Despite the Minnesota Vikings having a bye this week, there was still plenty of things to talk about. Tops on the list has been who starts at quarterback when the Carolina Panthers come to town for a Week 6 battle.
Last week, Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier continued to tell anyone who would listen that Christian Ponder is his starter. Even after the surprise signing of Josh Freeman, it's not clear who is the front-runner. In his press conference on Monday, posted on the Vikings website, Frazier indicated that he will be looking at how well Ponder practices this week.
We're going to see how Christian does on Wednesday, but between he and Matt, they'll be the guys that will start the game. We're not going to try to get Josh up and going for this ball game.
So that postpones for a bit Freeman's entrance into the quarterback controversy.
It's mind boggling that Frazier continues to support Ponder. If the organization really felt he was the long-term answer at quarterback, then there was no reason to sign Freeman. Frazier indicated that Freeman will compete for a chance to start, but why else would he have signed with the Vikings if not to be the starter?
So now the debate will shift from whether Ponder and Matt Cassel starts to who starts between Freeman and Cassel. The worst-case scenario for Frazier would be for Cassel to play flawlessly against the Panthers and wind up 2-0 as the starter.
The other hot topic during the Vikings' bye week has been the condition of the defensive backfield, specifically the cornerbacks. The Vikings desperately could use Antoine Winfield, but after Minnesota released him during the offseason to save money, what incentive can the Vikings provide to persuade him to sign with them? (Winfield retired just prior to the 2013 season when it appeared that the Seattle Seahawks were about to release him.)
Returning to play for a team that is 1-3 and currently in last place in its division, sporting one of the worst defenses in the NFL, does not sound like the right situation for a veteran player—no matter how much money the team in question throws his way.
At 36 years old, Winfield would no doubt like to play for a Super Bowl contender. A team on such a short list might be the Denver Broncos. Denver is 5-0, but its defense is yielding the most passing yards per game in the NFL at 347.0 yards.
This past weekend's games finished exactly as I expected for the NFC North. With the Green Bay Packers dominating the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field, and the New Orleans Saints staying perfect in Chicago, the division has tightened up a bit.
On paper the Packers might have the toughest test this weekend having to go to Baltimore. On the other hand, the Bears need to be careful hosting the 0-5 New York Giants. Look for New York and its head coach to come into Soldier Field with nothing to lose.
The Lions look to have an easy road this week. With Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer lost for the season with a torn ACL in his right knee, a win in Cleveland will keep the Lions even with the Bears atop the division.
For the Vikings, even a win over the Panthers—and that's no guarantee—will not be enough to lift them from the basement of the NFC North, regardless how the rest of the division fares.
There were no additional injuries for Minnesota from its Week 4 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Vikings were without starters Chris Cook at cornerback and Jamarca Sanford at safety. Both were back at practice on Monday as were Ponder and tight end Rhett Ellison.
The Vikings desperately need Cook to return to his starting role and perform like the team's top cornerback—something he has not done yet this year. If he can do that, his presence then gives defensive coordinator Alan Williams some flexibility.
What Must Improve
Despite all the attention paid to the Ponder-Cassel debate, the problem for the Vikings this year has not been the offense, or more specifically, scoring points. According to Stat Milk, Minnesota's offense is ranked fifth in the NFL with a 28.8 scoring average.
The problem is the defense, which is ranked 29th in the NFL and yielding 30.8 points per game.
By doing nothing in Week 5 (the bye week) the Vikings passing-yards-allowed ranking improved. They moved up from last in the NFL in passing yards allowed to 21st. Even when their 1,304 passing yards allowed is averaged out per game, they moved up a couple of spots, to 30th in the league at 326.0 yards per game and into a tie with the Phildelphia Eagles.
The shootout in Dallas dropped the Dallas Cowboys (326.4 yards per game) and the Broncos (347.0) below the Vikings. Now if only that improvement can continue with the defense on the field.
Despite the Vikings defense sacking Ben Roethlisberger five times in Week 4, Big Ben was still able to pass for 383 yards. This week the Vikings will have to figure out a way to slow down Cam Newton. In a 22-6 loss to the Cardinals in Arizona, Newton completed 21 of 39 passes for 308 yards. However, Newton did throw three interceptions.
The Vikings defense has done a better job at getting interceptions this season. Linebackers Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson are tied with safety Harrison Smith for the team lead with two interceptions. The only other interception belongs to defensive tackle Kevin Williams; it would be great to see more cornerbacks join the interception party.
As a rookie last season, Josh Robinson finished with two interceptions. That was one behind the team lead shared by Smith and Winfield. If Robinson, who opposing quarterbacks have targeted more than any other Viking CB, could pick off a couple of passes, he might not be picked on so much. The fact that he is currently fourth on the team with 29 tackles is also not a good sign. The next closest cornerback is Marcus Sherels with nine tackles.
The Panthers come to town averaging fewer passing yards but more rushing yards than the Vikings. Newton is threat to run, and the Vikings defense will have to find a way to keep him in the pocket and limit his effectiveness.
A quick look at the defenses really shows the problem for the Vikings. The Panthers have the third-ranked defense in the NFL, giving up only 301.5 yards per game—130 fewer yards than its Vikings counterpart.
No doubt this game will depend on how well the Minnesota D can slow down Newton and the Panthers.