Cole looking set at MLB: If the fact the Vikings moved Erin Henderson back to weak-side linebacker didn't clear it up, the fact the Vikings plan to make Audie Cole, and not Henderson, their middle linebacker in the nickel package should suggest the plan to make Cole the middle linebacker isn't a passing fancy. Coach Leslie Frazier said Henderson took to his old outside linebacker spot "like riding a bike," and as well as Cole has played in pass coverage the past two weeks, there's probably no reason to switch anything up there. Henderson admitted the move hurt his pride, but he seems to be accepting it for now. Given what Frazier said this week about Henderson not being the Vikings' preferred plan at middle linebacker, it's safe to assume he could stay outside if Cole keeps showing he can handle the middle.
Special teams could be pivotal: The Ravens and Vikings both have dynamic return men who could affect Sunday's game; Baltimore kick returner Jacoby Jones has a 26.5-yard return average this season, and punt returner Tandon Doss is averaging 15.6 yards per return, with an 82-yard touchdown to his credit. The Vikings, of course, have three TDs between kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson (two) and punt returner Marcus Sherels (one). "Their kickoff return guy, Jones, he's impressive," Frazier said. "Of course, our guy is special as well. Whether it be a turnover or kick return or punt return, it could turn this game for sure."
Preparing for Pitta: Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta is hopeful he'll make his season debut on Sunday after dislocating his hip in July, and if he does, the Vikings will have another element of the Ravens' offense to think about. They've been burned by several tight ends this year, giving up at least 60 yards to an opposing tight end in six games, but Cole's presence could help there. If Pitta plays -- which coach John Harbaugh wouldn't divulge on Friday -- the Vikings will be in for a test. "He’s a pretty tough matchup for linebackers and sometimes even safeties," Frazier said. "He’s almost a wide receiver in a lot of ways and it seems like he’s one of those guys that their quarterback looks for often. So he presents some challenges for your defense for sure."
Wet weather possible: Aside from rain in Week 2 in Chicago, the Vikings haven't had to deal with much inclement weather the past few seasons. That could change on Sunday, with the game-time forecast calling for a mix of rain and snow. And as we mentioned earlier this week, the Vikings are just 1-6-1 since 2006 when game-time temperatures are 40 or below, according to ESPN Stats & Information. "The guys will figure it out. We'll go play, regardless of the elements," Frazier said. "Depending on how bad the conditions are, it'll determine how much you're throwing the ball and how much you're running the ball. We'll see when we get out there in pregame."
Cassel vs. Ravens: Even though he'd spent his entire career in the AFC before this season, Matt Cassel had only started one game against the Ravens -- and he probably doesn't have many good memories about it. He completed nine of his 15 passes for 92 yards and two interceptions last year, being knocked out with a head injury and missing the Kansas City Chiefs' next game after they lost 9-6 to the Ravens at Arrowhead Stadium. The Ravens' defense looks quite a bit different than the one Cassel faced last year, but he'll look to solve Baltimore's scheme on Sunday.
Ponder still has not passed the NFL's concussion protocol, and hasn't been able to practice all week. He worked out on Friday without a helmet, but will still need to clear the concussion test to put himself in the mix to play on Dec. 15 against the Philadelphia Eagles.
For Sunday, Cassel will start, with Josh Freeman backing him up. Ponder is one of three players the Vikings ruled out for the game, along with cornerback Josh Robinson (fractured sternum) and tight end Kyle Rudolph (fractured foot).
Running back Adrian Peterson got some light work on Friday, and will play Sunday with his strained groin. Coach Leslie Frazier said the Vikings will likely have to limit Peterson's practice time the rest of the year because of the injury; they have held him out of Wednesday and Thursday practices for the past three weeks before practicing him on Friday.
"It's similar to what we had to do a year ago, when he had a similar injury [a sports hernia] in the month of December," Frazier said. "We'll have to manage it through the rest of the regular season."
Frazier also said wide receiver Greg Childs practiced for a third straight day on Friday, as he tries to recover from two torn patellar tendons in time to be activated off the physically unable to perform list by next week's deadline and possibly see game action for the first time since he was injured in August 2012. And safety Harrison Smith is still on track to return from injured reserve next week and play against the Eagles after missing two months with turf toe.
