With veteran Matt Cassel having clearly won the Minnesota Vikings' starting quarterback competition with a surprisingly strong preseason, let's take a moment to check the impact coach Mike Zimmer has had on a defense that ranked 31st in yards allowed, 31st against the pass and dead last in points allowed in 2013.
So far, so good. In fact, so far, so very good.
The infusion of youth up front, the maturation of second-year cornerback Xavier Rhodes and the addition of savvy veteran cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and athletically versatile rookie linebacker Anthony Barr has helped Zimmer's more aggressive schemes shine during a 3-0 start to the preseason.
Some of Zimmer's multiple fronts and blitz packages were on display Saturday night as the Vikings hit the road for the first time this preseason and returned from Kansas City with an easy 30-12 win over the Chiefs.
Granted, Kansas City was without running back Jamaal Charles and receiver Dwayne Bowe. But there's still reason for Vikings fans to be excited about Zimmer's defense. Look no further than what happened in the red zone while the first unit was facing Chiefs starting quarterback Alex Smith.
A year ago, the Vikings gave up 39 red-zone touchdowns. Only the Cowboys (40) allowed more. But Saturday, the Chiefs entered the red zone three times in the first half. All they came away with was a field goal.
The other two trips resulted in interceptions by Munnerlyn and linebacker Chad Greenway. Backup cornerback Shaun Prater added a third pick in the second half.
Munnerlyn's interception came in the end zone and showed the kind of instincts that former Vikings cornerback Chris Cook never showed in his four interception-free seasons in Minnesota.
"I was playing Cover Three man and I had outside leverage," Munnerlyn said. "I knew I was close to the end zone so I knew the receiver couldn't run by me. He had to stop soon. So I undercut him and made a play."
It also helped that the Vikings had five sacks on the night. And that one of the sacks and numerous hurries belonged to Everson Griffen, the man whose longtime potential as a part-time player is being counted on to blossom as Jared Allen's replacement at right end.
"When you get around the quarterback," Zimmer said, "good things happen."
Zimmer has yet to officially name Cassel as the starter over rookie Teddy Bridgewater, but that is expected soon. As good as Bridgewater has looked for a rookie, Cassel has looked even better as a veteran who can best help the Vikings win this season.
Especially if Zimmer's defense continues to play this well. In about five quarters of three preseason games, the Vikings' first unit has allowed just 17 points.
--Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer's announcement on Monday that Matt Cassel will start the season opener had been assumed by everybody for weeks and came as a surprise to no one. Even the guy who lost the competition, rookie first-round draft pick Teddy Bridgewater.
Asked if he was surprised, Bridgewater said, "Not at all. Matt has played great. I take my hats off to him."
Bridgewater has played well this preseason. He has no turnovers, four touchdowns and a 117.3 passer rating. But Cassel also played very well with a 66.7 completion percentage, a 9.4-yard average per attempt and a 103.3 passer rating.
Bridgewater said the news hasn't changed his initial opinion of his fit with the Vikings.
"As I stated once I got drafted, I felt like this was the perfect situation for me," he said. "I can sit back and learn from Matt. Just learn and prepare as if I were the starter."
Zimmer said Cassel "did not do anything to lose the job this preseason." He also said picking the veteran over the rookie was the best thing for the team "at this time." He also made it clear that things could change when asked how he would handle a poor performance by Cassel and the ensuing calls for Bridgewater, the rookie first-round draft pick, to be promoted.
"We will hold the quarterback position to the exact same expectation that we do every other position," he said. "If you perform, you play. If you don't perform, then the next guy will get an opportunity at some point.
"That position, just like the outside linebacker spot, we have an expectation of performance. If those guys perform, they play."
For the 32-year-old Cassel, Monday's official announcement was another up in a wildly up-and-down career that's seen the 10-year veteran experience a little bit of everything.
He's been Tom Brady's unknown backup and prized injury replacement. He's been a beloved Pro Bowler in Kansas City and a reviled goat in Kansas City. He was the best of last year's three-headed quarterback fiasco in Minnesota, and now he's holding off the face of the future in Minnesota.
"I've been through a lot in my career," he said. "I've been through the ups, I've been through the downs. I've been through the highs and the lows, so at this point, nothing really surprises me."
--On Monday, the Vikings released 14 of the 15 players they needed to release before Tuesday's deadline to get down to 75 players.
