Once again, this article is reprinted, with permission, from the folks over at The Pulling Linemen, who have full access to all of the practices and other events that are taking place over in the United Kingdom this week. You can check follow them on Twitter at @PullingLinemen, or Gur Samuel (who has been getting this information for us) at @FredtheGur.
Coming off an early-morning walk through with the team, Coach Frazier opened his Thursday press conference with a short statement declaring it to be a "very important day for our team", a day which the Vikings would use to focus on the fundamentals of the game, and to practice some of the situational football that has let them down over the first three weeks of the season - and, of course, to see if QB Christian Ponder's rib injury would prevent him from starting on Sunday.
Frazier informed the assembled media at the Grove Hotel that the team would be using one of its few padded practices allowed during the regular season to "go through our short yardage offense, our goal line offense and defense, and... third down situations". The emphasis on situational football was not surprising, given that twenty minutes earlier, Jared Allen admitted at his own press conference "our situational football right now has been bad. Our two minute drill has been bad. Our third down hasn't been great... our run defense hasn't been that great". Outside of those areas, Allen feels the defense has "been really good in spurts... there's times when we really flash, when we really look good. Look at the second half in Chicago, and take the fake punt out and I think we held the Browns decently". For all that, though, Allen agrees that consistency has been the biggest issue: "It's not OK to do your job five out of ten times, you have to do it every time... we've had the opportunity to shut a game out and we haven't done it, and that's very uncharacteristic of what it used to be around here. You are what you are and right now we're not closing people out. We have to get that fixed... you've got to have that killer mentality and you have to stay aggressive."
These concerns are ones the whole team is aware of - even when they've made splash plays, the defense have not yet put together a complete-enough game to deliver the team it's first W of the 2013 season. "You can get as many turnovers as you want," linebacker Chad Greenway said about a stronger emphasis on taking the ball away, "but if it doesn't translate into wins... the two don't really go together". Greenway followed Allen's lead in identifying consistency as being the real issue: "you look at the second half [of the past two games], we played well both times, we'd take that every time. But the reality is, you don't do that for thirty minutes in the second half, and then those last few minutes get you in both weeks... We've done a good job for some real good stretches at a time, but again, you can play as good as you want but if you're 0-3, it doesn't say you've had any wins. That's just our reality." While Greenway said that of course he would love to be playing with a 21-point lead, as a defense you have to find a way to win regardless of the situation the offense has put the team in.
While their opposition on Sunday is also without a win on the season, it seems unlikely that the defense will be playing with that 21-point lead that Greenway would wish for. The Steelers offense, in the eyes of the Vikings, still present a significant challenge, as Toby has already detailed, and as Greenway learnt in brutal fashion the previous week, you can never underestimate an NFL team. "Everyone thought Cleveland was a team that was just going to lay down because they traded their running back and started their third string quarterback," recounted Greenway, offering insight into the mentality in the locker room heading into last week's shocking loss to the Browns, "but... with the parity that's top to bottom for the most part, there's not a team that's going to lay down, or be a team you can roll your helmet on and say, 'we're the 0-3 Minnesota Vikings and we're going to be OK this week'."
While the defense may have learnt a painful lesson in overlooking your opponent, they can't get to that 21-point lead on their own. There were plenty of questions surrounding Christian Ponder entering this week already, but his inclusion on this week's injury report with a rib injury created even more speculation over the quarterback situation. Frazier said in Thursday's press conference that Ponder had done "probably a little less than we were hoping for" during Wednesday's practice, saying that the quarterback was suffering from soreness during the session. The head coach stated that "we probably wouldn't put him out there [on Sunday] if we didn't see what we needed to by Friday" - though he denied that the possibility of Matt Cassell starting against the Steelers was "purely circumstantial... we want Christian to play, we want him to go out there and continue to develop, but we signed Matt Cassell for situations like this." Ponder himself told us after training that practice "went better [than Wednesday], definitely did a lot more than we expected to", saying that all he can do is "keep getting more reps, and then sit down with Shugs [head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman] and Coach and make the call" about Sunday.
Of particular note was that at Ponder's press conference on Wednesday, he claimed that he had been "told" that he had been hurt. When challenged about his quarterback's suspicious phrasing, Frazier merely replied that "I don't know what he meant when he said that.... if he can do more, that'll be great for us but if he can't, we think we've got a capable guy who we think can step in and do well for us," praising Cassell's past success in the league, the way he prepares as a back up but also his ability to step into the starting role if called upon. Let the speculation continue.
Other notes from Thursday's practice and press conferences:
- Frazier said that if neither Chris Cook nor AJ Jefferson would be able to practice on either Thursday or Friday, they would like look at elevating a DB from the practice squad for Sunday's game.
- In light of Steelers safety Ryan Clark's comments about a potential London franchise, Jared Allen expressed similar sentiments about playing in London on a more permanent basis: "it's a lot to ask of a player... I wouldn't sign over here for the fact that every road trip is going to be 3, 4, 5 days away from your family."