When the Vikings drafted UCLA punter Jeff Locke in the fifth round of last April's draft, ostensibly to replace Chris Kluwe, they made the move largely because of how they thought Locke could help them pin opponents deep in their own territory. Locke had a strong leg, but was also a skilled directional kicker and had learned the Aussie-style kicks favored by many punters for shorter kicks.
But Locke struggled early this season, and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer told the punter, as only he could, that Locke was "the dumbest smart guy I've ever met in my life.
"Because all he did was think," Priefer said, according to Derek Wetmore of 1500ESPN.com. "He was overthinking, overanalyzing everything and he just wasn't going out there and doing what he does. He's got a beautiful leg swing when the drop is closer to being perfect or perfect, we get what we want. And when it's not perfect, that's OK, that's football. He's just got to understand that he's going to be a more consistent punter when he approaches it that way."
Locke graduated from UCLA with a degree in economics, a 3.885 GPA and a banking internship. He helped publish a study on whether college athletes should be paid. There's no question the rookie punter is an intellectual, but that can sometimes backfire on athletes. Locke has put five punts inside the 20 in the last two games, and seems on his way to evening out his first season in the NFL. He was Priefer's handpicked punter before the draft, and the Vikings believe he can become one of the better specialists in the league, in time.
Here are today's other Vikings stories of note:
- We looked at how Adrian Peterson is still learning to be patient when running behind another running back, and how he finally found the success in two-back sets last Sunday that he had last season.
- The state's charitable gambling plan, which was initially supposed to pay for much of Minnesota's $348 million share of the Vikings' new stadium, brought in just $89,000 in taxes in fiscal year 2013, according to Doug Belden of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
- A $400 million development just west of the Vikings' new stadium could be in jeopardy because of Wells Fargo's demands for bright signs that would be visible during football games, writes Eric Roper of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
- Cordarrelle Patterson still wonders if he could have scored on a return of the Bears' 66-yard field goal on Sunday, writes Master Tesfatsion of the Star Tribune.
- Defensive end Everson Griffen thinks the Vikings' recent improvement on third down is due to an attitude shift, according to John Holler of Viking Update.
Williams said Thursday that he was fined $26,000, but the exact amount likely was $26,250, which is the minimum fine for that offense. The NFL confirms most fines on Friday. Minnesota Vikings cornerback Chris Cook received a similar fine this week for making contact with an official in Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears.
Unlike Williams, Cook was ejected.
"I think they might have said, 'OK guys let's emphasize this,'" Williams said. "But I mean, c'mon man, the referee's on the field just like us. I didn't think Chris Cook's was actually that bad for him to get thrown out."
After the game, Williams called it a "total misunderstanding."
On Thursday, he said Lions center Dominic Raiola shoved him at the end of the play -- a 1-yard touchdown run by Joique Bell in the fourth quarter. Williams appeared to be walking toward Raiola when back judge Dino Paganelli walked in between the two. Williams then brushed away Paganelli.
"I don't think I initiated the contact, but I did finish the contact, I guess," Williams said.
Williams said he planned to appeal the fine.
"Didn't mean any harm by it at all," Williams said. "Wouldn't do that if I knew who it was. Hopefully they give me some money back."
Peterson still leads the league with 1,208 rushing yards, and he might have more if he were able to run at full speed. "I know this: Some of those 20-yard runs could be 40- or 60-yard runs. We've seen that," Frazier said. "He's working as hard as he can, but it's tough to get [to] 100 percent in two or three days [of practice]."
In other Vikings injury news:
- Quarterback Christian Ponder still hasn't cleared the NFL's concussion protocol, and he did not practice on Thursday. While Ponder could practice Friday if he is cleared, Frazier said it's "probably not" realistic to expect Ponder to be active on Sunday. Frazier said Wednesday the Vikings planned to start Matt Cassel.
- Safety Jamarca Sanford, who missed practice on Wednesday with an ankle injury, returned to practice in a limited role on Thursday, and it appears likely he will play on Sunday.
