Posted on Wed, Sep. 20, 2006

[size=13pt]O-line's life gets more difficult[/size]

Bears' furious pass rush poses problems

Pioneer Press

Out of the frying pan. Into the fire?

That's this week's assignment for the Vikings' new-look offensive line, which was burned for five sacks in Sunday's 16-13 overtime victory over the Carolina Panthers and now must contend with perhaps the NFL's best defense.

The Chicago Bears might stand fifth in the NFL rankings, but the Vikings know better.

"We play these guys twice a year," center Matt Birk said. "We know them pretty well, and they know us pretty well. There are no surprises personnel-wise. I'm pretty sure (Brian) Urlacher's still a starter there. I'm pretty sure they haven't benched him."

As the man in the middle, Urlacher is the ringleader and biggest name on the Bears' defense, but he's not a one-man show. In addition to their all-pro middle linebacker, the Bears have an active defensive front that has accounted for all but one of their nine sacks.

The best of the bunch is left end Adewale Ogunleye, who has 1½ sacks this season, 41½ in his six-year NFL career and the potential to make it another long day for Vikings right tackle Marcus Johnson.

"He's really quick off the ball," tight end Jim Kleinsasser said of Ogunleye. "He'll get the jump on you. You know he's going to be coming off the edge."

Ogunleye isn't as quick as Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers, who beat Johnson for three sacks Sunday, but the Vikings' second-year tackle still figures to have his hands full.

Johnson stopped speaking to the media during the second half of last season, but coach Brad Childress said Sunday's sack-fest was due to a combination of factors — including a lack of help at times by chip-blocking running backs — and not a one-man breakdown.

"I've seen him improve and improve," said Childress of Johnson. "He just needs to trust this system and trust his techniques. I think he'll be fine."

So do Johnson's teammates, who said Peppers' three sacks and the Panthers' five were more the result of miscommunication than any physical beating.

"You've got to remember, none of us played together last year," left tackle Bryant McKinnie said. "I'm the only one who was in there all season."

With two new starting guards — Steve Hutchinson and Artis Hicks — and Birk returning after missing last season following hip surgery, the Vikings' offensive line still is learning to play together.

So if Johnson needs a little extra help Sunday from a tight end or running back, his teammates promise to be there for him.

"We'll be prepared," Kleinsasser said. "It'll just be a matter of physically getting after it and taking care of business."

There is a lot more to this trench war, though, than the Johnson-Ogunleye matchup.

The Bears' nine sacks this season rank behind only Philadelphia (13) and Buffalo (10), and they have come from seven players, so the entire Vikings line will have to be at the top of its game.

Birk said he thought the unit made progress in the win over the Panthers, but five sacks were proof enough that it still has a ways to go.

"There's definitely things we've got to shore up," he said. "No matter who you're going against, when you watch film as offensive linemen, there's always a reason you get beat, whether it be technique or assignment or whatever. You always feel you could have done better. There are definitely some things we've got to tighten up. We don't want our quarterback getting hit that much."

That would be an invitation to disaster against a team like the Bears, who held Ogunleye and four other defensive starters out of last year's season-ending, 34-10 loss at the Metrodome.

The Vikings believe they are as prepared as possible after practicing against the same Tampa 2 scheme all through the offseason and training camp and playing their first two games against defenses that ranked in the top 10 in total defense in 2005.

"First of all, you've got to give a lot of credit to Washington and Carolina," Birk said. "Those are two very good defenses. Up front, we're still trying to find our way a little bit. We're trying to jell and get used to each other. I think we've done some things well, and I think we're very close to doing a lot of things well."

How close? The Vikings could have a better idea by late Sunday afternoon.

Don Seeholzer can be reached at [email protected]