Monday, September 13, 2004

Some Whipping Cream and Some Half and Half

Vikings Finish What Cowboys Attempt to Start

The Minnesota Vikings did what they had to do on Sunday--they won a home game. More impressive, however, was that the Vikings did so despite some clear deficiencies and the handicap of not taking the field until the second quarter.

After an atrocious first quarter in which the Vikings had possession for a paltry two minutes and fifty-three seconds and the Dallas Cowboys appeared on the verge of making good on Coach Bill Parcells' pledge to dominate time of possession, the Cowboys returned to form (circa 2002) and the Vikings' offense emerged.

In the first quarter, Daunte Culpepper threw a pass behind his intended receiver on what appeared to be a poorly constructed screen play. On the next play, Culpepper threw the ball into the line. On third down, Culpepper found Marcus Robinson on a nice look and pass. That appeared to be what Minnesota needed, but appearances were deceiving.

After two rushing plays accumulated 5 yards--in part because SOD had to change directions on the second after realizing that he could not go right--Culpepper and Burleson hooked up on a passing route that Burleson inexplicably ran short of the sticks. Darren Bennett, Tice's new punting savant, then lofted a beautiful, spiralling kick toward the teflon roof, that, unfortunately, did not have the same carry as it had altitude, landing in the arms of the 'Boys' return man at the 19. Still, the Cowboys were facing eighty-one yards between the line of scrimmage and the end zone. Surely the newly minted defense--the one Coach Tice had so boisterously tauted leading up to the regular season--would now show its mettle. Right? Not quite.

After scoring a field goal on a relatively leisurely drive on its opening possession (9 plays, 67 yards, 3:58), Dallas again showed patience and a willingness to attack the less-than-remarkable Vikings' secondary. When Methusula Testaverde was not completing passes to wide-open receivers--often left wide open by the Vikings' new secondary star, Antonio Winfield--the Cowboys' no-name runners were rushing for chunks of yardage against what Coach Tice deemed "the deepest defensive line in the NFL"--clearly a quantitative statement at this point in the season.

What saved the Vikings in the first quarter, and perhaps in the game, was Dallas' inability to convert a touchdown on this drive--or its first drive--and Dallas' botched field-goal attempt after a twelve-minute drive. The botched field-goal attempt, following a mind-numming 12 minute 59 second drive, clearly deflated the Cowboys and woke up the Vikings.

On the next four possessions, the Vikings--led by some good reads and accurate passes by Culpepper and some nice runs by the under-appreciated Moe Williams and the lucky-to-be-playing Onterrio Smith--scored four touchdowns and, despite a minor hiccup on a ridiculously lax defensive set that permitted the Cowboys to score a long touchdown just before halftime, the game was over.

From this point on, the game was even fairly boring, save for several hard hits by Brian Williams--the kind that Ken Irvin apparently will no longer make for the Vikings.

But although the game ended in a Vikings' whipping of the Cowboys, there are serious reasons for concern, particulary on defense.

What We Learned

The game against the Cowboys showed several things. First, it revealed that the Vikings' defense still needs considerable improvement. Testaverde lit up the secondary for 354 yards. What will the younger, more agile Donovan McNabb do next week? What would Peyton Manning do? Yikes.

Part of the quandry for the Vikings is that--despite having another $20 million to spend this season and money to spend last season--the team failed to make many necessary improvements on defense. Outside of Winfield, the Vikings failed to sign a legitimate starter on defense. Last season, the Vikings could have signed Dre Bly. They opted not to do so. This season, they could have signed Jeremiah Trotter for a song. They opted not to. Instead, the Vikings are relying on first and second year players at critical positions, including middle linebacker, cornerback, and defensive end. After Ken Irvin injured himself tripping on a seam in the new field turf in warmups--an injury that it appears will cost Irvin the season and the Vikings their only legitimate nickle back (and the remnants of what Tice last year boasted was part of a dynamic duo of cornerback additions along with the departed Denard Walker)--the Vikings were so qualitatively depleted at corner that they were forced to start Rushen Jones; Jones only made the team because the Vikings had no choice but to keep another corner.

But corner is not the Vikings' only defensive liability at the moment. As it stands, the Vikings are weak at linebacker and weak--and thin--throughout the secondary. More troubling is the fact that, despite their youth and purported speed, the Vikings' linebackers and secondary do not seem to get to the ball, instead opting to back-pedal on plays and allowing balls to be caught in front of them. If this is Cottrell-ball, it might be time to break out the Sherm Lewis D-plans. Winfield was guilty of this approach on several occasions, collapsing into the fetal-like, prevent-defense mode. Only Brian Williams appeared to have any instinct for the plays coming the Vikings' way.

The second thing we learned today is that Mike Rosenthal isn't much better this year than he was last year. Rosie had a blatant and absolutely pointless block from behind in the second quarter--for which he was duly penalized--and, again, failed to demonstrate blocking ability on running plays. The particular penalty can be forgiven as a once-per-season moment of idiocy. Rosenthal's poor blocking, however, cannot be viewed in such a manner. The Cowboys' apparent awareness of the Vikings' shortcomings on the right side of the offensive line led them to overplay the left side of Minnesota's line, making it more difficult to run right(behind Rosenthal) and more work to run left. This will wear on the Vikings over the course of the season. While the problem should have been addressed in the off-season, now is a better time than never to address it. Alas, the Vikings appear convinced that the bulked-up Rosenthal is the answer on the right side, having recently signed him to a contract extension. Even if the Vikings move in another direction in the near future--i.e., even if they cut Rosie in favor of a better player--they will eat his signing bonus. Ahh, the lessons that Todd Steussie did not teach us.

The third thing that we learned on Sunday is that the Cowboys are not as dominant on defense when they play NFL-caliber offenses. Last season, the 'Boys played mostly junk offenses en route to building a reputation as a strong defensive team. On Sunday, the Boys looked like boys on defense as they stopped nothing. The Vikings ran over them and passed at will. Next week, the Vikings will face a better rushing defense in the Eagles, though Philly's secondary losses in the past off-season may mean plenty of Vikings' scoring through the air.

Finally, the Vikings affirmed that their offense is fairly potent. We knew it would be, but the common wisdom was that it would be a bit better than last year. SOD looks very strong, Moe Williams--when Tice deigns to play him--looks even stronger, and can catch and block, and the Vikings have four legitimate receivers for perhaps the first time in their history. This will be a tough defense to stop if Culpepper maintains the patience that he exhibited on Sunday. As Tice is wont to say, "all Daunte needs to do is drive the bus."

Up Next: A look at the numbers. Plus, how the other half lives.

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