Saturday, November 20, 2004

Looking for Answers

For what seems like an eternity, Vikings' head coach Mike Tice has promised improvement on defense. In making such a pledge, Tice has acknowledged that the Vikings' defense is not what he expectedit to be when training camp broke. Why the defense has struggled, however, the coach has had difficulty pinpointing.

Tice has alternatively relied on the theory that the defense has been porous because the defense is young; the defense is leaving plays on the field; and injuries are plaguing the defense. To date, however, it is evident that, while all of these issues may be plaguing the Vikings' defense to some degree, there is something more fundamentally wrong with the Vikings' defense.

The defense is young at key positions, but it was young at key positions during training camp and the coaching staff nevertheless brimmed with confidence. "What we lack in experience," Tice beamed, "we will compensate for with speed and quickness." That has not happened. Despite being faster and quicker than last year's defense, this defense is merely faster and quicker getting to the wrong spot or getting to the right spot at the wrong angle or too late. That's not better, it's just a different version of bad.

The claim that the defense is leaving plays on the field is also unsatisfactory. While the Vikings have left several plays on the field, most notably missed interception opportunities, such plays do not explain why the defense routinely allows running backs to rush for over 100 yards, receivers are routinely wide open on 3rd and forever, and quarterbacks have time to write tomes in the pocket. Even if Brian Russell had hauled in each of his nine or ten dropped gimmes this season, the Vikings defense would still be left answering these questions.

And most dissatisfying of all is the contention that the Vikings just need to get healthy on defense. To which one might ask "Who's hurt that would make a difference?" Tice undoubtedly would point to injuries to Raonall Smith, E.J. Henderson, Mike Nattiel, and Chris Claiborne. But let's be real about this. While Smith showed promise in the two games before sustaining a serious concussion, he was so bad at the beginning of the season that the Vikings were hoping to be able to cut him. The only reasons he stuck with the squad was because he was already here, the Vikings had invested a second round pick on him in 2002 and did not want to admit reaching after touting their draft success under Scott Studwell, Tice, et. al., and there was nobody better after the viable free agents had signed with other teams.

The same can be said of Nattiel. The Vikings loudly touted their uncovering of Nattiel in the 2003 draft, but he has failed to live up to expectations. Though he showed flashes of ability prior to his most recent injury, he still remains low enough on the depth charts that the Vikings appear willing to resort to him only as a stop gap measure, preferring a hobbled Claiborne to a healthy Nattiel.

Which brings us to Claiborne. Some have noted that Claiborne started off strong in 2003, but the jury is out on that one. The jury is in on whether Claiborne has contributed since then, however, with the verdict being a resounding "no." Although Claiborne has been injured much of the season, there is little difference in the linebacking corps when he plays and when he does not. In fact, when Claiborne plays, the defense looks just as bad except with a conspicuously slow outside linebacker playing. Claiborne's health is clearly not what drives this engine.

And then there is E.J. Henderson, who has missed a few games this season. Henderson has been so predictably awful (see summer column) playing with little experience at a position at which teams generally employ a linebacker with 5+ years of experience, that Tice has tried to get him out of the starting lineup. If Henderson's health issues have cost the Vikings' defense this season, it has been when he is healthy and playing, not when he is sidelined.

It is thus evident that many of Tice's explanations for the poor performance of the Vikings' defense to date have been insufficient. Tice appears to recognize this as he has resorted to two new explanations this week. One is that the defense is relying on instinct rather than coaching and, coupled with inexperience, that player instinct is leading the defense to make false reads and overplay situations. The other is that the defensive play calling is too sophisticated.

The first argument is particularly interesting because it goes to the heart of a communication problem on this team. In the aftermath of the loss to the Packers, Tice contended that the defense is trying to free-lance too much, relying on instinct rather than what they are taught. "We saw several plays in the Green Bay game where, if the players line up like we coached them to do, they would make the plays." Tice said. "But the players, thinking they knew better than the coaches, went where they thought that they should go, rather than where we told them to go and the result was bad," he added.

That, alone, would be fine. We could deal with that with modest criticism, noting, for example, that the coaches ought to do a better job making the point in practice or get players that are a bit more receptive to coaching. But that is not where the issue ended.

On Thursday of this past week, Vikings' defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell stated that the problems on defense are mental. "The players need to go out and make plays," he said. "The only way to do this is to rely on instinct."


By arguing that the players need to rely on instinct, Cottrell is directly contradicting Tice's mandate that players play according to what they are told--not what their instinct tells them. Cottrell could explain this away by arguing that he meant that players should rely on their instincts to inform them of where they were coached to be given a certain set of circumstances, but that's not what the coach said.

And that leads us to Tice's contention that the defense is too sophisticated. This week, Tice stated that the answer to remedying the Vikings' poor defensive performance was to simplify the playcalling. "We went through the defensive playbook and took a bunch of plays out. We simplified the thing. It was just too complicated for some of the younger guys," he said. This confirms that Tice was wrong to conjecture that youthful speed and skill would overcome lack of experience, but it is also silly. What does sophistication have to do with tackling or taking the proper angle to the ball or ball carrier? What does sophistication have to do with bumping or not bumping a receiver off the line of scrimmage? What does sophistication have to do with contributing something, anything, to the defensive effort?

Not much, which is why Tice finally may be admitting what most of us contended at the beginning of the season--namely, that the Vikings' defense has unqualified players playing at critical positions. In particular, the Vikings have a woefully inadequate middle linebacker in E.J. Henderson. That's not Henderson's fault. He was asked to play a position he should not have been asked to play at this stage of his career.

Tice responded to his latest epiphany by announcing that Henderson would split time this week. But that might just make matters worse as Henderson's sub is Rod Dixon, a rookie.

Tice also announced that he will finally move Chris Hovan out of the starting rotation, a change long overdue. Yet, rather than going with the veteran Steve Martin--a player who has played well when given an opportunity--Tice is going with Spencer Johnson, another rookie.

Undoubtedly, Tice would make other changes--at corner, outside linebacker, and left end, to name a few positions (and we shall save discussion of the kicking game for next week)--but he has created a team with few veterans at any position and even fewer veterans on the sidelines. It's as if Tice actually prefers youthful inexperience to the play of a veteran (see also, e.g., his refusal to use Moe Williams).

Tice clearly either has no clue how to form a cohesive defense or he is without the pieces to do so. But if he is lacking in players, he has only himself (and Red) to blame as he made no motion to obtain better players in the off-season and even went so far as to congratulate himself for standing pat.

We shall see what happens against the inept Lions' offense, but let's not be surprised if, despite Tice's revelation of the "true" problem with the Vikings' defense, even the Lions are able to move the ball against Minnesota. Even if the Vikings stop the Lions, however, there is reason to believe that much of what is wrong with the defense is on the coaching side--either a failure to evaluate talent properly, a failure to teach technique, or a failure to communicate in general. And if that is the answer, the solution will not arrive in 2004.

Up Next: Post Game.


Anonymous said...

You said: "It's as if Tice actually prefers youthful inexperience to the play of a veteran..."

That is because a veteran has the experience to tell Tice he is doing something boneheaded. He can intimidate or control the younger guys while experience guys can quickly learn his limitations.

Thats my theory. Not that I know shit about football!

Vikes Geek said...

I suspect most NFL players refrain from speaking their mind to their coach on certain matters, though veterans are undoubtedly more out-spoken.

It may be Tice. It may be Red. It may be both. But no matter what it is it isn't good for the final product.