Vikings struggling anew to air the ball out

Vikings struggling anew to air the ball out

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) For the Minnesota Vikings to maintain their winning record in the second half of the season, the passing game must improve.

As built as they are around the exploits of running back Adrian Peterson, the ball simply has to move farther and more often through the air than it has in October.

Christian Ponder's 6.65-yard average per attempt ranks 25th in the league. All seven of his interceptions have been thrown in the last four games. The problems transcend the quarterback, as they often do in the NFL, but he's where the offense begins and ends. During Minnesota's 36-17 loss to Tampa Bay last week, Ponder wasn't able to lift the passing game out of the rut it's in.

``Everything's fixable, so we've just got to fix it,'' Ponder said.

With nine days between their last game and Sunday's matchup at Seattle, the Vikings have refocused on fundamentals. Ponder has concentrated on his footwork in the pocket when the pressure is on, trying to make sure he steps forward rather than shuffling left or right. The wide receivers, from Percy Harvin to Jerome Simpson, have been working on sharpening their routes.

Whether from poor protection by the offensive line, bad decisions by Ponder, receivers not finding open spaces or simply good, smart defense against them, these breakdowns for the Vikings have been induced by a variety of factors.

``If it's a 12-yard route, not cutting it short at eight yards. That just throws off the timing of the quarterback,'' Harvin said, adding: ``The plays are there. We look on film, and guys are open. We're not clicking at the same time.''

Harvin said the Buccaneers talked after the game about sending all the blitzes they had in their playbook, confident the Vikings didn't have enough time in a shortened week to prepare for them all. So even though the Seahawks aren't a blitz-heavy defense, the Vikings would be foolish not to expect extra pressure.

One of the problems, Frazier said, is that Peterson's production has actually attracted blitzes designed to fill the gaps and stop him. But the responsibility still falls on Ponder to avoid the sack and find the open receiver. Because the offense can always count on someone being open when an extra defender comes on a rush.

``I've just got to do a better job of recognizing it and getting the ball out of my hands and finding that spot where they're most vulnerable,'' Ponder said.

Frazier said he's not concerned about his second-year quarterback's ability to make the right play against the blitz - and make it count.

``He's grown so much when it comes to dealing with pressure, whether it comes from a guy coming off the edge or somebody in his face,'' Frazier said. ``And he'll get better as time goes on.''

One potential source for a boost to the passing game is rookie Jarius Wright, who is healthy but has yet to be on the active list for any game this year. The fourth-round draft pick from Arkansas has the kind of speed that could help provide an alternative to Harvin in the slot position, and he's been running routes after practice recently, perhaps a sign the Vikings are finally ready to use him.

``I'm 85 to 90 percent a different player, just from the beginning of the season to now,'' Wright said, adding: ``My day is coming. I really believe that. I'm just going to wait patiently.''

There'll be another wide receiver on the field Sunday who the Vikings have used to ignite their passing game in the past, but he won't be of any help. He's on the other team. Sidney Rice, after an injury-influenced slow start to his time with the Seahawks, has begun to find a groove with rookie quarterback Russell Wilson.

``It's going to be exciting going against those guys,'' Rice said on a conference call with Minnesota reporters on Wednesday afternoon. ``I looked up the scouting report today, and I counted out nine of the 11 starters on defense that I played with when I was there, so it's going to be fun. I know how those guys play. It's a lot of smart, athletic guys over there on that side of the ball, so as receivers we've got to be ready.''

As do the Vikings.

``We're still on the same page,'' Simpson said. ``We're going to just try and get back to where we were and be the best we can be.''


Follow Dave Campbell on Twitter:


Online: and

No. 16 UMBC shocks No. 1 Virginia to make NCAA history

USA TODAY Sports Images

No. 16 UMBC shocks No. 1 Virginia to make NCAA history

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Senior guard Jairus Lyles scored 28 points, and the University of Maryland-Baltimore County pulled off the most shocking upset in NCAA Tournament history, defeating Virginia 75-54 on Friday night to become the first No. 16 seed ever to beat a No. 1 seed.

Virginia entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed after going 31-2 this season, including 20-1 in ACC competition.

But the Cavaliers couldn't get anything generated on offense and the nation's top-ranked defense couldn't contain American East Conference champions.

The 74 points were the most Virginia had allowed this year.

Lyles was the catalyst.

He diced up Virginia's defense in the second half, getting the hole easily on six different occasions and making easy layups. He also knocked down a pair of 3-pointers as UMBC built a 16-point lead.

Lyles finished with 23 of his points in the second half and Joe Sherburne finished with 14 points.

The game was tied at halftime, but the Retrievers came out confident and motivated in the second half and built a double-digit lead that Virginia could never erase.

Sherburne scored on an and-one drive and then knocked down a 3-pointer from the top of the key after a behind-the-back pass from KJ Maura. After Virginia made a foul shot, the shifty 5-foot-8, 140-pound Maura drove the lane for uncontested layup.

A Tony Bennett timeout couldn't stop the bleeding, as Lyles hit two more 3's and Sherburne hit one to extend UMBC's lead to 14 with 14:57 left in the game. Lyles was fouled on a 3-point shot and suddenly the Retrievers led by 16.

A corner 3-pointer and a layups off a fastbreak by Arkel Lamer gave UMBC its biggest lead at 67-48. From there, the party was on as chants of "UMBC" rang through the arena.

It was yet another early exit for the Cavaliers in a season that seemed to hold so much promise.


UMBC: Despite being undersized and unknown, they shocked the world and made history with an epic game.

Virginia: This isn't the first time Virginia has struggled as the No. 1 seed. The Cavaliers trailed by five at halftime in 2014 to Coastal Carolina but went on to win 70-59.


UMBC: Will face No. 9 seed Kansas State on Sunday in the second round.

Quick Links

Kuznetsov to be evaluated Saturday after leaving Islanders game with "upper body" issue

Kuznetsov to be evaluated Saturday after leaving Islanders game with "upper body" issue

The Capitals may have won the game Friday against the New York Islanders, but now they will wait to see if they also suffered a significant loss.

Kuznetsov left the game in the third period after taking a slash from Islanders defenseman Thomas Hickey which sent him sliding head-first into the boards. The team labeled the issue as “upper body” when it was announced he would not return to the game.

Head coach Barry Trotz was tight-lipped afterward on Kuznetsov’s status.

“They're going to re-evaluate him tomorrow and we'll have some clarity hopefully tomorrow,” he said.


You can see the play here:

When Kuznetsov is first slashed he immediately reacts. His feet then catch the stick of goalie Jaroslav Halak which sends him tripping and sliding hard into the boards. He sat on the ice for several minutes afterward and was looked at by the trainer before getting to his feet and slowly making his way to the locker room.

When asked after the game what he felt about the slash, Trotz said only, “Hockey play.”

One of the Capitals’ biggest strengths as a team is their depth down the middle. Any injury to a center, considering it is arguably the most important skating position on the ice, would be significant. An injury to the team’s top-line center would be even more costly.

Kuznetsov leads the team with 28 assists and ranks second in both goals (21) and points (69).