Team Report: Strategy and Personnel
Inside Slant | Notes and Quotes | Strategy and Personnel
After playing a vanilla defense throughout the preseason, Vikings defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell surprised Tampa Bay in Week 1 by mixing in a 3-4 and a 3-3-5 defensive look that put linebacker Keith Newman on the field.
Cottrell acknowledged there are a "few more wrinkles" in the scheme that he elected to hold back against the Buccaneers. The 3-4 look, which Cincinnati is sure to see Sunday, enabled the energetic Newman to get on the field. In one situation, he pressured quarterback Brian Griese into making a poor throw that was picked off by cornerback Fred Smoot.
Bengals second-year starting quarterback Carson Palmer will have the advantage of being able to study some of the Vikings' tendencies in the scheme.
While starting corners Smoot and Antoine Winfield played well, it will be worth noting whether the Vikings use Brian Williams or Ralph Brown in the nickel package. Williams, a starter last season, was demoted from that role in Week 1 after a poor first half.
In the first quarter, Williams was beaten by receiver Joey Galloway for a 30-yard reception on third-and-9. The Buccaneers scored on that drive to tie it at 7. In the second quarter, Williams failed to wrap up receiver Michael Clayton on another third-and-9 pass play. That drive ended with another Buccaneers score.
Vikings coach Mike Tice said this week that Williams is still the starter in the nickel but it's obvious the coaches will keep a close eye on the situation and won't hesitate to switch to Brown.
Veteran Sam Cowart looked good in his debut as the Vikings middle linebacker but his status for the Cincinnati game is uncertain. Cowart strained his left calf muscle late in the first game and will be evaluated this week. If he can't play, Rod Davis likely would get the start.
The Vikings also could move E.J. Henderson from the weak side back to his natural spot in the middle, but Tice is hesitant to shift Henderson around.
On offense, rookie right guard Marcus Johnson was benched in favor of Adam Goldberg in the fourth quarter of the opener. Tice, though, indicated Johnson would get another shot this week.
That might come out of necessity, as Goldberg could be needed to start at left tackle. Veteran Bryant McKinnie sprained his left foot in Week 1 and had an immobilized boot on the injured area for two days. He did not practice Wednesday. Tice is hopeful McKinnie can play but said Goldberg said he would practice at left tackle Wednesday.
Johnson wasn't the only offensive lineman to struggle against the Buccaneers, as the Vikings managed only 26 yards on the ground. Center Cory Withrow also had a poor afternoon and recent acquisition Melvin Fowler was expected to get some reps with the first team in practice. Withrow, however, will remain the starter.
The Vikings are expected to start Michael Bennett at running back after having veteran Moe Williams on the field for their first play from scrimmage last Sunday. Coming off a performance where he rushed for a career-low minus-1 yard, Bennett could use a good day to boost his confidence.
Look for Williams to be used as the third-down back and Mewelde Moore also is likely to get some work if his sore left ankle is all right. Moore did not touch the ball on offense in the first week.
--WR Koren Robinson was back at practice Thursday after missing Wednesday so he could attend a court hearing in Kirkland (Wash.) Municipal Court. Robinson was ordered to perform 50 hours of community service because of two probation violations, but the service time can be performed anywhere in the United States. His appearance stemmed from a drunken driving charge on May 6, while he was still a member of the Seattle Seahawks. Robinson is unsure whether he will play Sunday at Cincinnati.
--C Matt Birk, already on the season-ending injured reserve list, underwent surgery on his left hip Tuesday. His recovery period will be 10-to-12 weeks.
--OL Anthony Herrera, who spent a week in the hospital during training camp because of an infection in his leg, took part in all periods of practice Wednesday except for one.
--RB Mewelde Moore said his left ankle is fine and that he will be ready to go Sunday at Cincinnati. Moore sprained the ankle during the preseason and then was leg whipped in the area during Sunday's loss to Tampa Bay.
--DE Erasmus James, who was inactive for the opener, hadn't been feeling well for two weeks and was told by doctors he had "mono-like" symptoms. James said Wednesday he is feeling much better. However, that doesn't mean he will be active against the Bengals. With the 3-4 and 3-3-5 packages the Vikings used on defense, James also got caught up in a numbers game and could again in Cincinnati.
