Monday, November 22, 2004

Abra Cadabra?

While Vikings' coaches, players, writers, and fans continue to lament the woes of the team's defense, a subject that has received little attention is the success of the offense in the face of several setbacks. Not only have the Vikings lost Mike Rosenthal and Jim Kleinsasser for the season, it now appears that Rosenthal's replacement, Nat Dorsey, may be lost for the remainder of the season.

The news on Dorsey's injury is particularly halting as it comes on the heals not only of other serious injuries to offensive linemen, but also on the heals of continuous sub-par to poor performances by right guard Chris Liewinski and rigth tackle Bryant McKinnie. Add to this the left and right groin pulls of center Matt Birk and it is a wonder there is any offense at all.

The fact that the Vikings continue to produce on offense is, in part, a testament to the fact that the Vikings have taken precious care of their offense for several years running. When Michael Bennett went down, the Vikings could turn to SOD. When SOD took a four-game break this season, the Vikings had Mewelde Moore waiting in the wings. And when all else failed, the Vikings have had the luxury of turning to one of the best running backs in the NFL, Moe Williams. Each of these backs has turned in credible performances in spite of the run-blocking problems of nearly every lineman other than Birk, suggesting that talent will take you pretty far.

But talent without guidance is usually a recipe for disaster in the NFL. The Vikings have learned that in other facets of the game, but seem to have averted disaster on offense by adapting. Nowhere is this more evident than in the passing game.

With Moss out with an injury, Daunte Culpepper has been forced to resort to a more controlled passing game, a predicament made even more difficult by the fact that the remaining receivers have had very limited success stretching the field and thereby opening up the middle. But Culpepper has largely risen to the challenge, looking off primary targets and taking what the defense yields. The result has been a much more efficient offense with fewer three and outs.

But Culpepper's emerging patience in the passing game is but one reason for the Vikings' success in light of their line problems. Another reason for the success is the emergence of tight end Jermaine Wiggins. The Vikings signed Wiggins in the off-season with the intention of pairing him with Kleinsasser to have a blocking-receiving tight end duo; Kleinsasser would block, Wiggins would catch.

When Kleinsasser went out with an injury, the Vikings initially thought that Wiggins would have trouble finding playing time. The thought was that, with Kleinsasser out, the Vikings would need to employ two tight end sets to compensate for the blocking that Kleinsasser did on his own. And, with Wiggins considered a non-blocking tight end, Wiggins appeared to be the odd man out.

But after the Vikings experimented with several inexperienced tight ends, and suffered numerous false start and holding penalties that cost them dearly in field position battles, the Vikings decided to give Wiggins a full audition manning the tight end position alone. The result has been as good as the Vikings could have hoped. On the season, Wiggins has 43 receptions for 410 yards--a decent season for most tight ends.

Over the next few weeks, ith injuries likely to play an increasing role in how the Vikings play offense, we shall see if this is all a magic act destined to be uncovered or evidence of good coaching.

In two weeks, given the injuries to Dorsey and Birk, there is a very real possibility that the Vikings will start Bryant McKinnie, Chris Liewinski, Corey Withrow, David Dixon, and Adam Goldberg on the offensive line. At the beginning of the season, few teams would have offered much for any of these players other than perhaps McKinnie. Today, few teams would even want McKinnie. And while Withrow has been a serviceable substitute for Birk, of these five, only Dixon has played well all year. Only Dixon appears immune from being beat on passing downs. And only Dixon appears immune from the penalty bug.

But, like each of the other four linemen, Dixon has a critical flaw. He cannot run block. In fact, he is so bad at run blocking that the Vikings rarely run to his side, opting to run either outside or behind Birk or McKinnie. Which completes the faulty offensive line. And which brings us back to the question of how the Vikings have prospered despite their offensive line issues.

The answer at this juncture is that the Vikings have adapted. They have run where they know they can run, often pulling the center to aid in blocking. And when the go right, they go outside, often after running a screen play that has forced the defense to think about overplaying the run. And they have gone to short passes, but without eschewing the long ball--even if it means hoping that the diminutive Campbell can break up errant passes.

And, as I suggested yesterday, this is where the Vikings' coaching staff deserves considerable credit, because they are doing things that they thought they could only do if the had Randy Moss, Jim Kleinsasser, Mike Rosenthal, a healthy and productive Michael Bennett, a healthy and productive Matt Birk, and a healthy and productive Marcus Robinson. The Vikings have had little of what they thought they would have, yet they continue to strive on offense. And, if the Vikings can continue this offensive output--and add to it with Moss' return--it will be quite a remarkable accomplishment and not merely a magic act.

Coming from someone intending to write about the Vikings' woes today, that is a compliment.

Up Next: Where or where have the linebackers gone?


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