Sunday, December 19, 2004

Here We Go Again?

Today, the Vikings square off with one of the NFL's least successful franchises, the Detroit Lions, in a season in which poor quarterback and receiver play and injuries on defense have slowed that franchises' efforts to escape from the clutches of morbidity. Not surprisingly, then, the Vikings are once again favorites this week.

But Vikings' fans know better. In games in which they have been favored this season, the Vikings are 7-3. That looks pretty good. Equally impressive is the Vikings' 2-1 record in road games in which they have been favored to win. Yet, as is most often the case, these numbers do not tell the entire tale.

If a team shows its mettle through its ability to win on the road, the Vikings have shown some mettle this season. But that mettle has become less evident when faced with doubt--whether external, in the form of the Vegas odds, or internal, in the form of self-doubt. In the Vikings' three meaningful road tests this season, at Philly, Indianapolis, and Green Bay, the Vikings have fallen flat. Worse yet, in the past four home games, games in which mettle is not even supposed to be an issue, the Vikings have dropped games to Seattle and the NY Giants. If the Vikings had any giddiness resulting from road wins over patsy teams this season, that giddiness ought to be tempered by road failures against formidable opponents and home losses to mediocre to bad teams.

And if the Vikings are a bit down about their performance in the clutch, they ought to be absolutely frightened by the prospect of playing Detroit on the road. After all, Detroit has the one thing Minnesota cannot stop--a quarterback. Not a good quarterback. Not an adequate quarterback. Just a quarterback. Someone who straps on the pads, pulls on a jersey, and calls the plays in the huddle.

There is no magic in the arm of Joey Harrington. There are no hands on those things that the Lions call Harrington's receivers. But that, as we know, does not matter when facing the Vikings' secondary. Harrington will probably get his share of yards, at least as measured in terms of a Harrington success. And, like most quarterbacks before him this season, Harrington may even set personal bests against this sorry pass defense. And that might be enough to drop the Vikings to 2-2 in road games in which the Vikings are favored.

But how, you might ask, can the Vikings lose to Detroit? How will Detroit score? How will they stop Minnesota from scoring?

All fair questions. But, of course, you already know the answer. And I say "answer" because the retort is the same for each question. The answer is that the Vikings will let them.

The Vikings will let Detroit score just as they let Seattle and Chicago score--through the air, on the ground, and maybe even on special teams even if Eddie Drummond is not around to torment the Vikings on kick and punt returns. We know this to be the case because, despite playing lousy competition week in and week out, the Vikings continue to allow teams to amass season records in yardage and points and continue to fall short of their own goals offensively and on special teams.

One of Mike Tice's post-game gems last week was that the special teams played "extremely well." That suggests how far the standard for Vikings' special teams play has fallen during Tice's tenure as coach. Seattle returned the Vikings' first kickoff of the game 34-yards to the 35, and the Vikings' fourth kickoff 33-yards to the 40. The kicks were fairly deep, but the coverage stunk. Yes, there was a touchback and there were two returns under 20 yards, but when two thirty plus yard kickoff returns merits an "extremely well" evaluation it calls for a re-evaluation of the term.

But as much as the Vikings' special teams is not the force that Tice painted it to be after last week's loss, it may be the shining glory for the team this week.

Despite facing the lowest ranking starting quarterback in the NFL this week, there is reason for pessimism for the Vikings' defense. It is true that Harrington completed only 22% of his passes last week, albeit at a blustery Lambeau Field. It is also true that his completion percentage for the season is only 54% despite playing in the control-passing West Coast offense. In fact, on paper, Harrington looks as bad as they get in the NFL boasting a thoroughly unimpressive 77.2 rating.

But if the Vikings are looking at Harrington's numbers and smacking their lips they may want to reconsider and save themselves the post-game embarrassment. Consider these numbers, 51.5% completion rating and 55.2 passer rating. More Harrington numbers? No, those even-less-gaudy-than-Harrington numbers are the numbers for Bears' QB Chad Hutchinson last week against the Jaguars. Against Minnesota, Hutchinson, playing his first game in nearly two years, had a completion percentage of 60 and a passer rating of 115, along with his career high 3 TD passes. Still think Harrington is not formidable against this defense?

Don't hold your breath.

The Vikings contend that they have few options left on defense. That they have tried all players, all formations, and have even thrown in the kitchen sink. I'm not buyin' this line, however. Other teams continue to do much more with much less. Other teams continue to hold opponents' offenses down despite injuries and youth at critical positions. One need only look across the division for a prime example, as the Bears, despite key injuries on defense, including the loss of their safeties for the season and their one bona fide defensive star, continue to shine on defense.

I agree with Tice that the Vikings have potential playmakers on defense, and not just on the defensive line. In addition to Lance Johnstone, Kevin Williams, and Spencer Johnson, the Vikings have seen flashes from Chris Claiborne, E.J. Henderson, Mike Nattiel, Corey Chavous, Brian Williams, and Brian Russell. The question is why the Vikings have not seen more than mere flashes from these players. At leastpart of the answer is attributable to a lack of imagination.

Last week, Derek Ross was left to cover a man in the slot that the Vikings not only knew Ross could not cover (it could have been me and the Vikings would have known the same), but whom they also knew Ross could not cover to the tune of a huge gain. Yet, despite this knowledge and the ability to adjust, Ted Cottrell refused to make any changes because the man that Ross was covering was "his man." And, as Cottrell stated, if you belong in the NFL, you need to make that play. Earth to Ted, we already know that Ross does not belong in the NFL, so what's the point?

Resolution to Defensive Ailments?

But there is a potential solution. A possible remedy for what ails the Vikings' defense. And I say this only partly tongue-in-cheek. That solution is to pull a Patriot--to use offensive players on defense. What? You say we already use several offensive players on defense? No, no. I mean players from the offense. And I mean using them for their speed and tackling ability and in formations that play to these strengths.

The Vikings typically play a 4-3 defense. That means that they use four defensive linemen and three linebackers (the Vikings' word, not mine). The remaining defensive players are corners and safeties.

I propose playing a 4-5-2, with Michael Bennett at free safety, Corey Chavous at strong safety, and Moe Williams and SOD added to a five-man linebacking corps. Dare the Lions to go over the top against Michael Bennett. Dare the Lions to try to run through Moe Williams and SOD. It won't happen, at least not as often as it has been happening.

Offensive Game Plan--Follow the Leader

On offense, the Vikings should have a simple game plan--have Daunte roll out of the pocket. Last week, Daunte rolled out of the pocket a grand total of three times. Two of the three times, Daunte ran for a first down. The third time, Daunte came up just short of the first down marker (the challenge play) and snuck across for the first down on the next play.

The Vikings make far too little use of the roll out. This failure takes away from the Vikings' offense the ability to force the opposing team to shift its defense and move the middle linebacker out of the slot. If the Vikings can move the middle linebacker out of the slot--particularly toward the sideline--they will find success with the screen and, heaven forbid, a reverse to the opposite side. But it all starts with Daunte rolling out of the pocket.

Once screens and reverses begin to work, the defense will be forced to play closer to the line. This will open up slant passes, dump passes, and, eventually, the deep pass. Once the deep pass opens up, the running game will open up, particularly the draw play. And all of this will set up the play action and enhance Daunte's ability to call which play he wants. Which would make the Vikings' defensive woes largely irrelevant.

But, of course, this all assumes that the Vikings will take what the Lions give them. And that the Vikings will work the Lions' defense in a methodical fashion. And that probably won't happen because, since week one, it has yet to happen. But if it does....

Up Next: Halftime.

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