This article is reprinted with permission from the folks over at The Pulling Linemen. The pictures contained herein are theirs as well. We thank them very much for allowing us to use their stuff to bring you more coverage of the Minnesota Vikings' trip to the United Kingdom. You can follow them on Twitter at @PullingLinemen, or the man that's providing the info, Gur Samuel, at @FredtheGur.
A full sized grass football field (complete with Y-shaped goal posts), a Portakabin-style mobile fully-equipped weight room, cold tubs, video platforms atop cranes - if it weren't for meticulous green lawns that surrounded the area, you could be forgiven for thinking you were at an NFL training facility, rather than one of the most exclusive luxury hotels in the vicinity of London. Various people at the Vikings organisation, for the ownership down to the players, have stressed that the team have tried to make this as normal a week as possible, and from the facilities we were shown at the Grove, it's an aim the Vikes have pulled out all the stops to try and achieve.
It's not the only measure they've taken to try and make the Vikings seem at home; co-owner Mark Wilf stated at his Wednesday press conference that "we're going to try and... create as much a home field element as we can" at Wembley this Sunday - including bringing over The Horn. It might not be the last time that they try to turn Wembley into Mall of America Field: London Edition, either. Wilf said that the team were open to returning to London for another game before construction is completed on the new Vikings Stadium in 2016 - depending, of course, on how this week goes.
Yes, business as usual means that everyone is still under just as much scrutiny over their 0-3 start here in the UK as they would be in Minnesota. "Obviously it's been a very disappointing start for our football team," said Wilf, this week is a big game for us". No-one seemed to feel - or at least, admitted to feeling - the pressure more than general manager Rick Spielman, who in a rare move gave an in-season press conference, something the GM would usually not do but felt that the occasion called for: "any time you line up on that field, regardless of where you're playing, there's pressure. There's pressure to win this league, regardless of home, away, overseas in London, it still comes down to winning football games - and you feel that pressure very weekend."
Head Coach Leslie Frazier was in particular aware of how important a win this Sunday would be at this point of the season: "you don't want to go into the bye following a loss, particularly when you are where we are at this juncture. It's a big game for us, we... know the importance of that and we're going to prepare in that way."
'Preparation' has taken on an extra meaning this week - the team needs to be prepared in the event that their starting quarterback, Christian Ponder, will not be able to play this weekend due to a rib injury he sustained against the Browns. If Ponder isn't good to go, the team will turn to Matt Cassell, who was specifically targeted by the organisation. "We were looking at a talented football player", Spielman recounted, "but also one that would fit the scheme. One thing you don't want? To put your coaches in a predicament [where] you bring in... a guy that doesn't fit in schematically with what our coaches are trying to do". To that extent, Cassell fits the bill - coach Frazier reiterated that "we don't really think we have to alter the gameplan" should Cassell get the nod over Ponder. While the coaches may not think the gameplan needs altering, there is one thing that certainly needs to change - turnovers. "We've turned the ball over a lot these last three ball games," said Frazier, "and we feel like that has a lot to do with where we are, so we'll continue to emphasise [that] this will be a great week to come out of a game with no turnovers."
If Ponder is cleared to play, he knows he needs to do a better job, in particular when it comes to 'telegraphing' his passes: "What I see on film are obvious to me", said the quarterback, "...the ultimate goal is to win football games and we haven't done that this year. I've had a part in that. I'm going to change and make sure we play better."
The turnover battle, as Toby highlighted earlier, is something that Ponder knows he needs to win if he wants to give his team a chance. "We've had too many. W're up to ten in three games and that's a big negative... the defense is doing a great job of taking the ball away and giving it to us, but we keep giving it to them, and that's something that has to change," Ponder explained on Wednesday.
There may not be a better opportunity to escape a game without giving the ball away than this Sunday against the Steelers, who remain the only team in the NFL to have yet claimed a turnover of their own. Still, the Vikings learnt last week against the Browns that they cannot take anyone for granted. "They're still in a position to make some plays, it just hasn't happened yet," said Frazier, "they're still playing good defense, got guys running to the ball and being around the ball, but it just hasn't happened [for them]." Adrian Peterson expressed similar respect for the Steelers defense at his own press conference: "[there's] potential for a lot of things to happen. Those guys are good [and] there's some young guys on their front... it's a pretty solid defense so it's a good challenge for us."
