WEEK 13: vs. MINNESOTA VIKINGS
Date: Sunday, Dec. 2. Time: noon. TV: Fox.
2011 record: 3-13. Points scored: 340 (19th). Points against: 449 (31st).
Noteworthy: The overhaul is under way in Minnesota. The Vikings will have a revamped offensive line that could have three new starters, a new starting tight end, a quarterback with 10 starts under his belt and a defense that has seen nearly as many changes. It's Christian Ponder's game now, and the success of the rebuild will lie largely on the second-year quarterback's shoulders. The series: For the first time in the 50-year history of the series, both clashes will come in December. Last year's 45-7 romp over Minnesota at Lambeau was the most lopsided in the 102-game history of the rivalry.
TRAINING CAMP GOALS
1. Make Christian Ponder comfortable. Every move the Vikings made this offseason is worthless if their starting quarterback isn't finally up to speed in his second season. Ponder got a free pass last season because of the NFL lockout and the fact that he sat behind Donovan McNabb through the first six weeks of the season. This year is different. The Vikings rebuilt their offensive line, added targets at receiver and tight end and brought in some much-needed secondary help in hopes that Ponder won't have to win divisional shootouts with the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler. Training camp is a vital period for offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. He must put all these pieces together and give Ponder the confidence to succeed.
2. Secondary comes first. There's a reason the Vikings have lost 11 consecutive NFC North games. They couldn't stop Rodgers, Stafford, Cutler and their high-powered passing attacks. Despite having the best pass rush in the league a year ago, the Vikings still had the worst secondary in franchise history. Injuries, ineffectiveness and off-the-field problems left them without the talent or a clue for how to defend the NFL's best quarterbacks and big receivers. This year should be much better. For starters, cornerbacks Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook return from a season in which they missed a combined 21 games. Quality depth was added behind them with the signing of veterans Chris Carr and Zack Bowman, and the drafting of speedy third-rounder Josh Robinson. At safety, first-round draft pick Harrison Smith immediately improves a ridiculously weak position.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Left tackle Matt Kalil. If you think the pressure is on Ponder, keep an eye on his blindside protector. The Vikings' stagnant offense depends on the massive Kalil living up to the even more massive hype surrounding his fourth overall selection in this year's NFL draft. Kalil could be in for a tough summer since his first NFL assignment is trying to block league sack king Jared Allen every day in training camp. If Kalil fails, the rebuilt offensive line collapses and takes Ponder, the offense and the entire team with it. If Kalil quickly becomes the league's next great left tackle, Ponder's comfort level soars and Musgrave can put more receiving targets in play because he won't have to keep calling max protect. And with more receiving targets to stretch the field, there's more room underneath for the Vikings' running attack and the shifty talent of slot receiver Percy Harvin.
ON THE HOT SEAT
Ultimately, the responsibility for success or failure in the NFL lands on the quarterback's shoulders. The Vikings staked their future on Ponder when they used the 12th overall pick on him in 2011. He's a likeable guy who seems to have the mental makeup for the position. But he's done nothing to silence those who believe he was a big draft-day reach at No. 12. He posted just two wins as a rookie, and one of them came when his backup, Joe Webb, led the team from behind after Ponder was injured. Ponder also threw as many interceptions (13) as touchdowns and often made the same mistakes while trying to force balls late into tight coverage. Ponder enjoyed universal patience a year ago. That ends now.
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