Notebook: Cassel, Vikings crash to earth after decent December start
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Following three competitive performances against playoff contenders, the question buzzed around local fans and media - has coach Leslie Frazier done enough after a 1-7 start to secure his job?
Tied to the success of quarterback Matt Cassel, Frazier's case to stay after this tumultuous season took a turn for the worst in a 42-14 blowout loss at the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. The Vikings imploded under the weight of their own offensive and defensive inefficiency - compounded by four turnovers.
Even with the return of running back Adrian Peterson, the Vikings failed to convert a single third down as Cassel managed to throw three interceptions in 27 attempts. His 114 passing yards are 127 yards fewer than his season low in the previous four starts.
Peterson took his lone carry in the second half for 11 yards as he returned from a mid-foot sprain that held him out of last week's 48-30 win over the Philadelphia Eagles. Frazier pulled the NFL MVP midway through the third quarter.
Cassel's 32.6 passer rating wasn't enough to pull him for former 12th-overall pick Christian Ponder, who watched from the sideline as fellow 2011 draftee and Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton led his team to a perfect 7-0 at home and an unprecedented third-straight playoff appearance.
On nine third-down attempts, Cassel went 0-for-8, an interception and the first-quarter sack-fumble.
The Vikings set a bevy of season-lows on Sunday, even though lone bright spot and rookie receiver Cordarrelle Patterson notched his career-high rushing attempt on a 35-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Patterson was the Vikings' leading rusher with 54 yards on three attempts.
But with just 10 first downs on the game, one by penalty, the Vikings set a season-low with 20:28 time of possession and their longest drive of the game - also a season-low five plays. Cassel took four sacks as the offensive line failed to hold up against a Bengals' defensive front missing its best player in tackle Geno Atkins.
Despite the dismal performance, Frazier reportedly will stick with his team's plan to start Cassel in the season finale against the Detroit Lions on Dec. 29 -- though his endorsement is anything but concrete.
Frazier said his "initial thoughts" are that Cassel will start again at QB next week.— Ben Goessling (@GoesslingESPN) December 22, 2013
Making matters worse for Frazier - the former defensive coordinator - is that the Bengals' 42 points only adds to what could be the worst defensive scoring season in Vikings' franchise history.
In 1984, the Vikings game up a franchise-worst 30.3 points per game. In 2013, Frazier's Vikings have allowed 31.1 points per game. The Vikings will need to hold the Detroit Lions to 17 points or fewer in the Dec. 29 season finale to avoid setting a new record.
Dalton threw for four touchdown passes against a depleted Vikings' secondary that was without its top cornerback in rookie Xavier Rhodes.
Cornerbacks Marcus Sherels and Shaun Prater started over former second-round pick Chris Cook, who was a game-time scratch last week after tweaking his knee late in the week. Cook was relegated to special teams duties and was forced back into action after Prater left with an ankle injury in the first half. Prater ultimately returned.
Defensive tackle Fred Evans was flagged for three encroachment penalties as the Vikings notched just two sacks on Dalton's 39 dropbacks. Defensive end Everson Griffen was credited with 1.5 sacks and defensive end Jared Allen took the team lead (9.5 sacks) after he split a sack with Griffen in the fourth quarter.
Linebacker Erin Henderson stepped into the middle for the injured Audie Cole and tallied a team-high 12 tackles, one for a loss. Linebacker Marvin Mitchell was forced back into action next to Henderson on the weak side and had seven tackles as the Vikings held the Bengals to 2.2 yards per rush.
However, the NFL's worst pass defense has allowed a league-high 36 passing touchdowns and allowed Bengals receivers to average 13.6 yards per reception on Sunday, including receiver A.J. Green, who finished with seven catches, two touchdowns and 97 yards on 12 targets.
Running back Toby Gerhart made his return following a hamstring injury in the Dec. 8 loss at Baltimore, but he left the game after reportedly re-injuring his hamstring on a tackle following Cassel's first-quarter sack-fumble.
Cole reportedly suffered a high-ankle sprain.
• After the Baltimore Ravens elected to kick away from Vikings rookie receiver Cordarrelle Patterson last week, the Bengals gave up returns of 48 and 44 yards on his first two touches.
• Receiver Jarius Wright now averages 26 yards per catch across the last two games after a career-high 95 yards last week and a 36-yard touchdown reception in Sunday's first quarter.
• Cassel's 32.6 passer rating is lower than any of Ponder's nine starts this season.
• After Sunday's loss, the Vikings finish 2013 winless on the road. Their Sept. 29 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in London was categorized as a home game and they finish 0-7-1 in eight true road games.