Sunday, August 10, 2008

Concern Mixed With Promise

When the Minnesota Vikings were in the market for the services of former Green Bay Packers' quarterback Brett Favre, the pursuit seemed logical. With key veterans in Pat Williams, Antoine Winfield, Darren Sharper, and Matt Birk nearing the end of their respective careers, the window of opportunity seemed particularly thin for a Vikings' team that has yet to even insinuate itself partially through that window. Of particular concern for the Vikings is that not only are these four players key veterans, they also man positions that have proven difficult for the team to fill in years past.

Nowhere were concerns about the Vikings' quickly encroaching future more laid bare in the first quarter Friday night than at defensive tackle. With Williams sitting out the first pre-season game, the Vikings offered virtually no resistance to the Seattle Seahawks' running game. That lack of push against the rush neutralized the Vikings' pass rush and made the Vikings' defense look well below average.

Williams' return likely will shore up the Vikings' rushing issues and give added credence to the Vikings' pass rush. But, if Friday's display was any indication, the Vikings not only have to fear the imminent retirement of Williams, but also an injury to their huge run stuffer.

While Williams' return should allay concerns about opposing offensives running rough shod over the Vikings' defense, a similar adjustment does not appear available at cornerback. With Marcus McCauley still struggling and Cedric Griffin looking lost much of last season, the Vikings might be forced to convert 2008 second-round pick Tyrell Johnson to cornerback until either McCauley or Griffin get up to speed or the team is able to find another corner. And that would only resolve a glaring issue in 2008, assuming Johnson is up to the task. When Winfield goes, as he, too, is likely to do in the next two years, the Vikings will have another cornerback position to fill.

Though the Vikings showed some holes against the Seahawks, they also showed some promise for the long-term. Recently signed fifth-year receiver Bernard Berrian had two receptions for 43 yards and an 11-yard reception nullified by a holding penalty. That's already a better showing than former Viking "receiver" Troy Williamson had for the Jaguars on Saturday as head coach Jack Del Rio withheld Williamson from competition for unspecified reasons. And it's far more promising than any thing that the Vikings have put on the field in the guise of a number one receiver for the past three seasons.

Berrian was able to produce in limited time on the field because of the improved play of Vikings' quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. Though still pushing the ball through too far on the release on some passes, thereby forcing the ball down, Jackson did complete 8 of 11 passes, including a nice touch pass for a touchdown to fullback Thomas Tapeh.

Unlike the oft-injured, aging Tony Richardson, Tapeh gives the Vikings a rugged, hard-hitting backfield option that should prove particularly useful in goal line situations--an area in which the Vikings struggled in 2007. And, as Tapeh demonstrated both as a Minnesota Gopher and in his first quarter as a Viking, he has the soft hands and skill necessary to do what Visanthe Shiancoe apparently is unable to do. That could mean more touches for Tapeh out of the backfield and far fewer for Shiancoe.

The Seahawks spent the post-game congratulating themselves on dismantling the Vikings' defense en route to a 34-17 pre-season victory. Lost in the team's self-review, however, was the fact that Williams did not play and that the Seahawks' first-team defense, playing at full strength, looked equally as ordinary against an offense starting a second-year quarterback and for which the Vikings' coaching staff declined to make use of last year's rookie of the year running back.

With Favre's departure to New York, the Bears' lack of any semblance of a quarterback and significant question marks at running back and wide receiver, and the Lions' perpetual floundering, the Vikings already appear the odds on favorite to win the NFC North. Whether that translates into being competitive in the NFC overall, will depend on the health of players such Winfield, Williams, Birk, and Sharper, and, of course, the continuing improvement of Jackson.

Up Next: Wire Talk.

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