- Linebacker Larry Dean (knee) was out of practice again, as was cornerback Josh Robinson (chest). Defensive end Jared Allen (finger), linebacker Chad Greenway (wrist) and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd (illness) were limited.
- Safety Harrison Smith has looked good in practice, Frazier said, and the Vikings still expect Smith to return from turf toe and come off injured reserve on Dec. 15 against the Philadelphia Eagles.
- Tight end Kyle Rudolph (foot) has been unable to practice this week. The Vikings had hoped to get him back on the practice field, Frazier said, but will now likely have to wait until next week.
- Wide receiver Greg Childs, who has been out all season after tearing the patellar tendons in both knees during training camp last year, has practiced the last two days, but Frazier wasn't sure if the Vikings will activate him from the physically unable to perform list or put him on injured reserve. The Vikings must make a decision on Childs next week.
But, he admitted, the thing he often doesn't like about them might be the thing that helps him the most.
Peterson likes to be alone in the backfield because it allows him to hit the line of scrimmage with a full head of steam, but that can occasionally work against him when he's not patient enough to let a play develop.
"I'm just so quick to shoot the gun sometimes. Plays when you have two pullers or three pullers in front of you, you have to be more patient," he said. "I haven't had a lot of time over my career being patient. So that's why sometimes, I don't like the fullback in front of me. When I work on myself and try to be more patient, you see what happens last week."
Peterson averaged 7.15 yards per carry in two- or three-back sets last year, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and was at a pedestrian 4.05 yards per carry when he was the only running back in the backfield. This year, he hasn't found the same success running behind a fullback; he's at 4.27 yards per carry in two-back sets, and 5.20 in a one-back set.
But last Sunday, when Peterson established season highs in both carries and yards, he did much of his work behind another running back. He got 21 of his 35 carries with two or more running backs in the backfield, and ran for 139 of his 211 yards -- averaging 6.62 yards a carry with at least one other back.
"Based off last week, I wouldn't say it was difficult," he said. "You've got Jerome [Felton] pulling around, you've got [John] Carlson pulling around, and I'm doing my job, being more patient, allowing those guys to get in front of me. You see how effective it can be in the run game. It worked out well."
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- When Adrian Peterson said on ESPN Radio on Wednesday that he'd be intrigued by the possibility of playing in his home state, it wasn't the first time he'd raised the idea. Peterson is a proud Texan who spends his offseasons in Houston and returns to his hometown of Palestine each year for "Adrian Peterson Day." He sponsors a girls basketball team in his hometown, and when he got asked in an online chat this summer which team he would have preferred to play for had the Minnesota Vikings not drafted him, Peterson simply replied, "Texans!"
That the 28-year-old should have ties to home isn't a surprise. But it will be particularly interesting to see what happens in the next year or two, and whether the reigning NFL MVP gets any urge to act on them.
Peterson is signed with the Vikings through 2017, and in the same SVP and Russillo interview, he talked about how "it would be so amazing to be one of those players who stays with one team his entire career." In reality, his fate is more in the Vikings' hands than anyone else's, and the salary-cap ramifications of his contract complicate any potential move. But he turns 29 next spring, and could conceivably spend the rest of his prime with the Vikings as they try to bring up another young quarterback. Peterson got to the doorstep of the Super Bowl in 2010 -- he fumbled twice in a NFC Championship Game the Vikings lost in overtime -- and badly wants to win a championship. He's supported coach Leslie Frazier and quarterback Christian Ponder, and said he believes the Vikings are on the right track, but another year or two of losing could test his loyalty.
The refreshing thing about Peterson -- and the important thing to remember here -- is that he'll often entertain hypotheticals in interviews, speaking his mind about far-off scenarios rather than gunning them down and keeping his answers rooted in bland NFL minutiae. The barriers to him playing anywhere else are high, and it's hard to say right now that the Cowboys or Texans would be in any better position to get Peterson a championship than the Vikings would. But his comments are a reminder that Peterson's eyes are open to what's going on elsewhere, and that the Vikings need to take advantage of the reigning NFL MVP in his prime while they have him.
And while Peterson says he'd like to spend his entire career in Minnesota, he admitted Wednesday in an ESPN Radio interview that he has also thought about what it would be like to play for another team -- namely, one in his home state of Texas.