Released were safety Brandan Bishop, defensive tackle Kheeston Randall, tight end Kory Sperry, offensive tackles Kevin Murphy and Pierce Burton, cornerbacks Derek Cox and Robert Steeples, defensive ends Tyler Scott and Jake Snyder and wide receivers Andy Cruse, Kamar Jorden, Erik Lora and Ty Walker. Released with an injury designation was safety Mistral Raymond (hamstring).
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: No. 3 cornerback. In today's NFL, this basically is a starting position. That's particularly true for a Vikings team that plays a combined six games a year against quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford. The Vikings have two strong corners in rising star Xavier Rhodes and savvy young veteran Captain Munnerlyn. But they're struggling mightily to find a reliable No. 3. They want it to be Josh Robinson, but a prolonged hamstring injury and a sloppy 42-yard pass interference penalty in the third preseason game is testing the coaching staff's patience. Rookie seventh-round pick Jabari Price was the best newcomer in camp, but an arm injury sidelined him all of last week and in the third preseason game. At this point, punt returner and scrappy little backup corner Marcus Sherels is the best and most healthy option as the nickel back. Sherels is a fighter who competes hard, but physically he's too easily overmatched, especially in the NFC North. At this point, look for Price or Robinson to win the job unless the team goes outside the organization and brings another cornerback in. Shaun Prater, who had an interception late in Saturday's game, is a long shot at this point.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--TE Chase Ford, who had surgery to repair a stress fracture in his left foot, was taken off of the physically unable to perform list on Monday. Ford is a promising young pass-catching tight end. But he fell far behind a similar player, Allen Reisner, who caught two short touchdown passes in Saturday night's win at Kansas City.
--OT Phil Loadholt did not practice Monday, but should be OK in time for the season opener after suffering a lower leg injury that sidelined him temporarily on Saturday night.
--QB Teddy Bridgewater's 117.3 passer rating leads the league among quarterbacks that have attempted at least 40 preseason passes.
--WR Cordarrelle Patterson is getting more comfortable with offensive coordinator Norv Turner's numbered system. Patterson said he spoke with Cowboys Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin to get a better feel for how to visualize Turner's number-based play calls. It sure worked on one deep ball in Kansas City. Patterson beat the defense by a step, located Matt Cassel's perfectly-placed pass and quickly reached up to pluck it out of the air in stride en route to a 53-yard score.
--RB Jerick McKinnon, the rookie third-round draft pick, has looked like the change-of-pace, scat-back player he was advertised to be. He had six carries for 43 yards against Kansas City. That's a 7.2-yard average highlighted by a 24-yard weave through traffic. It doesn't matter if you call McKinnon or veteran Matt Asiata the No. 2 back behind Adrian Peterson. Both running backs bring significant skills to the table. Asiata is a power back with a little wiggle and a strong pass protector.
--QB Matt Cassel completed 9 of 17 passes for 152 yards, a 53-yard touchdown and one interception. The touchdown was a perfectly-thrown deep ball from a clean pocket to Cordarrelle Patterson, who was open by a step behind the defense. The interception isn't anything to be concerned about. It also was a deep ball to Jerome Simpson, who let two defenders keep him from running underneath the ball. Simpson also could have fought harder for the ball.
--QB Teddy Bridgewater was handed a couple of short fields and took advantage of them with a couple of short, touch passes for touchdowns to tight end Allen Reisner. Bridgewater completed 4 of 7 passes for 40 yards, no turnovers and a 113.1 passer rating.
--WR Adam Thielen, who went from undrafted rookie from Division III Minnesota State Mankato to a practice-squad player a year ago, made another strong pitch to make the 53-man roster. He's consistently been the fifth-best receiver on the team this offseason. Saturday, he also showed that he could be a nice Plan B at punt returner. He showed excellent shiftiness and speed while returning a punt 75 yards to the Kansas City 5-yard line.
--RT Austin Wentworth, an undrafted rookie from Fresno State, more than likely whiffed on his golden opportunity to make the team when he whiffed on an edge rusher shortly after replacing the injured Phil Loadholt. Because Wentworth was slow out of his stance and badly beaten, quarterback Matt Cassel had the ball poked out of his hand while in the end zone. The ball went out of the back of the end zone for a safety.
--SS Jamarca Sanford, a starter the past two seasons, is looking more and more like a long shot to even make the final roster. Injuries in the offseason and early in camp put him far behind in the wide open competition at strong safety. Then, on Saturday, he left the game with a quadriceps injury.
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