Vikings making creative, consistent use of Harvin
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Percy Harvin's versatility, athleticism and toughness have made defending him difficult for Minnesota's opponents.
Figuring out the most effective way to use -- and protect -- him has been a challenge for the Vikings, too. The experiment was so uneven last year -- while the team finished 3-13 -- that Harvin demanded better from the coaching staff, seeking clarity on his role.
For the first time this week, the fourth-year do-it-all wide receiver elaborated a little on why he was so frustrated during the offseason. His out-of-nowhere rant on the first day of minicamp about unspecified issues with the organization that made him unhappy was followed by a request for a trade.
The situation simmered down over the next month, though, and Harvin never spoke another word of discontent. He showed up in prime shape at the start of training camp and got in a groove he's stayed in through the first quarter of the season. Harvin leads the NFL with 698 combined net yards, including kickoff returning, rushing and receiving.
"It was just the identity of our offense," Harvin said, when asked again about the nature of his complaint with the team. "Just not only me, just guys knowing exactly what the coaches are asking of them on a week-to-week basis. Not playing one position one week, and come in and not totally having a grasp on what they're asking for the next week."
Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave is the man in charge of sorting all this out. Harvin went out of his way to compliment Musgrave for his work in creating packages of formations and plays to feature Harvin, tight end Kyle Rudolph and wide receiver Jerome Simpson as the key complements to the Adrian Peterson-centered system.
"Everybody, I think, knows their role, knows what the coaches expect them to do. Now you can just sit back and try to do it at the highest level you can," said Harvin, who is third in the league with 30 catches.
Whatever conflict existed between Harvin and Musgrave, then, has vanished amid the team's 3-1 start.
"The communication has been really, really good both during the season, training camp and offseason, so we want to keep it going if we can," Musgrave said.
The Vikings used Harvin a lot as a tailback last year to keep Peterson from being overexposed. He played his usual spot in the slot, catching balls across the middle, screen passes to the sides and wherever else he could get open, the one reliable receiver quarterback Christian Ponder had. But because of his punishing running style and his history of migraine headaches, the Vikings kept a strict lid on the number of snaps he was on the field. Seeing Harvin on the sideline for a key third-down play inside the 20-yard line was not unusual, and despite his take-it-all-the-way ability as a kickoff returner his opportunities there were limited too.
This year, though, has been different. Harvin played 76 percent of the offensive snaps in last week's win at Detroit, and he was deep for all three kickoffs by the Lions. The first one he ran back 105 yards for a touchdown to start the game.
Coach Leslie Frazier recalled conversations with other coaches around the league during Senior Bowl practices last January that reminding him how tough defending Harvin can be. So he made a focus of maximizing that with Musgrave.
"We made a point to keep him on the field and use him in a variety of ways. To Percy's credit, he was excited about that and he's embraced that role," Frazier said, adding: "We move him around to try to make it hard on defenses to find where he is."
With the Lions putting an extra defender on or near him on almost every route he ran, Harvin was held to three receptions for 22 yards. But that helped open more room for Peterson, who posted his first 100-yard game of the season.
"They know that we're trying to get the ball to Percy and they're going to try to take those gimmicky plays away and that's fine," Ponder said. "We'll find ways to get him the ball other ways. ... We're brighter on this side of the ball anyway."
Harvin makes it easier to look smart.
"I feel like I'm a game-changer. Every time I get the ball in my hands I try to make a play," he said.
NOTES: LB Erin Henderson finished a full practice for the first time since his concussion in the Sept. 16 game at Indianapolis. Frazier said he's "optimistic" about Henderson playing this Sunday against Tennessee. But Jasper Brinkley will remain in Henderson's previous role in the middle of the nickel defense. Marvin Mitchell, who replaced Henderson at the weak side spot in the base scheme, strained his calf during special teams drills and was sent for an MRI exam. ... DE Jared Allen was held out of practice again to rest his groin, but Frazier said he doesn't expect Allen to miss the game. ... Ponder has a minor injury to his right knee, but the Vikings don't expect it to be a problem. ... Harvin was named the NFC's Special Teams Player of the Month for September, the first time in Vikings history a returner has won the award. Punter Chris Kluwe took it in September 2005.
Follow Dave Campbell on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/DaveCampbellAP
Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index