Matt Cassel (Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY)
With a passing game that lacked consistency and explosiveness in 2012, head coach Leslie Frazier was intent on testing the passing game in the first half of Friday night’s loss. Frazier, Matt Cassel and the receivers all talked about the mixed results.
With Adrian Peterson one of 10 Vikings that didn’t play Friday night against the Houston Texans, the offensive game plan reversed field quicker than the Vikings’ star running back, allowing the coaching staff to concentrate on testing the passing game in the team’s first preseason contest Friday night.
The results were mixed when it came to the quarterbacks, but the focus on the passing game at least gave Matt Cassel the opportunity to immerse himself in the Vikings offense after spending the last four years in Kansas City and the previous four with the New England Patriots.
“I think there was an emphasis (on the passing game),” Cassel said. “Obviously we threw the ball a lot in the first half and it was great for me because the more reps I can get with these guys, the more rapport we can build with the players. It’s invaluable for me. It was a great opportunity for me to go through my reads in live action, especially in a new offense.”
Frazier made no pretenses about it. That was exactly the game plan for the first half, when the Vikings threw the ball 21 times and ran it only nine times with Peterson being protected by the coaching staff’s decision to sit him and nine others.
“That was part of the focus,” head coach Leslie Frazier said. “We wanted to work the passing game some this preseason and we’ll take a similar approach probably next week as well. We’re going to still run the football, but we do want to get our timing done in the passing game. We want to be more efficient in that area.”
Cassel entered the game after only two passes from starter Christian Ponder, who completed his first throw to Jerome Simpson but had his second one glance off Simpson’s hand and into the arms of Texans safety Shiloh Keo for an interception.
It wasn’t a great start for Ponder, but Frazier is reserving judgment on the interception Ponder threw.
“I have to look at it,” the head coach said. “I saw it go off of Jerome Simpson’s hand. I couldn’t tell if the ball was thrown out in front or where the ball was placed. I’m looking forward to taking a look at it and see exactly what happened.”
Simpson wasn’t sure what caused the ball to be off-target, but said there wasn’t much he could do.
“I think Christian might have got a blitz or something. He got hit maybe or had to release the ball a little bit earlier than he wanted to, I guess. It was just kind of a play I really couldn’t get to. I could just get some fingertips on it and then it kind of just fell into the defenders’ hands,” Simpson said.
“It was kind of too out in front so I couldn’t really get my hands all the way on it to at least knock it down or make a play on it.”
Replays showed Simpson assessment was right. Ponder was hit just after he released the ball by blitzing linebacker Darryl Sharpton. The ball was high and too far out in front of Simpson on a 10-yard post route, and the receiver could only get his right hand out quickly enough. The ball deflected off it, into the air and into the hands of Keo.
Enter Cassel, whom Frazier predetermined would come into the game after the first series and finish out the first half.
His extended action allowed him to settled into a groove and complete 12 of 19 passes for 212 yards, a touchdown, an interception and a 96.8 rating in just under one half of play.
“There are always things are you want to improve. The good thing is nobody ever reaches 100 percent of their potential, so there is always something to work on, especially through this offense getting throws in OTAs, minicamp and now getting into the preseason,” Cassel said. “Preseason, I think, is by far the most valuable time I can get right now because you actually get a feel of the game.”
One of Cassel’s top plays was when he avoided the blitz and knew that Cordarrelle Patterson was running a post at the Houston safety. He threw it for the impressive rookie receiver and Patterson came down with a 22-yard reception.
“He works tremendously hard,” Cassel said with Patterson standing behind him. “He’ll be the first to tell you he has a long ways to go and he’s going to continue to work. Hopefully, he can be a contributor this year.”
“I think like any rookie that comes in, it’s probably a little overwhelming. You’re in a new city, new faces, unfamiliar surroundings, new offense, everything else and you’re just trying to get your bearings about yourself and you’re in a new offense. Each day that you’re with the coaches and each practice you get to go out there you learn something. You learn more from your mistakes than you do your success.”
One drive after hitting Stephen Burton for 56 yards and one play after connecting with Patterson for 22 yards, Cassel had his fatal flaw. Like Ponder, Cassel was trying to avoid pressure, stepped up in the pocket and threw a soft pass intended for TE John Carlson that gave safety Eddie Pleasant plenty of time to read and grab for an interception.
Still, after a 2012 season when the Vikings had only seven games with 200 yards passing from Ponder, Frazier was focused on fixing the passing game and Cassel offered up 212 yards in a little less than one half of play with a second-team offense facing a second-team defense.
Next week, Ponder will get more of his opportunity.
As promised, first-round defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd was used on special teams. He was running alongside fellow first-rounder Patterson on the opening kickoff that Patterson returned 50 yards. The real blocks to create a seam, however, were thrown by Rhett Ellison, Everett Dawkins, Tyrone McKenzie and Matt Asiata.
On Zach Line’s 61-yard touchdown reception, he gained all 61 yards after the catch, but credit Stephen Burton with getting Line into the end zone. Burton picked up a block on safety Eddie Pleasant at the Texans 40-yard line and held it for 20 yards before Line made a cut back inside that sprung him to the end zone.
Burton said it was simply instincts that told him to put on the brakes after catching a 15-yard in route. It turned a would-be first down into much more, as that move allowed him to slip the coverage of CB Roc Carmichael, outrun S Danieal Manning and pick up a downfield block by Jarius Wright to get the ball all the way to the 16-yard line.
Kicker Blair Walsh was 2-for-2, making field goals of 22 and 33 yards.
Without Peterson, the Vikings didn’t have great success running the ball, rushing only 15 times for 51 yards (a 3.4-yard average). Undrafted rookie Bradley Randle led the way with three carries for 16 yards. The Vikings had only two first downs rushing, compared to 10 by the Texans.
Patterson was easily the top targeted receiver, the object of the quarterback’s passes eight times, coming away with four catches for 54 yards. No other receiver was targeted more than three times.
The Vikings were 0-for-2 in turning red zone trips into touchdowns; the Texans were 2-for-3.
CB Brandon Burton led the Vikings with seven tackles, with the recently re-signed Stanford Keglar second with five.
The Vikings’ only sack of the game came from Christian Ballard, who also registered a tackle-for-loss on another play.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.