Sunday, November 28, 2004

Coming and Going

The Vikings face the Jacksonville Jaguars this week as former Vikings' linebacker Jack Del Rio--the last known Vikings' linebacker to record multiple games of a tackle or more--returns. Del Rio brings with him a hobbled but willing quarterback in Byron Leftwich and the yet to be hobbled running back, Fred Taylor. Leftwich's return means that, rather than relying exclusively on the running of Taylor, the Jaguars will be able to balance their offensive attack.

But whether with Leftwich or without, the Jaguars essentially are a team built around their defense. In their first ten games, the Jaguars have averaged 18 points, while allowing 15.5 points per game. With Leftwich, the offense averages 16 points. Without Leftwich, the offense averages 14.6 points. The 1.4 points with Leftwich matter to the Jaguars given that they allow 15.5 points per game, but Leftwich's presence is unlikely to determine the Vikings' fate on Sunday. Instead, that distinction will be left to the Vikings' offense.

The Vikings will have some assistance in breaking the Jaguar's defense this week, as Randy Moss is expected to return to action. While the Vikings have put points on the board in Moss' absence, they have done so primarily against second- and third-rate NFL defenses. Last week against the Lions, the Vikings scored 22 points against a team that ceded 41 points to the Colts this week, including six touchdown passes by Peyton Manning.

Moss' return should help the Vikings in two respects in particular. In Moss' absence, teams initially single-covered the remaining Vikings' receivers. In three receiver sets with one tight end and one running back, that left six players to pressure Daunte Culpepper. Nate Burleson's recent success has forced teams to use more double-coverage, at least on him, but Kelly Campbell's and Marcus Robinson's disappearing acts have made it possible for teams to pay scant attention to the other two receivers in the Vikings' offense. If Moss is healthy, he should draw double coverage and free up Burleson, who Culpepper now appears interested in finding. This will force the Jaguars to withdraw at least one potential blitzing corner or linebacker and should reduce the pressure on Daunte.

Moss' return is even more significant this week with injuries to Nat Dorsey and Matt Birk, who will be replaced by Adam Goldberg and Corey Withrow, respectively. Injuries to the Vikings' front five on offense have forced the Vikings to use offensive pass-protection schemes that greatly inhibit the Vikings' ability to incorporate longer pass routes into their offensive game plan. With Goldberg and Withrow in, expect the Vikings to employ more two-tight end sets, and to possibly use two backs. This will come at the expense of the wide receiver corps with the Vikings being forced into more one and two receiver sets. Such limitations place a premium on strong receivers who can get open no matter the coverage, and Moss meets this bill much more so than does Robinson or Campbell.

The second situation in which Moss' presence should help the Vikings is when the Vikings are in the red zone, particularly when they are inside the 10-yard line. Last week, the Vikings missed an opportunity to score a touchdown in this area because of miscommunication between Kelly Campbell and Daunte Culpepper. The result was a poorly run route and an equally poor pass out of bounds--well over Campbell's head. With Moss in the lineup, the Vikings have the goal line element that they have not had for several weeks. And that should pay dividends this week against a tough Jaguars' defense that jams well at the line and can stop the run in goal line situations.

Birk's Injury

With injuries throughout the offensive line, probably none will be more evident than that to Matt Birk, who is out until the Vikings' Christmas Eve game against the Green Bay Packers. Though Moss' return will open up the passing game and relieve some pressure on the Vikings' pass protectors, Moss presence cannot so greatly mitigate the loss of Birk in the rushing game. When Birk is in the lineup, the Vikings have one of the best pulling offensive linemen in the game--one of the few things that saves the Vikings' rushing attack from the depths of despair in the midst of weak run blocking on the right side of the line.

Without Birk, the Vikings have a capable pass protector in Corey Withrow, but there is a reason that Birk starts over Withrow, and that reason, primarily, is that Birk is a much more exceptional run blocker. The loss of Birk means the loss of any semblance of a running attack to the right, particularly with the inexperienced Goldberg manning the right tackle position. The only hope is to use the two tight end sets on running plays as well as on passing plays, which puts even more of a premium on Moss' return.

Up Next: Rewind.

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