Friday, December 31, 2004

And This Year, I Promise to Make a Tackle

The Vikings have had numerous struggles this season. At the beginning of the year, a rash of injuries hit the team. First there was Michael Bennett, still recovering from surgery. Then there was the curious case of starting cornerback Ken Irvin, who was snagged by some poorly laid turf. Next were Mike Rosenthal and Jim Kleinsasser, both sidelined for the season with leg injuries. And the injuries seemed to keep coming, with Randy Moss pulling a hammy, Matt Birk pulling both groins (ouch!), SOD slipping a joint, Raonall Smith hurting his head, Chris Claiborne hurting something/everything, and Antoine Winfield wrenching his ankle.

While the Vikings were able to overcome, to a degree, injuries to Bennett, Rosenthal, Kleinsasser, Birk, and Moss, as well as the vacation of SOD, they were completely overwhelmed by the losses of Irvin, Claiborne, Smith, and Winfield. Need a sub for Kleinsasser? No problem, take Jermaine Wiggins. Need a sub for Bennett? Use SOD. SOD out fishing? Try Mewelde Moore. What about Rosenthal? How about a couple of nobodys? Sounds good. Birk still hurtin'? Slip in Corey Withrow. Moss down? Use Burleson more.

And the changes on offense seemed to work, at least when the Vikings gave themselves a chance by calling sensible plays and committing a less-than-absurd number of offensive penalties (see, e.g., false start penalties).

The same cannot be said of the defense, however, where every injury seemed to magnify itself. For every one injury, the Vikings played as though they had just incurred injuries to three All-Pro starters. That meant one injury was bad. Several? Well, that was simply impossible to overcome.

But it hasn't merely been the injuries that has hurt the Vikings' defense this season. It also has been the lack of performance by last year's starters and second- and first-year players whom the coaching staff expected to make a difference.

Failed Promise

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The Vikings were not supposed to be the team that allowed nobody quarterbacks to set personal bests for passer rating, TDs, and completion percentage. No, the Vikings' defense was not supposed to look like it has for the past four season.

At the beginning of the season, Vikings' head coach Mike Tice stated that the Vikings were "very deep at linebacker" and finally stocked with a "full stable" in the secondary. The Vikings were so giddy about their defense, in fact, that Tice stated that, had the Vikings not signed Winfield they would have gone with what they had. [Shudder.] Tice added that the first-year linebackers were really going to push the starters. Cottrell chimed in that, given the depth at linebacker, the Vikings would even use some 3-4 packages. Everything sounded rosey.

But the smell did not match the pontificating.

We understood that Tice and Cottrell were a bit affected when they made their statements. They had to be, we assumed, if they thought that they could put four legitimate linebackers on the field, or if they thought that the secondary was tight. But if the coaches were still buying their own pitch, Claiborne's and Irvin's absence immediately demonstrated how misguided the promo was.

Without Claiborne in the lineup, the Vikings were forced to start two second-year players and a rookie. One of the second-year players, E.J. Henderson--he of less than one year of experience at a position usually manned by a player with five or more years of experience--started at middle linebacker. His back-peddaling at the two-yard line against Green Bay pretty much sums up how well Henderson has played that position.

Flanking Henderson for much of the season were Donterrious Thomas, a rookie, and Raonall Smith/Mike Nattiel/Willie Offord/Chris Claiborne/etc. The recipe for disaster had been written before the season began, when the coaching staff saw fit to enter the season with a linebacking corps so green that they made green appealing. But the disaster did not hit full force until the regular season began. That's when Vinny Methuselah dissected the middle against Minnesota. Then Donovan McNabb did the same. And the rest of the opposition followed suit. All setting records.

Secondary

But, as inexperienced (Tice's word) as the Vikings' linebackers have been this season, the utter disaster that they have been through most of the season is, in large part, the result of a near-complete lack of pass support. The defense is allowed, after all, to use 11 players. That helps them match up with the 11 players on the offensive side of the ball. Sometimes the Vikings opt to use only 10--once using only 9. But they are permitted to use 11 and generally do so.

