The Vikings tried hard as ever to get Jerome Simpson more involved in the passing game last week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, throwing his way seven times.
The quantity was there for the team's biggest deep threat, but the quality wasn't. Simpson caught only two of those passes for 37 yards, but the Vikings aren't pointing the finger at him.
Simpson missed the first three games of the season because of a league-imposed suspension for violating the NFL policy on banned substances. Injuries have also plagued Simpson this season, as back and foot issues have limited his effectiveness of late, including being inactive Oct. 14 against the Tennessee Titans.
"He's getting back to close to healthy. I know he's working hard each and every day in practice and we're looking forward to getting more production out of him and sending more balls his way," offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said.
Simpson had been surly in recent weeks when asked about the injury because it cost him nearly $60,000 when he was inactive in Week 6. Since then, he has declared himself healthy, even if the Vikings know he isn't 100 percent after a back issue was causing numbness in his foot.
But throwing the ball might not be as much of an issue as Musgrave indicated. Throwing quality passes, rather than just quantity, would help. Quarterback Christian Ponder said he needs to do a better job of keeping the deep sideline passes in bounds so Simpson has a chance.
But a greater factor might be changing up the routes Simpson is running. His ability to separate from cornerbacks could be affected by his foot injury, but keeping defenses guessing where he is going could be the best change-up.
"If you look at the film, I guess you could answer that in the affirmative on a couple of plays (that he didn't separate), but we need to do a better job also of asking him to run different types of routes, as well," Musgrave said. "We're looking forward to that this week."
It sounded like Simpson was looking forward to that, too, when asked about it Thursday.
"They watch film, too, so they try to catch on. It's just trying to get me in better positions to make plays and help this team out," Simpson said.
A look at play-by-play statistics from the Tampa Bay game supports the theory that Simpson's routes may have become a bit too predictable. Against the Bucs, Ponder tried to go deep, defined as passes traveling more than 15 yards in the air, nine times.
Six of those targets were intended for Jerome Simpson, who caught only one of them – a 33-yarder. In the first quarter, he was targeted deep down the left sideline twice, both of them incomplete.
In the second quarter, they took three more deep shots to Simpson, two of them down the left sideline again and one of those two accounting for his 33-yard reception. In the third quarter, he was targeted deep down the left sideline again for another incompletion.
"I'm great with my playbook, so I know all my routes and stuff. It's just putting me in the best position to help us win and that's what Musgrave is trying to do," Simpson said. "We're just trying to get me involved but still staying in the game plan because we still have great players like Percy (Harvin) that we have to get the ball to and then Adrian (Peterson) and the tight ends, too."
In addition to the six deep passes that targeted Simpson last Thursday, the Vikings took two shots to Percy Harvin down the right sideline, connecting on one of them for an 18-yard completion. The final shot came in the fourth quarter, when Ponder connected with Michael Jenkins for a 28-yard gain down the left sideline on the Vikings' final drive – after the Bucs had moved into a soft coverage to protect their 36-17 lead.
Simpson's best game of the season came in Detroit, when he was targeted five times, catching four of them for 50 yards, including a 27-yard reception. Musgrave said cornerbacks are respecting Simpson's speed and admitted that may call for using him on more than just deep go routes down the sideline.
"I think they're always going to respect his speed, but he's done some other good things – ran some good routes in Detroit that first week back and now we're still working through his issue with his foot, and I think he's getting better each and every week," Musgrave said.
Working the deep middle should also be an option, and to this point it's been an underutilized option. According to NFL statistics, the Vikings have only taken four shots deep down the middle all season, ranking 30th in attempts on that part of the field. They completed two of those for a combined 43 yards.
Musgrave admitted that the opportunities deep down the middle of the field need to be exploited.
"Most definitely. I think we had a couple good shots against Washington. I know we hit Percy there and we definitely want to do that in the middle as well as on the sideline."
Harvin's 23-yard reception deep down the middle of the field in the first quarter against Washington was part of his season-best 11-catch, 133-yard effort, and it came in the game that Simpson was inactive.
"We're going to take whatever their defense gives us," Simpson said. "(The Seahawks) play a lot of man coverage, so we're just going to try to exploit what they do and take advantage of it."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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