- That travel issue was a topic of conversation among the coaching staff, according to Leslie Frazier: "[we] were talking about that on the way to practice this morning. The travel part, you'd be concerned about depending what city you're travelling from... it's possible for a team to have this as their home base and succeed, I could see that, but the travel part is the part we were talking about and looking at."
- While the issue with travel was a common concern, it wasn't a deal breaker for every player. "I would definitely think about it," Greg Jennings told us after practice, "...I would probably sway to doing it because my wife would be like, 'babe, the shopping would be so great!'... I would be like 'oh, the travel' but she would be like 'I could go to London every other week!', so it would be a toss up."
- Jennings actually listed among the activities he's done in London, "trying to limit my wife's shopping and spending!". He shared his tactics with us: "we didn't go out until 7:30, because all the shops start closing at 8!"
- Frazier was particularly glowing about Jennings, and what the veteran receiver has done for the locker room. "Compar[ing] him to some of the great receivers I've been around like Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, his personality is one where he's not the typical superstar receiver where he wants it to be about him. A lot of wide receivers really like things to go through them, that can be a high maintenance group. Greg is the ultimate team guy. He really cares about his team mates, about whats going on around him, and that's unique with a guy with his talent and the recognition he's received... In that way, his personality is unique, being a wide receiver who is genuinely concerned about the team instead of his stats. He was in my office after the Detroit game, first game of the season, and we would talk, and he said there was a moment in the game where he said, "man, I wouldn't mind if I got this play call or that play call or myself", and he said he thought about it and went "you know what? I'm happy for Jerome [Simpson], this is good for our team. I want Jerome to have success, I want Kyle Rudolph to have success, I want our whole team to have success". That's unique for a guy who has achieved what he's achieved, when you sign a contract to come here, but he wants his team mates to succeed, but ultimately he wants the team to succeed, and that's what you want from your star players. From that standpoint, he's unique."
- Jennings elaborated on his coach's comments after practice: "[Pride] was one of the things I saw myself struggling with during [the Lions] game. Everyone says 'pride is good, pride is good' but pride is NOT GOOD. On a team, you want guys to be competitive, but when you become prideful you're thinking of yourself and yourself only. I found myself being excited for Jerome, but I couldn't be fully excited for him because I was like, 'man, I wish I could get some of those balls'. I shared that with some of the guys, actually I shared that with all of the guys, and just wanted [them] to understand that when pride trickles in... you don't appreciate the things in front of you the same. When you're competitive its one thing, but when you're prideful you're thinking about 'what can I do, why can't I do this'. When you throw pride out of the window, you appreciate what's in front of you, you appreciate every opportunity you get. Being in this new place, this new organisation, new team, I have to embrace that... I've had a successful career up until this point, so I'm not ashamed to step back and be more of a run-blocker, which I have been in this offense. That comes from turning off that pride. I don't see myself as a star, I just see myself as a leader in this locker room that tries to set the right example and sets the tone."
- We asked Jennings if he was trying to model this leadership role on what he saw in Green Bay when Charles Woodson was brought in. "Absolutely," he replied, "I think what Charles did for that locker room was phenomenal, he not only brought what he had accomplished, but he basically set the tone. What he did, with that defense and with the locker room, was lead by example. He didn't care to talk, that's the thing I think people misunderstand. Charles does not like to stand up in front of the team and talk, but when he does speak everyone listens, because his performance on the football field speaks for itself. When you have a guy who can actually speak and perform and back [up] what they're saying, you listen to a guy like that. He brought a veteran leadership to that locker room that we didn't have, that we needed, and I'm trying to do the same thing [here]". He added that, of all the corners he's faced during his time in the league, Woodson was who he found the greatest challenge on the field.
- Rookie defensive tackle Sharif Floyd still has a huge place in hart for Florida: "I will forever miss the college experience. I love the Gators, I'm always a Gator, Gator Nation is everywhere. I wouldn't be surprised if we've got some British Gators, Gator nation is all over the world. I will always miss the Gators but I'm glad to be here, glad to be a Vikings and now I've got two teams to root for."
- Christian Ponder has clearly done his homework on Troy Polamlu: "He's very instinctive, he kind of does his own thing out there. He's a really good player, he obviously studies a lot of tape and he's going to cause us some issues. He makes a play every game, so we're going to be well aware of where he is". Ponder specifically told us he had to be aware of Lawrence Timmons, while singling out LaMarr Woodley and Brett Kiesel as players the offensive line had to make sure to block.
- Harrison Smith shared with us after practice how his second year in the NFL is different from his rookie year: "I think just recognition of plays is getting easier, not that the speed of the game has slowed down but rather my thought process maybe has sped up, where it doesn't make you feel so panicky... I just think it helps out and gives you a better sense of calmness." Smith said he took pride in Brandon Marshall's recent statement describing him the hardest-hitting safety in the league: "Coming from a guy like Marshall, in my opinion he's always been one of the hardest receivers to go against, so hearing that is good for me, and I just want to keep that going". Unlike his fellow DB, Robert Steeples, Smith turned down our DB Rap Challenge - but you can hear Steeples' own effort below!