A head count of the front four and the 3 linebackers, however, shows that the Vikings still have 4 openings on the defensive side of the ball. Those openings, the Vikings tell us, are reserved for 2 cornerbacks and 2 safeties. And sure enough, the Vikings trot out 2 corners and 2 safeties for every game.

But if the Vikings have 2 corners and 2 safeties in the game at all times (sometimes as many as 4 corners), where is the support? Where are the safeties and the corners on running plays? Where are they on pass plays? Do they make plays?

That is the critical question. And that is the question that I answer today with an emphatic. . . almost never.

The NFL lists 344 cornerbacks and safeties on team rosters this season. Most starters fall within the top 120 of the league in all categories. The league's interception leader has 9 picks this season. That's one more than the Vikings' entire secondary. The Vikings' INT leader is Winfield, who has three picks this season. That ties him for 40th in the league. Brian Williams is next, tied with a host of others for 61st with 2 picks. Corey Chavous, Brian Russell, and Terrance Shaw all fall outside the top 100 with one pick each. Dreadful.

And it is not as though these guys are picking up the slack elsewhere. The only other meaningful statistic that the NFL provides for the secondary is tackles. And none of the members of the Vikings' has exactly blown away the field in this category. Winfield ranks 23rd in tackles (84) and Russell pulls in at number 30 (79), with Chavous close behind at 33 (77), and Brian Williams bringing up the rear at 65 (66). But even these relatively gaudy numbers are misleading for the Vikings.

Lest you think that these numbers show promise, that these numbers reflect a respectable performance by the secondary, consider that the Vikings' linebackers are dead last in the NFL in tackles made by a linebacking corp. That means one of two things, either the linemen are making all the tackles--which never happens, particularly when teams rely heavily on the pass as they often do against the Vikings--or the secondary is making the tackles. But if the line is not making the tackles, and the linebackers are not making the tackles, and the secondary is not making the tackles. . . .

Well, you get the point.

The Vikings' undoubtedly have problems at linebacker this year. Henderson currently appears unable to handle the middle linebacker duties, Claiborne cannot stay healthy, and the starters are most other teams' taxi squad players or end-of-the-benchers. This group has upside, but they clearly were not ready to assume linebacker duties this season. And they clearly have provided much opportunity for the secondary to put up some outrageous tackle numbers. But that has not happened.

The poor play of the linebackers could have been off-set enough to make the Vikings' defense competitive if only the secondary had done something. Anything. Instead, the Vikings have a secondary that either over-achieved by leaps and bounds last year or simply is not very good. I suspect the answer is somewhere between these two possibilities, though, given the evidence to date, it appears that it weighs more towards the latter. Which means that, if the Vikings are to improve next season, they not only need to upgrade the linebacking corps--how do Ian Gold and Jeremiah Trotter look now?--they also need to upgrade their secondary.

Fred Smoot anyone?

Up Next: Preview of the 'Skins game. Can the Vikings find a way to exploit a Washington team missing three of its key players?

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

From a Packer fan:
EJ just doesn't have what it takes to be a starting MLB it seems. I have to admit, that when the Packers drafted Barnett instead of EJ, I was mad. I believed the hype that EJ was a great LB. Barnett has proven he can handle the position better than I ever dreamed. Yes, the Packers D is not all that much better than the Vikes, but Barnett at least is not a major source of the problem. Maybe another year under Cotrell's system will help EJ, but right now he is just lost.

Anonymous said...

Same old story. The Vikings have had a lot of bad drafts of defensive personnel. The good news is that Studwell in charge of the drafts now, and he has picked players like Kevin Williams. Drafting is an art. What you want is some success.

I'd give EJ another year. Being MLB is a tough spot because you are constantly moving and constantly thinking. I don't know if Henderson has the work ethic to do that. I hope he does.

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