Of course, it's not just the Steelers defense the Vikings need to be concerned about. All-Pro defensive end Jared Allen knows he'll have his work cut out for him with the Steeler in the #7 jersey, as he told us after practice: "He's one of the guys I've never sacked, So I've got to get him on the ground. He does such a great job... he's elusive, he might not have the speed but his pocket presence is second to none. He can shake a tackle, you're not going to arm tackle him, you're not gonna grab him by his jersey... he's not gonna get down gently."
The Vikings will be hoping to have the support of the NFL fans in the stands but they know that no matter who the crowd are rooting for, it will be unlike something they're used to experiencing so early in the season. "When we get to Wembley Stadium, that kind of atmosphere will be a playoff-type atmosphere", said Spielman. Allen too said he was expecting "absolute chaos... everyone I've spoke to has said the atmosphere is great and the fact that it sold out so quick shows the fans are really enthusiastic about it." Peterson's attitude is that "it's a home game for us. We have a lot of fans here, a lot of fans that came in to support us as well," but maintained that "whatever the atmosphere is, we know we've got to get a W. That's our main mission." Frazier wasn't as confident as his running back about the crowd's loyalites: "we know it's not going to be 100% Vikings fans, it could potentially be split. We have to be prepared for that... we're going to prepare, understanding what the circumstances are, and try to have our players prepared for the fact that it won't be like it is at Mall of America Field in Minnesota".
Some other tidbits from yesterday's Vikings practice and press conferences:
- While Leslie Frazier is grateful for how much the Rooney Rule has helped minority coaches in the NFL, he doesn't feel he knows enough about soccer to say whether or not it should be adopted by the Premier League.
- Speaking of the Premier League, co-owner Mark Wilf said that while he couldn't ever rule out following in the footsteps of some other NFL owners in buying a Premier League team of his own - making note that it is "one of the finest brands in sports" - his attention, as far as soccer goes, is on bringing an MLS franchise to Minnesota, saying it was something that the Wilfs were "looking very hard at."
- Wilf wouldn't be drawn into a protracted conversation over the recent ruling in a damages claim filed against the Vikings owners, other than to say that they would be appealing ruling, and that "it doesn't affect one iota our commitment and ability to conclude negotiations and move on to get the stadium done and opened in the fall of 2016."
- Rick Spielman, despite making the trip over, is still partially operating on Central Time in order to be able to scan the waiver wire, together with his personnel staff who remained in Minnesota. The GM had been up until after 2am local time, seeing if there were any potential moves to be made - and if any potential signings had a passport so that they could join the team over in London. Spielman added that they already began preparing passports for all 90 players on the roster back during training camp, so that no matter who ended up on the final 53, they wouldn't have any travel issues.
- When asked about re-signing Antoine Winfield, Spielman would neither confirm nor deny that he's had any contact with the veteran corner or his agent, saying that he couldn't rule a potential reunion in or out. "You never know", said Spielman coyly.
- Adrian Peterson expressed an interest in an acting career after hanging his cleats up.
- Jared Allen seems to be enjoying traditional British cuisine during his trip - particularly mentioning his fondness for bangers and mash - and spent some of his off time at a nearby pub, talking with the locals and learning about the pub's history. Which is pretty much what you'd expect from Jared Allen, frankly.
- Allen said that the best tackle he's faced in the NFL was "Joe Thomas without a doubt. Joe's probably the best in the league, just the way he operates, the way he works and the way he moves on you. He's got great hands, great feet, he's a big body and the way he sets you he forces you to rush into some of his strengths."
- Unknown to many, Matt Kalil wrote the names of two British Vikings fans who were killed in a car crash on his armband during last year's playoff came. We asked him about the gesture after practice:
I'm pretty involved in Twitter, I like to do anything I can especially to help Vikings fans... some of their family members and friends approached me on Twitter and I thought it was the least I could do, to represent Vikings fans out there that had passed away. I thought it would have meant a whole lot to them, so especially to do that in a playoff atmosphere, it was the least I could do.
- Finally, some of you may remember during the run up to last year's International Series, Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan answered some of our questions with a freestyle rap. We decided to find a defensive back from the Vikings to see if they could out-rap Finnegan, and practice squad corner Robert Steeples stepped up to the plate. Come back later today for Steeples' rap, as well as photos and videos from Vikings' practice.