"You know, I'd be a liar if I said it's something that hasn't crossed my mind before," Peterson said on "SVP & Russillo."
"But I've also said to myself it would be so amazing to be one of those players who stays with one team his entire career, it would be good if I could do that. But being from Texas, I've always wondered, wow, it would be cool to play in Dallas, to play back home. Or to play in Houston."
Peterson grew up in Palestine, Texas, about two hours from Dallas, and rooted for the Cowboys as a kid. He lives in Houston in the offseason, and did most of his rehab from reconstructive knee surgery there in 2012.
He bought tickets for more than 100 friends and family when the Vikings played in Houston last December. When the Vikings traveled to Dallas on Nov. 3, Peterson purchased tickets for 62 people.
Peterson said before the game he knew many of his family and friends would be rooting for the Cowboys. But what he said then sounded very similar to what he said on ESPN Radio this week.
The Baltimore Ravens are looking to continue their push for a sixth consecutive playoff berth Sunday when they play the Minnesota Vikings at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Ravens (6-6) have won two straight to take control of the last playoff spot in the AFC and are coming off an emotional victory over the rival Pittsburgh Steelers. What Baltimore can't afford is a letdown against the last-place Vikings (3-8-1).
The Vikings are quietly playing their best football of a disappointing season, rallying from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to beat the Chicago Bears on Sunday. And while the Ravens are playing for their playoff lives, coach Leslie Frazier and the Vikings players are equally desperate because their jobs could be on the line in the final month of the regular season.
This is how ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley see the fifth meeting between these teams unfolding:
Jamison Hensley: The Vikings have only lost once in their past four games. What's been the biggest difference with the Vikings recently?
Ben Goessling: The biggest constant in the two wins (and the tie against Green Bay) has been their quarterback play; it still hasn't been great, and probably won't be at any point this year, but Christian Ponder (or Matt Cassel last week) has been able to keep the offense moving without turning the ball over as frequently as the Vikings' QBs were earlier this season. In their three wins and one tie, the Vikings have a combined four turnovers. With Adrian Peterson coming off his two best games of the season, the rest of the offense doesn't have to be great. It merely has to hang on to the ball, keep drives moving and let Peterson do his work.
What's been the problem with the Ravens' running game? Ray Rice was never the most efficient back, in terms of yards per carry, but it's been stunning to see how limited he's been. What's going on there?
Jamison Hensley: The Ravens' running game has been the biggest weakness on offense all season. Ray Rice doesn't have the same burst, and the offensive line isn't creating any space for him. Rice, who is averaging 2.9 yards per carry, can't shoulder all the blame. Backup Bernard Pierce is gaining 2.8 yards per carry. The Ravens haven't totally abandoned the running game, they're just not relying on it. Rice has only carried the ball more than 20 times once in the past seven games. Baltimore could test the Vikings' run defense, which ranks 23rd, just like it did against the Bears last month. But this has been a pass-heavy offense for most of the year.
It's a totally different story with the Vikings. Peterson is leading the NFL with 1,208 yards rushing, which is 235 more than the Ravens have totaled as a team. How does he continue to be effective when defenses are always focused on stopping him?
Goessling: That's the remarkable thing about him -- he does all this when everybody knows he's getting the ball. And right now, he's doing it with a strained groin that has robbed him of some of his breakaway speed. He had 211 yards on Sunday, but probably could have pushed toward 250 if he'd been able to extend a couple of runs the way he normally does. Peterson is the best in the business at a lot of things, but chief among them might be his ability to find cutback lanes and isolate himself on one defender. Once he does that, your odds of bringing him down aren't very good; if he doesn't have his top speed, he'll just run you over.
It seems like the Ravens' defense is finally hitting its stride with all of its new pieces after a rough start to the season. What has led to that, and do you think the Vikings will be able to run effectively on the Ravens with Peterson?
Hensley: The Ravens knew their defense was going to be a work-in-progress, especially in the first half of the season. Baltimore had to replace six players who started on defense in the Super Bowl. As expected, Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil have provided pressure off the edge. The surprising part has been the play in the middle of the defense with defensive lineman Art Jones, middle linebacker Daryl Smith and safety James Ihedigbo. The run defense ranks No. 6 in the NFL, although I wouldn't describe the Ravens as dominant in this area. The Ravens can't expect to shut down Peterson. The key is containing him and keeping him under 120 yards.
