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.''


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Stanley Cup Final 2018: Players to watch

Stanley Cup Final 2018: Players to watch

It doesn't take an expert to tell you players like Alex Ovechkin or Marc-Andre Fleury will play a big role in the Stanley Cup Final.

Both the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights will need their best players to be at their best to take home the Cup. But who will be the unexpected heroes? Who are the players no one is talking about who will have a big hand in their team's success or defeat in this series?

Here are five players you should be watching in the Stanley Cup:

1. Devante Smith-Pelly: Smith-Pelly had seven goals in 79 games in the regular season. Now he has four goals in just 19 playoff games.

Smith-Pelly has been one of those unlikely playoff heroes for the Caps this postseason with very timely performances such as scoring the series-clinching goal in Game 6 against the Columbus Blue and scoring the goal that put the game away in Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The physical play has really stood out as well for him, which fits well on the fourth line role he has settled back into now that the team is healthy again. Barry Trotz tried moving him to the top line in the absence of Tom Wilson and the results weren't great. He is best suited for the role he currently has and that will allow him to thrive.

2. James Neal: Neal came up just short of the Stanley Cup last season as a member of the Nashville Predators. He totaled nine points in 22 games during that run, a number he has already matched in just 15 games this postseason.

There are very few players on either team that boast the kind of postseason experience Neal has. He will be leaned upon this series for his leadership.

Vegas is a young team and their unprecedented success in the playoffs may make this feel like the first run of many for the Golden Knights, but not for Neal who is on the last year of his contract and came tantalizingly close to the Cup last season. He will play like there is no tomorrow because, for him, there may not be in Vegas.

3. Andre Burakovsky: Burakovsky was one of the heroes of Game 7 with two goals to put away the Tampa Bay Lightning. That marked just the latest peak in a career full of peaks and valleys for the young winger. Just two games before, Burakovsky was a healthy scratch and spoke to the media about his plans to speak with a sports psychologist in the offseason.

The talent is there and it certainly appears that the injury that kept him out earlier in the playoffs is largely behind him. Burakovsky’s issues have always been mainly between the ears. In a series against a fast team with strong depth, he can be an absolutely critical piece for the Caps. Hopefully, his Game 7 performance gave him the confidence he needs to continue to be effective.

4. Ryan Reaves: Vegas acquired both Reaves and Tomas Tatar around the trade deadline. If I were to tell you that through three rounds of the playoffs, both players were healthy, had played the same number of games (6) and had the same number of points (1), you’d think I was crazy. Yet, here we are.

Reaves was largely an afterthought in a complicated trade between Vegas, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Ottawa Senators, but he has carved a nice role for himself on the Golden Knights’ fourth line and even scored the goal that sent Vegas to the Stanley Cup Final against the Winnipeg Jets.

Reaves is also an agitator on the ice, but what do the Caps do against a player like that when their normal fighter plays on the top line? We may see Reaves and Wilson come to blows this series, but it won't be very often because that is a bad tradeoff for the Caps.

5. Brooks Orpik: The elder statesman of the blue line, Orpik is the only player on the Caps with a Stanley Cup to his name and is the only one who has any idea what this experience is going to be like for the team.

Orpik is very diligent about keeping in shape which has allowed him to play in 81 games this season and all 19 playoff games despite being 37 years old, but you do have to wonder how much is left in the tank. Despite being the favorite whipping boy for the proponents of analytics, his physical play has been effective this postseason. The focus he placed on the skating in the offseason has paid dividends so far in matchups against the speedy Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning, but the Golden Knights will be the fastest team they have played yet. There is no denying Orpik is much more suited towards a physical style of game. Wil he continue to be effective or will Vegas exploit the Caps' third defensive pairing?


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Capitals vs. Golden Knights Game 1 Stanley Cup Final: Date, Time, TV Channel, Livestrem

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Capitals vs. Golden Knights Game 1 Stanley Cup Final: Date, Time, TV Channel, Livestrem

The wait is finally over. 

After two decades, the Capitals are back in the Stanley Cup Final. 

After a convincing 4-0 win in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Capitals are in Vegas to take on the Golden Knights. They'll be facing off against a handful of familiar names, with former Caps GM George McPhee, fan favorite Nate Schmidt, and ex-Penguins goalie Marc Andre-Fluery are just a few of the names that'll be suiting up for Vegas. 

What will the X-factors in the series be? Who will be the unexpected heroes of Game 1? The action is almost underway, and here are all the details you need to know.

Game 1 Capitals at Golden Knights
Date: Monday, May 28
Time: 8:00 p.m. ET
Location: T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, NV.
TV Channel: NBCSN 
How To Watch Live StreamingNBC Sports App Live Stream
Radio: Capitals Radio Network (106.7 FM)


Game 1 of the Capitals-Golden Knights 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Final takes place on Monday, May 28 at 8:00 p.m. at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, NV.


The TV broadcast of Game 1 between the Capitals and Golden Knights is on NBC. Capitals pre- and postgame coverage takes place on NBC Sports Washington. (NBC Sports Washington channel Finder)

5:00 p.m. — Caps Cup Preview
6:00 p.m. — Caps GameDay Live
6:30 p.m. — Caps Face Off
7:00 p.m. — Caps GameTime
8:00 p.m. — Game 1 Capitals vs. Golden Knights
10:30 p.m. — Caps Extra
11:30 p.m. — Caps Overtime


Game 1 of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final between the Capitals and Golden Knights is available for online stream on the NBC Sports App. Click here for the NBC Sports live stream page.


Use the comment section below to discuss the game action with other Capitals fans. 

For all the latest Caps coverage, follow Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir, Capitals digital producer JJ Regan and the NBC Sports Capitals account on Twitter. Be sure check out our Capitals page and NBC Sports Washington's Facebook page.