings Head Coach Leslie Frazier said earlier in the week. “Toby has done a very good job in Adrian’s absence, did a great job Saturday of stepping in and performing and rushing for over 100 yards. We really haven’t had to alter things and we really don’t plan to. We look forward to eventually getting Adrian back on the field but we don’t think we have to really alter the offense.”

Another reason besides Gerhart that the Vikings offense will maintain its philosophy for the last game of the season is the offensive line’s run-blocking ability. Yes, the offensive line has been criticized much this season for their pass protection. But this group has been very good in the running game. The Vikings enter the final week of the regular season ranked 3rd in rushing TDs with 17 and 4th in rushing yards per game with 149.3

“I don’t know that it does this last week,” Vikings Offensive Coordinator Bill Musgrave responded when asked if Peterson’s absence would require the offense to change philosophies. “Our O-line has embraced a lot of the concepts that we have gotten good at this year so we want to keep on keeping on in that regard and Toby has proved that whether it be Adrian or Lorenzo Booker or Toby back there, we can block people and create some holes.”

The Peterson-less Vikings offense will have a good challenge this week as they go against a Chicago Bears defense that ranks 6th against the run, allowing just 97.5 rushing yards per game. The Vikings ability to establish the run will be paramount to keeping the Bears defense off-balance, which is an important part of protecting QB Christian Ponder. And protecting Ponder so he can sit in the pocket and develop as a passer is the #1 reason to watch the Vikings this weekend.


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Gerhart, Raymond Up For Weekly Awards

Posted by Mike Wobschall on December 27, 2011 – 10:23 am

A pair of young Vikings are up for weekly awards this week after providing a helping hand in the Vikings victory over the Washington Redskins on Saturday.

RB Toby Gerhart has been nominated for the FedEx Ground NFL Player of the Week after rushing for 109 yards on 11 carries at, appropriately enough, FedEx Field. Joining Gerhart as nominees for the award are Pittsburgh’s Rashard Mendenhall (18-116-1) and Buffalo’s C.J. Spiller (16-111-1). Gerhart has the lowest yardage total of the 3 finalists by a slight margin, but it should also be noted that he gained those yards on just 11 carries.

Vikings fans can vote for Gerhart on NFL.com/FedEx now through 2:00 p.m. CT on Friday.

The other Vikings player up for an award is rookie S Mistral Raymond, who has been nominated for Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Week honors. Raymond tallied 6 tackles, 2 passes defensed and a 4th-quarter INT, which he returned for 31 yards, in the Vikings win over Washington. Raymond’s INT basically sealed the Vikings victory because it set up Ryan Longwell for a 23-yard FG that put the Vikings up by 10 points with just over 4 minutes to play in the game.

Bengals QB Andy Dalton, Raiders WR Denarius Moore, Panthers QB Cam Newton and Redskins RB Evan Royster are also finalists. Vikings fans can vote for Raymond on NFL.com/rookies now through Friday at 11:00 a.m. CT.


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