While the focus is undoubtedly on Peterson, the other storyline is the Vikings' starting quarterback position, which has been in flux all season and remains up in the air for Sunday. Is there a drop-off if Matt Cassel has to replace Christian Ponder against the Ravens?
Goessling: I really don't think so; the Vikings' passing game, in some ways, has functioned better with Cassel than it has with anyone else all season. He's still the only Vikings quarterback to throw for more than 240 yards in a game, and he just looks more assertive commanding the offense than Ponder does. Greg Jennings has his only three touchdown catches from Cassel, and part of that, I think, is that Cassel gets the ball out quickly and finds Jennings in stride better than Ponder can. Jennings needs a quarterback who will give him room to run after the catch, and Cassel has done that effectively. If he starts, there's no reason he can't be as productive or more productive than Ponder.
After winning a Super Bowl and getting his big contract, Joe Flacco doesn't look the part of an elite quarterback right now. Can he turn it around against a Minnesota pass defense that's been pretty inept all year?
Hensley: Flacco has been slowly turning around his season lately, and he could be on the verge of a big game against the Vikings. One of the reasons why the Ravens have won their past two games is Flacco's ability to stretch the field again. Baltimore's offensive line has been giving Flacco a safer pocket, which has allowed him time to find the likes of Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones deep downfield. Flacco has to like what he saw on tape from last Sunday's game, when Josh McCown threw for 355 yards and two touchdowns against Minnesota.
Williams has missed just three games because of injury in 11 seasons. The third one came in the first week of this season, after Williams had hyperextended his knee on a low block from San Francisco's Joe Looney in the preseason. Still feeling the effects of the injury, Williams returned the next week in Chicago and made an interception.
Williams' teammates voted him their recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award, which is given to a player from each team who embodies the principles of sportsmanship and courage. The award generally goes to a player who has overcome long odds to get where he is, but for Williams, the triumph might come simply in his longevity.
He has played more games than any other defensive tackle in Vikings history, having surpassed Alan Page earlier this season, and even though the team planned to use him less frequently this season, the 33-year-old Williams is still a vital part of the defensive line. He has 2.5 sacks and a fumble recovery to go with his interception, and has seen some snaps at nose tackle since he filled in for Letroy Guion there and recorded all of his sacks on Nov. 7 against Washington.
"He has been outstanding in every area, whether it be off the field or on the field," coach Leslie Frazier said. "He's well-deserving of this award, and it shows you the respect that his teammates have for him."
Williams' teammates could also be getting one of their final chances to honor the defensive tackle. He is in the final year of his contract after agreeing to forfeit the 2014 season on his deal and give back $2.5 million this season in exchange for a guaranteed base salary. The Vikings drafted Sharrif Floyd to succeed him, and Williams seemed to know on Wednesday that his time in Minnesota might be drawing to a close. When asked about playing with defensive end Jared Allen, who is also a free agent after this season, Williams said, "You're going to make me get sentimental," and gave a wise dissertation on the realities of the NFL.
"Coming in as a rookie, you’re bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and you never know what to expect," he said. "It takes three or four years to actually realize this is is a billion-dollar business and each team does everything it can to win. It’s nothing personal, but it’s all business and you have to soak up all of the moments you can, all the wins you can get, enjoy the playoff runs and embrace all of the people you meet and the friends you make because one day it’s eventually going to be done. Right now I’m just trying to play ball, enjoy the group I’m with and we’ll see where we go at the end of the year. "
It's possible the Vikings could bring Williams back on a one-year deal, especially after they've relied on him so much this season, but their willingness to part with Antoine Winfield suggests Williams shouldn't count on that. If he is in his final days with the Vikings, though, he's closing a run that could one day land him in the Hall of Fame. This week, it earned him an award from his teammates.
"It’s a tremendous honor for me for my teammates to think that highly of me," he said. "It just shows you what you’re doing on the team and in the community, it really pays off."