GAME PLAN: The Vikings' offense looked atrocious in the opener going against top-notch coordinator Monte Kiffin's Tampa Bay defense.
The assignment won't get any easier for coach Mike Tice and first-year offensive coordinator Steve Loney in Week 2, as they prepare to match wits with Marvin Lewis' Cincinnati defense. Lewis, the Bengals' head coach, was one of the top defensive coordinators in the game during his time with Baltimore and Washington.
The Vikings must get better production from their offensive line. The lack of protection inside led to a day in which the rushing game accounted for 26 yards and quarterback Daunte Culpepper faced constant pressure. No matter how bad the pressure on Culpepper gets, however, he can't afford to have another outing where he throws three interceptions and loses two fumbles.
The Vikings are now considered Culpepper's team and if that is truly the case, he will have to play a major role in making sure there are no repeats of Week 1. Culpepper and No. 1 receiver Nate Burleson must get on the same page.
They certainly looked to be during training camp, but Culpepper's first regular-season pass to Burleson ended up being picked off when the receiver appeared to halt his route early. In another instance, Culpepper fumbled the ball when he tried to abort a pass because Burleson had run down the field, when he was supposed to have caught a screen pass.
Look for Culpepper to take some deep shots, something he failed to do much of vs. the Bucs when his longest completion went for only 25 yards.
Tice attributed the problems last Sunday to physical one-on-one breakdowns and not flaws in the scheme. Obviously, he is hoping that was the case or the Vikings might have to go back to the drawing board as they adjust to life without receiver Randy Moss.
While there were few, if any, positives in the offense, the Vikings' once-maligned defense enters this game with a confidence it hasn't carried in many years. With five new starters - six if you throw in E.J. Henderson, who moved from middle to weakside linebacker - the unit actually outscored the once-vaunted Vikings offense (7-0).
A 3-4 and 3-3-5 defensive look that coordinator Ted Cottrell unveiled on occasion against Tampa Bay is sure to be used against the Bengals and second-year starting quarterback Carson Palmer.
Better play will be needed in nickel situations, especially from former starter Brian Williams, but the starting secondary appears to be sound for the first time in years. That should enable the defensive front of Kenechi Udeze, Kevin Williams, Pat Williams and Darrion Scott or nickel rusher Lance Johnstone, to get pressure on Palmer.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Vikings C Cory Withrow and rookie RG Marcus Johnson did little to distinguish themselves as starters against the Buccaneers. If Withrow and Johnson want to remain atop the depth chart, they will need to do a much better job in their assignments against the Bengals interior line of Bryan Robinson and John Thornton. The Bengals did not get to the quarterback in their opener against Cleveland. The Vikings have worked with Withrow on his approach to blocking and not trying to do too much himself. Johnson, who was benched in the fourth quarter of the opener, has the talent to be a starter but the fact he's the first Vikings rookie in history to start at guard in the season-opener shows just how big of challenge he is facing.
Vikings CB Fred Smoot isn't a player who needs any motivation but he got some from Bengals WR Chad Johnson this week. Johnson asked the Ohio media to relay a message to Smoot. "How good is he? He's a good talker," Johnson said told the Dayton Daily News. "He's a real good talker. He's a solid corner. As a matter of fact, can we send Fred a message?" At that point Johnson said: "Smoot, let's go. That's it. That's the message for this week." Smoot, who intercepted a pass in the season opener against Tampa Bay, is certain to have his motor mouth in overdrive on Sunday.
Vikings MLB Sam Cowart has a strained left calf, meaning second-year player Rod Davis could get the start. Whichever does play, will have to contend with helping stop Bengals Pro Bowl RB Rudi Johnson. This would be a very tall task for Davis, who was on the field for two touchdowns against in the opener against Tampa Bay. If Davis plays, and struggles, the Vikings could consider moving E.J. Henderson into the middle and putting Dontarrious Thomas on the weak side.
--LT Bryant McKinnie returned to practice Thursday after missing Wednesday because of a sprained left foot. He has been upgraded to probable.
--MLB Sam Cowart did not practice Thursday because of a strained left calf and is questionable for Sunday. Rod Davis is the likely starter if Cowart can't go.
--OL Anthony Herrera, who took part in his first full practice in more than a month Wednesday, is very close to returning, according to Tice. Herrera spent a week in the hospital last month after developing an infection in his leg.